A Theology of Work

Written by: 
Published:
February 26, 2022

The accumulation of symptoms became more and more alarming—severe headaches, nausea, weight loss, exhaustion, mood swings, diarrhea, rectal bleeding. They had developed over many months and were steadily increasing in severity. My family physician explored a variety of possibilities, sending me to get a range of tests and scans.

The results of the tests were always the same—negative. I ultimately grew desperate for someone to find something. What was happening to me? There had to be a cause.

Finally, there were no reasonable tests left that fit my symptoms. My doctor called me in and said, “Mr. Johnson, we have concluded that the root cause of all your physical problems is simply severe, ongoing stress. I strongly urge that you change careers as soon as possible. Otherwise, you’ll only get worse.”

I walked out of that appointment in shock. What do you do for work when all you’ve been trained to do is pastor? How on earth would I make a living? How would I support my family? Dark clouds suddenly obscured the future. A sense of foreboding engulfed me.

Is this what pastoral burnout felt like? After the mighty struggle with my mother and father to become an Adventist, after all those years of theological training, after eleven years of pastoring, how on earth had it come to this?

I went home, told my wife, and we wept together.

After counseling with a handful of people I greatly respected, my wife and I made the awful decision that I needed to head for the exits—now. Hanging onto the financial security of pastoring while spending months or even years getting retrained for a new career was not an option. We had a little savings and my wife worked part-time so we wouldn’t be homeless, at least not right away.

What kept me locked into my pastoral role far too long in spite of my physical difficulties was a searing sense of guilt at the thought of leaving. I had been ordained at Campmeeting by the legendary E.E. Cleveland. His deep, gravelly voice created a sense of awe as he placed his hand on my head and prayed that I would remain faithful to my pastoral calling. How could I now cast that aside? Was I being faithless?

One verse of scripture in particular kept inserting itself into my thinking, “No one, having put his hand to the plow, and looking back, is fit for the kingdom of God.” (Luke 9:62 NKJV) Was I not fit for the kingdom? Guilt pressed hard on my beleaguered soul. Several stages of grief assaulted me—shock, denial, pain, guilt, anger—appearing in a seemingly haphazard sequence.

What ultimately delivered me was the realization that the root of my guilt was a terrible misunderstanding regarding the nature of one’s “calling.” Sadly, I was missing what is known broadly as a Theology of Work.

The biblical truth is that a Christian bricklayer has just as high, just as spiritual, a calling as a pastor or evangelist. The scriptures know nothing about higher and lower callings. According to the apostle Paul, for the Christian, all of life is sacred, including work. “Whether ... you eat or drink or whatever you do, do all to the glory of God.” (1 Corinthians 10:31, NASB emphasis supplied). [1] In this way work becomes a form of worship, an offering to the God of heaven.

The focus of God’s calling is on the person not the profession. Any lawful work can become a means of glorifying God if it is done by a Christian with the right motives. Christ gives us the freedom to choose a profession based on our natural talents, spiritual gifts, aptitude, and interest. Jesus Himself spent many years as a blue-collar worker in the building trades! (Luke 3:23) Ellen White provides this arresting comment, “[Christ] was doing God’s service just as much when laboring at the carpenter’s bench as when working miracles for the multitudes.” [2]

After I transitioned to a different career, people used to say to me, “I was very sad to hear that you left the ministry.”

I’d then reply, “Well, I may have left pastoring, but I haven’t left ministry at all.”

I would point them to 1Peter 2:9 which is addressed to all Christians. It teaches what is called the priesthood of all believers—“But you are a chosen people, a royal priesthood, a holy nation, God’s special possession, that you may declare the praises of him who called you out of darkness into his wonderful light.” Every follower of Christ is a priest (minister)—fulltime!

