Proverbs 31; John 5:17; 1 Timothy 5; 2 Thessalonians 3

Two Ways News is a weekly collaboration between Tony Payne and Phillip Jensen – a newsletter and podcast on a topic to encourage gospel thinking for today (subscribe at

Some fresh thinking on just what work is, and discussion about various views or frameworks to think about the theological significance of work. Such views as the cultural mandate, the vocational view and work as an eschatological investment.


TP: This week, our subject is work

It’s an important subject for everyone, including Christians, and there are many questions that arise. The classic question, and especially if you’re a younger, keen Christian is about ministry and work: Is full-time ministry for me, or should I go into the ‘workforce’, and what are the implications of that choice? Is one sort of work more meaningful than the other? 

But there are lots of questions surrounding ‘career’ and jobs. Which job should I choose? Should I take this promotion? How do I think about advancement and ambition? And of course, there are questions about juggling family and work as well as the general issue of just how to be a Christian at work, and how to think about the significance of our work Christianly.

PJ: Yes, and the complaint is often that though work will occupy half my waking life, it’s not a subject that we really talk about in church. 

TP: Yes, it’s a very common question—that work is almost a spiritual vacuum or dead zone; I just go there because I have to, and the only significance is to earn money to pay for myself and give to the church. But apart from that, are all those hours of any significance? Does my work have any real meaning? 

We’re not going to be able to answer all those questions in this podcast, but I want to explore some fresh thinking about what work actually is, because one of the problems is defining what we mean by ‘work’.

PJ: It’s a problem, isn’t it? If you are an English teacher, is reading a novel in the weekend considered rest or work?

TP: Indeed, or people who are gospel ministers—does that mean that when I am reading the Word or speaking the Word or encouraging my family on my rest day, I am still working? It comes down to how we define work, of course, as well as the context in which it is done. 

Now, just to sketch in some background—we’re not going to be able to look at all the theological background of the question, but over the centuries, there’s been a number of prominent attempts to come up with a framework to think about the theological significance of work. 

There’s the classic cultural mandate view of work that is especially strong inside the Reformed tradition, where the Genesis mandate for man to multiply and fill and subdue the earth and have dominion is seen as a charter for humanity to develop the world culturally; to make something of the world. And so it’s kind of a cultural mandate, with the purpose of work being to develop the world. 

The second main view is the vocational view of work, coming especially out of the Reformation, where Martin Luther suggested vocation or ‘calling’ as a way to think about the significance of work. In his context, Luther had all sorts of reasons why he wanted to address the question that way, particuarlly because of the the stark division that existed between the religious or spiritual workers and the mundane secular workers. 

More recently, there’s been a different way to try and understand work, and that is seeing work as a kind of eschatological investment. This means that what we do now in some way contributes to or builds the kingdom of God and has significance in the new creation. And the reason that our work is significant is because it’s going to be eternal in some way. 

Now, each of those three views has important and good things to say. But they all share one particular problem that bothers me, and that is when you look in the New Testament, you can’t find anything that corresponds to any of them. 

PJ: Yes, in the New Testament, although there are places where it says God has good works prepared for us to walk in and so on, but the one discussion about gainful employment in 2 Thessalonians 3 doesn’t give you any of those kinds of high-minded philosophies or theologies. It’s a more down to earth, pragmatic philosophy of ‘if you don’t work, don’t eat’. 

TP: Work is seen as a way of providing for your own material needs so as not to be a burden to the community.

PJ: If we look at that passage, there are other things like love and community, but there is not some kind of grand eschatological scheme.

