Propositions on Christ, Culture and Career
Dennis McCallum and Scott Risley
Christians’ relations to the world, money, position, and career involve judgment calls and gray areas. However, these are also areas where scripture teaches ethical content, either explicitly or by implication. Questions of ethics should be settled by biblical authority whenever possible, and by wise deliberation over possible dangers and options where scripture does not speak directly.
1. A major reason many Western Christians lack spirituality and power is their absorption into the world-system and its values of materialism and self-gratification. American Christians’ unwillingness to learn, disciple, evangelize, or even fellowship often flow from their sense that they are too busy for these things—a busyiness that comes mostly from their commitment to the goals of the world-system. Scripture teaches that Satan constructed the world system for this purpose: distracting people from the things of God (1 John 2:15-17).
2. Dwell has been unusual in our history because we recognize these world-system sins as being just as bad as sins of the flesh (Col. 3:5; Eph 5:3, 5; James 4:4; 1 Tim 6:9-10; 1 Cor. 5:11).
3. God should be the first priority in every Christian’s life (Matt 6:33; 22:37). Immediately after God comes the people of God, including the family. Prioritization becomes necessary because different activities requiring time and effort frequently collide. We can say all things are a part of our one life, but without prioritization, we have no way to make decisions in ethical areas. Career should be lower on the list of priorities in our thinking.
4. We are not arguing against planning for and developing a career. We believe young men and women should get a plan and pursue training that will result in a suitable career that can support them and their families. When considering what career to pursue, the factors below should be helpful in ruling out negative career choices and suggesting goals for good careers.
5. Col. 3:23-24 says, “Whatever you do, do your work heartily, as for the Lord rather than for men, knowing that from the Lord you will receive the reward of the inheritance. It is the Lord Christ whom you serve.” This verse can be used to teach that believers should work hard and be conscientious about their jobs, viewing them as service to God. However, Paul addresses this to slaves, primarily as the best way to avoid trouble and persecution from their masters. Therefore his statement should not be construed as directing Christians to seek high-paying or prestigious careers. The only time Paul suggested a career direction, it was the suggestion to “use your hands for good hard work” like he did when sewing tents (Eph 4:28; Acts 18:3).
We find it highly objectionable when students are too lazy to do their work at school and thus waste their parents’ or their own money. Also, losing jobs through sloth and poor work is immature and unfitting for disciples of Christ. We also think it will hurt our witness at work if we are lazy.
6. While people can minister at work, we think we need a reserved word for spiritual ministry as opposed to something I’m being paid to do primarily for profit. We would rather say that work is a place we can minister—not that the work is our ministry. Consider that non-Christians do the same things Christian workers or professionals do.
Consider this statement from Tim Keller:
The church’s approach to an intelligent carpenter is usually confined to exhorting him to not be drunk and disorderly in his leisure hours and to come to church on Sundays. What the church should be telling him is this: that the very first demand that his religion makes upon him is that he should make good tables.
Is there is a third option for this carpenter? Could that carpenter learn to play a vital role in the Body of Christ, ministering while he is at work and during his leisure hours? (Romans 12:4-16; 1 Corinthians 12:4-26; 14:26; 1 Peter 4:10-11; Acts 2:42-46; Ephesians 4:11-16)
The idea that God calls people to be cobblers, etc. was medieval teaching that the Reformers accepted from Catholicism, along with the clergy/laity distinction. In the medieval milieu, there was no concept of winning the lost, since all of Christendom was considered Christians. Also, significant spiritual ministry like teaching, counseling, leading groups, etc. were reserved for the clergy. What, then, to make of the language about ministry in the NT? It morphed into, “I am the priest, which means I handle the spiritual part (perhaps with some deacons), and you are a cobbler, and the town is the body of Christ with each person playing a different role.” The idea that God calls people in a Christian society to different roles became the application of 1 Cor. 12.
Here is J. I. Packer:
The word vocation means ‘calling.’ And right at the heart of vocation is, I believe in every case, the sense that God has called one to do what one is doing. The sense of being called comes out of thinking and praying about what one has been gifted and so fitted to do and which of the options for life activity is the best one.
One of the problems we have with this theology is that it means I can say that I have fulfilled my ministry obligations under 1 Cor. 12 by going to work, let’s say, as a business manager. The result is a loss of any urgent need to also establish a ministry building up the church.
If my work is my ministry, then it also seems to follow that I should go all-out for my career. Reformed and Catholic theology from medieval to modern times gives little attention to the world system. They saw European society as Christian. This led to a major difference in theological emphasis.
7. Any good theology of career needs to work just as well for a ditch-digger as a doctor. Most careers serve peoples’ needs in some way and cannot be deprecated or considered “worse” than high-level careers because of the amount of good they do. Imagine a world without garbage men, factory workers, or farmers. We should avoid advancing elitist and classist theories of work that extol the rich, and carefully consider how that theology would play in a poverty-stricken country, like Cambodia. The dignity of manual labor is taught in scripture (see 2 Thess. 3:8, where Paul says he “worked hard among” them, referring to tent making, and 1 Thess 4:11, where he exhorts the Thessalonians to “live a quiet life and work with your hands”).
