labour in the Lord?

I’ve been watching with interest the unfolding discussion around some of my posts about art. One of the crucial issues seems to be how to understand the New Testament teaching about the value of work and the relationship between Christian obedience and secular work.

Whatever we finally conclude about the meaning of verses like 1 Cor 15.58, we have to say that we — especially here in Sydney — have an image problem. We’re seen to devalue secular work by our strong emphasis on ‘labour in the Lord’, giving up careers etc to pursue full-time work that directly contributes to building Christ’s body — preaching, evangelism, teaching Sunday School, etc…

I’m not saying we actually devalue secular work. Only that that’s what we’re seen to do.

And so we need to hear Lesslie Newbigin’s warning (am I the last person in the world to discover Newbigin? I feel like he was saying stuff thirty years ago that I want to say today):

It must be confessed that in some of our thinking about the task of missions we have taken a wholly unbiblical view of the world. We have spoken as though the affairs of secular history concerned us only when they either assisted or impeded the work of the Church. We have often made it appear as though we believed God to be interested only in religious questions. Thereby we have repelled from the Gospel the artist and the scientist and the lover of men, because we appeared to be insensitive to the beauty, the truth and the goodness that they found everywhere about them; because it appeared that we tried to assert the uniqueness of Christ by denying the splendour of God’s work in creation and in the spirit of men. We have made it appear that we have regarded the man who gives himself to the service of God and men in politics or social service or research as having a less central part in God’s purpose than the man who gives full-time service to the Church. (Trinitarian Doctrine for Today’s Mission, p 27)

Ouch. Stings, doesn’t it?


  1. Mind you – it’s hard to argue with the Jesus who told his disciples to leave behind their jobs, mothers, fathers, dead relatives, take up their cross’ and follow him. The urgency and importance of gospel proclamation is so huge – it’s hard to see where “secular” work fits in.

    He didn’t exactly say “hey – your fishing is a central part of God’s purpose, so stick with it mate”.

    Surely there’s some sort of middle ground?

    I wonder if the answer lies in not defining us by what work we do, but how we can use the gifts God gave us to promote the gospel (in whatever situation we are in), and love our neighbour.


  2. Chris, unfortunately you’re probably not the last to discover Newbigin. His insight (often ahead of his time) and clarity of expression is a real pleasure to read.

  3. Newbigin has some helpful stuff to say, and some whacky stuff as well.

    It’s funny how not many people down this way haven’t heard of one of the most well known missiologists of the 20th century.

    The urgency and importance of gospel proclamation is so huge – it’s hard to see where “secular” work fits in. Mike – are suggesting that there should be no Christians in the “secular” work place what so ever – we should all go into full time vocational ministry?

  4. @Matthew – nope, in no way, shape or form. I wonder if the question needs to be how “secular” work fits into the urgency of Gospel proclamation.

    I put quote marks around secular, as I don’t believe “secular” work is actually secular. Is good, God given, and for the benefit of men & women who are created in God’s image. There is nothing secular about building up and serving our community.

    I don’t think there is a dichotomy between “secular” and “religious” work. It’s a false dichotomy. Both “secular” and “religious” work should be done for the benefit of our community (and by that, I mean the world – not Christian Community). However, we need to see how the gospel shapes our understanding of times we are in, and what aims we should have.

  5. @Ben – Newbigin was one of the first to talk about reevangelising the West. Having come back from decades on the field he was like the proverbial frog thrown into the now hot water that everyone else had got used to, and he had the eloquence to make his point. Someone to look at in your spare time after mission. 🙂

    @Mike – We need a secular-sacred distinction of some kind: secular simply means to do with this age, not the next, and doesn’t have to mean anti-religious. Furthermore, it is a feature of a lot of the theology coming from WCC (World Council of Churches) type sources that it blurs the boundaries of secular and sacred: special revelation in the bible and general revelation through culture have the same status, for example.

    But I agree it’s a false dichotomy, in that the two spheres don’t (always) need to be opposed. Part of the “image” problem perhaps comes from the fact that we use the extraordinary resources of our society (communications, transport, health, politics) to promote the gospel, then are heard talking about how it’s a waste of time. Secular and “evangelical” (connected with the gospel) must be distinguished, but can’t be separated in practice. The Christian on the garbage collection team cannot only have personal witness, but is helping people live longer—both those who will proclaim Christ and those who need to hear it before they die.

