At Work

Discovering the Reformation View of Work

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The Reformation impacted Christians’ views of work in ways that still influence our contemporary view of vocation. As you might expect, Martin Luther and John Calvin played significant roles in shaping the Reformation view of work.

Before diving into the Reformation view of work, though, it would be helpful to contrast it with the medieval church’s view of work that preceded it.

The Medieval Church’s View of Work

The sacred-secular divide produced the mistaken belief that work had less value than contemplation in God’s kingdom. Until the Reformation, this error shaped much subsequent Christian thinking regarding vocation. In his book Has God Called You, Henlee Barnett explains this process:

By the time Christianity became the official religion of the Roman Empire, the distinction between clergy and laity was fairly well-established. With the establishment of celibacy for the clergy in the 11th century, this demarcation was complete and the laity were relegated to second-class status in the church.

This trend was also reinforced by the rise of monastic spirituality, which regarded vocation as a calling out of the world into isolation in the desert or the monastery.

In the medieval church, having a vocation or calling referred exclusively to full-time church work. The ordinary occupations of life – being a peasant farmer or kitchen maid, making tools or clothing, being a soldier or even king – were acknowledged as necessary but worldly. Even marriage and parenthood, though recognized as good things, were viewed as encumbrances to the religious life.

The division of life into sacred and secular categories during the Middle Ages, with the subsequent subordination of the laity to the professional priesthood, marginalized the New Testament view of the priesthood of all believers. This was not lost on Luther.

The Reformation View of Work

It was initially 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 the time, Luther wrote in The Babylonian Captivity of the Church:

Therefore I advise no one to enter any religious order or priesthood…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.

In The Fabric of the World, Lee Hardy summarizes Luther’s position on vocation: “Vocation is the specific call to love one’s neighbor.” Hardy concludes his summary by arguing that according to Luther, we respond to the call to love our neighbor by fulfilling the duties associated with our everyday work.

Paul Althaus furthers this understanding in his book The Ethics of Martin Luther, explaining that 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. All attempts to elevate the significance of the contemplative life are false.

Advancing the Reformation View of Work

Thirty years after Luther, Calvin developed an even more dynamic view of calling which encouraged a greater degree of urban enterprise and the possibility of changing vocations. In his article “Calvin and the Christian Calling,” 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. In Harmony of the Evangelists, Calvin wrote:

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 call has inspired believers ever since, from John Winthrop and the Puritans to believers today who continue to labor in everyday professions for the glory of God.

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  • Bruce Ross

    This is a great article. I am always amazed to learn of the wisdom, insight and confidence of the Reformers. I am “retired”, but frequently refer my working friends to the IFWE sight. Thank you!

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