Our Deeply Flawed View of Work

Manuscript of Speech: 3rd Annual Marketplace Ministries Dinner Banquet

I have heard it said in my life on more than one occasion that God sent his Son to save souls, and indeed, for evangelicals, that is certainly true. However, for the professing believer who talks of a deep concern for individual souls, tonight’s message will either be a gigantic disappointment, or it may be a true experience of edification. For while all Christian men and women ought to be interested in the salvation of individual souls – God is in the redemption business – I will contend tonight that, as Leslie Newbigin masterfully argues in his gem, Foolishness to the Greeks, the souls of individuals have been spiritually ravaged as a result of our complete surrender of the key institutions and spheres in our society. Newbigin wrote this a generation ago in reference to the inexplicable surrender of modern science, and advanced analytical philosophy, to rank secular humanists. His argument was that in a short-term effort to prioritize souls over spheres; people over institutions; we actually lost both. My belief is that where Newbigin was astutely right decades ago, today’s sphere of surrender from the covenant community of God has taken place in the marketplace.

I do not just mean the marketplace of ideas, for one could argue we began surrendering elite academic superiority over a century ago. I do not mean merely the creative marketplace either, where certainly the fields of the fine arts, visual arts, music, and, in particular, film and cinema, have long ago been monopolized by those hostile to a worldview of faith and values. No, I actually mean the very specific marketplace of commerce as well – the sphere of society in which business is conducted. And I would like to make the case to you tonight that the damage being done as a result of lacking elite Christian people in the business marketplace is catastrophic, even if you hold to the limited notion that only souls are in the mind and heart of God. But God is not only in the redemption business. As my friend, Howard Ahmanson, is fond of saying, “God is in the universe business”, and the theological, philosophical, ideological, and practical reasons that we resist entering the universe business ourselves, are ripping Christian people out of the public square, and further solidifying our place at the bottom of the totem pole in contemporary affairs.

Newt Gingrich recently shared at an event I attended with him in Washington DC that leftist secularists have held the elite positions in society for so long (referring to higher education, Wall Street, Hollywood, and much of the fine art community), that those representing Christian values have become a complete after-thought. I want to cower in pessimism and desperation upon hearing this, but I read the Scripture, and I know there is hope. And I will suggest tonight, my friends, that perhaps one of the most easily re-obtainable spheres that those in the Christian community may re-assert dominion and influence in, will be the business marketplace. There are intimidating obstacles to overcome, yes, but the opportunity is there. I will briefly elaborate.

Historians refer to William Sherman of American Civil War fame as the man who said, “War is Hell”, and then went on to prove it. The Christian community has been taught that work is a curse, and they seem to go on in proving so! The Genesis 3 passages laying out the curses to God’s fallen creation may even add some prima facie support for such a notion. But there is a problem with this exegesis. I would propose to you that if Genesis 3 says work is a curse to men, then it also says that children are a curse to women. And because the Bible calls children a blessing from the Lord, countless times, we ought not adopt such an absurd interpretation. Indeed, the pains of childbirth are a curse, just as the thorns, field, and ground are to men, but the work itself is no more a curse in this foundational passage, than children themselves are. We learn a lot from Genesis 3, and the following covenant passages that document God’s interaction with Adam, then Noah, then Abraham, then Isaac, then Jacob, and all the way through to Moses, and David, and of course ultimately, his son Jesus Christ. And what we see in the Bible is that post-fall life is the life of a covenant community, and that community exists in the marketplace, and that marketplace provides a forum for our dreams and passions. We must overcome the fallacy that says work itself is a curse, and we must further overcome the disastrous thinking that has said, “work is secular”. Ken Gentry’s, “The Greatness of the Great Commission”, and Abraham Kuyper’s “Total World and Life System of Christianity” are key reads in this regard. There is no shortage of material available laying out the crystal clear case that a “sacred-secular” distinction must be obliterated. We are not separatists, or at least we ought not be separatists. Our Scriptures tell us to have dominion over the creation, and to make disciples of all the nations. Our theology tells us that He desires our efforts in all aspects of creation. The workplace is the optimal forum to serve our fellow man, to be an example of the virtue of Christ, to run the race Paul refers to in I Corinthians to win, and to carry on the affairs of post-fall society with meaning and dignity and excellence.

A society that features Christian people in elite executive positions throughout society will inevitably be one that features Christian influence and dominion from the top-down. A business marketplace that features Christian people in the majority of middle management positions will certainly be one that highlights the virtue we hold dear. Matthew 5 refers to this as letting our light shine before men. You see, society at large will mostly not see the various private acts of piety we commit in our personal lives. But what more public declaration of our commitment to excellence is there, than that which is held out for an office full of people, or a warehouse full of people, or a community of people to see – our successes in the business marketplace. The Christian community has been deceivingly told that business successes are not to be aspired towards, despite nearly an entire book of Proverbs saying otherwise. We are asked to prioritize family over work, or church over work, when the text of Scripture continually pleas for a balanced life, one that does not pit these things against each other. So it always is – the guilt manipulation from society (and particularly from Christians in society), whenever anyone works late to succeed in a project, or sacrifices a family obligation to meet a business one. We throw the term “workaholic” around like it is a disease one can catch in the high wind. But I ask you, if the goal of a Christian life is balance, as Bridges, and Grant, and Mouw, and Edwards have written (The Micah Mandate by George Grant is highly recommended here), when is the last time you heard a Christian chastised for sacrificing time in the office, to be at a soccer game? Of course, I am not advocating the prioritization of the former over the latter, but I am suggesting that we have become obsessively guilty of the opposite. Balance is not the theme the church teaches; rather a clear pecking order is taught that puts the cultural and financial and meaningful aspirations in the marketplace at the bottom of the barrel. This ought not be so.

The function of work and the marketplace is not to replace Eden, and we must be diligent to remember this, but it is to create a life of meaning, beauty, dignity, and fulfillment along the way. The road from Eden to Heaven has been, and will continue to be, a tumultuous one. It ought not be an ignored one.

My objective is not to clear up all ambiguities on this subject, or to answer all questions, but rather to drive all of you in the audience to embark on your own journey to address and answer these issues.