  6. @Mike – Thanks heaps for clarifying 🙂

    The danger can be that in rightly seeing the need and urgency for gospel proclamation, we reduce everyone who doesn’t get paid to do this a being sub-Christian. I’m not pointing fingers, but I’ve felt the expression of this at times in certain ‘Sydney Evangelical’ praxis.

  7. Yep – and the danger of downplaying it, is losing the urgency for gospel proclamation.

    Is there some way of holding them both, without the tension?


  8. Newbigin’s line: ‘a less central part in God’s purpose’ is a tad provocative. Perhaps Paul had a PR problem. I think he sets himself up as being a fairly central part of God’s purpose. (And his centrality has nothing to do with his tent-making). He says that he and Timothy are doing the ‘Lord’s work’ (1 Cor 16.10) , he says overseers are doing ‘God’s work’ (Titus 1.7). And all the while he wants to maintain some kind of distinction between those involved in ‘God’s work’ and exhorting other workers who serve God in their work (Col. 3.22-24).

    The issue I have with Newbigin’s quote is that he seems to automatically equate ‘centrality’ with an individuals value or worth (like Mike said). Do we really believe that in God’s dealings with humanity over history, since Christ, no one Christian has played a more central role in God’s purpose than another? Are we wrong to say that under God, Billy Graham or Martin Luther played a more central role than others in God’s work. Perhaps we shouldn’t say that. But no matter what side of the debate your on, everyone thinks that way. Whatever the case, the clear thrust of the NT is that an individual’s value or worth is not found in their work, but Christ’s work.

  9. Luke: Thank you, I think your point about God’s work is a useful corrective to the Newbigin quote. (I can’t speak to whether his wider argument needs the corrective — perhaps Chris or Andrew could say.) Paul, Timothy, Barnabas, a parish minister, an evangelist, and whoever else, are doing the “Lord’s work” in a way that I as a physicist am not, and this is an entirely straightforward way of speaking. This is basically Andrew’s point, that we need a sacred/secular distinction. I liked the caveat that we need a distinction “of some kind”: a lot may hang on the detail.

    But as to centrality versus value or worth, your criticism needs to be taken further. There is the worth or value of the individual, then there is the value and the dignity of the work, and then there is the question of right individual action, which is the business end as far as the Sydney tradition goes. These can’t always be separated, but they can be distinguished. So: our worth before God is established in Christ; there is a sense in which promising research into cancer treatment has greater value than mopping the hospital floor, but the latter (a) has its proper dignity, and (b) is necessary anyway; I also note (c) that one should not be hasty in coming up with a calculus on the value of work, and Paul (for example) has some things to say on this in the light of the gospel. And as to individual action: if someone with the gifts and opportunity to do important medical research, or to give some other special service, does something else unrelated, there is a question to be asked about the choice.

    But this is a particular, individual question, grounded in circumstances and gifts and relationships. It is very difficult to cast it sensibly in wholesale terms, and this is one of the things that is wrong with the recent (last few decades’) Sydney tradition of broad-spectrum pushing of people into ministry. This practice amounts to declaring war on the virtue of discernment.

    To Mike Doyle: Your appeal to Jesus’ call to the disciples goes one step further still, and is an illegitimate sleight of hand. All persons are called to faith in Christ; Peter and James and John et al were, further, specifically called to apostolic ministry by Jesus in his own person. For you to address the apostles’ call to an individual or a group here-and-now is to speak prophetically: to claim to have discerned a special and particular application in the Spirit. This is a very serious thing and cannot be justified by some supposed general argument.

    As for the suggestion that `the question needs to be how “secular” work fits into the urgency of Gospel proclamation’, this smuggles your preferred answer into the question. The New Testament does not speak this way, but rather takes for granted the variety of gifts; and James the Lord’s brother specifically charges that not many of his hearers should become teachers. We must all be ready to give an answer for the hope we profess; but where is a general call to “gospel proclamation” to be found in Scripture?

    None of these are new points: they have been made off-and-on for decades here. Chris is being too polite: the reason Sydney has a PR problem in this matter is that it has a reality problem, of which it needs to repent.

  10. Given that Christian ministry is obviously ‘working’ for the Lord’, what then do we do with Paul’s instructions to slaves in Colossians 3?

    Whatever you do, work heartily, as for the Lord and not for men, knowing that from the Lord you will receive the inheritance as your reward. You are serving the Lord Christ.

