It’s lunchtime. A young mother sits on the bench, painting her eight-month-old’s face with food—that mouth is hard to find. With her spare third eye she watches her toddler negotiate the finer points of park etiquette with the oversized gorilla who isn’t interested in sharing the springy rocker thing—he’s four! For just a moment she gives herself permission to dream about being the council worker digging a trench on the other side of the park. What a life!
Oblivious to his starring role in another’s dreams, the labourer leans on his shovel and watches the suit run through the gardens. The suit isn’t in his suit because it’s lunchtime and he’s part of the get-sweaty brigade. The trench digger mumbles something to himself about ‘an honest day’s labour’ as he attacks the trench with renewed vigour.
The suit spies his old work colleague managing her two charges and jogs over. “How’s the holiday?” he asks, never having spent more than two minutes with a toddler in his life. They exchange pleasantries and both of them notice the priest talking earnestly to the old couple on the other bench. (They can tell he’s a priest because he’s dressed in black and has a funny collar.) They both agree that he should get a real job. The suit jogs off as the toddler breaks into a howl. The negotiations haven’t gone well.
This scenario is, of course, entirely fictitious. But it helpfully raises some of the difficulties that we face when it comes to thinking about work. First: work is so closely tied to our sense of self-worth that it’s a difficult subject for us to be objective about. What God thinks that work is, and what he thinks about the work that I do, cannot be separated in our hearts from the very significance and value of our lives. As a result, many of us have ideas about work that we cherish as Christian, whether we have examined them biblically or not.
Second, and in an entirely different direction, when we speak about work, what exactly are we speaking about? Is the suit working when he runs? Would it be different if he were a triathlete? Can the young mum really call it work when she does it for nothing? Is mental labour different to physical labour? What makes work work?
And finally, into the midst of all of this, if our purpose is to speak biblically and Christianly about work, we enter yet another minefield. Is there a distinction between ‘gospel work’ and ‘secular work’? Is all work the same, and does it always glorify God?
This last question in particular has become a hotly-debated topic in evangelical circles in recent years. My contention in this series of articles is that much of the debate centres on a misunderstanding of three key biblical ideas that have been misrepresented and misunderstood. Hopefully, as we look at each of these ideas, you will rapidly see why they are important. Whether my explanation of what the Bible actually says about them is accurate, I will leave you to judge. But I am hoping that these articles will stimulate us to keep thinking about the nature of the work that God has given us in Christ, as his people.
The ideas we are going to examine are: (1) the cultural mandate, (2) the doctrine of vocation, and (3) our understanding of value and work in light of the gospel.
The cultural mandate
Our first key biblical idea is the cultural mandate. And to investigate it, you have to know what it is! I’m not usually an advocate of Wikipedia when it comes to theological issues, but on this occasion, it’s pretty much spot on:
The cultural mandate or creation mandate is the divine injunction found in Genesis 1:28, in which God (YHWH), after having created the world and all in it, ascribes to humankind the tasks of filling, subduing, and ruling over the earth. It has served as a basis among both Christian and Jewish peoples for all manner of cultural activities: economic engagement, scientific inquiry, literary exploration, military expansion, and alternately, exploitative as well as conservationist responses to the natural environment.1
The key thing to note is where the issue lies. Most Christians (and most Jews!) agree that God said that we were to “be fruitful and multiply and fill the earth and subdue it”. The real question is: what did he mean? And that’s what the rest of this article is about. What exactly do God’s words in Genesis mean for us today?
A brief history of an idea
From the church fathers onwards, the words of Genesis 1:28 have played a significant role in how we talk about the purpose of humanity, but these words have formed the basis for almost entirely opposed views.2 The main issues surround a few key questions. But perhaps the most important one is this: does the cultural mandate describe (a) our current state, (b) a previous state that has been lost to humanity, or (c) a future state that we will one day occupy?3
This is an important question because how you answer it shapes how you speak about human work. One strand of thought (coming from the church fathers and Aquinas) is that the cultural mandate describes humanity’s present status. We are, right now, rulers of the world. And we are rulers (according to most) by virtue of our reason. Our ability to think about the world makes us like God and allows us to understand and manipulate the creation. Our rule is seen in things like our power over the animal kingdom and our ability to create and reshape our environment.
