Theology of Work Resources for Scholars and Academics

Article / Produced by TOW Project

For Scholars and Academics

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Our belief is that issues of work and economics can be successfully integrated into core seminary classes, such as Old Testament, Systematic Theology, Hermeneutics, Preaching, Worship & Liturgy, Spiritual Formation, Ethics, Ecclesiology / Missiology, and Church History.  This series of assignments shows how seminary professors might do this.  For each class we have given sample assignments and links to free online resources on the topic. Feel free to use these materials in your classes.

Core seminary classes for which we suggest workplace-focused assignments:

All sample assignments listed below:

Teaching Old Testament: Address Modern Workplace Issues in the Seminary Classroom

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Workplace Lessons from Ruth 2

The Old Testament book of Ruth is familiar to many, if not most, Christians. But it doesn’t have a large place in theological curricula. We suggest that this beloved book can provide very helpful opportunities to lead students to grasp God’s intentions for daily life and work as well as engage some major contemporary issues. Where else in the Bible do you find – in just four short chapters! – stories of:

  • Border crossings to escape famine
  • Cross-cultural marriages and inter-religious relationships
  • Vulnerable widows struggling with life and faith in the face of death
  • An immigrant among God’s people
  • A solution to poverty that transcends welfare
  • Protection against workplace sexual harassment
  • Love, marriage and the astute management of complex family relationships and delicate business negotiations?

A two part article, Teaching the Old Testament: Ruth and Faithful Care, explains more about these themes and how they might be explored in class.

ASSIGNMENT: A biblical perspective on poverty reduction

  1. Explain how Boaz applied the Law given in Leviticus 19:9-10 and Leviticus 23:22, Deuteronomy 24:19-22, and Exodus 23:10-11 in the case of Ruth. To what degree did he fulfill the requirements of the Law? To what degree did he go beyond the requirements of the Law?
  2. Imagine you are proposing legislation to reform welfare in your State. What would be the main features of your proposal in the light of the Leviticus and Ruth passages?

OR

Imagine that you own a company that employs a number of staff. What would you do to aid unemployed or underemployed people in the light of the Leviticus and Ruth passages and the need to make a profit?

Teaching New Testament: Modern Workplace Applications of The Epistles

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The letters of the New Testament offer many examples of modern workplace dilemmas. These letters can come alive if students are taught to see their current-day application. Here are some of the issues explored in the Theology of Work Bible Commentary on the New Testament letters:

ASSIGNMENT

Pick one New Testament letter and highlight its applications for the modern Christian worker. Re-write the letter as a one-page office memo.

For an alternative assignment on the book of Philemon see the article Teaching New Testament: Work and Status in Philemon.

 

Teaching Systematic Theology and Eschatology: Is Work Forever?

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It is surprising that few systematic theology texts or courses demonstrate interest in exploring the meaning of work from a theological perspective.  Every category in systematic theology offers a lens for examining the meaning of work.  Our daily work, both paid and unpaid, is a reality that consumes most of our time and energy in this life, so making theses theological connections is imperative. Many popular conceptions of eternity with God - the end point of Christian eschatology- are built around glimpses of eternal rest or eternal worship.  For many Christians, these are not particularly compelling or attractive futures if they are isolated from activity and accomplishment. We have been created to contemplate and worship God, yes, but also to be actively involved in God's creation.  People want more from a vision of the future if it is to be worth looking forward to and working towards.

Some questions related to work that teachers might want to reference in a course on eschatology:

  • Does the phrase “eternal rest” imply that there is no work in the end, or just that work will no longer include drudgery and struggle?
  • If there is work in the end, what sort of work is it?
  • How much continuity and discontinuity is there between work in this creation and in the new creation?
  • Does our present work have any eternal significance?
  • Does any of our present work or the fruit of our work survive in the new creation?
  • In what ways is work impacted by our understandings of the resurrection of the body and the final reconciliation of the cosmos to God?

