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October 1981 · Vol. 10 No. 4 · pp. 3–13 

Labor: Sin or Sacrament?

Carly Friesen

A social work teacher once commented that the most discouraging aspect of her task is discussing the welfare system. Students believe that good people should work for their bread, not wait for a government dole. Notice the moral value attached to work: “Good” people work. It sounds like a truism. But such a statement would have been received with shock by the classical philosophers.

This essay will trace some of the major viewpoints on the love-hate relationship between work and human life. Our major focus will be upon Christian thinkers, including their progress from pre-Christian pagan conceptions, and their contributions during the church age which have shaped modern thought.


The role of the laborer in classical Greece and Rome was nothing to be envied. Most labor was done by slaves who had increased to such an extent that they outnumbered the free population. As a result labor came to be equated with slavery in the minds of the people. Further, the philosophers regarded work as demeaning because it kept a person from freely exercising his mind in pursuit of truth. In the occupations both mind and body were enslaved to the will of another, while true personhood entailed freedom. The philosophers did not find it disconcerting that only a tiny minority of the human race could enjoy the ideal of the good life. Inequality and oppression were only to be expected due to the nature of the world. 1

While contempt for manual labor was widespread, laborers themselves maintained that there was dignity in the trades. Lucian listed “pride of carrying on a family tradition, strength from doing manual labor, and renown for being a master craftsman” 2 as the advantages of becoming an artisan.

The Cynic and Stoic philosophical schools also affirmed some virtue in work. The wandering Cynic philosopher, Dio Chrysostom, encouraged {4} labor for common people because suitable occupations (those not injurious to the body, nor catering to luxury, nor effecting unseemliness) 3 enabled a person to be self-supporting while protecting the dignity of the human person.


With the advent of Christianity the status of labor improved. Its central figures are portrayed as workers. Jesus came from artisan stock and his parables reflect his identification with the common worker. The fact that the disciples worked as fishermen or tax collectors is an important theme in the Gospel accounts. But it is Paul who makes the most of work. A key to his apostolic self-understanding was his trade. He boasted that he was the apostle who offered the gospel free of charge (2 Cor. 11). 4

Paul’s primary expression of the work ethic is found in 2 Thessalonians 3:6-15: “If anyone will not work neither let him eat” (3:10). The second-century church manual, the Didache, takes this rule of industry as one of the tests by which the church could recognize false prophets.

If he wants to settle with you and is an artisan, he must work for his living. If, however, he has no trade, use your judgement in taking steps for him to live with you as a Christian without being idle. If he refuses to do this, he is trading on Christ. You must be on your guard against such people. 5

The Didascalia of the third century explicitly states, “it is not possible for a sluggard to be a believer.” 6 Idleness clearly is not consistent with Christianity, according to the early church.

But there is another category besides idleness or manual labor, namely, spiritual labor. Paul did not claim exemption for himself from labor on account of gospel ministry, but he positively asserts the right to do so for others (1 Cor. 9:4-12). Augustine, in his treatise, The Work of Monks, teaches from 1 Cor. 9:4-5 that those who are totally absorbed in the service of the gospel are free from manual labor to provide the necessities of life, but may accept bodily nourishment without pay in return for the spiritual nourishment they have provided. 7

The ninth chapter of 1 Corinthians is Paul’s boast in his labors. He concludes with the idea that he rigorously works his body so that it will be his slave in the task of preaching. But this aspect of work as self-discipline is much more diligently pursued by the church fathers. St. Ambrose claims that while the work of the mind is more lofty than that of the body, “we must work. We must sweat, so that we chastise the body, so that we place it under the yoke and sow the things of the Spirit.” 8 {5}

Paul’s work was probably not simply a tool of self-discipline on the periphery of his ministry. As a laborer, his life centered around the workshop. But the workshop of Paul’s day was used as a setting for intellectual discourse as well as toil. 9 Thus work was not just something to be endured, but it was the occasion for evangelism. There was good reason for the importance of work to come to the fore in the theology of Paul.

Paul’s boast in his work is not that labor itself is worthy of honor in this world. Rather, he found his work to be exhausting (1 Thess. 2:9), saw it as slavery and humiliation (1 Cor. 9:19; 2 Cor. 11:7), and as the occasion for scorn (1 Cor. 4:10-12). 10 Paul does not embrace these things because they are honorable, but because they are a disgrace, revealing through his personal weakness the power of Christ (2 Cor. 12:9-10). The church fathers, then, seem to be in line with Paul in their interpretation of labor as suffering. According to Augustine, suffering in work is part of the curse which humanity must endure until such time as it is released into the eternal rest of God. 11 The worker may have a sense of dignity in his toil because it is obedience to God in sharing the cross of Christ, but not because work per se is honorable.

