Arthur Holmes writes lucidly on work within a Christian world view. Here’s a precis:-
The technological revolution has affected the world of work in many ways: computerised accounting, sophisticated management techniques, systems analysis, advertising, and distribution networks all employ technology. But technology is amoral, and an amoral mentality can take over, with utilitarian considerations predominating. Profit, productivity, efficiency, or corporate growth can become not just important factors but over-riding goals.
This kind of mentality marred the industrial revolution. Religious principles gave way to secular ones, and vast industrial empires exploited labour, devoured natural resources, polluted the environment, and dehumanised millions.
The Renaissance view of work was also influenced by Greek thinking, which valued the non-physical (such as political activity) above the physical (such as manual labour), and which created a dichotomy between work and leisure. So, in our own day, we tend to value professional life over manual labour, and maximise leisure by shortening work hours and taking early retirement.
A theological context
Work has meaning and value because it brings to fruition God-created potentials in the natural order. We take up work as God’s servants and co-workers.
Work relates us creatively to nature and its resources, to other people and their quality of life, to ourselves and our capabilities, and ultimately to God. Relationships put limites on property, profit,and wealth.
Although work is ordained by God, like every human activity and institution it has been twisted by sin from its original shape and diverted from its original purpose. Slavery is a classic example of economic sin, but many other examples can be given of work that loses its ultimate meaning or which does not regard justice for all who are involved. Neither public ownership nor governmental regulation provides a solution to self-interest, for the public office is prone to abuse and corruption.
In the Mosaic legislation, the commandment ‘You shall not steal’ covers a range of applications:-
1. Respect for the property of others, whether stolen, Ex 22:1,4, damaged, Ex 22:5-6; 21:33-33, borrowed Ex 22:7-14, or lost and found, Deut 22:1-4.
2. Business life, including transactions, Lev 19:11-15, Deut 25:13-16, and wages, Deut 15:12-14, 24:14-15.
3. Concern for the underprivileged, including loans to the poor, Ex 22:25-27, rights of slaves, Ex 21, and the rights of the poor and foreigners, Ex 23:6-9. The Jubilee Year provided a redistribution of land that would remedy inequalities arising from monopolies.
The wisdom literature reminds us of the perils of greed, and that a happy home, wisdom and a good reputation are more important than riches.
The Gospels tell of the repentance of Zacchaeus, who had acquired his wealth unjustly, and of the rich young ruler, who loved his wealth too much.
Paul, in his advice to masters and servants, insists on the importance of justice and fair treatment.
The medieval church created a dichotomy between spiritual and earthly vocations, but the Reformers rejected this, extending the concept of divine vocation to all kinds of work. Calvin: ‘There will be no employment so mean and sordid (provided we follow our vocation), as not to appear truly respectable, and be deemed highly important in the sight of God.’ (Institutes, III, 10, 79)
In Puritan New England, the colony controlled self-interest by regulating prices and interest rates and establishing a minimum wage.
All this is to assert the underlying principle that the earth is the Lord’s, and we are responsible to him for our work and for the moral quality of our relationships therein.
Meaning in work
Without the biblical perspective, work loses meaningfulness and is taken over by competing self-interests. But a biblical perspective restores meaning and purpose.
The purpose of work is to provide for the needs of oneself and others, and for a truly human quality of life (given that culture, art science, government, recreation and education all depend, directly or indirectly, on our work). Satisfaction with work follows from the acceptance of this call. Work that does not allow us to meet the needs of our family and to provide a human quality of life; work whose conditions dehumanise those who labour or whose products are dehumanising or endangering, violates God’s intention.
Productivity and profit are not the ends of work, but only means to the end. Profit is necessary in our economic order, to the survival of a business, to research and development, to a just reward system, but it is still only a means to an end. Work is service, serving God and our fellow human beings. In our work ethic we should seek to transform the profit motive into a means of responsible service to others.
Work and ethics
If the basis of ethics is respect for persons, then fair pricing and just wages are just the beginning. The freedom and dignity of the worker mean that one should be treated according to due process under contractual agreements, and be consulted about conditions of employment and other things.
Not all work is in itself creative, fulfilling or satisfying. Some jobs require self-sacrifice for the sake of others. Thorns and thistles remain. Yes even if the work itself inhibits personal growth and satisfaction, then other satisfactions can still be provided: fringe benefits, opportunities for advancement, in-service training, educational opportunity, and constructive social activities.
Work is a social activity, and it can open a door into an enriching social and cultural life. Work also relates us to nature, and moral responsibility is essential in that regard too. But most important, we work before God. The apostle talks about working to please and serve God, not just the humans we serve. It is this, above all, that gives work its dignity.
Let our work model a new order for a new society: a kingdom of justice and peace that is yet to come.
Based on Holmes, Contours of a world view, 214-222.