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The Plowboy, the Milkmaid, and the Priest

If you won the lottery tonight, would you show up at work tomorrow morning? A recent survey found only 36% would stay at their current job if they hit the jackpot. The other 64% would either retire or hope to find a lower-paying job they enjoy more. The poll results may not surprise you, but the implications are deeply troubling. This means the majority of Americans are not finding personal fulfillment in their careers as the “work to live” mentality dominates our culture. Christians should take a radically different approach to work than the poll results indicate. In “Why Work?” Dorothy Sayers says work should not be what we do to live, but what we live to do:
Work should not be looked upon—not as a drudgery to be undergone for the purpose of making money, but as a way of life in which the nature of man should find its proper exercise and delight and so fulfill itself to the glory of God… It is, or it should be, the full expression of the worker’s faculties, the thing in which he finds spiritual, mental, and bodily satisfaction, and the medium in which he offers himself to God.
Hugh Whelchel, executive director of the Institute for Faith, Work, & Economics, believes many Christians fail to find true fulfillment and satisfaction in their career because the church today has lost a biblical understanding of work as taught by the reformers. Martin Luther strongly believed that there is no such thing as “secular work,” meaning all believers are called to the priesthood. He saw little difference in the vocations of the plowboy, the milkmaid and the priest because he considered plowing and milking priestly work. In a recent webinar, Whelchel outlined five principles of the biblical doctrine of work. The first three include:
  1. The Four-Chapter Gospel: According the Whelchel, the church today has truncated the gospel to two “chapters,”—fall and redemption—we sinned and Christ redeems. But the full story of the gospel has four chapters: creation, fall, redemption and restoration. This has major implications for our work because it gives us an understanding that work was created good before the fall and points to the role of our work in restoring the kingdom of God.
  2. The Cultural Mandate: Genesis 1:28 says “God blessed the and said to them, ‘Be fruitful and increase in number; fill the earth and subdue it. Rule of the fish in the sea and the birds in the sky and over every living creature than moves on the ground.'” Each human being is called to fulfill the Cultural Mandate. That means we are to make something out of something: build bridges, compose music, harvest crops—what better way to do that than through our work?
  3. The “Already-Not Yet:” This is a term theologians use to describe the time in which we live as it pertains to the kingdom of God. Whelchel says we live between the chapters of redemption and restoration meaning the kingdom of God is already among us in many ways, but at the same time, it is not yet here. Therefore, the purpose of all work is to offer a foretaste of the kingdom.  You can see this even in the trash collector, for example, whose work symbolizes Christ in a very real way in disposing all of humanity’s garbage.
Evangelicals today tend to think work can only be “Christian” if we share Christ in the break room or insert a Bible verse in our email signature. But work for the Christian means much, much more. Luther says:
The Christian shoemaker does his Christian duty not by putting little crosses on the shoes, but by making good shoes, because God is interested in good craftsmanship.
When properly understood and lived out, Whelchel says our work will:
  • Provide personal satisfaction and significance
  • Further the kingdom
  • Serve the common good
  • Glorify God
Recapturing the biblical doctrine of work has huge implications for our economy. No longer will the Christian businessman be seen as second-class to the missionary in the church, but a true servant of the Lord. No longer will stewardship only refer to tithing, but to allocation of our unique gifts and scarce resources. Human flourishing will be brought about as our understanding of work is transformed. Recapturing the biblical doctrine of work means if you won the lottery, you would not want to spend the rest of your life playing golf or collecting seashells on the beach. You would want to work, because your work offers a foretaste of the kingdom on earth and has eternal significance. Whether it’s the work of a plowboy, a milkmaid or a priest—all work represents hope for the way things will be one day, and that is a witness.