Tuesday night we put finishing touches on our annual summer forum. The title this year is “Gospel and Vocation: Embodying Christ in the Workplace.” The heart of our vision is communicated by Dr. Paul Helm (1940 – ) in his book “The Callings: The Gospel in the World.”
Paul Helm (1940 – ) teaches theology and philosophy at Regent College, Vancouver, following his retirement as Professor of the History and Philosophy of Religion at King’s College, London. In his writing on the scriptural teaching about “calling,” he underlines the significance of human labor for Christians. Daily employment is not “just a job” it is rather a calling from God to serve Him in the world. Moreover, the Christian is to take pleasure in his work, just as the Creator God delights in all that He has made.
“[W]ork is part of a Christian’s calling . . . The Christian is not called to be a workaholic, someone for whom only his work matters. What makes for difficulty for the Christian is that there is not one supreme duty which he has to fulfill but there are numerous competing duties and interwoven relationships each of which claims time, energy and commitment. But one relationship may help another, offering support and strength, as marriage may support work, and work marriage. On the other hand they may compete with each other, and a Christian will have to think seriously about which obligations, in a certain set of circumstances, come first. Ought he to work overtime, or be at home with his wife and family?”
The old, misleading, sacred/secular distinction relegated much work to the spiritual margins, but the Reformers taught that all labor accepted as a calling and performed “as unto the Lord” was noble. Grasp of this truth has slipped dramatically both in the Church and the culture.
“Work is part of a Christian’s calling, part of his ‘vocation’ . . . [T]his biblical idea has had a profound influence in Europe and North America since the Reformation but has largely been forgotten, due to the eclipse of the influence of the Christian gospel from national life, or has been distorted through ridicule and caricature . . . [T]he Bible gives great prominence to the idea that human lives are lived in the sight of God, and this thought includes a Christian’s daily work, as Paul explicitly notes when he reminds Christians that they have a Master in heaven (Eph. 6:9). It is not that the ‘spiritual/religious’ part of a man’s life must be lived before God, those times when he is on his knees, or reading the Bible, and that the remainder of his life is his own affair. The basic motive for serving other men in work is that one is a servant of God.
A Christian’s work is not therefore ‘just a job’, something burdensome which he attempts to make easier by being slipshod or second rate. It is part of his calling, his service to God. Yet this may at first seem rather ridiculous. How could a person whose job it is to serve dinners at school, or to make parts for sewing machines, or to manage people on a factory floor, be serving God? Is not such language merely religious rhetoric? Is it not pious talk which amounts to little? Such language can merely be pious talk but it need not and ought not to be.1”
Helm confronts the pagan notion that leisure is good and work is bad by reminding Christians of the imago Dei. As divine image bearers, human beings not only reflect who God is, but what God does. The Creator delights in that which He has made. For this reason, so must the believer.
“The Bible tells us that the Lord takes pleasure in His creation (Gen. 1:31) and in the redemption of the Church through Jesus Christ (Eph. 1:5). And the glorifying of God consists largely in the display of God’s character in various different activities. As a Christian a person is called on to be re-creative, to become, as Adam was, God’s steward; and one of the ways in which this creativity is exercised is in the use and development of those various powers and combinations of powers that God has given to him. The Christian honours God when, like God Himself, he takes pleasure in what he does.2”
1 Paul Helm, The Callings: The Gospel in the World (Edinburgh: Banner of Truth, 1987), 98-99.
2 Ibid., 104.