Theology 101

How the Protestant Work Ethic Has Affected Vocation

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Recently we have looked at how the early church and the church in the Middle Ages drove a wedge between the sacred and secular aspects of the lives of believers. This led to the perception that having a vocation or calling referred exclusively to full-time church work.

It was through Martin Luther’s efforts that the 16th century reformers began to recover the Biblical doctrine of work. They began to recognize that all of life, including daily work, can be understood as a calling from God. In an amazing statement for his time, Luther wrote in The Babylonian Captivity of the Church:

Therefore I advise no one to enter any religious order or the priesthood, indeed, I advise everyone against it—unless he is forearmed with this knowledge and understands that the works of monks and priests, however holy and arduous they may be, do not differ one whit in the sight of God from the works of the rustic laborer in the field or the woman going about her household tasks, but that all works are measured before God by faith alone.

Luther led the reformers to sharply contrast the monastic call “from the world” with the authentically Christian call “into the world.”

According to Luther, we respond to the call to love our neighbor by fulfilling the duties associated with our everyday work. This work includes domestic and civic duties as well as our employment. In fact, Luther said we can only truly serve God in the midst of everyday circumstances, and all attempts to elevate the significance of the contemplative life are false.

Thirty years after Luther, second generation reformer John Calvin developed an even more dynamic view of calling which encouraged a greater degree of urban enterprise and the possibility of changing vocations. Historian and theologian Alister McGrath explains, “Theology for Calvin offered a framework for engaging with public life.” Calvin taught that every believer has a vocational calling to serve God in the world in every sphere of human existence, lending a new dignity and meaning to ordinary work.

Calvin’s view of vocation is less static than Luther’s, encouraging a greater degree of self-consciousness to examine possibilities and the potential to change occupations. At the time such a change was a revolutionary idea. Some historians would even say that John Calvin himself laid the foundation for today’s market-based economy. Calvin wrote in Harmony of the Evangelists,

We know that people were created for the express purpose of being employed in labor of various kinds, and that no sacrifice is more pleasing to God than when every person applies diligently to his or her own calling, and endeavors to live in such a manner as to contribute to the general advantage.

Calvin called believers to become salt in the world, introducing a Christian presence and influence within the world in which they lived. This vision of a Christian society was very appealing to Calvin’s followers, particularly the Puritans. John Winthrop, one of the leaders of the Massachusetts Bay Colony, envisioned a Christian civilization in the New World based on Calvin’s understanding of the scriptures. In a sermon to the Massachusetts Bay colonists aboard the ship Arbella, Winthrop predicted that their new community would be a city upon a hill, watched by the world.

The Puritans began to develop this view of work and calling by encouraging enterprise, thrift, stewardship, and service. This is what became known as the “protestant work ethic.”

We will see next what happened when the protestant work ethic was overtaken by the Enlightenment and then by the Industrial Revolution.

Question: Does the protestant work ethic have a more dynamic message of vocation than you previously understood? How does this affect how you view your daily work? Leave a comment here.

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