As we come to this third article in our series on work, we need to remember again the question that we’re seeking to answer: what place does our work have as we seek to follow Jesus in God’s world? What I have been arguing up until this point is that this question is actually not quite right. A better question, in light of the gospel, is “What works should we do as followers of Jesus in God’s world?”
I suggested at the beginning of the series that this whole question comes to us in our current evangelical context wrapped in the question of whether there is a distinction between secular work and ‘full-time’ gospel ministry. Should I just do whatever I like because everything exists for God’s glory and there is no difference between being a plumber or a gospel preacher, or does the message about Jesus call me to invest my time into being a Sunday school teacher rather than an optometrist?
In this final article, I want to examine the way that the Bible talks about the value of people and the priority of the works that we do. At the risk of boring you by revealing the conclusion up front, I want to suggest that the Bible’s position is complex. It says two things that are seemingly contradictory: (1) all people are equally valuable, and (2) some works are more important than others. To understand these two points, we are going to spend some time looking at 1 Corinthians 12-14. But before we start, there are a few things that we need to clear out of the way.
In every argument that we have, the argument is shaped by the questions that we ask. In the case of our questions about the value and significance of our work, there are actually a number of different questions that could be asked. For example, if I ask the question “Is being a pastor more godly than being a musician?” then of course the answer is no. But if I ask, “Should I spend as much time this week singing as I can, or should I spend as much time preparing and leading school Scripture?” is the answer the same?
What is usually assumed in our discussions on this issue is that the answer to the first question implies an answer to the second. And many people would say that the answer to the first question is no, and the answer to the second question depends on your calling. If you’re called to be a pastor, then you should spend more time leading school Scripture. If you’re called to be a singer, then you should spend more time singing.
However, if what we saw last time about the doctrine of vocation is true, then I want to argue that we aren’t really called to be pastors or singers (or electricians or doctors or assembly line workers); we are called to be Christians. And what I am going to suggest in the rest of this article is that as Christians, we are called to give priority to some works over others.
It’s time to turn to 1 Corinthians 12!
All equal in Christ
The context of this passage is a church full of people arguing about their gifts and their relative importance to the congregation. The congregation seems to be full of different kinds of people with spectacularly different gifts, and because of these differences some people don’t want to have anything to do with others in the congregation. Paul will have nothing to do with that. The nature of the gospel and the presence of God’s life-giving Spirit means that every person matters to God’s people.
God’s Spirit speaks it so beautifully in 1 Corinthians 12 that I just want you to read the passage slowly for yourself and drink it in.
For the body does not consist of one member but of many. If the foot should say, “Because I am not a hand, I do not belong to the body,” that would not make it any less a part of the body. And if the ear should say, “Because I am not an eye, I do not belong to the body,” that would not make it any less a part of the body. If the whole body were an eye, where would be the sense of hearing? If the whole body were an ear, where would be the sense of smell? But as it is, God arranged the members in the body, each one of them, as he chose. If all were a single member, where would the body be? As it is, there are many parts, yet one body. The eye cannot say to the hand, “I have no need of you,” nor again the head to the feet, “I have no need of you.” On the contrary, the parts of the body that seem to be weaker are indispensable, and on those parts of the body that we think less honorable we bestow the greater honor, and our unpresentable parts are treated with greater modesty, which our more presentable parts do not require. But God has so composed the body, giving greater honor to the part that lacked it, that there may be no division in the body, but that the members may have the same care for one another. If one member suffers, all suffer together; if one member is honored, all rejoice together. (1 Cor 12:14-26)
Paul’s absolute conviction is that the church is made the way God wants it. So when I sit in church on a Sunday and I look around, I ought to find people there who are wildly different to me. I ought to meet toenails and pancreases, knuckles and elbows, kidneys and eyeballs. And more than that, as someone who belongs to Jesus, I am called to see how each of them is necessary to the life of God’s people. I am to learn to rejoice in the gift that God has given me in them and them in me!
This is actually one of the things that I am very thankful for about the Church that I attend on Sunday mornings. I see people who live in houses with Sydney Harbour views rubbing shoulders with and serving morning-tea to the homeless. I see the CEO and the unemployed talking together about the things of God. It is a truly wondrous expression of God’s work in the gospel. Fundamental to the gospel is the truth that all human beings are equally valuable and that we must learn to treasure each one.
In fact, Paul would go so far as to say that we are to learn how to show special honour to the ones who would be least honourable in our society. That is an expression of gospel humility and grace in action.
