Given that many Americans are unemployed through no fault of their own, and are chomping at the bit to get back to work, a few thoughts on Christianity and the dignity of work are appropriate. I’m currently reading How Christianity Changed the World by Alvin J. Schmidt, and making my way through the chapter on “Labor and Economic Freedom Dignified.” I recently wrote about how Christianity transformed the world into which it was birthed, and in due course gave us the modern world and its myriad blessings. As I said, the Christian roots of these blessings are completely ignored today, and no more so than in the area of work. I’ve known about the importance of the Christian influence on work for a long time, but it struck me as I read this chapter how radical a notion it was that work was actually dignified just by being work.

Contrary to this Christian view, the Greco-Roman world into which Jesus was born saw manual labor as undignified and only worthy of slaves and the lowest classes. Before capitalism, also the fruit of Christianity, was born in the 18th century, and began to flourish in the 19th, there was no middle class to speak of. The rich were few, and the upper class small. In the Roman empire it is estimated that three quarters of the population were slaves, and they did most of the work to keep the society running. Those not lucky enough to be rich or upper class, but were freemen labored as well, and considered not much different than slaves. The word dignity and work did not go together. That was reserved for philosophers and rulers who had no need to demean themselves by getting their hands dirty. Like with everything else in the ancient world, this mentality radically changed with the life, ministry, death, and resurrection of Jesus.

Not only was Jesus born in Nazareth (a backwater with so little standing that when Nathanael learned of it he asked if anything good could come from there), he was a carpenter. There could be nothing more incongruous to the Jewish mind than that the Messiah should be a mere carpenter, even though Jews respected work far more than Greeks or Romans. Yet the writers of the New Testament never see the need to explain why God would become flesh in the form of a man who worked with his hands. He just did. If the Son of God did it, there must be something noble in it.

The Apostle Paul also taught that working, and being independent because of it, was inherently dignified. Paul himself was a tentmaker, and saw his work as a means to be independent from the support of those he ministered to. Making a living with his hands never hindered his message, but made him an example for others. His teaching also dignified work. In I Thessalonians 4 he writes:

11 and to make it your ambition to lead a quiet life: You should mind your own business and work with your hands, just as we told you, 12 so that your daily life may win the respect of outsiders and so that you will not be dependent on anybody.

In 2 Thessalonians 3 he writes:

For you yourselves know how you ought to follow our example. We were not idle when we were with you, nor did we eat anyone’s food without paying for it. On the contrary, we worked night and day, laboring and toiling so that we would not be a burden to any of you. We did this, not because we do not have the right to such help, but in order to offer ourselves as a model for you to imitate. 10 For even when we were with you, we gave you this rule: “ If anyone is not willing to work, let him not eat.”

This would have meant a lot of starving philosophers! In I Timothy 5 he says:

For Scripture says, “Do not muzzle an ox while it is treading out the grain,” and “The worker deserves his wages.”

The first quote is from Deuteronomy 25, and the second of Jesus from Luke 10 (very interesting that Paul consider’s Luke’s gospel Scripture).

Early Christians spread this teaching along with every other counter-cultural idea they had, and slowly but surely the Greco-Roman world and its values died, to be replaced by a Christian civilization. Unfortunately, religious work came to be differentiated from the work of laymen, and was seen to be of greater value. It wasn’t until Martin Luther’s teaching on vocation and calling that all work would begin to finally be seen in its divine orientation. This quote captures his thought concisely:

Every occupation has its own honor before God. Ordinary work is a divine vocation or calling. In our daily work no matter how important or mundane we serve God by serving the neighbor and we also participate in God’s on-going providence for the human race.

There is a very lot to unpack here (this piece is a good start if you’re interested), but Luther’s ideas carried on the transformation from work as slavery to work as liberation, ideas that grew into what eventually gave us capitalism and the modern world. For me, the most profound truth about the Christian understanding of work, is that in what we do, whatever it is, we serve our neighbor working for God, for their good and his glory. All work is necessary, none of it trivial, and it blesses others, in addition to ourselves.

Now, let’s get America back to work!

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