TP: Which is kind of disappointing if you’re looking for something more significant. Take Miroslav Volf, for example, who’s written a very significant book on this topic called Work in the Spirit: Toward a Theology of Work, which has been quite influential on Tim Keller’s book on work, Every Good Endeavor. And to his credit, Volf recognizes the exact point you’re making. He says this: 

The explicit New Testament statements about work view it very soberly as a means of securing sustenance, not as an instrument of cultural advancement … 

The answer to the question of how to translate into a Christian theology of work the silence of the New Testament about any broader significance of work than mere sustenance depends ultimately on the nature of New Testament eschatology. For the significance of secular work depends on the value of creation and the value of creation depends on its final destiny. If its destiny is eschatological transformation, then in spite of the lack of explicit exegetical support, we must ascribe to human work inherent value, independent of its relation to the proclamation of the gospel (human work and the proclamation of the gospel are each in its own way directed towards the new creation). Since much of the present order is the result of human work, if the present order will be transformed, then human work necessarily has ultimate significance.[¹]

PJ: So what he’s saying is, “On the basis of silence, here’s my thinking”.

TP: Yes—he’s saying we’ve got to find some other theological framework to fill the void, to fill the silence. I think that’s a shame because it’s not the way we should proceed. We should look at not just what the New Testament says but why it says it, and also give the same emphasis to what it doesn’t say, in shaping our theology.

PJ: It’s very hard to believe that people in the first century world did not have work in the same way that we do—to provide for ourselves. And if it is a matter sufficient enough for me to write a whole book on the subject, to not have a verse to peg upon, on which to hang my thoughts, well, I don’t think I’ll start the book. 

TP: Well, yes. And as the book develops, despite it saying lots of good things, especially in his definition of what work is—which I’ve drawn from and learned from—I think the problem with Volf’s presentation is exactly that: he’s building a theological framework to explain something in a way that the New Testament never does. And where the New Testament does use that framework, it’s never talking about work.

PJ: Yes. It’s not just that it’s not there. It’s that the subject of ‘work’ is there but it doesn’t use this framework. And this eschatological framework is there but is never used to refer to the subject of ‘work’. That is a very intentional silence. 

TP: I would have thought so. And it occurred to me as I’ve looked at a whole bunch of New Testament and Old Testament passages about work and how the Bible does theologise about work, I think one of our problems is that we have quite a restrictive definition of work in our heads. I think it’s very hard for us to think about ‘work’ without thinking about gainful employment (the job that earns money).

PJ: We are in a post-industrial society and that means we have the sense that there are workplaces you go to. One of the consequences of COVID is we’re not going to the workplaces anymore in the same way. But it’s still in our minds.

TP: Yeah, we have a very economic view of work because of the way our whole economy functions—work is the thing you do to contribute to the whole economy. It’s where you leave your home, you go somewhere else and you do something for which you are paid money, and that’s what you gain from work. You can gain other things, possibly from the enjoyment or satisfaction of doing it, but work is that thing you go and do.

PJ: Yes. It’s also highlighted and amplified by the enormous degree of division of labour we have in a modern industrial society.

TP: And as the world becomes more complex, it’s with extraordinary subdivision and subdivision of labour.

PJ: That’s right. Living in a village in the medieval period, people had different ‘work’—there was the blacksmith. But there was a lot of overlap and interchange, whereas now you have people doing jobs that other people have no idea or understanding what the job involves.

TP: You don’t even realize that there was someone who did that. And the result is that we now tend to think of any non-paid work, any work that is not part of that economic system, as not really being work. The classic case, of course, is domestic work. For example, say you spend two or three days a week keeping your own veggie garden and milking your own cow so as to provide food for your family—that’s not work. Whereas paying somebody else to milk a cow or growing veggies in order to sell them to someone else, that would be work. 

In other words, when the Bible talks about work, it’s often a bigger category of activity than we think, and maybe that’s why we’re struggling to work out what the Bible is saying. In one sense, the way the Bible thinks or talks about work does mirror many of the things we also do. It speaks of selling your labour for wages (like the workers in the vineyard), and of selling or trading things to generate income. You also had people, of course, who worked to produce their own food. So much of the talk of ‘work’ in, say, Proverbs is about the labour you do in the fields to secure your own sustenance and income. 

PJ: And should a woman go to work? If you look at Proverbs 31, she works very, very hard. She works all the time. But she doesn’t work in the fields with heavy labor; she does work in sewing and trading. 

