Wednesday, July 2, 2008

is work meaningless? (2) different views of work

I've come across two views of secular work recently.

The first is from Gordo, who argues from Ecclesiastes that secular work is meaningless. It makes sense to me that only gospel work has eternal value, if we're talking about the direct results of our work. For the results of our labour don't last. Bridges fall, bodies decay, homes get dirty again.

My main question, Gordo, is what you do with the fact that Ecclesiastes is written primarily from an "under the sun" perspective: this-worldly wisdom gained through empirical observation. Does God's call to work in Genesis 1 give work meaning in an eternal perspective? I'm looking forward to that longer article on work you promised us, no doubt taking in the broad sweep of the Bible's teaching! (See, now you have to write it.)

The second is, I think, a more traditional Reformed view of work, based on Genesis 1-3. You'll find this clearly presented in A Biblical Understanding of Work by John Loftness from Sovereign Grace Ministries. I don't agree with its assumptions about God's "calling" to different kinds of work. I'm still puzzling over its teaching on the "dignity" of work: that we act as God's image-bearers as we produce and create, and fulfil God's command to "fill and subdue the earth."

If secular work obeys God's command to "fill and subdue the earth", our obedience to this command has eternal value, even if the results of our work disappear through decay and destruction. But some argue that, after the Fall, the command to "fill and subdue" is fulfilled through the work of redemption i.e. preaching the gospel. In which case we obey this command not through secular work, but through sharing the gospel.

Here's some questions I have. How do we obey the command to "fill and subdue" the earth? Does work have dignity because we create and produce as God's image-bearers in the world? Is "meaningful" the same as "eternally significant"? Do the tasks we do when we work - heal, build, empty bins - have meaning because they serve the needs of others, albeit temporal needs? Does the view that secular work is meaningless, and gospel work meaningful, return us to a monastic division between sacred and secular?

As you can see, I have many more questions than answers! If anyone has any ideas, or suggestions of books or articles to read, please tell me.

I'm planning a final post tomorrow on "7 things which make work meaningful".

image is from stock.xchng


Ruth McIntosh said...

I'm not sure that there is such a thing as 'secular work' for a Christian. If we are living in obedience to God, asking him to provide opportunities to tell people about him and taking them up when they come, then surely all honest work is meaningful. Secular work takes the gospel into places where people who may never go to church happen to be. Surely godly work is NOT just about what we produce, but primarily about who we are. That’s where the eternal significance comes in. We are to 'let our light shine before people' wherever we are and whatever we are engaged in.

Anonymous said...

Hi Jean,

I've been enjoying reading your blog for a few weeks now, should have made myself known earlier.

Just a couple of thoughts:

It seems to me that if we say that work is meaningless because it has no eternal significance, we might as well say that marriage is meaningless for the same reason.

Secondly, if 'secular' work were meaningless, wouldn't the apostle Paul have considered it a waste of his time to support himself by his own labour, when he could have been using his time more productively in gospel ministry?


Caroline said...

Another thought I forgot to mention -

Work can also be one way in which we fulfill the command to love our neighbour as ourself, and I feel sure that obeying God is of eternal significance.


Jean said...

Hi Caroline,

That's an excellent point about marriage, a similar point occurred to me earlier today. I'd love to ask the "work is meaningless" theologians about it, and I might do just that since I know a few!!

If you check out my blog post for today (you may not have received it yet) you'll see I think lots of things are meaningful about work, including loving your neighbour. I agree with you about that, for sure!

As for Paul, I think the reason he worked was for the sake of gospel preaching: he didn't want to be like one of the paid popular teachers of the time, like the 'super-apostles', who went around making money for their teaching (this is a guess). And he wanted to free up the people he was preaching to from supporting him, so as not to be a "burden" to them (the passage says this), maybe so as not to put obstacles in the path of their reception of the gospel. So his reason for making tents wasn't that it was meaningful in and of itself, but that it helped people receive the gospel through his preaching.

I'm still thinking through these issues myself, though. Thanks for your thoughtful comments. Welcome to the blog - nice to have you here!

Jean said...

And in fact, Caroline, now I come to think about it, theologians sometimes make the same arguments for marriage. In heaven people will "neither marry nor be given in marriage" (Mark 12:25) - marriage isn't eternal.

Some argue that the reason the man needed a "helper" was less for intimacy, and more to fulfil the task God gave him to "fill and subdue" the earth (Christopher Ash argues this in his books on marriage, I think). If "fill and subdue" is then interpreted as preaching the gospel, the point of both work and marriage is to further the preaching of the gospel.

The other meaning of marriage is to mirror the relationship between Christ and the church. I'm not sure how this relates to work, though. Unless you agree with those who argue that we are God's image-bearers in a special way when we work.

Lots of vague thoughts and no firm conclusions! I have a lot more thinking to do. :)

Rachael said...

Doesn't Luther say a lot about this issue? Work outside the church is meaningful and holy and any ordinary man in the village can fulfill his calling in being a butcher or baker or candle-stick maker. (Reaching into the depths of my memory here and may be mistaken.)

Jean said...

Yes, he does - the reformed views in the sermon I linked to are mainly from Luther. I'm not directly familiar with his ideas. More reading to do, more reading to do ...

Jean said...

And Ruth (hi!) I couldn't agree more.

Jean said...

Thankyou for reminding me that no work is truly secular. If it's done in a way which honours and thanks God, that is! I guess the ultimate shame would be if a Christian did work which was indeed "secular", i.e. if it was not made "holy" by love, obedience, integrity and thanksgiving.