Note: This article describes one of the ON’s Economic Wisdom Project Talks, designed to be used as class assignments.
At the inaugural Karam Forum, Mark Roberts of Fuller Seminary spoke about the need to rethink what truly counts as good work. Resisting the cultural narrative that “work” only happens in a job, Roberts contends that all good work is God-valued work, including the critical task of raising children. This teaching tool is ideal for students to view and discuss in classes such as ethics, Old Testament studies, missions and other settings where the family, the cultural mandate, work and the image of God are covered.
Roberts begins by sharing the story of dropping his daughter off at his alma mater and reflecting on the work he has done in his life – eventually wondering why he had not lived out many of the dreams he had as a college student. Roberts had worked as a pastor for decades, written books and served in other roles, but why didn’t he accomplish more? Had he failed?
However, much of the reason he didn’t “do more” is because of the time he spent with his family and children. He had made sure that he was there to raise, form and love his children. Eventually, he thought that “maybe my most influential work was raising my children to make a difference in the world.”
This line of inquiry led him to research what the scriptures teach us about what counts as “true work.” He discovered how he had overlooked essential elements in the scriptural view of work, especially in light of the creation story.
Through the command to “be fruitful and multiply” in Genesis, Roberts realized that the creation mandate is also includes a procreation mandate. The call to tend the earth and work for the flourishing of the world includes a call for the Christian community to raise children who will themselves grow up to live out the cultural mandate.
This enlarged sense of the cultural mandate entails three specific implications: stay-at-home work is true, God-valued work; Christians should help create family-friendly workplaces; and Christian homes should in turn raise up children not only for their own sake (“I want to best for my kids”) but for the sake of the common good and with a calling to participate in God’s work in the wider world.
What we call work is not all of true work. True work includes raising children so that they will grow up to live out the cultural mandate. And therefore, we will honor all good work as God’s valued work.
Roberts shows that it is impossible to separate the work of raising children from the work of the church in the world. Therefore, raising children is not only the work of parents, but also a responsibility of the entire body of Christ.
We have provided a few sample excerpts from his talk below. We hope you will find this a useful tool to provide your students with an understanding of the comprehensive implication of the creation mandate – calling Christians to raise their children to be future co-laborers in the good work of tending creation.
If you think in terms of work/life balance – which is not very biblical, but if you did – you would say that so much of my life went into my “life,” and not as much went into my “work.” But as I thought that and as I prayerfully reflected on it, another thought occurred to me. Maybe my most influential work was raising my children to make a difference in the world. Now, having thought that, I thought, “wait a minute, I don’t think of my children as my work. They are my joy, my stewardship; but my work is being a pastor, a writer, a scholar, a foundation executive.” Could it be that my work as a father was living out my work through something that God wanted me to do, even in the context of my family? I resolved at that moment to do some homework and to try and understand in a new way a broader picture of what work is biblically.
Beginning in Genesis
In Genesis, of course, we see God as the worker, who creates heaven, earth and everything in them. The end of the first creation narrative says that “on the seventh day God finished the work that he had done.” The Hebrew word there is melacha, which means work or occupation, or even business. The last business that God had done before the seventh day was, of course, the creation of humankind – Genesis 1:27, “And so God created humankind in His image, in the image of God he created them, male and female he created them.” Now I expect you know that scholars debate endlessly what the image of God really is about. But surely it must have something to do with this image in Genesis of God as a worker and if we are created in God’s image that would suggest that somehow we are to participate in God’s work in the world. In fact, the next verse confirms it, Genesis 1:28, it says “be fruitful and multiply and fill the earth and subdue it and have dominion.” God basically says to the first people, “Get to work. Be productive. Be fruitful.” Isn’t it interesting that God does not say “build and altar to me or go to church” but says “get to work.”
The Cultural Mandate and the Procreation Mandate
That command in Genesis 1:28, to be fruitful and multiply, is often called the cultural mandate. It’s the cultural mandate in the sense that we derive from that text God’s intention for us that we would be productive that we would be fruitful that we would make and shape and use culture to make a difference for God in this world… But, in acknowledging the cultural mandate, we don’t want to forget the perhaps more literal and obvious sense of the language in Genesis 1:28, “be fruitful and multiply.” We could even call it the procreation mandate. Think about it. If the first two people are to be fruitful and multiply, to fill the earth, they better get going having babies. A lot of them! And, in fact, raising those babies to be adults who live out the cultural mandate. We see that again and again and again in scripture, that in fact the raising and nurturing of children – if you are going to buy into the work/life balance, it really isn’t the “life,” it is part of our “work.” And so, what I learned in a nutshell, through that search through scripture, is that our true work is more than what we call “work.” Our true work includes raising children, children who grow up themselves to live out the cultural mandate.
Stay-at-home Work is True Work
I would suggest, that since true work includes more than what we call work, we will honor all good work as God-valued work. Our culture is transfixed by what we do for a living, and volunteer work, other kinds of work, are second class at best. And see that for example when a mother from a workplace decides to go home and be with her children as they are young, being with them full time. When she returns to the workplace often she is viewed as someone who has “not worked” for many years. The man who decides to be the stay-at-home dad is often looked upon with suspicion.
Now this is changing even in the secular environment. Increasingly, companies are actually giving value and seeing the value of working in a stay-at-home role. Carol Fishman Kohen in her research has discovered that quite a few companies now are actually offering internships to “re-launchers,” that is to say those who are re-launching from the family back into the marketplace. And this is encouraging, but we have a long way to go. And we who have a biblical understanding ought to be leaders of this movement because we understand that all good work is God-valued work.
If we understand that our true work is more than what we call work, then we will promote family friendly workplaces. Now I’m not thinking here primarily in terms of what the government might do or what we might do as citizens. I’m really thinking of what you and I will do in workplaces in which we have influence or authority. We need to see that our salaries and our structures and our systems are supportive of those who have responsibility for children, both parents and others.
For example, some years ago I was interviewing with the H.E. Butt Foundation in Texas for a job and they wanted me to come down to Texas on a certain weekend during the summer for interviews and meetings. The problem was I told my son that he and I were going to go on vacation that week. And I wrestled with what to do. Finally, with trepidation, I told the folk at the foundation that I had a commitment to my son and I couldn’t come unless he could come with me and we could have a father and son adventure together. To my surprise, they said, “Great! Bring him along” and they even paid his way. Later the president of the foundation told me, “You know, we deeply respect, your commitment to you family and we want to be an organization that supports parents in that role.”
Raising Children to Participate in God’s Work
If we understand that our true work is more than what we call work, we will raise children to participate in God’s work in the world. We will see that we are given children not just to raise them for their own good or the good of our families, but for the good of the world. So often I hear parents talking about working hard as parents because “I want to best for my kids,” as if that is enough. That’s not a bad thing, but wanting the best for our children means also we will want the best for the family of God. We will want the best for the human family. And when we begin to raise our children with that understanding, we will help them to engage in the work of God in the world, to be a part of the work done out of the cultural mandate. We’ll have a broader vision for what it is we are doing as parents, grandparents, aunts and uncles, and friends and as the church family. We will raise children to participate in God’s work in the world.