TP: She is involved in commercial activities outside the home; she’s making things and selling them. She’s providing for her own family, she’s giving to the poor, she’s working constantly for all sorts of things. Her work is variegated, and almost none of it—that I can think of—would be equivalent to saying that she’s “gone out and got a job”.

PJ: No, it was the kind of cottage industry that was very common with women prior to the industrial revolution, when the factories making clothing put the cottage industry out of business, and then took the women out of their homes and put them into factories, and created a whole set of new problems.

TP: But there’s no division in the Bible between the domestic work that you would do to maintain and provide for the needs of your family and any work that you would do to earn income for the same purpose. They’re all seen as part of the same continuum of the work we do in order to provide for needs. And I think that’s a key point. Very briefly, though, the Bible does mention other kinds of work such as the bonded service of various workers and bondservants, who in that context are working within a household. And there is, of course, the ‘work of the Lord’ or gospel work. It’s interesting how gospel work is spoken of as a type of work in much the same way—that is, gospel work should generate some kind of income, for the worker deserves his wages. And also interestingly God is at work, as in John 5 where it says, “My father is working and I am working.” What does it mean for God to be constantly at work?

PJ: If God wasn’t constantly at work, the world would fall apart immediately. The world is upheld by the word of God, by the word of the Lord Jesus. He’s not doing a work of new creation, as the creation was finished in the six days. He’s in his rest day, but his rest day still involves him working in the sustenance of the world.

TP: He sends rain on the just and the unjust alike. He has the cattle on a thousand hills, and so on. 

I think the other thing is we don’t tend to think of as work is ‘good works’. But for example, in 1 Timothy 5, it says, “Let this widow be enrolled, if she’s not less than 60 and has been wife  to one husband, and has a reputation for good works.” And then it says what the good works are: “if she has brought up children. So she has been a domestic worker, has shown hospitality, has washed the feet of the saints, has cared for the afflicted and has devoted herself to every good work”. Is the good widow in 1 Timothy 5 a worker? 

PJ: Yes, a very hard worker by the sounds of it. But on the other hand, not in our sense of the word ‘worker’ today, which just shows we’re talking about something different when we link work mainly with gainful employment.

TP: When we link them too closely, it limits our horizons, and that confuses us. It gives us questions and problems that we maybe don’t need to have. 

So here’s my attempted definition of work. I’m going to suggest that work—in the way the Bible talks about it—can be defined like this: 

Any instrumental activity (in other words, an activity that is not done for its own sake), the product or outcome of which provides for the needs of the worker and/or of others. 

PJ: So when I sit strumming my guitar…

TP: As I do frequently. 

PJ: As you do, and I don’t… I can be doing that for my own enjoyment, but it can bring enjoyment to people around me. So is this ‘work’ in your category? 

TP: Possibly. In my definition, work is something that I do that produces some outcome, that has some end in mind, and that end is the needs of people, either myself or others. So for example, if I were to work in my garden in order to provide food for my household, whether I’m being paid for it or not, I’m working. I’m doing some instrumental activity for the meeting of our family’s needs. But if I was to work in the garden so as to give those veggies to my neighbours and share with them, I’m also working because I’m meeting my neighbour’s needs, even though there’s no money taking place. 

If you want to come back to guitar playing, if I’m playing the guitar purely for its own sake, and for the joy and satisfaction I’m gaining from it, it’s not ‘work’. But if I’m playing the guitar for the sake of the needs of others, for example, if I’m an entertainer who gives joy and rest to other people by playing the guitar for them, then that might become my work. Now, does it become my work if I play it for the benefit and enjoyment of my wife when I come downstairs and say, “Hey, this is what I’ve learned to play?” Well, you’re kind of getting into a grey area there. And if my playing an instrument gives me joy and happiness, could you say it’s meeting one of my needs? Well, possibly. 

But as with all definitions, I don’t want to zero down so much onto the edge cases as these are, so as to miss the main point of the definition, which is seeing work as something that I do for the sake of meeting the needs of others or myself. This kind of definition helps us to bind together the various things that the Bible is talking about when it talks about work. It means that the domestic work I do for the needs of my family is worth every bit as much as the work I do to provide an income that provides for the needs of my family.

