Following up on our post discussing cultural movements in the 17th-19th centuries that have shaped our view of work, let’s not fail to address Karl Marx.
While Marxism and capitalism (as discussed in the previous post) are regarded as opposites, both see the pursuit of a vocation as an end in itself. Both encourage workers to look for personal fulfillment through the labor of their own hands. Where once the medieval church threatened to divorce faith from work, work over the centuries has become an idol to which we look for our identity.
As my friend Steve Garber of The Washington Institute has often stated, what Karl Marx promised the alienated workers of mid-19th century England was that the work of their hands mattered to history. While he profoundly misread the human heart, he did speak to the deep human longing that we all hunger for our work to matter. The hammer and sickle, ordinary tools, represent the hope that what one does day after day will affect history and that the world will be different because of what we do.
Neither capitalism nor Marxism could deliver on the promise to bring significant meaning to our work.
Therefore, as a result of sociological changes and the theological shift brought about by the Second Great Awakening, by the end of the 19th century the Biblical doctrine of work was all but lost to the church.
It is said that history repeats itself because so many people do not pay attention the first time. That proves true in the area of integrating faith and work.
To summarize our series on the history of work, consider the following:
- Although the early Christian Church had a sound Biblical understanding of work, cracks began to form.
- Writers such as Augustine, influenced by Greek thought, began to say that Christians were to serve in the world when necessary.
- The distortion came to full bloom by the Middle Ages with the Catholic Church’s separation of faith and work.
- For a time, the Reformers brought back a Biblical understanding of calling and vocation.
- However, the concept was lost again during the Enlightenment and Industrial Revolution.
So where are we today? The church needs to embrace the truth and return to the Biblical doctrine of work. It is one of the most important gifts God has given us to influence the world and to find deep satisfaction in our lives here and now.
What does the worker gain from his toil? . . . I know that there is nothing better for men than to be happy and do good while they live. That everyone may eat and drink, and find satisfaction in all his toil—this is the gift of God (Ecclesiastes 3:9, 12-13).
Question: What is your current view of work and to which historical period or cultural movement does your view most closely align? Leave a comment here.
- Part 1: Two Historic Teachings of Work
- Part 2: The Early Christian View of Work
- Part 3: Is ‘Full-time’ Ministry Holier than My Job?
- Part 4: Do I Need to Quit my Job and Attend Seminary?
- Part 5: How the Protestant Work Ethic Has Affected Vocation
- Part 6: Three Cultural Movements that Changed the Meaning of Vocation
- Part 7: Marx and Our Longing for Work to Matter
About Hugh Whelchel
Hugh Whelchel is Executive Director of the Institute for Faith, Work & Economics and author of "How Then Should We Work?: Rediscovering the Biblical Doctrine of Work." Hugh has a Master of Arts in Religion and brings over 30 years of diverse business experience to his leadership at IFWE. Read More...
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