Lord’s Library contributor Jared Helms created this resource which evaluates important Christian work ethic Bible verses for your edification. Check out Jared’s YouTube channel and two blogs: A Light in the Darkness and Blind Faith Examples.
Colossians 3:23: “And whatsoever ye do, do it heartily, as to the Lord, and not unto men;”
The Christian work ethic, or more precisely the Protestant work ethic, played a critical role in the development of Western Civilization. It formed the backbone of a dynamic economy that drove expansion and innovation. Sadly, the ethic eroded over time, and today is little more than fodder for academic speculation. The reformers brought their Bibles to work, and so did their successors the puritans, seeking to bring the wisdom of Scripture to bear on their jobs. Today we often leave the Bibles at home and abide by the laws of the workplace as set forward by someone other than God Himself.
Is it any wonder that our work seems futile, unsatisfactory, and toilsome? We think not.
Recovering the Christian work ethic requires us to bring our Bibles back to our places of business, to read and apply what God says about work. This article aims to help us do just that by examining key passages from the word of God concerning our employment. We hope this will serve as a good introduction, and point the way forward toward a more rewarding and God-honoring view of labor.
Christian Work Ethic Bible Verses
Before we go any further, we need to know what is meant by “work ethic.” The common definition is given by the Cambridge Dictionary as “The belief that work is morally good.” However, when speaking of the Protestant work ethic we are speaking not of a singular belief, or monolithic idea; but rather of an ethical system of beliefs about work. Perhaps the more accurate title for what we will discuss is the Christian ethic of work.
Now, the Bible’s teaching about work is fairly simple, and in many ways could be derived from a handful of verses. It is at the point of application where things can become complex, and difficult for us. Understanding why and how our jobs became complicated and difficult is critical to understanding and appreciating the Christian ethic of work; so, why don’t we begin our discussion with a brief history of the creation and fall of work straight from God’s Holy Word.
The Problem with Work
The first work was undertaken by God Himself Genesis 1:1: “In the beginning God created the heaven and the earth.” Consequently work is an unavoidable part of human existence from the very beginning. After creating Adam, God immediately gives him a job as we see in Genesis 1:28: “And God blessed them, and God said unto them, Be fruitful, and multiply, and replenish the earth, and subdue it: and have dominion over the fish of the sea, and over the fowl of the air, and over every living thing that moveth upon the earth.”
Indeed man was made to work. From this, we know that there is goodness in work. It was part of the very good creation before sin entered the world. Unfortunately, the fall introduced toil and hardships to work making it less rewarding and more frustrating as seen in Genesis 3:17-19: “And unto Adam he said, Because thou hast hearkened unto the voice of thy wife, and hast eaten of the tree, of which I commanded thee, saying, Thou shalt not eat of it: cursed is the ground for thy sake; in sorrow shalt thou eat of it all the days of thy life; Thorns also and thistles shall it bring forth to thee; and thou shalt eat the herb of the field; In the sweat of thy face shalt thou eat bread, till thou return unto the ground; for out of it wast thou taken: for dust thou art, and unto dust shalt thou return.”
As thrones and thistles sprouted so too did corruption within man’s heart; sloth, jealousy, and more tempted men to cut corners, cheat, steal, and worse.
So, work itself is broken, and workers are broken as well. There is no escaping the effects of the fall on the job: by design. There is no perfect career out there, nor a perfect boss, or perfect co-workers. Perhaps the New Covenant realized by Christ negates our need to work?
See 2 Thessalonians 3:10: “For even when we were with you, this we commanded you, that if any would not work, neither should he eat.”
The toilsomeness of work pushes us to seek rest. The Thessalonians believing Christ’s second coming was very early upon them left their jobs, and focused their energy on spiritual pursuits. Throughout the centuries many believers caught up in religious fervor have followed the Thessalonians’ example. Many others have simply used their faith as an excuse for avoiding real work. Paul wasn’t having it, and under the inspiration of the Holy Spirit makes work a necessary part of life regardless of the closeness of Christ’s return. Reading the prescription God gave Israel for working it is clear that work is indeed a requirement. The need to work persists even under the Covenant of Grace.
It is also wrong to think that work, be it ever so secular, is somehow separate from the practice of the Christian faith. The only work that is inherently anti-Christian, and so to be avoided are the many works of sin. Aside from such works, we must understand that all of our work is to be part of our worship.
There is some “work” which cannot be done worshipfully and so is unfit for any Christian to be involved with. Ephesians 4:28 explicitly names thieving as one such occupation, and to this might add anything dishonest, sexual exploitations, or any other occupation which violates God’s commandments.