But for Augustine, and even more so for Luther, the status and task of ruling was something that was given to Adam and Eve but almost entirely obliterated by the fall. While they would agree that we have a limited power over the birds and animals, they would contend that most of our lives in fact display our inability to rule. For both of these men, humanity does not rule now; rather we wait to rule in the new heavens and new earth as a result of belonging to Christ. In the here and now, our work is to participate in Christ’s rule by living godly and holy lives.
Which brings us to the key question. Do we, as we work in the world, act to establish or progress God’s rule over creation by bringing more and more of the world under our control through our technological prowess? Or are we people who can only wait to inherit our rightful position as rulers? And as such, are our current actions merely bandaids for a dying world?
What does the Bible say?
At least part of the reason that the cultural mandate has given rise to such differing opinions is the relative scarcity of biblical material. For a verse that has played such a significant theological role in our understanding of ourselves, it is hardly mentioned in the rest of the Bible.
Despite a few allusions in the Old Testament, the only clear reference to the idea of humanity’s dominion and its connection to God’s words in the beginning occurs in Psalm 8. What does the Psalmist say?
When I look at your heavens, the work of your fingers,
the moon and the stars, which you have set in place,
what is man that you are mindful of him,
and the son of man that you care for him?
Yet you have made him a little lower than the heavenly beings
and crowned him with glory and honour.
You have given him dominion over the works of your hands;
you have put all things under his feet,
all sheep and oxen,
and also the beasts of the field,
the birds of the heavens, and the fish of the sea,
whatever passes along the paths of the seas. (Ps 8:3-8)
The psalm is a song of awe and wonder. The Psalmist examines the heavens and the works of God and he wonders about the place of humanity. Why are we treated with such honour and power when we are so small in comparison to everything else that God has made?
But the question of Genesis 1 still remains: why does the Psalmist think that humanity has been crowned with glory and honour? Is it because he looks at the world and can see human beings in control? Or is it because he knows the words of Genesis 1 and so by revelation understands that we have some sort of dominion, even though it is not immediately obvious?
While this question is difficult to answer on the basis of Psalm 8 alone, there is at least a hint here. The fact that the Psalmist notices our smallness, even as he remembers the words of God that we are rulers, is an indication that human dominion is not obvious. So how are we to answer our question?
The key lies in seeing that what begins as a gentle current in Psalm 8 becomes a swirling torrent by the time it reaches the banks of the New Testament. We come to understand what the Psalmist was talking about, and indeed what God meant in Genesis, when we come to see where these words land in Christ.
The New Testament fulfilment
Somewhat remarkably for a set of verses that have been used to explain the whole history of human technological progress, they are not used anywhere in the New Testament with reference to us. In fact, the dominion language of Genesis 1 and Psalm 8 aren’t applied anywhere in the New Testament apart from the one true man, Jesus Christ. There are only a handful of references to Genesis 1:26-28 and to Psalm 8 in the New Testament, and most of them are on other topics. There are really only three key applications of the dominion language of Psalm 8, and every one of those is directly related to Jesus. The three key passages all apply the idea of the subjection of all things, not to humanity at large, but to Jesus in particular.
In Ephesians 1, Paul wants us to have the power of God’s Spirit so that we will know the extent of his power at work for us when he:
…raised [Christ] from the dead and seated him at his right hand in the heavenly places, far above all rule and authority and power and dominion, and above every name that is named, not only in this age but also in the one to come. And he put all things under his feet and gave him as head over all things to the church, which is his body, the fullness of him who fills all in all. (Eph 1:20-23)
In 1 Corinthians 15, the emphasis again falls on Christ as the one under whom all things are made subject:
For he must reign until he has put all his enemies under his feet. The last enemy to be destroyed is death. For “God has put all things in subjection under his feet.” But when it says, “all things are put in subjection,” it is plain that he is excepted who put all things in subjection under him. When all things are subjected to him, then the Son himself will also be subjected to him who put all things in subjection under him, that God may be all in all. (1 Cor 15:25-28)
And finally, in Hebrews 2, the argument of Psalm 8 is spelled out in full:
For it was not to angels that God subjected the world to come, of which we are speaking. It has been testified somewhere,
“What is man, that you are mindful of him,
or the son of man, that you care for him?
