These are troubling times for Christians throughout the world. Whenever I get discouraged about the state of the culture around us, I find great encouragement in the lessons to be learned from the early church. The early Christian view of work is particularly inspiring to any Christian desiring to truly be an ambassador of Christ to today’s world.
Though he called his disciples out of their vocations, Jesus gave no general call for all Christians to give up everyday work. He drew on illustrations and themes from the world of work for his teaching, and he did so without apology or self-consciousness.
Paul also emphasized a positive view of work when he commanded all Christians to continue in their work and to work well (Col. 3:23-24; 1 Thess. 4:11-12). Paul continued his trade as a tentmaker during his church planting ministry (Acts 18:3).
Continuing in their everyday occupations was apparently the general Christian pattern for the first century after the Apostles. Christians gave glory to God in and through their occupations. They did the same jobs as unbelievers, but they did those jobs in a distinctly Christian way. What did this “distinctly Christian way” of living and working look like? The “Letter to Diognetus” (which can be found in W.A. Jurgens’s Faith of the Early Fathers) gives this description of the everyday lives of early Christians:
For Christians cannot be distinguished from the rest of the human race by country or language or customs. They do not live in cities of their own; they do not use a peculiar form of speech; they do not follow an eccentric manner of life…. Yet, although they live in Greek and barbarian cities alike, as each man’s lot has been cast, and follow the customs of the country in clothing and food and matters of daily living, at the same time they give proof of the remarkable and admittedly extraordinary constitution of their commonwealth.
The letter then dives into Christian distinctiveness:
They live in their countries, but only as aliens. They have a share in everything as citizens, and endure everything as foreigners Every foreign land is their fatherland, and yet for them every fatherland is a foreign country. They marry, like everyone else, and they beget children, but they do not cast out their offspring. They share their board with each other, but not their marriage bed. It is true that they are “in the flesh,” but they do not live “according to the flesh.” They busy themselves on earth, but their citizenship is in heaven. They obey the established laws, but in their own lives they go far beyond what the laws require…. What the soul is to the body that the Christians are to the world.
By the ordinariness and yet the distinctiveness of how they lived, the early believers invited their pagan neighbors, by word and witness, to consider the truth that they proclaimed. Although there is no specific mention of occupations in the “Letter to Diognetus,” it is clear that the early Christians had a sense of vocational calling. The picture we see through this second-century document is of Christians working out their holiness in the ordinary callings of their lives. They were truly salt and light in their culture. As a result, they radically changed their world in the first few centuries after the death and resurrection of Christ.
Hopefully the contemporary church will leave a similar picture behind for future generations to draw on for inspiration.