A line of work producing neither a good nor a service of use to others (like professional gambling) could be criticized along the lines that it lacks the serving element, although entertainment might be in this category as well. The critique is somewhat subjective.
8. People who do ministry for pay are in a privileged position that also comes with higher expectations (James 3:1). We’re not sure we can say that full time Christian workers are the same as everyone else, or that their work lives have to be analogous to others’ work lives. We have always held it essential that paid workers have a full volunteer ministry in addition to their paid ministry. Church leaders have lived as tradesmen, businessmen, professionals, and as full-time ministers. They have enjoyed being in business and going to work, and they have felt they should do good work and give their employees and customers a good deal. However, they have never viewed their careers as their ministries (though they could do ministry there, including evangelism, counseling, and discipleship).
9. Some argue that Christians can use their careers to get more done for God by being more influential in the eyes of the world—politicians, professors, famous people, etc. We think this is suspicious. At the least we can observe that no such argument is found in scripture. Esther or Daniel may have been in good position to have influence, but they didn’t aim to get into that position as a strategy in life. They were propelled into those positions by God. Jesus chose uneducated simple laborers as his disciples (Acts 4:13).
We can also point to Paul’s observation that God calls “not many mighty” (1 Cor 1:25-29). The claim that influential people in the world’s sense will reach more or more important people for Christ is not born out in our experience or in scripture. There have been exceptions, and these are often called while already in an influential position (like William Wilberforce or C. S. Lewis). The reality of high-profile career people rarely lives up to the promise. Meanwhile, Christians could use this argument to justify devoting their lives to high career attainment and materialism—just like most people in our culture. We suggest that if Christians really want to be influential for God, they should learn how to share their faith and disciple effectively.
10. Paul says the purpose of a career is to pay one’s basic expenses for a simple life and to earn enough additional money to give to those in need (Eph. 4:28, also Proverbs). Our careers also afford us opportunities for witness and serving, but these can be done any time. Work is special because it pays our bills and enables giving. We see efforts to portray career as somehow more than a way to earn a living. This view happens to coincide with the view of our culture, but we find it hard to back up from scripture. Why is the idea that a career is mainly to pay one’s bills wrong?
11. Low-paying careers are undesirable and risky. A good career can accomplish the goals above without undue interference with other spiritual and relational pursuits, but low-paying careers take too much time to reach the basic goals for a career. Ruthless employers victimize low-paid employees later in life. A hamburger cook might be able to meet basic earning goals, but the time investment into low-paying jobs ultimately becomes a barrier to achieving the true goals in life.
Low wage earners may be absent from their families and their ministries because of long hours of work. They risk diminished freedom in choosing hours worked and place of employment. They may also run low on money if expenses soar unexpectedly, or if they are laid off during times of economic recession. While “low-wage” is a relative concept, we think it is a useful ethical principle that whenever feasible people should try to attain a skill that can win pay above the lowest levels in society.
12. High-paying careers are undesirable and risky. Wealth is risky for people’s spiritual lives. Jesus taught that it was easier for a camel to go through the eye of a needle than for the rich to be saved. Believers like Solomon were swept away in large part because of their wealth. Paul teaches that the pursuit of wealth “plunges people into ruin and destruction” in 1 Timothy 6. Proverbs 30:8-9 says, “Keep deception and lies far from me, give me neither poverty nor riches; feed me with the food that is my portion, that I not be full and deny You and say, ‘Who is the Lord?’ Or that I not be in want and steal, and profane the name of my God.”
Notice that this proverb refers to deception and lies in connection with the wealth question. Jesus said the “worry and cares of the world and the deceitfulness of riches” choke out fruitfulness in Christian workers (Matt 13:22, cf. Rev 3:15-17). These passages warn that people don’t realize they are being seduced by wealth, and this makes it riskier still.
Jesus said, “You cannot serve God and wealth” (Matt 6:21-24). His warning that where our treasure is determines where our hearts will be is sobering. Theoretically, wealthy people could give away all their excess wealth and live simple lives. But how often does this happen? Studies show that people give proportionately less, the more they make. The many warnings about the dangers of wealth suggest that parents urging their children to achieve high paying careers is very risky and unwise. “High paying” is also a relative concept, but it should be clear that the higher the pay gets, the greater the danger.
13. Careers that involve frequent travel, extended absence from home, odd hours, and frequent moving are undesirable and risky. Careers like these can break down the more important parts of life (like your family and your ministry) in favor of the less important parts (like your career). Studies are unambiguous in showing the negative impact of wage earners being frequently absent on trips or needing to move frequently. These features are associated with maladjustment in children and with divorce. They also make developing a ministry virtually impossible.
14. It is preferable and desirable for families with young children to pursue living a lifestyle based on one income. This will allow one parent to devote the necessary time for nurturing young children. Studies show that daycare is harmful to children’s development, and even high-quality daycare can’t match the attention of parents during the same period. Instead of choosing dual incomes, families would do better to cut expenses so they can live on one income. The role of full-time mother and homemaker should be extolled and appreciated, not marginalized. While single mothers or fathers and very poor people may not be able to sustain a stay-at-home parent, most families can do so, especially with some planning.
