by J. Randal Matheny
We continue to treat the questions of a popular compendium of a catechism. Question no. 415, “Right to Work,” asks, “To what type of work does every person have a right?”
The question presupposes a limited view of work as a right which must be guaranteed by governments, religions and world organizations. It assumes that a worker must be cared for and provided with opportunities. It implicitly denigrates a market economy and encourages a dependence upon others (especially powerful groups) which is contrary to the economic self-sufficiency put forward by Scripture. The question also suggests subtly that work and jobs are a limited quantity and thereby undercuts the entrepreneurial spirit.
As a fallen creature, man was cursed with greater effort and lesser success in his work (Genesis 3:17-19), but from the beginning work was considered a worthy activity of man, since his was the task in Eden “to care for it and to maintain it” (Genesis 2:15), literally, “to work it and to keep it.” The God who works, creating (Genesis 2:2; Ephesians 2:10) and maintaining his creation, clearly made work an integral part of the dignity of human existence.
As Paul expressed it, “The one who steals must steal no longer; rather he must labor, doing good with his own hands, so that he may have something to share with the one who has need” (Ephesians 4:28).
1. Honest work.
Honest work is that by which the worker is able to maintain his ethical integrity and contribute to society’s good. It includes not only activity that is legal according to law (not criminal), but morally good. It is certainly outside the Christian’s sphere of consideration to peddle drugs, promote prostitution or work in the gambling or liquor industries.
Hence, John spelled out what repentance for notoriously crooked tax collectors meant: “Collect no more than you are required to” (Luke 3:13). And soldiers were told, “Take money from no one by violence or by false accusation, and be content with your pay” (v. 14). John’s requirements meant working in an honest manner.
Honest work also involves proper observance of a country’s laws. An illegal alien cannot under any circumstance do honest work because of his status. Some countries also create an overwhelming bureaucracy, making it impossible in practical terms to obey every governmental ruling. In this, governments have the responsibility to reward those who do good (Romans 13:1-7), including the honest worker, but in Scripture the onus for one’s relation to government lies upon the Christian worker and not upon the government. Again, from this standpoint, the question above, rather than referring to rights, would have been better expressed as the responsibilities of work.
Work must be done for a higher supervisor than the one who oversees the job (Ephesians 6:5-7). The first-century slave’s motivation must also be that of the twenty-first century employee. All work is done for God and not merely to please others or to gain promotions or raises. The key to working with enthusiasm is doing it for the Lord’s sake, with an eye to the reward which he gives (Colossians 3.22-25).
2. Honorable work.
To the Thessalonian Christians, among whom some refused to work, Paul instructed them “to aspire to lead a quiet life, to attend to your own business, and to work with your own hands, as we commanded you. In this way you will live a decent life before outsiders and not be in need” (1 Thessalonians 4:12).
When Paul urges them to work with their own hands, he is not commanding that they all become manual laborers, but to be responsible for providing for their own needs, as v. 12 indicates. As in some societies today, work was not a social value. But it is a Christian value, for Jesus himself was a carpenter before he began full-time ministry supported by others (Mark 6:3; Luke 8:1-4). By the lack of mention of Joseph during Jesus’ adulthood, it is widely assumed that he by this time was dead, so as oldest son, Jesus would have been responsible for not only himself but for the sustenance of his mother’s house.
In the midst of describing the marvelous creation of God, the psalmist praises the Lord by mentioning his care of men. “Men then go out to do their work, labor away until evening” (Psalm 104:23). This regular discipline to provide for one’s own needs is such a serious matter in the church so as to constitute an issue of exclusion (2 Thessalonians 3:6-15). Help for the poor is a Christian principle, but not for the lazy.
While Scripture praises hard work (Proverbs 14:23) and skill in work (Proverbs 22:29), ultimately, it is the Lord who makes one’s work prosper (Psalm 127:1), as he did Joseph’s (Genesis 39:2-6; 21-23; 41:37-45). Neither should work cause one to miss opportunities to serve the Lord (Luke 10:40; John 6:27).
3. Helpful work.
Work is often presented in Scripture as one’s opportunity to help the less fortunate (Ephesians 4:28). This voluntary sharing is especially evident in the church (Acts 2:44-46; 4:32-37; 20:33-35; Romans 15:25-29; 2 Corinthians 8:1-15ff; James 2:15-16; 1 John 3:16-18).
Doing good to all people, “and especially to those who belong to the family of faith” (Galatians 6:10), includes financial support of those who teach in the church (v. 6). Only here does Scripture speak of rights in regard to work; in this context, however, of the right not to work, but as a servant of God to be supported by the church (1 Corinthians 9:4-15; also 2 Thessalonians 3:9; 1 Timothy 5:17-18).
As long as a Christian may do honest, honorable and helpful work, there is no single type of work that is to be preferred above others. Individual talents, preferences and opportunities will all influence a person’s choice, as well as social, national and international conditions.
Wives and mothers should consider their first responsibility to be “workers at home” (Titus 2:4-5 NASV). Any work that hinders her “fulfilling her duties at home” (NET) would not be approved of God.
Work, then, is another blessing from God which allows the worker to bless others and by his work to glorify the one who works still, and whose “work is perfect” (1 Peter 3:9; John 5:17; Deuteronomy 32:4).
The editor answers a question about work, from the compendium of a popular catechism.