There are several resources on this website that can be used to correct popular misconceptions and provide students with a compelling and scripturally-grounded vision of what Christian eschatology means for our work now and eternal life with God:

  • The TOW Theological Foundations page provides a condensed outline for a theology of work, including a section on the New Creation 
  • Some relevant commentaries on Eschatology and Work are:
  1. 1 Corinthians 15:58 - Part of a section titled "Our Work is Not in Vain," this commentary talks about questions of continuity and discontinuity in relation to resurrection.
  2. 2 Peter 3:13 - The commentary on 2 Peter is all about Work and New Creation.
  3. Isaiah 65:17-23 - Isaiah chapters 60 to 65 introduce a relevant discussion on "The Ultimate Meaning of Work."
  4. Revelation 17-22 - See the TOW commentary on the book of Revelation called "A Tale of Two Cities," as well as  our article on "the Meaning of Revelation for Our Work"

In addition to the direct study of these more obviously relevant passages in our commentary you can also do a search of any particular topic on our advanced search page.

ESCHATOLOGY ASSIGNMENT- Work and the New Creation

Does the work that we do, or the fruit of our work, survive in the New Creation? If so, explain in what ways you understand this to be true. If not, is there any eternal significance in our present work?

Identify key scripture passages and themes that have influenced your thinking and conclusions. Also demonstrate that you have considered the work of Darrell Cosden in The Heavenly Good of Earthly Work (Paternoster/Hendrickson, 2006) and at least one other prominent theologian of your own choosing who has addressed this topic.

For more on teaching eschatology within systematics, see the article Teaching Systematics: The End of Work, or Work in the End?

Teaching Hermeneutics: Seminarians Explore the Work-Life Implications of Song of Songs

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Surprised by Song of Songs

The Song of Songs is not a book we usually think of going to in order to  consider questions of  faith, work and economics. Certainly it has presented interesting hermeneutical challenges for successive generations of Christians, but usually debating the extent to which it is primarily a celebration of sexual love and marital fidelity between a woman and a man, or additionally (or alternatively) a more figurative poetic picture of the sort of intimacy God wants to enjoy with his people. But a closer more literal reading notices what the couple are actually doing while reciting love poetry to each other. They are planting a vineyard, and working hard at it. In other words, Song of Songs is about a couple who start a small business as a way to make a living and to strengthen their love. Their work draws them together, rather than keeping them apart. This book shows work and family life, not as a balance of competing priorities, but as an integrated way of achieving what is most important in life. Does this have anything to say to us? (See “Quit a Job to Spend More Time with the Family? You Bet” by Scott Behson, Wall Street Journal, Sept. 16, 2014.

HERMENEUTICS ASSIGNMENT – Song of Songs

Read the Introductory sections to two recognised commentaries on the Song of Songs (as recommended by the course coordinator). Note the different approaches that have been taken to interpreting the Song of Songs historically. Then read the Song of Songs Commentary from the Theology of Work Bible Commentary  In what ways is the TOW Commentary on the Songs of Songs both similar to, and different from, other historical approaches to this book hermeneutically? How valid and how useful is the TOW Commentary on the Song of Songs? Does it provide a new and useful perspective on the Song of Songs, or a distortion of the message of this book? Please offer specific examples from the text of the Song of Songs and the commentaries and other sources you have consulted.

Another component that could be added is:

Create the outline for a Bible Study or Sermon exploring the meaning of work based on the Song of Songs.

For more on teaching Song of Songs in the seminary, see the article Teaching Old Testament: Song of Songs.

Teaching Preaching: How to Talk to Workers

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Work with Contentment - Lessons from Ecclesiastes

When teaching seminary students to preach, it is key that future pastors learn to speak directly to the workplace Christians in their congregations.  These assignments teach seminary students how to do just that.

INTERPRETING AND PREACHING THE MEANING OF A TEXT – ECCLESIASTES 2 and 3. IS WORK MEANINGFUL OR FUTILE?

