Note: This is an excerpt adapted from Dan Doriani’s new book, Work: Its Purpose, Dignity, and Transformation.
After years of teaching about work and interviewing hundreds of people, I sought to supplement the excellent recent publications on work. For that reason, one chapter reviews a neglected topic, the history of thought on work – with a focus on the concepts that most influence us today. Fortunately, recent books have abandoned the old idea that “sacred” work is superior to secular work. At last we agree that all labor has equal dignity, so that farmers, dishwashers, and mechanics can please God as much as pastors do.
I affirm that this idea is true, but it is not quite the whole truth. In our zeal to motivate workers, we shout like cheerleaders, “Your work matters! It all has lasting importance, whatever you do.” Sadly, however, some work neither lasts long nor matters much. Promotional items, for example, can be so flimsy that they are essentially debris. Why make them? Moreover, the statement “All work matters” invites the motivational but imprecise thought that all activity matters in the same way. As humans, everyone matters equally, but at work, executives have more strategic impact than stock clerks. When I asked people, “Do you like your job?” answers frequently began, “I do, because my boss…” Unhappy people often started with leadership too. Why? A godly kitchen hand is God’s light in the restaurant, but the chef shapes the entire kitchen’s structure and culture, making it a joyful or stressful place for all.
I once worked on a small maintenance crew in which everyone was injured within three months. Antiquated equipment and hot liquids were everywhere and the boss didn’t protect his people. Unemployment was high and workers were disposable. If one man quit, replacements lined up. Because the head of maintenance permitted a dangerous workplace, the crew’s efforts to avoid injury were doomed. True leaders create healthy work environments.
So “all work is equal” is true from one perspective, but vain rhetoric from another. All work is equal in that stock clerks and executives can please God equally. And all honest toil has dignity. But an executive shapes a company, even society, in ways stock clerks cannot. As a former pastor and former stock boy, I think I did more good when I preached well to a thousand people than when I placed olives in the proper location.
Jesus said, “Everyone to whom much was given, of him much will be required” (Luke 12:48). Great gifts bring great responsibilities. If the Lord gives a person the skill and opportunity to lead, that person should seize it (Galatians 6:10, Ephesians 5:17). Moreover, they should gather bold allies to noble causes, as the talented often do.
Work: Its Purpose, Dignity, and Transformation also explores the relationship between transformation in the workplace and transformation of the workplace. Everyone believes in the first, for believers can improve the work environment by doing excellent work, showing integrity, and loving their co-workers. But some doubt that we can change the workplace itself, given that a market economy demands efficiency and profitability from most enterprises.
At a street level, the debate runs like this: “There a no Christian way to make a light bulb or bake a potato. Natural law governs the ways of light and baked potatoes and the need for efficiency pushes everyone toward the same technology and marketing. Whether Christian or pagan, business leaders must offer good products and services at fair prices, or they go out of business.”
The reply goes this way: “True, there is no Christian potato or light bulb. But faith shapes work globally. Restaurateurs can acquire their food and beverages carefully, promoting humane treatment of animals and other forms of creation care (Proverbs 12:10). Besides serving food, restaurateurs manage people and resources. Good leaders show fatherly care toward the staff. They try to mitigate the tendency toward substance abuse that plagues the industry. They close on Sundays so their people can rest and that might form happier, more productive workers.
Similarly, the manufacture of light bulbs is not as sterile as it seems. There are questions of justice up and down the supply chain, care for workers, and the ways one will or will not pursue resource-preserving innovations. Of course, efforts to discern God’s ways for athletics, engineering, journalism, and medicine will be partial, flawed, and provisional. Still, we should attempt to transform the work place.
Prospective readers will want to know that the book also has two chapters on the biblical theology of work as well as chapters on daily faithfulness, work in difficult settings, finding one’s calling, the work/rest rhythm, and more. My hope therefore is to advance the Christian conversation about work while also offering concrete guidance for believers as they do their work, paid and unpaid, each day.