You made him for a little while lower than the angels;
you have crowned him with glory and honour,
putting everything in subjection under his feet.”
Now in putting everything in subjection to him, he left nothing outside his control. At present, we do not yet see everything in subjection to him. But we see him who for a little while was made lower than the angels, namely Jesus, crowned with glory and honour because of the suffering of death, so that by the grace of God he might taste death for everyone. (Hebrews 2:5-9)
In each of these passages, the words of Psalm 8 “you have crowned him with glory and honour, putting everything in subjection under his feet”, are not primarily words about all people everywhere; they are particularly about Christ. And what Hebrews makes absolutely explicit is that they are not words that are currently fulfilled in human beings in our world. Anyone who takes a moment to observe the world in which we live may see the hints that human beings have a place of privilege and honour. But what they absolutely won’t see is a world in which everything stands subject to human beings.
God’s word to humanity in the beginning—“be fruitful and multiply and fill the earth and subdue it, and have dominion over the fish of the sea and the birds of the heavens and over every living thing that moves on the earth”—was a word of promise—a word of promise that awaited its fulfilment in Christ. The Bible teaches us that dominion is not what we currently possess, but what we come to find through the Lordship of Jesus Christ.
This is, of course, part of the wonderful news of the gospel. One day we will share in the rule of Christ over the new heavens and the new earth (2 Tim 2:12; Rev 22:5). People like you and me were made to rule the world! But that rule awaits the return of Jesus.
So what does all of this have to say about our work? Much in every way!
Some implications for work
Firstly, with this picture in mind, we go back to the Genesis narrative and we realize that God knew from the very beginning that human beings weren’t going to subdue the creation by their collective genius. When “the Lord God took the man and put him in the garden of Eden to work it and keep it”, God wasn’t expecting that our hard work would bring about his plans for the world. God wasn’t intending to subdue the creation under our hands. That was a work that was always meant for Jesus.
What the entry of sin into the world shows us is not that if we had managed to avoid sin then our works would have completed God’s plan. Rather it reveals what God always planned, that his power, might and glory might be displayed through the rescuing work of Christ. Sin is part of God’s plan to show us who we are and to reveal himself to all of creation (Rom 11:32-36).
But this has some quite profound implications for our works (and by ‘works’ I mean everything that we do in this world that God has created). The first implication is a little tricky to tease out because of the way that the Bible speaks about our works. On the one hand, in God’s gracious kindness, our works will glorify him on the last day (Matt 5:16; 1 Pet 2:12). And the New Testament is replete with calls to do good works as those who belong to Christ. So we must be very careful about denigrating any works.
But the Bible also says that the works of our hands are not the way in which God will restore the world. In Romans 8, where we learn that the whole of creation is groaning as if in labour, we also learn that the release of the creation from its groaning is a ‘last day’ event. The creation is not released from its groaning by the sons of God doing a fantastic job, but rather by their revelation in Christ at his return (Rom 8:18-22).
There is a very real ambivalence about the significance of human labour in the Scriptures. Work is what God has given us to do in this world and through it God will glorify himself. But at the same time, the Bible is adamant that our work won’t fix the creation. We are to view all of our works as the life of obedience, just as Adam and Eve were to work for God’s rule in the garden at the beginning. But we must be equally convinced that we cannot bring about the new creation by our labours.
This speaks especially to a question that has been in vogue over recent decades, the question of the intrinsic value of work. “Surely”, it is argued, “work has a value beyond the things it produces. Work is about more than what it achieves. Surely work has a value in and of itself, just by being work, because God made it.” The implication is that any work is good because work is a good kind of thing that God has made.
A little reflection reveals the problem. The work that we do is not a thing in and of itself. Its value occurs in relationship to many other things. Brushing my teeth might be a good work. But brushing my teeth for two hours a day would probably not be a good work. Brushing my teeth out of love for others is likely to be a good thing. But brushing my teeth in order to have a perfect outward appearance so that people believe in the scam I am about to commit makes my teeth brushing something else. Our works and actions can’t be evaluated apart from the motives of our hearts and the nature of God’s creation.
