How is the Christian to live out his faith at work? In the Middle Ages, religious callings — monks, nuns, friars, the priesthood — were regarded as the really spiritual option. Everyone else had to make do with an ordinary job, which made them distinctly second-rate in religious terms. One of the great benefits of the Reformation was to eradicate this secular/religious divide and recognise the inherent value of all kinds of work, to be carried out in a godly manner as to Christ.
We are in grave danger of losing this biblical perspective on work. The idea that to be a preacher is inherently more pleasing to God than to sweep roads is entirely unbiblical, but sadly prevalent among evangelicals today. Calls for everyone who is able to do so to give up ‘secular’ work and go into some form of full-time gospel work reinforce this distorted understanding. The suggestion that ‘secular’ work is good merely to pay the bills (and support gospel workers) is seriously sub-biblical.
Valued for its own sake
Thankfully, Tim Keller has written a book to present a more biblical view of work. He argues persuasively that work, as a creation mandate for humanity, is to be valued for its own sake, as ordained by God for all. Whether it is preaching the gospel or plastering ceilings, work is good. Keller explores carefully, from the Scriptures, how this is so and explains how Christians, with a biblical understanding of the world, may be able to bring this understanding to bear upon their work-life. At the same time, Keller argues, we are not to find our identity in work, for this is simply to make an idol of it. We are more than just the work we do.
Perhaps inevitably, given the make-up of his own congregation, Keller tends to focus on people involved in business or in the pursuit of high culture. He does not entirely neglect those who have little or no say in what they do but simply have to obey their superiors in menial tasks. But, more does need to be said about the drudgery and powerlessness of such work. Many people will never have the ability to make any significant difference to the way in which the firm for which they work operates and for them, some parts of this book will seem idealistic.
Nevertheless, Keller rightly deconstructs the contemporary fixation with jobs that bring in plenty of cash, plenty of kudos or plenty of cool. The Christian who loads a dishwasher umpteen times a day for a living will understand through this book that their work is of no less value in God’s sight than that of the most influential businessman or the most cutting-edge of artists.
This is a book for our times. Maybe it will help us recover the more healthy, and biblical, attitude to work which the Reformers rediscovered and which we seem, to our great loss, to have largely forgotten.
Principal, London Theological Seminary