- Ephesians 4:28: “Let him that stole steal no more: but rather let him labour, working with his hands the thing which is good, that he may have to give to him that needeth.”
Leviticus 19:11,13, and 35, along with other verses about honesty ought to make us examine our practices carefully: especially in areas of sales, marketing, promotion, and all sort of reporting.
- Leviticus 19:11: “Ye shall not steal, neither deal falsely, neither lie one to another.”
- Leviticus 19:13: “Thou shalt not defraud thy neighbour, neither rob him: the wages of him that is hired shall not abide with thee all night until the morning.”
- Leviticus 19:35: “Ye shall do no unrighteousness in judgment, in meteyard, in weight, or in measure.”
And here is the intersection of realities that necessitated the Christian work ethic. We must work in a fallen world, and we must work as redeemed people. In charting the course to living in these realities we also find the only true and reliable means of redeeming work: that is maximizing its goodness.
The Prime Directive
We have laid-out Colossians 3:23 as the very first words of this article, and with good reason. This particular precept forms the foundation of the Christian understanding and approach to work, the prime directive if you will. All work, and everything else for that matter, is done for God. See Colossians 3:17: “And whatsoever ye do in word or deed, do all in the name of the Lord Jesus, giving thanks to God and the Father by him.”
The most basic implication here is that we must do our very best work at all times regardless of the circumstances. That was very easy to type, but not at all easy to act on. It is hard to be a good theologian in the middle of a hectic workday, but without God, that workday becomes much harder and much less rewarding.
Think of it this way, your manager might never see what you actually accomplish throughout the day, but God sees all of it. Proverbs 16:3 says: “Commit thy works unto the LORD, and thy thoughts shall be established.” We trust God with our work the way we trust him in all else.
Now, as we acknowledge God’s total observation of our daily work we might ask if He really cares how it is done. The answer is a resounding yes and amen! Colossians 3:23 makes it plain enough that work is to be a form of worship for all true believers. Therefore, sloppy work dishonors God directly.
- Colossians 3:23: “And whatsoever ye do, do it heartily, as to the Lord, and not unto men;”
The Golden Rule at Work
Remember also that God commands us in Mark 12:31 to love our neighbors as ourselves: “And the second is like, namely this, Thou shalt love thy neighbour as thyself. There is none other commandment greater than these.” Editor’s note: See also Matthew 7:12: “Therefore all things whatsoever ye would that men should do to you, do ye even so to them: for this is the law and the prophets.”
Our customers, co-workers, and managers are all our neighbors (whether we interact with them directly or not). Our work affects these neighbors, and so we must do our best. The famous command to, “do onto others…” reinforces this notion.
Part of our motivation for working and earning is to be able to give to others as the Bible commands in Ephesians 4:28: “Let him that stole steal no more: but rather let him labour, working with his hands the thing which is good, that he may have to give to him that needeth.” Most especially we want to be able to show generosity and care for our families, see 1 Timothy 5:8: “But if any provide not for his own, and specially for those of his own house, he hath denied the faith, and is worse than an infidel.”
Both our work itself, and the fruits of our labors our means to a God-glorifying, gospel-demonstrating, and edifying end.
Who We are at Work
But it is not simply that we must work to glorify God and show love to our neighbors, our work reflects on our own identity as well. If you are to love your neighbor as yourself you must love yourself. This does not mean self-indulgence, but rather self-respect, self-discipline, and the seeking of the greater good: which is very different from the immediately satisfying. Loving ourselves truly involves denying ourselves the vice of sloth for we know from Proverbs that sloth will ruin us.
As we are now motivated to work as onto the Lord, we need to take a closer look at precisely what this looks like. These four key principles I want to point out:
Christian Work is of the Highest Quality
Take a look at the instructions for the Tabernacle, or temple in the Old Testament and you will see that God appreciates quality workmanship. We should always be doing our very best, and striving to make our best even better. Of course, we all have limitations that we have to accept. We are not perfectionists, just diligent. Proverbs 18:9 puts it this way: “He also that is slothful in his work is brother to him that is a great waster.”
Christians are Responsible Workers
We show up on time, and if we cannot we let the proper people know. We take care of work-space, follow safety guidelines, etc. Proverbs 13:4, 14:23, and Colossians 3:22-23 compel us to diligence. Moreover, we care about others, and we want them to know the care of Christ through us.
- Proverbs 13:4: “The soul of the sluggard desireth, and hath nothing: but the soul of the diligent shall be made fat.”
- Proverbs 14:23: “In all labour there is profit: but the talk of the lips tendeth only to penury.”
