Christianity and the Work Ethic
According to the United States Department of Labor:
Labor Day, the first Monday in September, is a creation of the labor movement and is dedicated to the social and economic achievements of American workers. It constitutes a yearly national tribute to the contributions workers have made to the strength, prosperity, and well-being of our country. . . . The first Labor Day holiday was celebrated on Tuesday, September 5, 1882, in New York City, in accordance with the plans of the Central Labor Union. The Central Labor Union held its second Labor Day holiday just a year later, on September 5, 1883.
The attentive student of the Bible realizes that work is one subject which permeates the entire Bible, in one form or another. Work it is one of the important components of human life established by the Creator and described in His holy inspired Scriptures. In fact, it can be correctly affirmed that work is a fundamental and inalienable biblical teaching.
It is common belief of many societies that work is a curse or a punishment. In the ancient Roman world, manual labor was seen by philosophers and freeborn citizens as being beneath them, and was strictly exercised by slaves and the lower-class. Therefore, it is not surprising that the Christian ethic of work stood out like a sore thumb, since Christianity affirmed that all labor held dignity and honor for all people. It is fascinating to note that as Christians were simply obeying God’s word and living Christ-centered lives, they ended up influencing society on a greater scale than they might have imagined. This was the case with their work ethic that helped, in some measure, to weaken the system of slavery in the Roman Empire. By encouraging one another, as believers in Christ Jesus, to perform even the most lowly jobs (those that only slaves would customarily perform) as a special service rendered to the Lord, Christians successfully challenged the system of slavery.
The fact that early Christians of any background and social standing, were willing to take on all forms of labor noticeably affected society. It is reported that:
. . . years ago David Lipscomb was riding along the road with an infidel doctor, talking on the Bible. The doctor asked: “Can you tell me one good thing the Christian religion has given to the world?” Lipscomb replied: “It has given us better hogs and better horses, and better cattle, and better farms, and better society, and better civilization. No country without the Bible has ever had a mail system, a telegraph system, a bank, or even a two-horse wagon—till the Bible got there. No infidel can be persuaded to live in a country that has no Bible.”—Burnett’s Budget. (The Bible Champion 102)
Christianity really changed the world’s idea of work.
The Bible has a very positive outlook about work that is rooted in the unquestionable teachings about God Himself. In fact, the Bible presents God as a worker. At the very beginning of the Book of Genesis we are introduced to God’s creative actions identified as: “all His work which He had done” (2:2).
Interestingly, the Holy Spirit has inspired the composers of the Bible to liken God’s working actions to the human manual worker: the work of His fingers, His handiwork (Psalm 8:3; 19:1); the work of a potter (Isaiah 45:9; Jeremiah 18:6).
It must be noted that God Himself considers and evaluates His work assessing it as good (Genesis 1:4, 10, 12, 18, 21, 25). Furthermore, at the completion of His work, God reconsiders His work and found everything that He has done “very good” (Genesis 1:31).
God commands Israel’s observance of the Sabbath (related to God’s cessation of Creation’s work on the seventh day (Exodus 20:8-11; cf. 34:21; Genesis 2:2-3), declaring: “Six days you shall labor and do all your work” (Exodus 20:9).
In imitation of his Father Who works, Jesus too works: “My Father has been working until now, and I have been working” (John 5:17). He was known by His contemporaries as “the carpenter” (Mark 6:3). Jesus’ work is totally at the service of His Father (John 5:19, 30). And He does it by giving His own life on the cross (Mark 14:25; Matthew 26:28; Luke 22:20; John 12:32). In many of His teachings Jesus used illustrations and examples from the world of daily work: the sower who sows a field (Matthew 13:3-9), the reapers who work in a harvest field (Matthew 13:30), the wise and the foolish men who build houses (Matthew 7:24-27); the woman who sweeps the floor of her house in search of the lost coin (Luke 15:8-10), the prodigal son who is hired to take care of pigs (Luke 15:11-32); etc.
Jesus understood the psycho-physical strain that work can demand. In fact, He offers one of the most remarkable consolations in the invitation: “Come to Me, all you who labor and are heavy laden, and I will give you rest” (Matthew 11:28).
The teachings of the Bible about the Deity’s work enhance the dignity of human work. From a biblical perspective, the pattern for all human’s work is the pattern seen in God’s loving work of creation, which we read about in the first book of the Bible (Genesis 2:2-3) and that is also celebrated in the Psalms (8:3; 19:1) and in Job (37:16). It is God the One who “took the man and put him in the garden of Eden to tend and keep it” (Genesis 2:15). It is evident that work was part of God’s plan for the good of humanity from the very beginning of human history. Work did not come into this world as punishment for human sin, although sin had darkened the world in which human beings were to work (cf. Genesis 3:17-19). After the fall, work has become heavier, less pleasant, and more demanding.
The Scripture does not tolerate idleness. The lazy person is directed to nature to learn a basic lesson: “Go to the ant, you sluggard! Consider her ways and be wise” (Proverbs 6:6; cf. 10:4; 30:24-25). Idleness is indeed considered dangerous: “He who has a slack hand becomes poor” (Proverbs 10:4). “The desire of the lazy man kills him, for his hands refuse to labor” (Proverbs 21:25). The apostle Paul categorically affirms: “If anyone will not work, neither shall he eat” (2 Thessalonians 3:10) and he has set himself as a good example of hard work: “. . . you yourselves know that these hands have provided for my necessities, and for those who were with me. I have shown you in every way, by laboring like this, that you must support the weak” (Acts 20:34-35; cf. 1 Corinthians 4:12; 1 Thessalonians 2:9; 2 Thessalonians 3:8-9).
Work is part of God’s grand design for the world. It is a necessity ordained by God to give meaning and purpose to human life. We must develop “a mind to work” (Nehemiah 4:6) because it is a work we do for God!
-Paolo Di Luca
“A Rebuke.” The Bible Champion. 17. 3 (March 1914): 102.
Department of Labor. “History of Labor Day.” Dol.gov. N.d. Web. 22 Aug. 2017.