Three questions to ask about Revolutionary Work

By Andrew Laird & Robert Martin

With years of experience ministering in the business district of London, it was perhaps only a matter of time before St Helen's Bishopsgate rector William Taylor joined the list of those publishing books about faith and work. Released this month, Revolutionary Work: What's the point of the 9 to 5? is based on a sermon series Taylor preached just 10 months earlier at St Helen's. It follows the standard pattern of exploring work in light of: Creation (chapter one, “What is the point of work?”); the Fall (chapter two, “What is the matter with work?”); and New Creation (chapter three, “Is there any hope for work?”) with an additional chapter “What is the work of God?” which explores questions around so-called secular work versus paid vocational Christian ministry.

Reading the book raised a few questions for both of us. So rather than a traditional book review, here are three questions we’d like to ask Taylor about Revolutionary Work:

 

1. Does work only have instrumental value?

We both found Taylor’s first chapter a helpful summary of some of the teaching in the opening chapters of Genesis about work. His language about the “dignity”, the “responsibility” and the “necessity” of work was all very helpful and memorable.

The opening chapter however raised questions for us regarding its emphasis. Much of what Taylor said about work related to its instrumental nature, that is, the way work is a means to some end, namely “We work to feed our face - it is as simple as that” (p. 22). There is no question that work has an instrumental nature; it produces things for us to use, or money for us to buy those things. It provides us with the means to “feed our face”. For the non-Christian there is often an emphasis on the instrumental nature of work in terms of the way it might be a means to an end of personal fulfilment, reputation and meaning. For the Christian, work takes on other instrumental features, a “spiritual instrumentality” you might say, meaning the way in which it produces opportunities for sharing faith with colleagues.

Yet such an emphasis on the instrumental nature of work can overlook other important aspects of our daily labour. In particular, the relational nature of work and the way it is one of God’s chief means of sustaining the social order. The way our work is a chief means of loving and serving others. This was a big concern for the Reformers, in particular Luther, who explained the way in which our daily labour is a means of God’s providence. Work is a means of loving others, and a conduit for God’s ongoing love, provision and care for the world (for example, of God’s providential work Psalm 104:13).

In his book Joined-Up Life Andrew Cameron comments on this overemphasis on the instrumental nature of work. “Modern people, Christians included, have become poor at articulating the primary outcomes of their work. When asked, ‘What’s your work for?’ most can offer its secondary outcomes of fulfilment, reputation and consumption. Few consider how their work related to created or social order” (p. 272). Cameron goes on to warn Christians not to fall into the trap that non-Christians do of focusing on the instrumental nature of work, even a Christianized version of it. “[Pastors] need to say much more about others’ work than that ‘it enables you to feed yourself and to support the work of God’, for that message would erroneously imply that consumption is the primary outcome of work” (p. 274, italics ours).

So our question for Taylor is, was this emphasis on the instrumental nature of work deliberate? Or would he want to also emphasise other important features of work?

2. What’s the place of the what?

Another emphasis in the book is on the how of work versus the what. Taylor repeatedly makes the point that what we do for work matters little; what really matters is how we do it. “[The Apostle] Paul has nothing to say about what particular job we do and everything to say about how we do it...There is nothing about using our God-given gifts to fulfil potential at work...What matters to God is not what we do but who we are in terms of our conduct in the workplace” (p. 66).

However is such an understanding an accurate reflection of the full sweep of Scripture? And in particular, what would such an emphasis do to our workplace witness (a key theme in the book)?

Say I take Taylor’s advice and decide what I do doesn’t really matter but just how I do it. I get a job as a mechanic. Now I have absolutely no mechanical expertise - I can’t tell the bonnet of a car from its boot. But when a customer leaves their car with me I’m polite and friendly, I am truthful about how much the repairs will cost and when it will be ready to be picked up. I don’t overcharge them, I’m fair in my dealings...but I have absolutely no skill in repairing cars. When they return to collect their car it is as bad, if not worse, than when they left it with me. This is not a good witness from the faithful Christian mechanic.

But say I want to be someone in my workplace who honours the King that I work for, being a faithful ambassador and witness to Him, all of which are good concerns that run throughout Taylor’s book. Then surely the what, not just the how also matters? Finding work that aligns with particular passions, skills and abilities God has given me could actually enhance my witness?

In the same vein Taylor writes that “all roles are of equal value” (p. 27). But what about the “value” of working as a parking attendant at a casino? Or the “value” of working as a scientist in a profession that pushes ethical boundaries. Without a robust exploration of the place of the “what” we’re left without resources to assess the frequent questions Christians ask about the values and ethics of their industry.

Hence our question for Taylor is, does what we do matter at all? Could aligning our work with our gifting enhance our witness?

3. Is Jesus just our new boss, or something more?

In chapter three Taylor considers the book of Ephesians and its contribution to our understanding of work post the Cross. In light of Ephesians 6:5-8 especially Taylor encourages us to see Jesus as our “new boss”. “Wherever the sovereign Lord has placed us, whether it be to work for Southwark Council, or the Department of Work and Pensions, or the Royal Bank of Scotland or even for ourselves, we must now grasp that we have a higher command...We work under the rule of King Jesus” (p. 59).

It’s of course a repeated teaching in the New Testament that for those in Christ Jesus is the one who they ultimately work for, the ultimate master that they serve (cf Colossians 3:22-25). However is the image of Jesus being our “new boss” the best one to capture our relationship with Christ?

The exhortations in Ephesians (which Taylor draws upon) are presented in a context where Paul has gone to great lengths to emphasise the new status and identity of believers; they are “light in the Lord” and encouraged to live as children of the light (5:8). As we read this section of Taylor’s book we couldn’t help but wonder about a potential danger of emphasising Jesus as simply our new boss. Does it undermine the place of the grace of God and potentially reinforce an idea that we are who we are through our obedience, rather than through the work of Christ? Indeed, is the concept of our identity being “in Christ” more wide-reaching, pervasive and motivational than simply recognising Jesus as my boss? These are questions we’d also like to ask Taylor.

 

There has been a renewed interest in the whole area of “faith and work” over the past decade, and clearly a spectrum of views on the topic. Our hope is that Taylor’s short and very accessible contribution to the area (and our questions of it) will only serve to keep the conversation going, as we seek to consider how best to equip Christians to live as faithful disciples and witnesses of Jesus, to the glory of God.