A review of Every Good Endeavour by Timothy Keller and Work: A Kingdom Perspective on Labour by Ben Witherington III.
There is a significant movement underway in our Christian understanding of everyday work. Personally, I have been passionate about this for years. I have been frustrated with the dualism that operates in our churches, the way we talk about ministry and calling as things that only happen in a church or mission setting.
I have been frustrated with the lack of teaching and support I have received as a member of the congregation who works in a “secular” job; feeling like a second-class citizen. My concerns in the workplace were not prayed for, my new roles were not celebrated; there was no sending out, as there might have been for anyone doing “Christian” work.
In the end I have found it difficult to integrate my understanding of faith with my work.
I have been helped by Australian Robert Banks (God the Worker) and his Regent College Vancouver friend R Paul Stevens (The Other Six Days, Doing God’s Business), but there has been generally a lack of interest among students or academics in Australian Bible colleges to explore a theology of work.
However all that may change with the publishing of books by two significant evangelical authors: Timothy Keller, pastor of Redeemer Presbyterian Church, New York (The Reason for God, Counterfeit Gods) and Ben Witherington III, professor of New Testament at Asbury Theological Seminary (The Jesus Quest, The Gospel Code).
Both books affirm the place of all work, as something that is in the nature of God, who worked in creation, and set humans to work; as something cursed in the fall, making it difficult and frustrating; and something that will be done in the New Earth (Isaiah 65:17-25).
Witherington’s contribution is more of an academic work, carrying on a critical conversation with Miroslav Volf, David Jensen and Gene Veitch in particular. He examines the goodness of work, work as a vocation, avoiding being a workaholic or slothful, work as ministry, work as culture-making, and balancing work and rest.
Keller’s book is more accessible, full of stories from his congregation to illustrate his points. His major sections examine God’s plan for work, our problems with work, and the gospel and work.
A good example of the contrast between the books is their treatment of Martin Luther. The reformation helped to refocus attention on our everyday work, and use of our gifts, as expressions of our service to God. While Keller only quotes Luther to support his points, Witherington critiques Luther, pointing out some issues with his interpretation of key passages including 1 Corinthians 7:17 and staying in “one’s station of life”. Notwithstanding this, Luther remains an important voice in helping us understand our vocation as much wider than typically used in church circles.
The difference is because Witherington is a scholar, providing a critical examination of the issues, whereas Keller is a pastor, seeking to persuade by appealing to Bible and evidence.
This means that I may quote Witherington’s definition of work:
Any necessary and meaningful task that God calls and gifts you to do, and which can be undertaken to the glory of God and for edification and aid of others, being inspired by the Spirit and foreshadowing the realities of the new creation.
However, I will be more inspired in my working by Keller:
To be a Christian in business… means much more than just being honest or not sleeping with our coworkers. It even means more than personal evangelism or holding a Bible study at the office. Rather, it means thinking out the implications of the gospel worldview and God’s purposes for your whole work life – and for the whole of the organisation under your influence.
What is exciting is that Keller goes on to demonstrate how this gospel worldview transforms various occupations: journalism, higher education, the arts and medicine. This provides some principles for moving beyond using the gospel to “look at” work, but as a lens to “look through”.
In addressing my concern about integration, Keller provides an extremely helpful list of what he describes as the “most essential mind shifts that move a person toward a fuller application of the gospel in their work”:
The gospel changes everything (hearts, community, and world)
Costly grace (awareness of our sin)
Heaven is “up there”
Christ will come again to this earth
God is a value-add to us
In God’s providence, we can contribute to his ongoing work on earth
Idols of this world
Living for God
Disdain of this world
Engaged with this world
Institutions also matter
God can work through whomever he wants (common grace)
The result is that these books may unleash Christians who are much better prepared to work faithfully, and to make their faith work; and perhaps even workplaces transformed.