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Theology of work

By Trisha Elliott

What is work? A curse? A paycheque? Something to cash out of as soon as possible?

In After Sunday: A Theology of Work, retired Episcopal priest and philosophy professor Armand Larive argues that while God designed humans to work, the church fails to recognize it. “Most of the sermons talk about how to enhance personal spiritual life and don’t talk about our ordinary work in our secular lives. Not only are laity not honoured for what they do, but much of the strength of their spirituality comes from their occupation, and the church is missing that,” he says in an interview. “Who we are, including our spirituality, is fed by our work. It’s too bad the church ignores it, because there is a goldmine of theology there to be found.”

God is no stranger to work. In the Bible, God is a jack of all trades: farmer, composer, gardener, architect, tent-maker, shepherd. From the beginning, God as a divine worker creates the world. The very first word God speaks to humankind is the command to work: like a teenager mowing lawns, Adam’s first job involves tilling the garden.

Rev. Robert Rayburn, a minister at Faith Presbyterian Church in Tacoma, Wash., writes in a sermon posted online that “the original idea of the early church seems to have been that of Christians giving glory to God in and through their occupations.” By the fourth century, things changed. “The ordinary daily callings of ordinary Christians were second-class. . . . Ministers, monks, and nuns lived the Christian life on the higher level — they worked to serve the Lord — the rest worked to eat.”

In the mid-20th century, Christian humanist Dorothy L. Sayers tried to recover the early church’s understanding of work: “The Church’s approach to an intelligent carpenter is usually confined to exhorting him not to 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,” she wrote in Creed or Chaos?

Exploring the theology of work requires wrestling with deep questions: Is it helpful to think of work as a calling? Or are we better to see work as an act of co-operation with God, as Miroslav Volf argues in Work in the Spirit: Toward a Theology of Work?

Making good tables isn’t all that’s at stake. An undeveloped theology of work makes us less equipped to speak to issues like workaholism, segregated job markets, poor working conditions, the plight of migrant workers, child labourers, unemployment and devaluing the unpaid work of caregivers and “stay at home” parents. Developing a theology of work would equip the church to find a fresh voice outside the church — where it matters most.

Rev. Trisha Elliott is a minister at City View United in Ottawa.



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