15. The path one takes to career selection is an area of Christian freedom, provided no other scriptural imperatives are violated. These other imperatives include not performing sins of commission (e.g. lying, sex acts, crime, etc). Any career that requires such violations of God’s will would be wrong for a Christian to pursue, with few exceptions. God’s imperatives also cover sins of omission (e.g. failure to engage in fellowship or other means of growth, failure to love others in ministry, failure to put God and his agenda first in one’s life for a prolonged period, etc.). Christians should not pursue career paths that require violating these imperatives except in the most extreme cases of special calling.
16. Parents urging their kids to pursue prestigious and demanding careers that require excessive sacrifice is like urging them to invest in CD manufacturing. All such careers will disappear suddenly in the near future. Christians who choose to pursue such a career should do so in a way that allows them to live normal Christian lives while doing so, and should find postings in their field that do not disrupt more important features in life like family, the body of Christ, friendships, and ministry. We have to invest time, energy, and money into developing a career. But we should show frugality, investing no more than necessary to get a decent career without extravagance.
17. When selecting an institution of higher education , the factors to weigh include:
- God and his will for us to be spiritually healthy and growing
- The proven adequacy of provision for these spiritual factors at different places
- The adequacy of the educational institution to deliver reasonable career training
- The affordability of the education and avoidance of waste or bad stewardship
- The capabilities of the student
- The desire of the student
We believe the order or weighting of these factors should be roughly as shown. Our values system should be evident in how we make decisions. If we put school prestige at the top of the list, it could reflect a worldly values system.
18. Many 21st century secular American parents consider getting their kids into high-prestige careers as more important than any other thing. We should be careful that we are not imitating their values system. If parents fear letting their kids go into the college ministry because it might result in their academic performance declining, they would be wise to consider the many detrimental distractions present in the typical “college experience.” Most students in college ministry do well academically and spiritually. Of course, they have to supply discipline and willingness to do the work. Holding students accountable for performance in school is an important part of discipleship.
19. Christians who meet Christ when already in a high-powered profession are in a different ethical position than those who still have the chance to choose their futures. Paul’s principlized ethics in 1 Cor. 7 teach that in most cases people should stay in that condition wherein they met the Lord. However, he also allows for improving one’s situation in the case of slaves, in order to gain more freedom.
Some career people should consider changing careers if their current one interferes with more important values or calls for unethical behavior. For instance, certain lines of legal practice may require too much lying. A judge called on to support evil laws (like slavery) may have to find another career. Others may find their jobs interfering too much with family and spiritual commitments. If people consider changing their careers for the Lord’s sake as adults, why wouldn’t we also advise young people against choosing the same lines of work in the first place?
20. Many Americans take their identity from their own careers and from the careers of their children. Arguably, career means more to Americans than anything else, as seen by their willingness to cause damage to their families and even themselves for the sake of career. Can we demonstrate that we are not following this bankrupt approach to self-importance?
21. We have heard both parents and students argue, “God is sovereign, so if a person’s heart is right with God, he can go anywhere and things will work out. Columbus isn’t the only place God works.”
We agree that God is at work all over the world. However, if a truly spiritually oriented student were to go to a distant school, wouldn’t one of their first steps be to scout out how God is at work in that particular area? Why wouldn’t they explore the fellowship options and devise ministry plans in connection with the move? Instead, we find them saying, “Something will work out… I’m sure there are believers there.” They’ve done all the research about how the school will be better than any school here in town, but no research on the spiritual climate.. Imagine them doing so little research about which school to attend!
22. We are hearing an argument that if kids have a high IQ enabling them to excel in some discipline, it would be “bad stewardship” to do less than the greatest thing possible, career-wise. This is a distortion of the biblical notion of stewardship. Stewardship refers to our responsibility to maximize our capability for God and his kingdom, not for the world (Matt 25:14-30). The talents given in the parable and God’s assessment of the stewards’ work are to be understood in spiritual, not carnal terms. Maximizing one’s treasure on earth is against the will of God.
23. There is a danger that representing God’s point of view on the world system, career, money, and pride could cost us some current or would-be members. However, failure to tell the truth in these areas could cost us God’s support for our ministry, and all will be lost. The letters to the churches in Revelation show that Jesus is insistent that churches be faithful to teaching and practicing the truth (Rev 2-3). James also warns that friendship with the world-system is enmity with God (James 4:4). As leaders, we are responsible to fight against this fate—a fate already suffered in many parts of the western church—with everything we have.
24. On the question of limiting church authority: These areas of teaching are not based on church authority. We suggest teaching, counseling, and pleading, not giving authoritative directives. We need to be careful to avoid specifying what people should and should not do. Unless the leaders in Dwell exert strong leadership on these issues, we can only expect our people to flow with our culture, as has happened throughout the history of the church and is happening all around us today in the western church. The church needs strong, persuasive teaching and counseling against following the course of the world, including material and career lust.