- Colossians 3:22-23: “Servants, obey in all things your masters according to the flesh; not with eyeservice, as menpleasers; but in singleness of heart, fearing God: And whatsoever ye do, do it heartily, as to the Lord, and not unto men;”
Christian Workers Do Not Complain
This is one of the more difficult requirements of Scripture for as we well know there appears to be much to complain about. Yet, if our eyes are fixed upon Christ all of these things take on a new aspect and our reason for complaint vanishes amidst the abounding grace of our Lord. See Philippians 2:14: “Do all things without murmurings and disputing:”
Christians Treat Others Fairly at Work
This is true whether we are a janitor or a CEO. See Ephesians 6:5-9 and Colossians 3:22-4:1:
- Ephesians 6:5-9: “Servants, be obedient to them that are your masters according to the flesh, with fear and trembling, in singleness of your heart, as unto Christ; Not with eyeservice, as menpleasers; but as the servants of Christ, doing the will of God from the heart; With good will doing service, as to the Lord, and not to men: Knowing that whatsoever good thing any man doeth, the same shall he receive of the Lord, whether he be bond or free. And, ye masters, do the same things unto them, forbearing threatening: knowing that your Master also is in heaven; neither is there respect of persons with him.”
- Colossians 3:22-4:1: “Servants, obey in all things your masters according to the flesh; not with eyeservice, as menpleasers; but in singleness of heart, fearing God: And whatsoever ye do, do it heartily, as to the Lord, and not unto men; Knowing that of the Lord ye shall receive the reward of the inheritance: for ye serve the Lord Christ. But he that doeth wrong shall receive for the wrong which he hath done: and there is no respect of persons. Masters, give unto your servants that which is just and equal; knowing that ye also have a Master in heaven.”
The Bottom Line?
Money according to Bible is not an end in and of itself, but rather a means to a far greater end. Paul tells us that the love of money is the root of all kinds of evil in 1 Timothy 6:10: “For the love of money is the root of all evil: which while some coveted after, they have erred from the faith, and pierced themselves through with many sorrows.” That is when we are after money for its own sake when accumulating riches is our ultimate goal, when we worship the dollar we will find ourselves embroiled in evil practices.
In all that we have discussed the main point has been that making money isn’t really the main point. God’s Word reorients business to be about more than the financial bottom line. Yes, we still need to make money, but our greater goal is to demonstrate a robust love of God and our neighbors and to respect ourselves as children of God. Yes, we need to make money, but the greater need is to witness the Gospel of Jesus Christ through our work activities. The higher priorities will shift our behaviors in ways that are foolish to a world obsessed with increasing profit.
What we are getting at is this, when you put Romans 12:2 to work at work it changes everything for everyone: “And be not conformed to this world: but be ye transformed by the renewing of your mind, that ye may prove what is that good, and acceptable, and perfect, will of God.”
Books could be written about what that change would look like, and the pictures would be enticing to say the least. However, none of it can be realized without surrendering our jobs to God.
It hardly seems right to offer a conclusion here so instead we wish to extend an invitation to come further up and further in. The topic of work and its ethics is something to be pursued over a lifetime. After all, we are placed on this Earth to do good works according to Ephesians 2:10: “For we are his workmanship, created in Christ Jesus unto good works, which God hath before ordained that we should walk in them.”
Our hope is that eyes have been opened and appetites wetted by this humble introduction. If this is the case dear reader let us point you toward some resources for further reading.
The topic of work is treated heavily through the Book of Proverbs, we have cited some examples, but there is more wisdom to be had in a full reading. Ecclesiastes also takes up the topic of work treating its failures as an object of worship and salvific hope; as well as its goodness when undertaking in the proper God-honoring context. Instruction on work relations can be found in Ephesians 6, and Colossians 3, with the book of Philemon also helpful. Leviticus chapter 25 deals with God’s prescription for Israel regarding work and rest.
Augustine famously addresses the Christian work ethic in his magnum opus The City of God and elsewhere. Likewise, Martin Luther, John Calvin, and others have dealt with work from a Biblical worldview. Luther’s contributions have been particularly influential. A couple more modern offerings on the topic of work include Wayne Grudem’s, Business for the Glory of God and Gilbert’s The Gospel at Work.
We also recommend Os Guinness’ work on the related concept of vocation or calling simply titled The Call: Finding and Fulfilling the Central Purpose of Your Life.
As we leave this brief discussion, I pray the words of Psalm 90:17 over us: “And let the beauty of the LORD our God be upon us: and establish thou the work of our hands upon us; yea, the work of our hands establish thou it.” Let the favor of the Lord our God be upon us, and establish the work of our hands upon us; yes, establish the work of our hands!
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