One other reason why manual labor was enjoined in the early church was that it enabled a person to give to the needy. Paul tells the Corinthians to sow liberally that they might reap liberally and thus supply the needs of the saints (2 Cor. 9:6ff.). The Didache says that almsgiving pays ransom for sin.

Do not be one who holds his hand out to take, but shuts it when it comes to giving. If your labor has brought you earnings, pay a ransom for your sins . . . Do not turn your back on the needy, but share everything with your brother and call nothing your own. For if you have what is eternal in common, how much more should you have what is transient! 12

Augustine’s theology of work is drawn from his anthropology. Man has his existence in three historic states: 1) innocence; 2) fallenness; 3) redemption. 13 In the state of innocence work was not an affliction but a joyous exhilaration of will freely doing God’s work. 14 But with the Fall came the curse of pain and suffering because, alienated from God, humanity became separated from its true object of love and desire. In this fallen state man worked in misery, scheming and plotting to get material things which by their nature can be wrested from his grasp. “Hence toil is the germ of iniquity; to conceive toil is to conceive sin, that initial sin which consists in falling away from God.” 15

The work of fallen man has been redeemed by Christ. When people {6} take upon themselves the yoke of Christ and pursue his way, their labor is again cooperation with the Creator in his divine plan. Work in this world is sanctified, though the trials remain. But even man’s toil is hopeful and joyous at times because it anticipates participation in the rest of God. 16

Because work is cooperation with God, it is intimately related to worship and contemplation. Working with nature through plant and animal husbandry leads one to consider the creator and then to recognize his power and glory in nature’s beauty. Augustine advises monks that “persons who are engaged in manual labor can easily sing divine canticles and lighten the labor itself.” 17 Bodily labor is good because it frees the mind for contemplation, but those activities which absorb the mind with pursuit of riches without bodily effort, such as that of businessmen and administrators, are to be avoided because they are evidence of the sinful preoccupation with material rather than divine goods. 18

Early Christian theology made a significant contribution to the theology of work. It affirmed that “man is so made that not only can he not satisfy his material needs without working, but also he cannot satisfy his spiritual needs, or fulfill his function as a human being.” 19 Work was no longer just a distraction from contemplation of the higher reality, but was a means of such contemplation.


Two institutions dominated the Middle Ages: the church and feudalism. Monasticism, the churchly road for those who truly felt themselves called to perfection, arose out of a need to exhibit holiness of life and separation from the world in a time when church and world were united. The ascetic impulse was a type of self-imposed persecution. In this context, the disciplinary value of work predominated. The spiritual danger of idleness was such a hazard that work often became simply a way to keep busy. For example, one abbot braided palm leaves every day until his cave was filled with them, at which point he burned them and started over. 20 Manual labor was the monk’s daily cross and as such must be laborious, painful, exacting and unexciting.

The Monastic orders also required work because it enabled the monk to give to the poor. St. Francis of Assisi, protesting the wealth of the church, taught his followers to sell everything they owned in order to give to the poor. They were to work in the fields with the peasants while they preached and thus to labor for their sustenance free of the evil desire to accumulate property. They were never to be a burden to those who heard their message.

Thomas Aquinas, in his Summa Theologica, defended the spiritual {7} hierarchy of the Middle Ages with significant implications for the world of work. He developed a theologically-based system of social order which supported the status quo of feudalism. In church and state alike, authority was delegated from the top of an ordered pyramid down through rank after rank until it was finally exercised upon the peasants at the bottom. It was the pope, as God’s vice-regent, who bestowed authority upon worldly and spiritual leaders alike. Man worked because he was rationally able to organize labor in such a way that all the needs of the human community were met through the proper working of each individual member. Every kind of work was useful and valuable in its contribution to the community. Combining this view of the necessity of work with the belief in a God-ordered hierarchy, Aquinas arrived at a synthesis in which there is a hierarchy of work ranging from spiritual work to manual labor. 21

Furthermore, it was a person’s responsibility to pursue the work into which he was born in order to maintain the stability of society. There was no mobility of status, except to enter the work of the church. Thus, in the feudal system, it was a person’s God-given responsibility to persevere in the career of his parents, be that peasantry, soldiering, artistry, or rulership. “The worker esteemed his trade as an ordinance of God. It was just as necessary to the common welfare as the offices of pope and emperor.” 22

In this great synthesis of the church and the social order all people were “called” by God to their occupations. But the church, and monasticism in particular, gave Christians the option of giving up their secular occupations for a higher calling of perfection. While it was affirmed that every Christian was called, only the churchly life was truly deemed a calling. 23 Thus it came about that a person could climb the social ladder by entering the work of the church. Spiritual work was considered meritorious in the eyes of God and man.


