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Part 2 in a series on Work and the Church Today

Two Ways Our Views of Vocation Are Distorted

We are confronted with a wall between personal faith and public work, here at the beginning of the 21st century. The wall has been raised by two distortions of the purpose of our work. Os Guinness in his book The Call: Finding and Fulfilling the Central Purpose of Your Life, describes them as the two grand distortions.

  1. The “Catholic Distortion” which elevates the spiritual at the expense of the secular.
  2. The “Protestant Distortion” which elevates the secular at the expense of the sacred.

Our question from our previous post, “Did you hear Joe Smith has left his job at the bank to go into full-time Christian service as a pastor?” would be an example of the Catholic Distortion, which devalues vocational work in the eyes of God. This misapplies the apostle Paul’s references to his work of tent-making (Acts 18:1-3).

Years ago I often (mistakenly) said, “I see my job as tent-making, it provides for my family, but what I do that’s really important to God is my work as a lay leader in the church and my charitable work with other non-profit organizations.” As we have seen, Paul would have held a firmly Jewish outlook on his vocational work. He would have seen it not as a means to an end, but as important to God in its own right.

In contrast to the Catholic Distortion, the Protestant Distortion of work is a form of dualism. It does not elevate the secular at the expense of the spiritual; rather it severs the secular from the spiritual altogether. It turns work, a good thing, into an idol, an ultimate thing. Pastor Tim Keller defines an idol as “anything more important to you than God, anything that absorbs your heart and imagination more than God, anything you seek to give you what only God can give.” Keller goes on to write in his book, Counterfeit Gods:

We know that a good thing has become a counterfeit god when its demands on you exceed proper boundaries. Making an idol out of work may mean that you work until you ruin your health or you break the laws in order to get ahead. . . . Idolatry is not just a failure to obey God, it is a setting of the whole heart on something beside God.

In our contemporary society, we define ourselves by career. When we are introduced to someone, what is one of the first things we ask? “What do you do?” We mean, “What is your job?”  Even most Christians find their identities in their vocational pursuits. Our work no longer serves God; instead, it serves ourselves. President of the Graduate Theological Union, J. A. Donahue writes in a journal article, “As a secular perversion of calling, careerism invites people to seek financial success, security, access to power and privilege, and the guarantee of leisure, satisfaction and prestige.”

It should be noted that the “Catholic” and “Protestant” distinctions refer to their philosophical histories, but are not limited to those traditions. Any Christian is susceptible to these distortions. To avoid both the Catholic Distortion and the Protestant Distortion requires a successful integration of faith and work. Evangelical Christians fall far short in that area.

Yet there is hope. Many Christians today earnestly desire a deeper, more integrated approach to serving God in their work. They are looking for an approach that takes into account the Christian as a whole person, not a life compartmentalized and divided by conflicting demands of different roles. They want to be men and women who serve God with heart, soul, and mind in every sphere of life, as husband or wife, parent, church member, employer, or employee.

Many Christians today continue to struggle with understanding how to integrate a holistic understanding of work into their daily lives. In order to move away from these two distortions and begin to see work in the proper perspective, we must first understand the difference between calling and work. We will discuss this difference in our next post in this series.

Question: Have you noticed either of these distortions about work in your thinking or in your conversations? Leave a comment here.

Hugh Whelchel

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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    “They are looking for an approach that takes into account the Christian as a whole person, not a life compartmentalized and divided by conflicting demands of different roles.” – sounds like an aspect of seeking shalom.