At Work & Theology 101

What I’ve Learned about Jesus Christ, Public Life, and Full-Time Christian Service

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Is work sacred or secular? What did Jesus think about “secular” work? What does this mean for how we understand the meaning of “full-time” Christian service?

There are a lot of ways to think about these questions. In the course of my work and research I’ve found it helpful to look at some implications from Jesus’ life when it comes to regarding “secular work.”

Cooperating with God through Our Work

In considering Jesus’s thoughts on work, it may be helpful to borrow from contemporary work categories. Today our job tasks range across a wide spectrum, classified into three main working sectors:

  • Public (government).
  • Private not-for-profit (civic, moral, and religious organizations).
  • Private for-profit (various small and large businesses in the marketplace).

Each sector has an important and distinctive contribution to make for the common good. Based on the 2010 census data, estimates of the percentages of total US workforce across these three sectors as reported by the Bureau of Labor Statistics are:

  • Private for-profit: 78.5%.
  • Public: 15.1%.
  • Private not-for-profit: 6.4%.

What would Jesus’ own relationship have been to these three sectors?

  • He worked in the “for-profit” sector in the building trade for almost twenty years.
  • During his three-year public ministry, Jesus relied on the donations of others, representing the private, not-for-profit sector, as described in Luke 8:3, Mark 15:41, and John 12:6.

Similarly, the Apostle Paul’s life experience also could affirm each sector:

  • He worked as a leather-worker according to Acts 18:30, on occasion paying for his companions’ needs, as in Acts 20:33-35.
  • The Apostle accepted financial support from churches as described in 2 Corinthians 11:7-9, Philippians 4:15-16.
  • He relied on the benefits of his Roman citizenship according to Acts 16:37-38 and 22:25-27, accepting government funding and personnel for his trip to Rome to receive Caesar’s judgment in Acts 25:10-12 and 27:1-2.

These examples illustrate that each day we can cooperate with God, fulfilling our design and destiny at work. Work is a permanent feature of God’s plan, not the result of the Fall into sin. Work was initiated in the Garden of Eden according to Genesis 1:28 and 2:15, and it will continue into the next age, as we serve and reign with God forever as described in Revelation 22:3-5.

Sacred vs. Secular?

Yet, should the Christian community continue to maintain a hierarchy of job-valuing in God’s kingdom, dividing work roles into sacred (e.g., missionary first, then pastor, etc.) and then secular? Author Geoffrey Bromiley bemoans the

…unfortunate distinction between the laity and the clergy, or the secular and the sacred, or the secular and the religious…which has caused so much mischief in both doctrine and practice.

If Jesus spent about twenty years as a builder, and if his words and deeds affirm the goodness of work within each sector, then believers can be assured they can serve God doing good work within any sector. Regardless of our occupations as plumber, trash collector, teacher, mechanic or pastor, we cooperate with God in doing good work, as Jesus exemplified.

According to Ephesians 4:28 and 2 Thessalonians 3:6-13, one motivation to work is to make money to provide for material needs and share with others. But there is much more. If we wish to bring all of our life under the Lordship of Jesus Christ then our day job must be included (Luke 9:23-26).

What It Means for You to Engage in Full-Time Christian Service

Based on the New Testament concept of the priesthood of all believers in 1 Peter 2:3 and 9, it could be inferred that, regardless of which sector we labor in, Jesus expects all of us to engage in full-time Christian service. This seems to align with Ephesians 4:11-12 which says,

And he gave the apostles, the prophets, the evangelists, the shepherds and teachers, to equip the saints for the work of ministry, for building up the body of Christ

Could pastoral responsibility that prepares the saints for “the work of ministry” also include Christian discipleship within the marketplace for the “ministry of work? What might this entail? John Knapp proposes,

Equipping Christians for vigorous discipleship in public life may be the church’s best hope for bringing the gospel to a world desperately in need of God’s love.

Let’s continue to think creatively about how we can equip Christians for “vigorous discipleship in public life.” I’d love to hear your suggestions on how we can do so – leave them in the comments section below.

What did Jesus know about work? Find out by reading Klaus Issler’s full white paper from which this post was adapted. Download your free copy here

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  • cato

    I like your take on the topic except for one thing. Government in the form of a central authority is taught by the Bible to be an evil. It’s there in the warning through Samuel of what a king would do, immediately followed by hundreds of years of the truth of it. It’s there in the example you used, a response to those trying to trap Jesus saying, “not yet. My time is not yet. It’s there in the other example you used, Paul’s trust in the emperor. Ask yourself, what was it that killed Paul.

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