TWO DIFFERENT WAYS OF DEALING WITH THIS TOPIC AS AN ASSIGNED TASK

Both of these assignments assume that the biblical text of these chapters will be read and examined. Also that the TOW Commentary on Ecclesiastes will be read and whatever other commentaries and biblical resources the teacher chooses to make available.

1. CLASS DEBATE – IS WORK MEANINGFUL OR FUTILE?

The whole class is divided into two teams, one pro-meaningful and one pro-futile. The case for each side has to be built solely around their reading and interpretation of Ecclesiastes Chapters 2 and 3. Everyone is to be involved in examining Ecclesiastes 2 and 3 to see how their case might be argued. Each side appoints 2 speakers to argue their case, with speakers from each side taking turns for a maximum of 5 minutes each. Then a third speaker from each side is given the chance to offer reinforcement or rebuttals of what other speakers have said.  After the last speaker, class members vote on who offered the most convincing case.

2. WRITE A SERMON ON “IS WORK MEANINGFUL OR FUTILE?”.

This exercise could be done by all class members following the previous “Class Debate” exercise or completely separate from that exercise.

Your text is Ecclesiastes 2. Your sermon is to be only 15 minutes long. You must try to make it helpful for those who love their work, those who struggle with their work, and those who don’t have paid jobs. Before you finish preparing this sermon, talk with at least one representative from each of these categories and ask for their personal answer to the question in the title “Do you think work is meaningful or futile?” Try to incorporate or at least acknowledge their observations into your sermon in an appropriate way.  Assume that they are listening to you preach.

Other ideas for preachers can be found in the How to Read the Bible with Workplace Eyes resource.

Teaching Worship and Liturgy: Services that Focus on Work

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Worship choices and the liturgy in the Sunday service can have a huge impact on Christians throughout the work week.  This page shows how seminary professors can teach their students to make the biggest impact on Sunday.

The Equipping Church Overview paper describes a great variety of ways in which churches of different sizes and from different denominational backgrounds have sought to integrate faith, work and economic concerns into their worship and practice. It includes a discussion of theology, ecclesiology, pastoral principles and examples of specific practices. One section is devoted to discussing elements of corporate worship and liturgy.

The Pastors Page on the TOW Website also includes a variety of preaching, worship and liturgy resources, plus creative ideas and examples from other churches. These will be very useful resources for the second part of the assignment below.

WORSHIP AND LITURGY ASSIGNMENT

This assignment includes parts A and B.

A. What elements of the equipping church, as described in The Equipping Church Overview paper, have special relevance for your church?

B. Prepare an order of worship that includes at least one biblical text, outline of the sermon theme, songs, prayers, and any other worship elements appropriate to your tradition in a way that integrates faith, work and economics themes. (See Worship Resources Page for ideas.)

Teaching Spiritual Formation: Active Everyday Models for Interacting with God

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Hope for the Overworked from Brother Lawrence

Most of our models for prayer and conversing with God are retreating models. The assignment attached to this module asks where in the bible and in Christian tradition do we find distinctively active everyday models and instructions for prayer and conversing with God?

Rather than teaching about this topic first and then setting the assignment we suggest that the assignment be done first and then class discussion follow. Students could be asked before this discussion to come prepared to either present their findings formally or informally (up to the teacher) and to share any resources they have found particularly helpful.  

ASSIGNMENT 

Most of our models for prayer and conversing with God are retreating models. Where in the Bible and in Christian tradition do we find distinctively active everyday models and instructions for prayer and conversing with God?

What are practices that help us to connect prayer and worship with work? Describe some of these examples and explain ways in which they differ from retreating models.

What have you personally found most helpful in this exploration?

