For whatever reason, I only knew vaguely about Mike Rowe, the host of several television shows, but I ran across his video and audio podcasts online and it has been enlightening. Rowe, an opera singer and actor, among other things, is a big fan of blue-collar work. He has a foundation dedicated to helping people get to work. I mention Rowe because yesterday, on the way home from the office, I heard a local talk show host (Mike Slater) reciting joblessness statistics and discussing Gov. Brown’s proposed “guaranteed annual income” of $30,000. I do not find anything about a California proposal but it is an idea that is being mooted in Switzerland and Canada. As Slater explained it this guarantee would apply even to those who are able-bodied but unwilling to work. If true, we should object on several grounds but let us focus here on the morality and inherent goodness of work.
I admit that I am biased toward work and that I am a product of my generation. My parents and grandparents lived through the Great Depression. As a their child and grandchild, their experience was mediated to me. Further, since I was born and raised on the Great Plains, where work is both necessary and highly valued, I grew up assuming the value of work. I started working throwing papers for the Omaha World Herald in sixth grade. Before that I sold seeds and TV Guide subscriptions door-to-door. At 14 I washed dishes at Sunnybrook Restaurant, in Lincoln. In high school I was a lifeguard, taught swimming, and (for two days) delivered flowers after school. Through college I worked full-time some years and two part-time jobs.
I understand that the American economy is changing quickly but this is why I appreciate Rowe. There will always been a need for plumbers, carpenters, painters, electricians, HVAC, and other tradesmen. These are good and important jobs that tend to be wrongly denigrated in our shift to a high-tech (STEM) economy. Computer programmers need food, electricity (!), and toilets.
I am not an economist so I do not know what to make of the various claims about the future of manufacturing jobs in the USA. I will leave that to others and I sympathize with those Millennials who have come of age during the Obama economy. It might be tempting for them to think that unemployment (ignore the U3 figure the Bureau of Labor Statistics U6 number is much more reflective of reality) has always been this high and that the economy has always been stagnant. It has not. It need not be. We may hope that things will improve in future.
More importantly, being in favor of work is not merely a cultural or generational bias. Work is a creational good. The first time the noun for “work” (מלאכה) appears in Scripture it is ascribed to Yahweh Elohim in Genesis 2:2: “And on the seventh day God finished his work that he had done” (Gen 2:2). The first time rest (שׁבת) appears in Scripture it is attributed to Yahweh Elohim. Of course, both of these are figures of speech. The God who spoke into all things neither literally rests nor works. We learn in Exodus 20:8 that Scripture speaks this way to establish a creational pattern for us, his image bearers.
As part of the creational pattern, God instituted work for us, his image bearers, to do. “Yahweh Elohim took the man and put him in the garden of Eden to work it (עבד) and keep it” (Gen 2:15). This was before the fall. Sometimes this command has been called the “cultural mandate.” Regardless of whether “cultural mandate” is the perfect way to characterize this command what we must not miss is that work was instituted by God, for humans, before sin corrupted us or affected the world around us (Gen 3:17–19). Calvin explained:
Whence it follows, that men were created to employ themselves in some work, and not to lie down in inactivity and idleness. This labour, truly, was pleasant, and full of delight, entirely exempt from all trouble and weariness; since, however, God ordained that man should be exercised in the culture of the ground, he condemned, in his person, all indolent repose. Wherefore, nothing is more contrary to the order of nature, than to consume life in eating, drinking, and sleeping, while in the meantime we propose nothing to ourselves to do…Moreover, that this economy, and this diligence, with respect to those good things which God has given us to enjoy, may flourish among us; let every one regard himself as the steward of God in all things which he possesses. Then he will neither conduct himself dissolutely, nor corrupt by abuse those things which God requires to be preserved (John Calvin, Commentary on the First Book of Moses Called Genesis, trans. John King, vol. 1 (repr. Bellingham, WA: Logos Bible Software, 2010), 125).
Work is not the result of the fall. One of Karl Marx’s many great errors was the notion that human beings were meant to do other things beside work. It is true that we were meant to do things before work and after work but we are always meant to work. Neither is our daily work either a manifestation of our salvation or a means of salvation. The Weber Thesis, published by a massively-influential German sociologist in the early 20th century, profoundly misunderstood and mis-characterized Calvin and Reformed theology. Capitalism pre-dated the Reformed Reformation and would likely have developed as it did quite apart from the influence of Reformed theology. Geneva itself was hardly a laissez-faire capitalist paradise. Interest was permitted but it was strictly regulated. The Sabbath was enforced. The weak and vulnerable were protected. Indeed, widows and abused women fled to Geneva for safety and diaconal care.
From a biblical-theological perspective, “work” in the context of Genesis 2 may have a somewhat more specific sense, but the covenant of works has not yet been instituted. Certainly Adam was to cultivate the garden and to guard it as God’s prophet, priest, and king—a calling which Adam failed to fulfill thus plunging himself and us into sin and death but it seems fair to see it as the analogue to God’s figurative working and resting.
Sin made work more difficult and, according to the writer of Ecclesiastes [2:23], even vanity, but it did not wipe out its goodness and necessity (Eccl 3:22). Proverbs 12:14 says, “From the fruit of his mouth a man is satisfied with good, and the work of a man’s hand comes back to him” (ESV). In Proverbs 18 laziness (refusal to work) is evidence that one is a fool (Prov 18:9).
The Apostle Paul wrote perhaps the most pointed words and the value and necessity of productive labor in all of Scripture:
If anyone is not willing to work, let him not eat. For we hear that some among you walk in idleness, not busy at work, but busybodies. Now such persons we command and encourage in the Lord Jesus Christ to do their work quietly and to earn their own living (2 Thess 3:10b–12; ESV).
Paul wrote these words to those whom we, in our setting, would call “evangelicals” who had become obsessed with Christ’s return and with speculation about his return. Paul responds with a doctrine of vocation: get back to work. Fulfill your vocation until Christ returns. The Apostle’s words may shock: “let me not eat.” He knew, however, what Scripture says about the creational pattern, about the goodness of work and about its necessity. Put another way, salvation is a covenant of grace. Employment is a covenant of works. This is what Weber did not understand. It is not that Christians should be cruel to those who suffer or to those who cannot work. Quite to the contrary! Christians are commanded to be compassionate to those who suffer and it was Christians who established hospitals (once used more broadly than we use it today). Whether the church as an institution should be involved in general poverty relief is a disputed question (I say no) but there is no question whether Christians have been and should be involved in organizations that relieve poverty and suffering.
Paul knew whereof he wrote. He did receive financial support from some churches (e.g., Philippi) but he refused it from others (e.g., Corinth), preferring instead to work with hands as tent maker (Acts 18:3; 1 Cor 4:11). He did not sit on a gold throne, in a palace nor was he carried about like a medieval Roman pope. Paul was a working man. He knew from experience the truth of what he was saying. He did not expect to eat if he would not work. “If anyone is not willing to work, let him not eat” is not evidence of pique. It is God’s truth. If your understanding of work is at variance with 2 Thessalonians 2 or with Genesis 2, it is flawed.