Work ethics in Christian ministry

One of the great blessings of working in full-time Christian ministry is the flexibility and freedom to design your own week and hours. But this is a mixed blessing—the work ethics of Christian ministers vary wildly between workaholism and laziness. What should a Christian minister’s work ethic look like? Is full-time Christian ministry really work or a reprieve from work? Is there a place for rest? In order to grapple with this issue properly we need to examine some larger theological issues regarding work, rest and time.

Genesis presents two aspects of work for humanity: dominion and toil. As God’s image-bearers our work is to exercise dominion over the earth (Gen 1:26-28). Work is not a necessary evil, nor is it the opposite of rest, since Adam was placed in the garden to work it in the context of the day of rest (Gen 2:1-3, 15). Work is a good gift of God, but as a result of sin and the curse work has become toil. Our work is frustrated and no longer fully compatible with rest (Gen 3:17-19).

While we do not see humanity ruling as God intended, we do see Jesus expressing true dominion over the earth (Heb 2:5-9). The initial chapters of Mark in particular display Jesus’ sovereignty (Mark 1:29-34, 4:35-41, 5:21-43), a pre-eminence over all creation ultimately displayed on the cross (Phil 2; Eph 1:10).

And so Christ’s work restores the dominion of humanity. The primary work that every Christian is called to is living under the rule of Christ and calling others to do the same. This is ‘gospel work’.

But if this is the primary work for every Christian, how should we understand secular work as a doctor, teacher, gardener, or anything else? Throughout his letters Paul urges us not to work towards producing the new creation (that’s Jesus’ work), but to live out what has already been made a reality in our lives in light of the future. We are all ‘gospel workers’ in this sense, and can thus carry out secular work acknowledging in various ways the dominion of Christ and the word of the gospel. Gospel work is not an alternative to secular work—it is the context of the entire Christian life.

Every aspect of our lives is marred by sin, and although work should point to Jesus and contribute to evangelism, it often becomes a distraction and an end in itself, separate from God’s mission. For example, even though marriage testifies to God’s goodness and the gospel of Jesus, it can become a distraction from Jesus. Paul says the same of mourning, being happy, buying and dealing with the world generally (1 Cor 7:29-31). A married man or woman, or anyone involved in any worldly activity, including secular work, has divided interests (1 Cor 7:32-35). All work is valuable and a good context for pointing to Christ, but because of the toilsome nature of work in this world, it will to differing degrees constrain a person’s freedom to serve. The effect of each particular job on each particular person will depend on their gifts and situation in life (1 Cor 7:7).

Full-time Christian ministry is primarily just another type of work. It is a position with a set of responsibilities, tasks, accountability, and outcomes. This too, in our sinfulness, may become a distraction from ‘gospel’ work, as building a church or reputation become ends in themselves. Yet full-time Christian ministry is in some senses also a setting aside from the distractions of secular work to focus more specifically on pointing to Jesus’ rule over creation.

What kinds of work and rest patterns are appropriate under this approach to Christian ministry? If I am freed up from the demands of a secular job (for part or all of my week) should the urgency of the time drive me unceasingly? Is there any justification for rest as an end in itself? Or is rest only a necessary evil and a concession to my frail human body?

The answer is in the biblical priority of being over doing. It is the priority of godliness. Even in the midst of counselling against marriage, Paul commands the man who ‘burns with passion’ that he must marry, since it is better to be distracted by marriage than to live an unholy life (1 Cor 7:8-9, 36). Each person is to be faithful in the situation to which God has called them, not shirking responsibilities, even if they may be a distraction from mission (1 Cor 7:17-24). These last days are urgent times, when God’s patience means opportunity for repentance, yet our urgent mission must never compromise on holiness (2 Pet 3:9). Robert Banks suggests that the modern view of time warps our understanding of this urgency of the gospel.1 While man’s life used to be lived out against the backdrop of a cosmic drama involving God, mankind, heaven and hell, and creation and final judgement, our modern worldview focuses only on the narrow span of life allotted to each one of us. This human-centric view of life, along with the prominence of utilitarian thinking and the ability to measure time precisely, has contributed to an unhelpful focus on hours, minutes and seconds. Time is seen as a commodity, and we seek to utilize every moment to achieve as much as possible.

Banks’ helpful response is to refocus our sights from our clocks and our ‘doing’ to ‘being’ and relationships. He reminds us that ‘becoming like Christ’ is more important than ‘getting things done’. We need to find our identity in Christ and dwell in him, focusing on Christ’s achievement and not our own.

So we focus on relationships: firstly on our relationship with God, spending time with him in prayer and in his word; secondly on our relationships with others under our care, such as our family, or our congregation; thirdly on our relationships with unbelievers as we ‘make the most of every opportunity’. The urgency of the time demands that we work hard at these relationships, building others up and sacrificially serving for the cause of Christ.

So, how then do we spend our time?

Firstly, living under and calling others to live under the dominion of Christ is the work to which all Christians are called. This is the context for all work, both secular work and full-time Christian ministry. ‘Gospel work’ is what we are to be doing, all the time.

Secondly, Christian ministry is not just a job. In my denomination I am paid a stipend so that I don’t have to work a secular job and can devote all my energy to serving and building up God’s people. Gospel work is what we are to be doing, all the time, and Christian ministers have the privilege of fewer distractions from that work. The urgency of the gospel demands that we devote ourselves, that we beat our body and make it our slave for the sake of the kingdom of God.

Thirdly, our priority is being not doing. This means that devoting all our energies to serving and building up God’s people need not lead to workaholic. Patterns of rest reinforce our doctrine of justification by faith because they say, “I can stop working and the world won’t stop turning; God is at work and it is he alone who saves”. We can take time to know and love God, and enjoy the rest we have with him by reflection on his word, prayer, and through the relaxation and exercise necessary to refresh and focus our bodies and minds. Patterns of rest also anticipate and help us to focus on the ultimate rest we look forward to in the new creation with God—enjoying him forever.

Finally, this will all look different depending on the network of relationships in which we find ourselves. Our focus will be relationships, not tasks. If we are married then obviously our attention is divided with relationships at church. However, if we are single our own godliness surely demands that we establish healthy relationships of accountability and friendship that may or may not be within the congregation(s) under our care. These are not compromises that limit our gospel work, but merely different contexts in which we carry it out.


1 Robert J Banks, The Tyranny of Time: When 24 Hours is Not Enough, Wipf and Stock Publishers, Eugene, 1997, pp. 105-115.

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