Luther began to revitalize the role of the worker through his reversal of the Medieval system of status based on works. First, he affirmed that God is absolutely holy, unapproachable by any human overtures. With the monks, Luther sweeps away the whole world of human culture as “godless and sick unto death”, 24 but maintains that the chasm between God and man is unbridgeable, save by the initiative of divine grace. Thus all people are equal before God regardless of how they spend their time or earn their living—all are equally condemned and rescued by grace alone.

Luther also holds that the world is God’s creation over which he {8} hovers with providential care despite its perversity. “If God in His grace did not sustain the world in its sin it would not exist for a moment.” 25 Just as God numbers the hairs on a person’s head, all the external daily events of a person’s life are guided and willed by God. 26 Since God’s will lies behind all earthly occurrences the vocation a person occupies is certainly the one God ordained for him.

The Christian is a member of two kingdoms. In the kingdom of God, his work has absolutely no value, except to prove one’s unworthiness before God. In the kingdom of this world, work is absolutely necessary because it is ordained by God for the maintenance of order in the world. For Luther, “a vocation is a station which is by nature helpful to others if it be followed.” 27

In anything that involves action, anything that concerns the world or my relationship with my neighbor, there is nothing . . . that falls in a private sphere lying outside of . . . vocation. It is only before God . . . that the individual stands alone. In the earthly realm man always stands in relatione, always bound to another. 28

Thus vocations are necessary because they serve the human community to which we are bound.

All Christians are called to faith and love. Vocations become evil when they are no longer expressions of faith and love. For example, the monastic occupation is evil because it counters the command of loving service to neighbors. 29 In that monasticism is self-oriented, it is not even truly a vocation, a helpful occupation. On the other hand, the office of executioner is not evil because it is helpful to society as God’s means of maintaining order.

Luther enhanced the view of vocations, paradoxically, by condemning them all as worldly and infinitely separated from God, while at the same time affirming that it is God’s command that all people participate in worldly service through vocations. The two kingdoms are distinct and radically opposed, yet the Christian is bound to the laws of both. The tension of participation in two opposed orders will only be eased in the future kingdom of God.

Calvin begins his theological system with a similar view of the greatness of God, but takes it in a different direction. For Luther, God’s greatness meant that he was definitely greater than man. God only intervened in grace because of his great mercy. Calvin had a much more positive view of the world and God’s activity in it. Calvin’s system sees God as continually and creatively active in the world through his {9} sovereign power in the instrument of humanity.

Calvin’s view of work is heavily dependent upon the thought of Augustine. The existence and activity of man is described in three stages. First is creation. Calvin says “that it was chiefly for the sake of mankind that the world was made.” 30 Before the Fall, man’s dominion resulted in a harmonious relationship between nature and men. They worked together “performing their given functions willingly as a testimony to the glory of God. 31 Each one did his part to continue to subdue the earth and make it productive. Furthermore, the productivity of the earth was not simply for the purpose of meeting minimal needs.

Now then, if we consider for what end (God) created food, we shall find that he consulted not only for our necessity, but also for our enjoyment and delight. Thus, in clothing, the end was, in addition to necessity, comeliness and honour; and in herbs, fruits, and trees, besides their various uses, gracefulness of appearance and sweetness of smell . . . In short, has he not given many things a value without having any necessary use? 32

But the productivity is to extend equally to all people. Apart from such ordered distribution, the order of God is marred and the purpose of human labor is perverted. “The economic order is to be evaluated in terms of general usefulness—that is, of maximum production and just and equal distribution among the community of mankind.” 33 Thus all vocations ordained by God are to be profitable for all, not only in terms of loving and sacrificial service as with Luther, but also for the glory of God in cooperation with his purpose in creation.

