The Lord’s Work, the Lord’s Way
By Michael Wittmer, professor of Systematic Theology, Grand Rapids Theological Seminary
Lloyd Blankfein, CEO of Goldman Sachs, received much criticism when, in 2009, he told the Sunday Times of London that he was a banker “doing God’s work.” Of course, he was right. Bankers are doing the Lord’s work, just as surely as ministers and missionaries. To paraphrase Martin Luther, God funds his businesses by the bankers he has assigned to the task. Blankfein’s problem was that many people suspected he was not doing the Lord’s work the Lord’s way. But what would that mean, exactly?
Over the last couple of years, I have had the privilege of trying to explain this to a group of Christian entrepreneurs and businesspeople who gather monthly to discuss how they might do their jobs to the glory of God. My thoughts are still a work in progress, but I present them in the hope that it might benefit you, and that in turn, you might be able to help me.
I start from the assumption that to think and live Christianly requires that we see where we belong in the biblical story of creation, fall, redemption, and consummation, and then seek to act our part to the glory of God. This leads me to ask business leaders two questions: how does your business fit into God’s story, and how does God’s story fit into your business?
1. The Big Picture: How does your business fit into God’s story?
An enterprise will thrive to the extent that everyone in the company understands how their role serves the whole, which, in turn, obeys God’s first command to develop culture (Genesis 1:28; 2:15).
Can everyone articulate not only what their job directly accomplishes, but also how it enables others to do their job? What do you make possible? For example, an accountant is responsible for the company’s integrity. She tells the truth about what the business can and cannot afford. The janitor is in charge of hospitality, providing a clean and safe environment so the others may focus on their jobs. Sales and marketing serve customers, and find orders to keep the other workers employed. Administrative assistants are often the greeters, the face of the company, and so forth.
Christian employees must also consider how their company contributes to the story of God. What product or service are they producing, and what does it make possible for the world? I know a godly man who worked for years in the IT department of Victoria’s Secret. His skills were portable, yet he chose to invest them in a company that contributes to our increasingly pornographic culture. He would have benefited from asking some of the big picture questions that Tim Keller raises in “Every Good Endeavor,” p. 181: “What’s the story line of the culture in which I live and the field where I work?” “What are the idols? The hopes? The fears?” “How does my particular profession retell this story line, and what part does the profession itself play in the story?”
Keller observes that these worldview questions are “the most searching and yet also the hardest to put into practice” (181). But we must ask them. If it’s true that we spend one third of our life at work, then when it’s all said and done, a big chunk of what our life meant is what we did for our jobs. When we are dying, what is it that we would want to have built? Why not work on that today?
2. The Inside Game: How does God’s story fit into your business?
Besides asking how our calling fits into God’s story, it’s important to train God’s story on our calling. If the former question addresses why we work, this question examines how we work. Christian workers should ask how the fall has damaged the way their profession is often conducted, and seek ways that they might “redeem” it for Christ. I put “redeem” in quotation marks because this is a theologically loaded word that I would like to reserve for God’s redemption of people; I don’t want to leave the impression that “redeeming my garden” by pulling weeds is on the same level as making disciples of Christ. And yet, disciples will tend their gardens to the glory of God.
To use the examples from the last question, a Christian accountant must avoid the shell games, and sometimes outright lies, that brought down venerable firms such as Arthur Andersen. Christian janitors will clean under and behind things, where some people might not even notice. Sales and marketing professionals will refuse to gouge customers or appeal to their base or selfish instincts. Administrative assistants will set a courteous and cheerful tone, regardless how they’re feeling at the moment.
These answers don’t seem to be distinctively Christian, and maybe that’s okay. If business belongs to the realm of creation, then there may not be a uniquely Christian way to do it in every case. But all things being equal, Christians should be motivated to do their best, because they are “working for the Lord, not for men” (Colossians 3:23).
Here are some questions I’d like to hear discussed further by theological educators and others:
1. Is using the creation, fall, redemption paradigm to evaluate our work merely a fancy, Christian way of saying “do what is right and don’t do what is wrong”? What is the added value that this biblical metanarrative brings to our understanding of work?
2. Are there some questionable professions that Christians might reclaim for God? Are there some culturally accepted professions that Christians should have more qualms about than they currently do?
3. In “Concerning Idolatry,” Tertullian argued that Christians should not serve in any occupation that is in any way tainted with idolatry. This category included astrologers, officers of the state, mathematicians, schoolmasters, professors of literature, gladiators, frankincense sellers, enchanters, magicians, and all forms of painting, modeling, and sculpture. Tertullian said that if this command prevented a Christian from earning a living, well, there are worse things than dying. Obviously, theologians today don’t consider mathematics and painting as inherently idolatrous professions, while we would agree with Tertullian about astronomers and gladiators. (Perhaps we could discuss the status of educators another day.) When is it appropriate to condemn an entire profession as idolatrous? How can we equip people to stand against idolatry wherever they find it, without allowing our message to become legalistic and graceless?
4. How might our jobs benefit society indirectly, i.e. in other ways besides the value we add to a specific product we work on, or the service we directly provide someone? What might we miss if our jobs were taken away? What might our neighbors miss?