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Working on our theology of work

Working on our theology of work

As you may know, I’ve been involved in the publishing ministry of Matthias Media for a few decades now. What you may not know is that for most of that time we’ve had a ‘bucket list’—a list of the books we’d really like to have as part of our range of resources for disciple-making.

Over the years, many of the books on that list have been ticked off—they’ve been written, edited, published and placed in the hands of people who have grown as disciple-making disciples by reading them.

But there’s one particular book we’ve been wanting to publish for a long time, yet we still don’t have it on our shelves. And I have a growing sense that we really need it. It’s the book providing a biblical theology of work and its practical application to our lives.

It’s not that we haven’t taught on the topic over the years—particularly in our old magazine, The Briefing (including some articles that live on in the God’s Plan for Work MiniZine). But here are three reasons why I think the need for the ‘go to’ book on work is as deep as it ever has been, perhaps more than ever.

Work and identity

The first reason is the blurring in people’s minds of their understanding of the nature of their core identity. “I’m a doctor.” No, you’re not. You’re a disciple of the Lord Jesus, you are a sister/brother/mother/father/friend, and for the moment you happen to earn a living by practising medicine. Too often we define ourselves by our jobs—serving them to the point of making an idol of them. As a result, too much is sacrificed on the altar of our ‘careers’. 

A good theology of work, which shows the goodness of work in God’s creation and yet leaves it in a rightly subservient place, could provide a really valuable corrective. (I Am What I Do by Andrew Laird looks like it will be very useful in addressing this particular problem.) 

Work and full-time ministry

The second reason why we need a good book on work is the urgency of recruiting the next generation of full-time gospel workers (young or old!). If we’re going to do that, Christian people must think wisely about their lives and jobs from a radically counter-cultural—but true!—biblical perspective. And make no mistake, we need to recruit full-timers in big numbers if we are going to meet the challenge of making disciples of all nations (Matthew 28). MTS has been rightly banging that drum for at least as long as I’ve been waiting for the book on work!

Unfortunately, some have fallen into teaching and accepting a somewhat wobbly and inadequate perspective on work because of the concern that we might create two classes of Christians by suggesting that engaging in gospel ministry can be a better use of our time than other jobs. Chapter 10 of The Trellis and the Vine (“Question 4”) has addressed this issue concisely, but persuasively.

I also spent some time on this issue in the ‘Paid employment’ appendix in my book Busy, suggesting that we don’t just need a ‘creation mandate’, we need to combine that with a ‘new creation mandate’:

Why do we only look backwards to the garden of Eden to assess the value of our toil? Why don’t we also look forwards in God’s metanarrative to get a more complete picture of what God is doing and what that means for our values and choices? (p. 146)

Some years ago, Matthias Media also published a very helpful corrective on the topic of work, ministry and ‘calling’, Michael Bennett’s Do You Feel Called by God? Michael explains how feeling like you aren’t ‘called’ into full-time ministry isn’t a truly biblical reason to discount it as an option. 

Work and Christian priorities

The third reason why we need a biblical book on work is to challenge the way our jobs continue to impinge on our Christian lives and the things that generally drive our growth as Jesus-followers.

I wonder if my experience resonates with that of other small group leaders? For me, the thing I keep seeing every week is people’s jobs interfering with their attendance at both our Bible study group and church—but especially the former (since Sunday gatherings seem to still carry a bit more gravitas in the way they are viewed). In the half hour before many groups are due to meet, the messages start coming through: “Sorry, can’t make it tonight. Still at work.” “Apologies, I’ve had a really big day at work and I’m feeling too tired for Bible study tonight.” “Sorry, I won’t be at Bible study this week; I’m travelling for work.”

Of course, each individual absence seems minor and reasonable. Over time, however, the picture builds of Christians being unhelpfully impacted by a culture that places work at the top of the priority list. How often are Christians telling their bosses, “Sorry, I can’t get that finished today because I have to leave soon to get to Bible study”? Okay, it might mean they don’t get the promotion (is that always a bad thing?), but it’s also a powerful witness to the boss!

So, those are some of the reasons why I think Matthias Media still urgently needs that long-awaited book on work. There are a few bits and pieces we’ve published here and there, but nothing that gives a thorough treatment of such an important topic.

I have to take some of the blame though. One of our authors—who shall remain nameless but who is very qualified to write on the topic—asked me to choose which book he should write first: the book on work or a book on Christians and anxiety. Given the serious and growing issue of Christians struggling with anxiety, I made the choice at the time to opt for the anxiety book first (this one, not that one). So if you happen to see that nameless author, please give him my regards and ask him how he’s going with book #2! 🙂

Ian Carmichael

Ian has been with Matthias Media from its beginning (1988). In late 2020 he stepped down from the CEO role, and now works as an honourary consultant and editor for Matthias Media and Vinegrowers. Ian and his wife, Stephanie, have two adult children, two (gorgeous) grandchildren, and are part of Chatswood Presbyterian church in Sydney. Ian is one of the Vinegrowers team providing free consultations for church leaders who want to more effectively grow the disciple-making culture in their church.