With the Fall, man perverted God’s order and began to turn the earth’s productivity towards self-glorification. Calvin affirms that the world order itself is good, but has been corrupted, whereas Luther saw the world as thoroughly saturated by evil. Calvin, on the other hand, does not see such a radical evil in the world. “An ‘external image of righteousness’ still exists in man’s reason and conscience by means of his perception of the natural law. But these faculties are at best tarnished tokens.” 34 Thus corruption is so extensive that a return to God’s ordained use of the world practically necessitates a rebirth.

Just such a rebirth is what has been accomplished by Christ in his incarnation and made available to people through the Spirit. The gifts of the Spirit are variously distributed among the communion of saints for the mutual benefit of all. 35 God has ordained it to be so in order to stay the confusion caused by human ambition. Creation will again reflect the image of God in its harmonious working, insofar as people submit to their God-given calling without fighting, knowing that for this they will be {10} honored by God. 36

In Calvin’s view, Christ is the “transformer of culture.” 37 He enables man to fulfill, at least in part, his nature as cooperator with God in the furtherance of creation. In this sense, the Kingdom is something which the community of saints strives to accomplish in this world and not just in the future one. Man has been created by God for the purpose of laboring until death to reflect God’s just order in the world. His work has eternal as well as temporal significance.

Calvin’s doctrine left the problem of assurance of salvation without resolution. Distinguishing between the elect and reprobate belongs only to God. 38 The English Puritans adopted the theology of Calvin, but the desire for assurance of salvation gave rise to the belief that whom God loves, he blesses. This conception of God’s favor, together with Calvin’s endorsement of vigorous labor for productivity, led to the belief that one should work hard for profit to show to the world and prove to oneself that one is truly elect. “Profit and wealth were ethically bad only insofar as they led to idleness and dissipation; they were commended insofar as they resulted from the performance of duty.” 39 Thus the “Protestant ethic”, as it was developed by the Puritans, makes working for profit incumbent upon all to glorify God, to fulfill one’s human nature and to be secure in one’s salvation. 40

Among the Anabaptists, all of life was considered to be a unity, permeated by the Spirit of Christ. Every aspect of Christian life was service, to God and to man. 41 All work was to be done as unto God for whom only the best is appropriate. The major difference between Anabaptist theology and that of the mainline reformers was not in theory, but in practice. To the Anabaptists it was nonsense to suggest that faith and practice could be distinguished.

Anabaptists did not see a division of life between two kingdoms, as did Luther. Christians were citizens of the kingdom of God and not of this world. All activity of this life was directed towards the betterment of that kingdom. Calvin’s belief that the kingdom could be hastened by man’s cooperation with God was also repudiated by the Anabaptists. True life and wealth they believed abide only in the kingdom of God and are not accessible in this life. Their viewpoint echoes that of the earlier monastic ideals where toil was valued for self-sufficiency, almsgiving and self-discipline, while all these virtues were directed only towards the spiritual realm.

Anabaptist views on private property were distinctive in the Reformation era. Since the Christian did not really live in this world, but was a citizen of another, he must not be too involved in business affairs. {11} Ownership of property was generally acceptable but acquisitiveness, and thus wealth, was not appropriate for the Christian. Furthermore one’s ownership of property did not entail the right to dispose of it at will. Ownership of property carried with it the moral responsibility to use it to help others. 42 Some Anabaptists, like the Hutterites carried this doctrine to the point of establishing a communistic social structure, but most did not advocate a community of goods. “Hubmaier said the Christian was not the lord but only the steward of his goods: he would use them to take care of his neighbor, feeding the hungry, giving drink to the thirsty, and dressing the naked.” 43

The Anabaptists tended to exhort each other to work with their hands at what is honest. 44 Trade was suspect because the freedom allowed to merchants aroused worldly desires. However, merchants were kept in check by the congregation rather than forbidden by rule. The Anabaptists did arouse hostility from many directions, due not only to their theology but also to their social theory. 45 They were a threat to nobles and businessmen of any religious persuasion because their attitudes implied that the whole existing class structure was basically wrong since there should be neither rich nor poor among true Christians. 46 Rather, through voluntary mutual aid, the needs of all should be met.

Anabaptists taught the ethics of simplicity, thrift, generosity and humility, 47 a “most reliable passport to commercial prosperity.” 48 And prosper they did. The economic success of the Hutterites was perceived by local craftsmen as a threat to their own sustenance. 49 Mennonites were sought as settlers and land-developers by the Prussian kingdom and the nobles of the Palatinate.