The problem of higher and lower callings is greatly exacerbated by the special ceremonial way we ordain pastors. The inevitable consequence is that their calling is interpreted as being more sacred, more important, than the common church member. At the very least the ceremony needs to make very clear that pastors are being ordained to an ecclesiastical office and not some higher calling. Biblically speaking, being installed as a pastor is no more sacred than a Christian being installed as the leader of a corporation. One is a minister to ministers and the other is a minister to the world. [3] (Eph 4:12)

Baptism is God’s ordination service to fulltime ministry for every Christian, including the pastor. [4]

Our wrong-headed thinking about calling and vocation comes from Greek dualism that separated physical and spiritual labor. One was secular and the other was sacred. One was common and lowly; the other was elevated and unique. [5]

So, today, we wind up with church members who think they go to their secular jobs during the week and then do something spiritual on Sabbath by going to church and attending a Bible study group in the afternoon. We wind up with the gifted singer who felt she ought to leave what she saw as a secular profession in the arts to join an evangelistic team as their soloist. We wind up with workers in myriad professions who lack the inspiration, uplift, sense of meaning and purpose, that come with knowing what they do is special to God.

For the Christian, there is no such thing as a sacred/secular divide. All of life now becomes sacred. William Tyndale wrote, “If we look externally, there is difference between washing dishes and preaching the Word of God, but as touching to please God, there is no difference at all.” [6]

If we are to truly unleash the ministry of the laity, we need to start by giving them a clear, in-depth understanding of these important issues. In his book, How Then Should We Work, Hugh Whelchel states,

Until Christians embrace the biblical doctrine of work, they will remain ineffective... helpless to impact the culture around them for the glory of God and the furtherance of his kingdom. [7]

Rather than a church’s outreach being centered on its’ own programs, it needs to center instead on helping members understand their high calling and then find ways to help them be as effective and fulfilled as possible in their chosen profession. Churches need to assist members become what someone called “Marketplace priests.” This can involve sharing the biblical perspective on subjects such as resilience, conflict management, ethics, social-emotional intelligence, teamwork, work-life balance, fear of failure, problem solving, etc.

I strongly suggest that churches dedicate at least one entire Worship Service each year to honoring the work of the non-pastors in their midst. (See sample prayers below for electricians and for hairdressers/barbers/beauticians.)

The first mention of work in the Bible is with regards to God Himself. He works during Creation Week and rests from His labors on Sabbath. (Gen 2:2-3) He then asks Adam and Eve to imitate Him by telling them to rule over the earth and tend the garden. (Gen 1:26; 2:15) All of this happens before the Fall, which gives work an enduring dignity and value.  

It also means that work is inherently a ministry ALL BY ITSELF. Christians don’t have to add anything to it to make it spiritual like stuffing pamphlets about the Second Coming into each employee’s mailbox, forcing conversations around to biblical themes, or prominently displaying a copy of the Ten Commandments on their desk.

According to Luther, we respond to the call to love our neighbor by fulfilling the duties associated with our everyday work. [8]

There are many wonderful ways today that we can carry on the work of God through our own work.

1. Christ specializes in creating.
God carries on this aspect of His work on earth through His creative followers He has placed among us such as people in the arts (sculptors, actors, painters, musicians, poets, and so on), craftsmen, interior decorators, builders, fashion designers, architects, urban planners, visionaries, and many more. [9] We are what Francis Schaeffer and J. R. R. Tolkien called sub-creators. [10]

2. During Creation Week God brought coherence and structure out of chaos.
When God began creating the heavens and the earth, the earth was a shapeless, chaotic mass.” (Gen 1:1-2 TLB)

Every time a Christian accountant makes a spreadsheet, they are partnering with God to create order out of chaos. So is anyone who is involved in planning, organizing, managing, developing information technology, etc.

3. God is a revealer of truth and advocate for justice.

This category can include educators, researchers, journalists, writers, publishers, lawyers, judges, community organizers, etc.

4. God is constantly trying to redeem all aspects of our world.

The Trinity is not only focused on redeeming individuals but also on redeeming all aspects of the world humans live in including culture, systems, organizations, families, and nature. Jesus prayed, “Your kingdom come, your will be done, on earth as it is in heaven.” (Matt 6:10 NIV)

S. Michael Craven writes, “To reduce the gospel to nothing more than the personal plan of salvation…is to minimize God’s ongoing relationship to the world and Christ’s authority over same.“ [11]

This category could include Christians who work as counselors, firemen, policemen, public policy makers, janitors, mechanics, plumbers, scientists, farmers, green energy advocates, environmental scientists, technicians, etc.