  11. @abuchanan thanks for your comments – very helpful. I think I was pushing against the false dichotomy. I agree there is some kind of distinction, but I also want to push that all people who are in Christ are involved in the “Lord’s Work”, in that they are part of his church, and a very important part of building up their brothers and sisters in Christ with the gifts God gave them, and seeing God glorified in the earth. How that looks for each person may be somewhat different. So I think we’re on the same page.

    @Bruce I’m with you that all people are called to faith in Christ. We are called to take up our cross and follow Christ. Everything in our lives must now be directed to serving him. That will look different for different people. Please forgive my clumsiness in making this point. Let me make it crystal clear – I’m not saying everyone should give up their job. I am saying (and in this I think we’re in agreement) that we all must use the gifts and opportunities God has given us to serve Christ and his mission.

  12. Thanks, Mike. I agree we’re on the same page re being part of God’s work in different ways, according to our gifting. In terms of the value of secular work as secular work, I don’t think the call to labour for the gospel has made redundant the creational command to take care of the earth. Hence the slave can serve Christ. I agree with the priority of the Lord’s work (God’s mission to unite all things under Christ), and see it as the reason why a gifted individual could responsibly give up a useful career to go into full-time ministry, whereas many other career changes would be irresponsible. But it’s the Lord who sends labourers into the harvest–yes, many people moved by the Spirit actually want to give up their careers for the particular blessings of serving God in full-time ministry. I guess the complaint is that some seem to wanting to help the Lord along, and the result can be people training who aren’t suitably gifted, or worse enter training for the wrong reasons.

  13. Hi Abuchanan – I’m with you all the way there. Certainly the call to labour for the gospel has not made redundant the command to take care of the earth (and each other). And yep – the wrong people shouldn’t be trained, or do it for the wrong reasons.


  14. Mike thank you for the clarification, but I don’t think forgiveness is necessary and nor do I think it’s a matter of clumsiness of expression. The stock vocabulary and habits of controversy in this town are the problem, or at least part of it. One can use the language without (as it were) intending to mean anything by it, but the language means what it means, and embodies intentions that you yourself may not have. People then respond to (and are offended by) the language, or we may be carried along by the language (and end up becoming offensive ourselves).

    The conflation of the general and specific aspects of Jesus’ call to the disciples, that I scolded you over, is stock: you picked it up off the shelf. My point isn’t that you shouldn’t have picked it up, but that it shouldn’t have been sitting on the shelf in the first place. Nor should the imperative to justify everything by its relation to mission. (I’ll leave to one side the even stronger language of “urgency”.)

    This sort of thing is emergency, prophetic talk, and there might once have been a point in the life of the church here when it was needed. But this is like noting that there can be a time when a friend needs to be told, “get over yourself”, or “wake up”, or “mate, I hate to see you like this”. When truly needed, and when said by someone with the right to say it, there are few greater services one can offer than to say this sort of thing. But someone who went around routinely talking like this would be presumptuous, absurd, and dangerous.

    At its worst, Sydney talk on secular professions can be like that, and the language has come to embody it. So the language should be, as they say, “retired”.

  15. I see the problem as multifaceted.
    First, the church has embraced the notion that She is it. She refuses to give credence to the sovereign spheres of the arts, the family , business and the state as co-equals under Christ’s Lordship. She either ignores them, or seeks to dominate them as branches of Her mission.

    Second, the church has embraced a wholly Hellenic ground-motive that was adopted by the Roman church and transformed into the nature-grace motive of the Middle Ages. It makes the distinction between so-called sacred and secular spheres of life that the Biblical ground motive of Creation-Fall-Redemption does not.

    Finally, the church confuses culture with society. This is a common mistake, but it has deepened the confusion regarding the total work of the Creator in His world. The church has attempted to be all things, but her role is limited according to the creational pattern of genus and kind.

    The church always fails when She attempts to take on jobs that are not Hers.

    There is no such thing as SECULAR. The only thing God has a problem with is sin. He made all things GOOD.

    In Christ,
    Chris Zodrow
    Art director, music programmer, drummer— soli Deo gloria

    1. Thanks Chris,

      Two things I’d love you to clarify:

      1. I’m not sure I know what you mean by ‘ground motive’; and

      2. How does your insistence that there’s no such thing as the secular square with allowing the arts, etc their own ‘sovereign spheres’? (My understanding, which may need correcting, is that secular doesn’t necessarily mean opposed to God (or disliked by him), but — especially when it comes to, e.g., legal matters — simply distinct from the ecclesiastical sphere: ie. secular courts who have jurisdiction where ecclesiastical courts don’t.)

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