External resources could include:

Bible passages of interest might include:

  • 1 Thessalonians 5 16-18 - ‘Pray without ceasing. Give thanks in every circumstance, for this is God’s will for you in Christ Jesus”.
  • 1 Corinthians 10:31 - “So whether you eat or drink or whatever you do, do it all for the glory of God.”
  • Colossians 3:23 - “Whatever you do, work at it with all your heart, as working for the Lord, not for human masters….It is the Lord Christ you are serving.” 
  • Romans 12:1 - “Offer your bodies as living sacrifices, holy and pleasing to God-this is your spiritual act of worship.”
  • Romans 12:12 - “be constant in prayer”
  • Ephesians 6:18 - “Pray in the Spirit at all times”
  • Colossians 4:2 - “Continue steadfastly in prayer”
  • Philippians 4:6 - “Don’t worry about anything , but in everything by prayer and supplication with thanksgiving let your requests be made known to God.”
  • Hebrews 13:15 - “Continually offer a sacrifice of praise to God”
  • Also many Bible characters who are known for their work and prayer, activism and retreating: Daniel, Nehemiah, Jesus, and Paul for example.

For more on this assignment, see the article originally published in the Oikonomia Newsletter: Teaching Formation: Prayer in the Fast Lane.

Teaching Ethics: Can The Bible Speak to The Marketplace?

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Teaching Ethics at Biola 

Traditional ethics courses focus on an introduction to the main schools of ethical thought and approaches to moral reasoning.  Topics discussed often include contentious moral issues such as abortion, euthanasia, capital punishment, sexual ethics, genetic engineering and war.  While thought-provoking, these courses leave out the dilemmas people face every day at work. There is room to expand the study of ethics to include day-to-day decision making.

The Theology of Work Project has two indispensable resources on ethics.  One is a paper on Truth and Deception in the Workplace, the other is  an Ethics at Work Overview paper. Please note this paper exists online in two forms - one a systematic presentation and the other as a case study. The assignment below uses the systematic presentation. This paper quotes the following observation:

 “Research suggests that most regular churchgoers only exhibit ethical understandings distinctive from the rest of the population as this relates to a few issues of sexual conduct, personal honesty and the accumulation of wealth. In most other respects, we are shaped more by the values of our culture than the ethics of Jesus.

The encouraging thing about this research is that it does demonstrate clearly that churchgoing does make a difference to our ethical understanding. But sadly, only in a very limited way, because those ethical concerns that are regularly addressed in church exclude most workplace and business ethics issues.” (Quote taken from “Will The Real Jesus Please Stand Up?” section of the Ethics at Work Overview paper.)

In the light of this observation we recommend an assignment that encourages students to explore different practical ways that Christians have sought to use the Bible to clarify distinctively Christian ethics for the marketplace.

ETHICS ASSIGNMENT - How should we use the Bible to develop ethics for the marketplace?

Read the Theology of Work article on Ethics and Work, via the systematic presentation option

Write an essay in response that:

  1. explains which approaches you find most helpful and why.
  2. names those approaches that you don’t think are valid or useful and explains why.
  3. adds any other helpful approaches or perspectives that you think have been neglected in this discussion.
  4. describes any ways in which  your understanding has been challenged, or changed, or perhaps just reinforced by this exercise.

For more ideas on teaching ethics in the seminary curriculum, see these two articles originally published in the Oikonomia newsletter:

Teaching Ecclesiology and Missiology: Train Church Leaders to Train Business Leaders

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Lesslie Newbigin’s book The Gospel in a Pluralist Society includes a chapter about “The Congregation as Hermeneutic of the Gospel”. Newbigin says, “The congregation has to be a place where its members are trained, supported and nourished in the exercise of their parts of the priestly ministry in the world. The preaching and teaching of the local church has to be such that it enables its members to think out the problems that face them in their secular work in the light of their Christian faith”.

Explain how you respond to this statement from Newbigin. Also describe a number of specific strategies that might help to facilitate this in your local church setting.

Write down the words that you could use to communicate both this challenge and your practical suggestions to your church leadership team.

The TOW Equipping Church Overview paper might provide additional resources for this essay.