Despite theological misgivings about wealth, the Mennonites have tended to prosper wherever they settled. The Mennonite Brethren confess, “We believe God intended man to work diligently and honestly in his chosen vocation. The Christian should continually seek to build God’s Kingdom through his work.” 50 Mennonites are caught in a tension, not between kingdoms, but between theological premises. On the one hand, industry is honorable, and on the other, wealth is suspect. Yet the one tends to lead to the other.

All of the theological perspectives we have examined were altered as they were adapted or misunderstood by ensuing generations. The early church became wealthy and oppressive. Lutherans were accused of laxity, and the Puritans of being unethical capitalists. Mennonites have become wealthy. And so the question remains for us today: Is labor a sin or a sacrament? {12}


  1. Edwin G. Kaiser. Theology of Work (Westminster, MD: The Newman Press, 1966), p. 40.
  2. Ronald F. Hock, The Social Context of Paul’s Ministry (Philadelphia: Fortress Press, 1980), p. 84, n. 95. Quotation is from Somnium, 7-8.
  3. Ibid., p. 45.
  4. Ibid., p. 68.
  5. Didache 12:3-5, in Early Christian Fathers, ed. Cyril C. Richardson (New York: Macmillan Publishing Company, 1970), p. 177.
  6. Kaiser, p. 96; Quotation is from Didascalia 2:63.
  7. Augustine “The Works of Monks,” in The Fathers of the Church, ed. Roy J. Deferrari, XVI (New York: Fathers of the Church, Inc., 1952), 343.
  8. Kaiser, p. 104. Quotation is from De Paradiso 15:77.
  9. Hock, pp. 40-41.
  10. Ibid., p. 36.
  11. Kaiser, p. 110.
  12. Didache 4:5,6,8.
  13. Kaiser, p. 108.
  14. Ibid., p. 109; Quotation is from Augustine, De Gen. VIII 8:15.
  15. Augustine, St. Augustine on the Psalms (Ancient Christian Writers, vol. XXIX), pp. 92f.
  16. Kaiser, pp. 109-112.
  17. Augustine, “The Work of Monks,” p. 363.
  18. Ibid., pp. 356-7.
  19. Alan Richardson, The Biblical Doctrine of Work (London: SCM Press, Ltd., 1952), p. 24.
  20. Kaiser, p. 148.
  21. Robert L. Calhoun, “Work and Vocation in Christian History,” in Work and Vocation, ed. John Oliver Nelson (New York: Harper and Brothers Publishers, 1954), p. 99.
  22. Ibid.
  23. Ibid., p. 103.
  24. H. Richard Niebuhr, Christ and Culture (New York: Harper and Brothers Publishers, 1951), p. 156.
  25. Ibid.
  26. Gustaf Wingren, Luther on Vocation (Philadelphia: Muhlenberg Press, 1957), p. 71.
  27. Ibid., p. 4.
  28. Ibid., p. 5.
  29. Ibid., p. 2.
  30. John Calvin, Institutes of the Christian Religion (Mac Dill AFB, Florida: MacDonald Publishing Company), I, 16, 6. {13}
  31. David Little, Religion, Order, and Law (New York: Harper and Row Publishers, 1969), p. 57.
  32. Calvin, Inst., III, 10,2.
  33. Little, p. 60.
  34. Ibid., p. 39.
  35. Calvin, Inst., IV, 1, 3.
  36. Ibid., 111, 10, 6.
  37. Niebuhr, p. 191.
  38. Calvin, Inst., IV, 1, 3.
  39. Reinhard Bendix, Max Weber: An Intellectual Portrait (New York: Doubleday and Company, Inc., 1960), p. 83.
  40. Max Weber, The Protestant Ethic and the Spirit of Capitalism (London: George Allen and Unwin, Ltd., 1930), pp. 108-115.
  41. Peter James Klassen, The Economics of Anabaptism: 1525: 1560 (The Hague: Mouton and Co., 1964), p. 95.
  42. Claus-Peter Clasen, Anabaptism: A Social History, 1525-1618 (Ithaca: Cornell University Press, 1972), p. 187.
  43. Ibid.
  44. Klassen, p. 96.
  45. Clasen, p. 151.
  46. Ibid., p. 188.
  47. Klassen, p. 90.
  48. Weber, p. 3.
  49. Klassen p. 95.
  50. Confession of Faith of the General Conference of Mennonite Brethren Churches (Hillsboro, KS: Mennonite Brethren Publishing House, 1976), p. 19.
Carly Friesen is a graduate of Fuller Theological Seminary, Pasadena, California, who is presently teaching in the Bible department and is a staff member at Fresno Pacific College, Fresno, California.

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