5. Christ is the great Healer.

The Lord works through His followers to bring physical, mental, emotional, and spiritual wholeness. The numerous professions in this category include counselors, health professionals, pastors, EMS workers, pharmacists, social workers, etc.

Even though they don’t receive a W-2, it is important in this context to recognize the vital work of parents and homemakers who, at one time or another, fit each of the five categories listed above.

All of these various types of workers are fulltime ministers in God’s work of establishing and expanding His kingdom here and now. Each person may only touch a small corner of that kingdom, but their faithfulness in discharging their daily routines and responsibilities fills an essential role in Jesus’ plan. Each time they work in harmony with God’s purposes, they expand the edges of Christ’s kingdom just a little bit further, one person, one task, one divine appointment at a time.

 

Notes & References

[1] See also Colossians 3:23 says, “Whatever you do, do your work heartily, as for the Lord rather than for men.”

[2] Ellen G. White, The Desire of Ages (Mountain View, CA: Pacific Press Publishing Association, 1945) 74

[3] Gottfried Oosterwal, Mission Possible (Nashville, TN: Southern Publishing Association, 1975) 110-113

[4] Robert J. Banks, Faith Goes to Work: Reflections From the Marketplace (Eugene, OR: Wipf and Stock Publishers, 1993) 4

[5] Ibid, Gottfried Oosterwal, 104-105

[6] “A Theology of Work,” Grace to You ministries, December 12, 2010, https://www.gty.org/library/sermons-library/80-362/a-theology-of-work

[7] As quoted by Dr. Art Lindsley in “9 Essential Points On The Theology of Work,” Institute for Faith, Work, and Economics, July 10, 2019, https://tifwe.org/9-essential-points-on-the-theology-of-work/

[8] “The Theology of Work,” Kingdom At Work, March 11, 2019, https://kingdomatwork.com/the-theology-of-work/

[9] Amy Sherman, “The Basics of a Biblical Theology of Work,” TGC, December 4, 2014, https://www.thegospelcoalition.org/article/the-basics-of-a-biblical-theology-of-work/

[10] Ibid, Dr. Art Lindsley, “9 Essential Points On The Theology of Work.”

[11] S. Michael Craven, “Why Should We Redeem Society?” Bridgebuilders: Thinking Christianly, May 9, 2018, https://bridgebuilders.org/news/2018/5/9/why-should-we-redeem-society

 

Sample Prayer for Electricians

“Creator God, You are the source of all Energy and Power. We bring before You this day those who work with the power of electricity, who seek to channel, transform and convert, a dangerous energy into power for good. Guard them and keep them safe. Give them patience with tracking problems to their source, and caution in their work. And grant them a sense of ministry in their making our lives safe, in their striving for excellence, and in their dealings with people. In the name of Jesus. Amen.” (Davida Foy Crabtree, The Empowering Church (Washington, DC: Alban Institute Publication, 1989) 6

 

Sample Prayer for Hairdressers, Barbers and Beauticians 

“Creator and creating God, we raise before You in prayer all who work as hairdressers, barbers, and beauticians, who by their creativity and skill seek to help people feel good about themselves. Be present to them and grant them patience in their many interactions with the public and co-workers. Grant them a sense of ministry in their listening to the lonely and hurting, in their ability to transform mundane interactions into meaningful relationships, in their ability to give joy and feelings of self-worth simply by their work. In the name of Jesus. Amen.” (Davida Foy Crabtree, p. 6-7)

 


Kim Allan Johnson retired in 2014 as the Undertreasurer of the Florida Conference. He and his wife Ann live in Maitland, Florida. Kim has written a number of articles for SDA journals plus three books published by Pacific Press: The GiftThe Morning, and The Team. He has also written three sets of small group lessons for churches that can be viewed at www.transformyourchurch.com (this website is run by the Florida Conference of Seventh-day Adventists). He is also the author of eight "Life Guides" on CREATION Health.

Kim has recently started an exciting new ministry to teachers at www.hi54teachers.com, which is currently accepting donations. Read an interview about this organization here.         

Photo by Ümit Yıldırım on Unsplash

 

We invite you to join our community through conversation by commenting below. We ask that you engage in courteous and respectful discourse. You can view our full commenting policy by clicking here.

 

Print Friendly, PDF & Email

 

Spectrum Banner Ad: Click for Grow the Vision