ASSIGNMENT IN ECCLESIOLOGY / MISSIOLOGY

Lesslie Newbigin’s book The Gospel in a Pluralist Society includes a chapter about “The Congregation as Hermeneutic of the Gospel”. Newbigin says, “The congregation has to be a place where its members are trained, supported and nourished in the exercise of their parts of the priestly ministry in the world. The preaching and teaching of the local church has to be such that it enables its members to think out the problems that face them in their secular work in the light of their Christian faith”.

Explain how you respond to this statement from Newbigin. Also describe a number of specific strategies that might help to facilitate this in your local church setting.

Write down the words that you could use to communicate both this challenge and your practical suggestions to your church leadership team.

The TOW Equipping Church Overview paper might provide additional resources for this essay.

Teaching Church History: Business and The Church

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Assignment in church history - lay movements in the marketplace

Compared with church leaders, lay people have a low profile in church history.  In reality, however, the faith was shared along trade routes opened up by ordinary believers. The influence of missionaries was dependent on indigenous lay people opening up the way for them. Increasingly the history of mission is being re-written to reflect this reality.

It is interesting to trace the influence of British Quaker and Baptist business entrepreneurs in the 19th century.  At that time the brightest and best Anglicans were pushed towards Oxford and Cambridge universities to train for church leadership.  This avenue was denied non-conformists. However this also resulted in the brightest and best non-conformists going into business and integrating their faith and practice there. We see this in ventures like Cadbury Chocolates, Rowntree’s Biscuits, Boots Chemists and Thomas Cook Travel Agents. All of these businesses were successful enough to still exist today.

With regard to cultural transformation that has economic consequences, we can compare the influence of these movements:

  • Benedict and Christian monasticism and their cultural and economic effects in the middle ages
  • Wesley’s working class small group movement with its distinctive economic concerns
  • the political and social influence of the fairly elite Clapham group
  • the Moravians with their international business as mission ventures (before that sort of language was ever used)
  • the powerful long term cultural changes brought about by 19th century Protestant missions agencies (now being analysed and documented by Robert Woodberry)

ASSIGNMENT: FAITH, WORK AND ECONOMICS IN THE 18 and 19th CENTURIES

In the 18th and 19th centuries a number of Christian industrialists and bankers in Britain created businesses that in many cases are still thriving. 

Read either James Walvin’s The Quakers: Money and Morals (London:John Murray, 1997), or Ian Bradley’s Enlightened Entrepreneurs: Business Ethics in Victorian Britain (Oxford, Lion Hudson, 2007).  What do you learn from the stories related in your chosen book about the relationship between Christian faith, commercial success, and social responsibility? Identify and explain any particular personal challenges you experienced or lessons you learned from doing this study.

For more potential assignments in church history, see the articles Teaching Church History: John Wesley and Economics and Teaching Christian History: The Development of the Doctrine of Vocation.

Teaching Business to Seminarians: Crossovers between Commerce and Kingdom?

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Teaching MBAs Faith and Spirituality in Business

ASSIGNMENT: A QUOTE AND RESPONSE

“God’s people can, as agents of His redemptive plan, transform business, stripping it of selfish ambition and pursuing instead what’s best for their neighbors. Through business, God’s people can harness mankind’s creativity, and with it nurture His creation, developing products that make the world more satisfying. Through the economic power of commerce, Christians can make the world safer and healthier. The members of Christ’s Church, distributed in offices around the world, can transform greed into good stewardship, showing the world that business has a biblical responsibility to create new wealth and provide a fair return to investors (Matthew 25:14-28). But, with an eye toward the consummation of Christ’s kingdom, we also create wealth in order to create new and satisfying jobs, which offer hope (and perhaps a glimpse) of a coming world where there is no poverty (Richard Doster, “The Kingdom Work of the Corporate World,” By Faith 11 [2006]).

Is this just a utopian dream? To what extent can it become realised as a present reality? Describe some practical strategies that would help to make this more of a reality.  In what ways do you find this  personally challenging or inspiring?

Resources for Seminary Courses on Work and Calling

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Resources for courses on the theology of work

Closing the Pulpit Pew Gap in the Seminary Curriculum

Resources for courses on vocation & calling


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