This article is part of the Help! series.
Like all working people, Christians must deal with deadlines, difficult people, office politics, and the feeling of being outside the inner circle. Christians share the typical frustrations of work. And Christians face an additional tension—the tension of trying to remain faithful to Christ at work. Consider these examples.
Christians at Work
Ricardo works as a plumber. He isn’t sure how to be a Christian in the plumbing business. He mostly works at construction sites performing different jobs with different crews each week. His coworkers never talk about God or faith. In fact, they speak in very colorful—often crude—language about their parties and peccadillos. Ricardo views his job as a mission field, and he makes it his aim to witness to his coworkers about Jesus.
Jerald works at a nutrition company. He is often under intense stress to meet monthly sales quotas. He manages commercial accounts. Jerald is gifted and makes a ton of money, but the loss of a single account could lead to millions of dollars disappearing from his company’s bottom line. Some of Jerald’s biggest customers enjoy secret getaways to Las Vegas (provided by Jerald’s company). As a Christian, Jerald is uncomfortable with these Vegas getaways. But work isn’t Sunday School. So Jerald does what he has to do to keep his job. He has learned how to keep his personal faith from interfering with his secular work.
Veronica has an office job. It’s predictable. She clocks in the same time every day. And she clocks out the same time every day. She doesn’t get much out of the work she does—filing invoices and reviewing purchase orders. But she is well paid. And she loves the regular schedule, which frees her up for plenty of family time. She also enjoys being able to send her children to a private Christian school. She believes her job is a blessing from God that provides the means for her to train her children God’s way.
Christian Views of Work
Veronica, Jerald, and Ricardo represent three different views of work. These Christians have different motives driving them to work week after week. Ricardo wants to be a witness. He gets frustrated when he hasn’t been able to share the gospel. Ricardo represents a missional view of work. He sees his workplace as a mission field. Work provides opportunities for evangelism.
Jerald is very good at his job and is rewarded financially, but he has to keep his Christianity quiet. Jerald demonstrates the divisional view. This view divides life into the sacred and the secular. The divisional view senses the tension between the church and the world. The priorities and practices of business are not the same as those of the church. Jerald attempts to honor church and work in a compartmentalized manner. Sundays are for worship. Mondays are for closing the deal.
Veronica has a job that enables her Christian lifestyle. All in all, she believes she is living a good life. Veronica approaches work in an instrumental way. She has an ideal life in view which includes Christian school for her children. Her job is a means to enable her ideal life. Veronica’s approach is a form of integration in which she attempts to connect her work life with her private life. The connection is that her work life funds her private life.
What’s Wrong at Work?
Which approach is better? How should a Christian view her life at work? Is Jerald pleasing God by his work? What about Veronica and Ricardo, are they being faithful at work?
While each of the three approaches is understandable, each is inadequate (for reasons explained below). For Christians, work has value. Work is more than witness. Work must also be more than a means to the good life. And work can’t be divided from who we are as followers of Christ. Biblically, work is ordained by God for the good of the worker. Work is also a way that God loves and provides for his creatures and his creation.
A Better Way to Work
Christians can benefit by viewing work a fourth way—the vocational view of work. The vocational view understands work as a “calling.” Nursing, plumbing, teaching, and coaching are vocations—part of one’s calling in the world by God. Ethicist Scott Rae refers to these vocations as “ministries,” meaning these careers are various ways to serve others.
The point of the vocational approach is the complete integration of life and work (of faith and ethics). To say it another way, the Christian is first called by the gospel to the family of God. This gospel call offers the Christian a new identity which abides through life and into eternity. As Paul writes, “If anyone is in Christ, he is a new creation” (2 Cor 5:17, ESV). Thus, the Christian’s identity is tied to Christ and the gospel first. Work is but one of the many ways a Christian’s new identity will play itself out in the world.
Help at Work
Such a vocational understanding of work offers help to each of the three Christians mentioned above.
Ricardo doesn’t need to go home frustrated on days he is unable to witness to others. Whether Ricardo has an opportunity to witness or not, he is serving others, helping them have a reliable water supply and a way to dispose of waste—which benefits the entire community by eliminating health risks.
Ricardo has the right heart toward evangelism, yet his missional view misses the value of his work. Work is not a curse. Work actually enters the Biblical story before sin and death. While it is true in Genesis 3 that the Fall affects work—thus work is riddled with the frustrations of thorns and sweat—still, work is part of creation in Genesis 1. God declared it very good! Work by itself (apart from evangelism) is intended for good.
Christians value work in its relation to God. Work is designed to display both service to God and love for others. In one famous example, Martin Luther noted that the Lord’s Prayer for God to give us our daily bread is answered through the daily work of farmers and bakers. God gives daily bread to us through work of others. The vocational view keeps work in proper perspective.
More Help at Work
The weakness of Jerald’s divisional approach is obvious. He ends up living two different lives with two different sets of morals and priorities. He presents two different faces in two different spheres of life (which makes him hypocritical—or unfaithful at least half the time). If Jesus had been dishonest in his work as a carpenter, he likely would have had no one follow him as a Rabbi. Jesus worked both as a carpenter and as God’s Messiah, and he did so with the same character and integrity in place.
The vocational view helps Jerald remember that Christians anchor their identities in Christ. The gospel call comes first, then the vocational call. Keeping the gospel call first protects against being two-faced, struggling to live two different lives. It also protects against being consumed by work. People are tempted to be defined by their work. Pastors, coaches, nurses, CEO’s, or athletes can be consumed with their work—and in a crisis once they leave their jobs. The vocational view corrects this error, reminding Christians not to be defined primarily by their workplaces, but by the God they worship. Christians like Jerald shouldn’t compromise who they are for what they do.
For Christians, work has value. Work is more than witness. Work must also be more than a means to the good life. And work can’t be divided from who we are as followers of Christ.
Love People in Your Work
What about Veronica and the instrumental view? Like Ricardo’s approach, Veronica’s view lacks a healthy understanding of work. Veronica makes work a mere economic exchange that is good only for some purpose other than the work. Work becomes an instrument for gaining pay. Pay is important to finance her desired way of life. Unwittingly, Veronica has dehumanized herself and her colleagues. Veronica has overlooked the people who make up her company. She seems unaware of the people she serves. While filing invoices may feel impersonal, such filing is an important protection for both the business and the customers. Her filing protects many people. God upholds honesty and keeps people out of financial ruin through the service Veronica provides.
In these and other ways, the vocational view provides great help. Christians belong to Christ. Wherever they work, Christians can work mightily as unto him (Col. 3:23), both glorifying God and serving others through daily work.