Work and The Kingdom of God
This post is by Matt Perman (M.Div., The Southern Baptist Theological Seminary). Matt is a frequent speaker on the topics of leadership and productivity from a God-centered perspective. His recent book What’s Best Next examines how the gospel transforms the way we get things done.
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What does it mean to live as a follower of Christ in the workplace?
This is an important question, for many estimates tell us that approximately 97% of Christians are not in full-time ministry. Consequently, if we can’t answer this question, we are leaving a large section of life for the vast majority of Christians untouched by the gospel.
The first step in answering the question of how to live as a follower of Christ at work is becoming aware of the two chief errors we need to avoid. The first is the error of compartmentalization; the other is an error that I call “spiritual weirdness.”
The Error of Compartmentalization
On the one hand, some might say, “our faith has nothing to do with how we work – work and faith are totally distinct things, and faith is not to intrude into the workplace.”
This is the error of compartmentalization, and the gospel does not give us this option. As Paul Helm writes, echoing the teaching of the church from the Reformation through today, “work is part of a Christian’s calling” (Paul Helm, The Callings: The Gospel in the World). God’s commands apply to all of life, not just some of life. We are to do all that we do to the glory of God (1 Corinthians 10:31) and to do everything we do “in the name of the Lord Jesus” (Colossians 3:17).
As Christians, we are not to retreat from the world but rather are sent into it (Matthew 5:16; John 17:18). God wants us to be spreading his reign into every segment of society by, as Stephen Nichols has said in his excellent book Heaven on Earth, “living in this world from the perspective of the next.” By living according to God’s commands in our workplace, we give expression to our faith in the world and reflect the character of God – thus pointing people to him.
The Error of Spiritual Weirdness
Recognizing that we image God in our work, however, can easily lead to a misunderstanding. This is the second error we need to avoid, which I call the error of “spiritual weirdness.”
This is the error of thinking that you need to justify your job on the basis of its evangelistic usefulness. It is the error of thinking that work is only valuable as a means to evangelism or simply as a way of earning money to give to missions.
This view of work is both harmful to the individual holding it and, ironically, harmful to the cause of the gospel. In relation to the person holding this view, it can easily turn their work into drudgery. To think that our work is only a platform for the advance of the gospel easily makes the work itself seem meaningless and unfulfilling.
Further, this error easily results in “artificial” methods of evangelism that make the gospel look out of touch with real life. Such methods can range from trying to artificially insert Jesus into every sentence or calling attention to your faith through Christian “trinkets” you’ve put up in your cubicle.
Fortunately, the biblical view of work is much more comprehensive than this. It affirms that the workplace is indeed a platform through which the gospel is to spread. But it also affirms that work is meaningful in itself as well. All lawful work is good and right in itself, being justified on the basis of the creation mandate (Genesis 1:28; 9:1, 7) entirely apart from its evangelistic usefulness.
In other words, your work is both a means through which the gospel can spread and meaningful in itself, even apart from any evangelism that you do. It is important that your work be a witness to the character and greatness of God. But you don’t need to feel like a failure in your work if you aren’t sharing the gospel every day at lunch.
We’ve seen so far that we don’t need to justify marketplace work on the basis of its evangelistic usefulness. At the same time, we’ve seen that the Scriptures indeed have something to say about how to go about our work as Christians. What exactly is that? This takes us to a third path.
The Biblical Path: Love at Work
The biblical answer to the question of “what does it mean to be a Christian in the workplace” is this: Love your neighbor at work.
We often think of love as something that applies at church and at home. But at work? How can that be? It seems odd to say that love can have anything to do with our work.
But the teaching of the Scriptures is that love is to be the dominant characteristic of Christians in every area of life. And that includes our work. Paul tells us in 1 Corinthians: “let all that you do [not just some of what you do] be done in love” (1 Corinthians 16:14). And in Ephesians 6:7, speaking of the workplace for many in his day, Paul tells bondservants to do their work with all their hearts and “with a good will” toward their employers (Ephesians 6:7). To do your work “with a good will” is to do it with love, for a good will toward others (lived out in action) is the definition of love (cf. Philippians 1:15-16).
What, then, does it mean to let love be the dominant characteristic in our work? It’s very simple. It means that we should make the good of others the aim in all of our work.
In other words, we should do our work not only to make money, but also to serve people and bring them benefit. We should make excellent products not simply because excellent products sell better, but also because excellent products serve people better. We should do our work with diligence not simply because that is more likely to result in being promoted, but because diligence enables us to do more good for others.
This perspective transforms the way we go about all of our work. It infuses our work – even the most mundane tasks – with great meaning because it transforms our work into an avenue of service. And by doing our work as a service to others, we can also therefore do it as an offering to God in Christ (Ephesians 6:7). Which means that work can thus take on the ultimate significance – it can be done as an act of worship, acceptable to God in Christ (1 Peter 2:5).
What will the result be if we do our work in this way? That takes us back to how God’s kingdom advances. Excellent work done for the good of others lends credibility to our profession of faith (Titus 2:9-10). It is, in other words, a testimony to the truth of the gospel, analogous to how deed ministry confirms and adorns the gospel in our lives.
God will then be glorified in our work in two ways. First, he will be glorified because excellent work done out of love for others reflects his character and is good in itself. As we do our work from love, we do our work in accord with his commandments and thus extend the scope of his rule (his kingdom) in this world.
Second, he will be glorified because sometimes, as non-believers see that we do our work with excellence from a genuine heart of good will toward them and others, it will lend credibility to our profession of faith and lead them, sometimes, to ask about our faith (1 Peter 3:15). When that happens, if we are prepared to give an answer for the hope that is within us with gentleness and respect, the kingdom can advance in our workplace as people come to faith through our testimony to the gospel, backed up with the testimony of our lives through excellent work done for the good of others.