Theology 101

The Mixed History of the Church’s View of Work

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Like most things over time, the popular attitudes toward work and calling have not been the same throughout history. In fact, they have changed quite a bit over thousands of years. The culture has often supported a view of work that contradicts the Bible. Understanding the historical context for work is essential for our understanding of God’s calling for our lives.

From the time of early Christianity to the Reformation, a sacred/secular divide developed between “holy” vocations (e.g., becoming a priest or nun) and everything else, but reformers such as Martin Luther and John Calvin taught that all work was God’s work.

Here are some key highlights of the history of work:

[Creation of the world] Cultural mandate

God created work in the very beginning. In Genesis 1:26–28, we are created as image-bearers of God to work. God is a worker who worked six days and rested on the seventh, so he also created us to work. The Fall makes work more difficult, but work itself is not cursed as many people think.

[300 BC] Greek view of work

The ancient Greek culture did not regard manual work as good. Trevor Saunders writes in The Politics that Aristotle believed in the value of unemployment “since leisure is necessary both for development of virtue and for the performance of political duties.”

Ideally, life was spent in contemplation and in working for the good of the polis, or city.

The Greek view emerged in the church’s thinking about work at the end of the third century through the writings of Augustine and Eusebius.

[0–30 AD] Jesus as a worker

In the New Testament, Jesus practiced manual labor. If Jesus was a small-business man for about eighteen years—working as a carpenter—then working with your hands must be a good thing. God calls us to work to please him, not other people (Eph. 6:6).

[Fourth to the Fifteenth Century] Middle Ages

Augustine adopted Aristotle’s view that the “contemplative life” was preferable or a higher calling than manual labor. An unbiblical sacred/secular split then emerged in the Middle Ages. Calling was viewed as a spiritual thing, as in a calling into the monastic life. Secular roles were second order or inferior to the monastic life.

[Sixteenth Century] Reformation

The Reformation recovered a biblical view of work and calling with Martin Luther leading the way, followed by John Calvin and the English Puritans, such as William Perkins. As we have written, there is no hierarchy with secular work being less “spiritual” work.

[Nineteenth and Twentieth Centuries] Sacred/Secular split

Even though the Reformation reestablished a biblical understanding of work, many Christians have readopted the sacred/secular split. Some view “full-time Christian ministry” either explicitly or implicitly as a higher calling. Many have largely forgotten the cultural mandate and view work primarily as a place to evangelize and make money to support missions and the church. In this perspective, work is not good as an end, but as a means to an end.

Work should be done to glorify God, but it is also valuable for building up God’s kingdom. The Lordship of Christ is also demonstrated in all areas. Abraham Kuyper, a Dutch theologian, said,

There is not a square inch in the whole domain of our human existence over which Christ, who is Sovereign over all, does not cry, ‘Mine!’

[Twenty-first Century] Today

In recent years, there has been a growing faith and work movement with many Christian organizations and churches working to recover the biblical vision of work. There are numerous large and small groups in various cities around the country. Yet still, only a small fraction of evangelical Christians have heard this message.

Why does this history matter for your calling today? The historical views of work give us a better understanding of our work today. Today, many people are dissatisfied with their jobs and struggle to find fulfillment in their work. I would argue that we need to recover the biblical view of work that was reestablished by the reformers and reject cultural views like the sacred/secular divide that denigrate work.

We pray that through our blogs and other resources, IFWE is helping you incorporate a biblical theology of work into your life in a way that you find yourself more fulfilled and contributing to the flourishing of those around you.


Editor’s Note: Learn more about the history of the church’s view of work in Hugh Whelchel’s How Then Should We Work? available in the IFWE bookstore. 

Help reach more people with the important message that their work matters to God! Donate to IFWE today. 

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