PJ: Yes. And in terms of gainful employment, paying is something you tend not to do inside the family as much as you do outside the family. When I mow my neighbour’s lawn, he may pay me for it in a way that if I’m mowing my own lawn or my son’s lawn, I’m not expecting to be paid. 

TP: The way we manage the economy and the trading and the doing of work for one another almost always is different within the family than outside. But it’s still work.

PJ: Yes, it’s the same activities, the same amount of sweat on the brow.

TP: So if you think about it in those terms, that work is the instrumental activity we do for the sake of meeting our needs and our family’s needs and the needs of others, it helps us to think about work afresh, or in a more theological way. Because all those different forms of work really are done in light of two bigger principles or theologies. The first one is: work is done before God and for his glory, and he has prepared all these works for us to do that benefit other people. We do ‘good works’ so that people will see them and give glory to our Father in heaven. For example the bondservant works heartily as for the Lord, even when he’s not being watched, because he is serving the Lord Jesus Christ. 

PJ: Yes exactly. And I can hear the second one coming, which is: loving your neighbour.  

TP: That’s right. 

PJ: Because whatever I do for my neighbour, I should do it for his benefit. Whether they pay me or not is not the issue of making it beneficial for them. And it also shows that 2 Thessalonians 3 is not an oversight, but rather it is actually expressing what work is about. Work is about loving your neighbour because by working you are being a burden on other people, but providing for yourself, and following the example of the apostle in working in this way too. Work is a way, a form, an expression, of how we love our neighbour.

TP: Similarly, in gainful employment we love our neighbours by earning enough income so that we’re not a burden on them.

PJ: Yes. It also means the electrician does things for me that I can’t do myself. And the plumber does other things, and the fact that money is being transferred does not reduce its love element.

TP: Exactly. Often, the very thing that we’re working to produce is in itself a service to our neighbours. The baker who bakes a loaf of bread not only earns income to feed his family, but also provides food for the community. 

PJ: And that would then have applications for the kinds of work that, as Christians, you really wouldn’t want to be involved in. For example the gambling industry. I’m not loving my neighbour by providing gambling; I’m actually hurting my neighbour by doing that. So that’s an industry that I wouldn’t want to get involved in.

TP: In much the same ways as the thief should no longer steal—which is taking from his neighbour—but should now work honestly with his hands so that he has something to share with his neighbour. 

So whether our work is paid or not, whether it’s voluntary or not, if its purpose is to meet our needs and the needs of others, it’s all work. And we should do it in love of God and in love of neighbour. And if you frame work that way (as the Bible does), it’s kind of strange to say that there’s not much theological significance to ‘work’ in the New Testament—and that we therefore need to come up an additional theological framework to give it some importance. It’s odd, because it’s hard to think of many things more theologically important and significant in the Christian life than love of God and love of neighbour! 

So the implication of this definition is that Christians are constantly engaged in at least three kinds of work. One is working to meet the material needs of ourselves and of our family, whether we are paid for it or not. The second is we’re working to meet the material needs of others in the various ways that we’ve talked about, loving our neighbours through what we produce for them and how we contribute to them. And lastly, we’re also working to meet the spiritual needs of others, which is where gospel work comes in. It’s an instrumental activity to meet the need people have for the gospel. And so whether in a voluntary capacity or in a paid capacity, we’re all engaged in that work as well. 

So in thinking about how we’re all constantly engaged in different kinds of work like this, and we do all of them to the glory of God and love of neighbour, it gives us a better framework for tackling the other questions we have about work. 

But tackling those questions is for another episode of Two Ways News. In the meantime, we’d love to hear from our readers and listeners. What do you think of our definition of work, and of how that helps us to understand our spiritually and theologically? (Just post a comment or question in the comment section at the foot of the page.)

[1] Miroslav Volf, Work in the Spirit: Toward a Theology of Work (Oxford: OUP, 1991) 93-94.

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