Work is not an automatic good because it is created by God, rather human works are always the outworking of the human heart. Works will either reveal our desire to love and serve Jesus or they will be an expression of our rebellion.
This makes evaluating life in our world very difficult. Is the invention of the Internet, smart phones, or cars that can drive themselves an expression of the rule of humanity or our rank disobedience? And the answer is an unequivocal both! So to speak of work as ‘intrinsically’ good is to try and step into a space that the Bible is reluctant to occupy.
What is equally biblically clear is that the world will not be saved by our technological advancement. That is not to say that we can’t or shouldn’t use technological progress for the glory of God in the world (we are not supposed to end up as the Amish). But it is to say that technological advancement—being good at our work for our work’s sake—is not the chief end of man. What we must say most of all is that the cultural mandate is not going to be fulfilled by our working. It has already been fulfilled in Christ. Our works now are an outworking of our relationship with Jesus, but they are not the means by which God will re-create the world. (Although there is more to say about this in the coming articles.)
This leads us naturally to the second implication of our study so far for our thinking about work. In the New Testament, the emphasis on the life of good works in Christ is not limited to the job that you do. In fact, the Scriptures have very little to say about jobs in general and, as far as I can work out, almost nothing to say about careers at all.
On the jobs front, one of the only things that the New Testament has to say is that quite a few jobs that you and I might be tempted to think of as fields of ungodliness (like being a soldier or a tax-collector) are in fact perfectly acceptable occupations if they are undertaken with God’s values in mind (Luke 3:10-14). As far as I can work out, the only career paths clearly rejected by the Bible are thievery and prostitution (and the second of those only by inference).
Rather than speaking about our jobs, the New Testament speaks to us about the whole of our lives, and calls on us to do every work as someone who is committed to the lordship of Jesus. This of course covers the whole of our ‘working’ life. But the modern obsession with our ‘jobs’ is not a biblical invention. What we do when we are paid, just as what we do when we aren’t paid, is all to be for the glory of God.
And so rather than speaking about ‘work’ in our modern sense of that term, what God keeps talking to us about in the Scriptures are our good works—our whole lives lived as followers of Jesus. When we come to the Bible asking about our jobs, we need to be careful that we do not distort what the Bible says.
If this means anything at all, then it must mean that Christians need to stop evaluating their work by worldly standards. The job that we do is not who we are. And the ridiculous gap in status, prestige and social class between the wealthy elite and the working class has no place in Christian fellowship. Our work is not to find the perfect job or to chase the trappings of career. We must treat all as equals and evaluate work through God’s eyes.
Further, God does not say to us, “Whatever your job is, work as hard at it as you can, for your excellence will glorify me”. Instead he says, “Do good works in every part of your life”. What that means is that we need to move on and ask questions like: what place does our paid job have in a life of good works? And are some works more valuable than others, or should we just do whatever our hand finds to do?
Those are questions that will wait for next time. For the moment, we ought to stop and remember that the cultural mandate, God’s command to fill and subdue the earth is not fulfilled in our works but in the work of that one great human being the Lord Jesus Christ. God’s plan for our lives is not primarily that we might find a cure for cancer or unite the banking systems of the world or even build the perfect bridge. His plan for us is that we might find our identity and life in relationship with the Lord Jesus Christ. And that in him, we might do all of our works for the glory of God.
- ‘Cultural mandate’, Wikipedia, http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Cultural_mandate, viewed 27/11/2012. ↩
- As RE Manahan explains in his doctoral thesis: A re-examination of the cultural mandate: an analysis and evaluation of the dominion materials, 1982 (unpublished thesis, cited from http://faculty.gordon.edu/hu/bi/ted_hildebrandt/OTeSources/01-Genesis/Text/Books/Manahan-Cultural/Manahan-Cultural.htm). Much of what follows in this section comes from Manahan’s work. ↩
- Although they are sometimes spoken about separately, (b) and (c) are closely related to each other. ↩