Is Christian Work Better than Secular Work?

Written by James Bunyan, England

James Bunyan is a bit of a fidget, to be honest. His inability to sit still tends to spill over into all sorts of areas of his life; he loves travelling, good writing, all sports (except frisbee), the sense of purpose that the gospel gives him, exotic teas and the satisfaction of peeling off a sticker all in one go. He lives in Twickenham (London), where he works as a CU Staff Worker for UCCF: The Christian Unions, a student mission movement, and he recently married his best friend, Lois. That was a good move.

It’s unusual that you’d find someone who would come right out and articulate the view that Christian work is better than “secular” or “non-Christian” work, or that the only activity under the sun that matters is evangelism. But, if we’re honest, it’s easy to see the way that view has influenced what we say and how we feel about our work.

We see it in:

  • the worker who longs to quit her job in retail and do something meaningful like youth work, even though she is perfectly suited to the first and not to the second
  • the businessman who is consistently told that the best thing about his profession is that he can fund other people to do proper gospel work
  • the pastor whose sermon applications never cover any topic other than evangelism in the workplace
  • the church who is happy that they are sending a couple of young people to university to study economics or medicine but are ecstatic that one is off to study theology

These are some examples of how our thoughts, feelings, words and behaviors betray this line of thought—that Jesus is much happier with some jobs than He is with others. That Jesus is only really pleased with you when you’re telling people about Him, not when you’re head down and working.

This attitude is not entirely wrong. Let’s look at these verses from Colossians 1:15-20:

The Son is the image of the invisible God, the firstborn over all creation. For in him all things were created: things in heaven and on earth, visible and invisible, whether thrones or powers or rulers or authorities; all things have been created through him and for him. He is before all things, and in him all things hold together. And he is the head of the body, the church; he is the beginning and the firstborn from among the dead, so that in everything he might have the supremacy.For God was pleased to have all his fullness dwell in him, and through him to reconcile to himself all things, whether things on earth or things in heaven, by making peace through his blood, shed on the cross.

Given everything Paul says about the majesty of Jesus (v15- 20) and the magnitude of His redemption (buying back) of you (v21- 23), it’d be strange if telling people all about Jesus didn’t feature highly in our priorities. It’s something that we can do regardless of who we are and whatever job or situation we are in—so long as there are other people with us. And evangelism is the one activity that only the church is going to do; if we don’t do it, we rob the world of the only hope available to it. One day, uncountable numbers from every tribe, every tongue and every nation will be standing before God and worshiping Jesus forever, and there are few joys greater in life than knowing that you have contributed to another person being present on that day.

But I think there’s also something not quite right about thinking that evangelism and church work are the only things that Jesus cares about, not least because we can see more than that from Paul’s letter to the Colossians. Here are a couple of points that may help address that:

Jesus has redeemed every part of creation

Both Paul’s description of Jesus’ identity and his description of Jesus’ achievement are colossal. Jesus is bigger than creation, bigger than all powers, bigger than the church (this one feels more obvious); in other words, everything that makes God God dwells in Jesus. And what does He choose to do with this immense power? “To reconcile to himself all things, whether things on earth or things in heaven, by making peace through his blood, shed on the cross.” Jesus couldn’t be more committed to His physical creation. He created it. He sustains it. He entered it. And when He died, He won it back to Himself.

This idea is not unique to Colossians, but runs right through the Bible, from Genesis to Revelation. We don’t see a deist god who creates a universe and then walks away. We don’t see a gnostic god who creates spirit but hates the material. We see the triune God who cares enough for His physical creation to task humanity with working to steward and keep it. We see a God who will commit to its redemption completely. We see a renewed creation at the end of time, a new creation that is filled with cities and art and culture, and people who love to work for God’s glory.

So, if God cares that much for this world, shouldn’t we?

This is the reason why God commanded mankind to “fill the earth and subdue it,” in Genesis 1, something theologians like to call “the Cultural Mandate.”[1] God is effectively saying, “Go out and display that you’re made in my image—that you’re creative—and care for everything in the world. Fill the earth with culture and life and cool stuff!” It’s a mandate that still applies, and which you and I and everyone else obeys whenever we work hard at art, our work, our families or anything that shows care and influence over this creation.

Perhaps part of the reason we struggle with our “secular” jobs is because we struggle to see the value of caring for this world and for other people when we work. As a result, we struggle to see that there are no “secular” jobs at all.

It doesn’t mean that we’re carrying out the same redemption as Jesus through our work or that He is only doing His work through us; Paul makes clear that what Jesus achieved on the cross was a one-time act because only He could have secured such a redemption. But when we work in nursing, retail, construction, art, banking or whatever field God has placed us in, we are reflecting the love of God for His creation, helping to steward a world Jesus created, committing ourselves to its flourishing, and practising for a time when we shall work in a new creation.

Jesus has redeemed every part of you

When we act like God only really cares about Christian work, we act like He is mean. We act like there’s whole swathes of our life that our Father has little real interest in, or that He is a slave-driver who just wants one thing out of us. Plus, we imply a kind of Christian dualism where God only cares about “spiritual” and not “material” matters.[2]

Our Father is a lot kinder than that and He cares so much about you whom He redeemed that He cares about your work too. If He’s given you gifts, passions and opportunities in a certain direction, He doesn’t simply want you to ignore them and shoe-horn yourself into a job that doesn’t suit you.

In fact, given the colossal Jesus that Paul represents in chapter 1, the application he gives in chapter 3 is remarkable. He doesn’t even seem to command much evangelism from his hearers but instead gives instruction that encompass both our relations in the home and relations at work. “Whatever you do, work at it with all your heart, as working for the Lord, not human masters…” (Colossians 3:23) So, you should know that your work matters because all of you matters to your Father. The redemption that Jesus has won for you is big enough to touch, redeem and dignify every part of your life.

Jesus has redeemed a whole church family

We live in an individualistic culture, so we tend to come at this question as individuals.

We are right when we realize evangelism is vital, when we think that some should become full-time church workers, when we discover that we could fill our diaries with church activities and not just hangout sessions with our friends. We are right when we realize that, for the church of Jesus Christ, making disciples who love and follow Him is the priority that trumps all priorities! We are right in thinking that it would be no good if everybody was caring for creation, serving as lawyers and joining sports teams, but no one was set apart to give the church vision, leadership and teaching.

But we are wrong when we think that the salvation of the world is all down to us—as individuals.

Paul writes this letter, just as he writes most of his letters, to church families. Every address is in the plural, none of it in the singular—something that is lost with the general English translation of “you.” And with families we have the opportunity to represent Christ in many different professions and places at the same time. Rather than always thinking “What’s the single most important job that I as an isolated individual could do for Christ?”, perhaps a much healthier question would be, “How can I use my skills, passions and opportunities to represent Jesus and serve this world in a way that complements what my church family is doing here?”

That way, we are free to choose a role in society and church that will see us flourish, not to mention a much more humble and realistic view of ourselves.

Just think what we would be communicating to the world if we got this one right! That Christ is not just for Sunday but is for our 9-5 too. That the truth about Jesus isn’t just true when we’re in church but is true for every person everywhere too. That God the Father is not a mean Father who only cares about driving you to evangelism but cares about every part of your life. That Christians are not isolated loners but part of a family that is working to steward creation and make Christ known.

And if we’re communicating all that, I have a feeling that we’d all make much better evangelists.

[1] It sometimes seems that theologians have little better to do than sit and make up long and confusing names for stuff.
[2] For more on this, read Every Good Endeavor by Timothy Keller (London: Hodder and Stoughton, 2012), particularly the excellent chapter “Work as Service”.

 

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