Now, in terms of our original questions, 1 Corinthians 12 goes a long way to answering them. Is being a pastor more godly than being a musician? Of course not. All are equally valuable before God and should be treated as such by God’s people.
But here is where, for me at least, the argument of 1 Corinthians undergoes a mind-altering twist. If all people are equally valuable and we are to recognize our dependence on each other, then that must logically mean that everybody’s gifts are equal. That is certainly the logic of life in our world where someone’s function and value are so closely tied to each other. But as much as Paul insists that everybody is equally important for the life of God’s people, his argument moves in the totally opposite direction when it comes to gifts. Rather than saying that all gifts are equal, Paul says that because all people matter, then some gifts are more important than others.
Now you are the body of Christ and individually members of it. And God has appointed in the church first apostles, second prophets, third teachers, then miracles, then gifts of healing, helping, administrating, and various kinds of tongues. Are all apostles? Are all prophets? Are all teachers? Do all work miracles? Do all possess gifts of healing? Do all speak with tongues? Do all interpret? But earnestly desire the higher gifts. And I will show you a still more excellent way. (1 Cor 12:27-31)
To a modern mind, verses 27 to 31 of 1 Corinthians 12 are totally remarkable. Everyone matters equally. Yet God has appointed first apostles, second prophets, third teachers. In a world where everyone is equally valuable, God has still established an order to the gifts that he has given. Furthermore, the whole argument of the next two chapters is going to major on the idea that loving others means treasuring some gifts more than others. So much so, that those gifts are to be desired and sought after by everyone.
To try and summarize Paul’s argument in my own words: Because everyone is equally valuable before God, we ought to love them and seek most especially the gifts that are best for building them up.
So, what are the gifts that are best for building? They are the ones that involve speaking intelligible words for growing others in Christ. That is why prophecy is so much more valuable than tongues, even though tongues are also a gift from God.1
Now, this is not an isolated biblical idea. The primacy of gifts of speaking is not limited to 1 Corinthians. When Paul speaks about Christ’s gifts given to his church in Ephesians 4, he tells us that God has given apostles, prophets, evangelists, shepherds and teachers to equip the saints for the work of ministry so that the whole body might be built.
Each of the gifts given are again word gifts, and it only a takes a moment’s reflection to understand why. The persistent testimony of the New Testimony is that God works through his powerful words, by the indwelling work of his Holy Spirit to change people’s lives. Or as Romans 12 puts it, we are to be transformed by the renewal of our minds so that we might be able to live lives of faithful service.
It is God’s word read, marked, learned and inwardly digested through the gracious work of God’s Spirit that changes lives. And so Paul encourages God’s people to keep seeking opportunities to hear God’s word and to speak it to others. This isn’t to denigrate other aspects of the Christian life. Of course Christians are to live out their new life in love of their neighbour. In fact, there are special words reserved for those who are only talk and not action—and they are not pleasant words. By speaking of the primacy of gifts of speaking, God is not trying to tell us that all other gifts are irrelevant. But likewise, the fact that all gifts have their place does not nullify the importance or significance of the gifts of speaking.
With all of that in place, let’s get back to the issue that we posed at the beginning. How does this help us to think about the works that we do in Jesus?
The Bible holds two truths together that at first glance seem opposed to us. The Bible is able to claim that all people are equally valuable and, at the same time, that some gifts are more valuable than others. How do we live that out as God’s people?
First, we need to work as a Christian community at valuing what God values. We need to learn to value people for who they are—precious creatures created in the image of God. We must actually work at what Paul says—treating our least presentable parts with special care so all the members of Christ’s body “have the same care for one another” (1 Cor 12:25).
Does your church celebrate the strong and the successful? Are the more popular or the more able or the more wealthy given special treatment? These are things that must be removed from our life together. Churches need to find ways to acknowledge and celebrate those who are not naturally valued by the world such that we keep reminding ourselves that we all need each other.
Second, we need to work out how to express God’s priorities in the gospel in wise and healthy ways. This involves an ongoing challenge for most of us. On the one hand, we must be willing to give things up for the sake of Christ and of others. This will involve decisions that will be open to the accusation of asceticism. A gospel-hearted Christian will give up time on the PlayStation, or sharing life on Facebook, or a session of retail therapy, or an evening with friends for the sake of opportunities to preach the gospel and do good deeds. The Bible is clear that the gospel invites us to live like Jesus in self-sacrificial denial for the sake of others.
But what I mean by living out this priority in wise and healthy ways is that we must never, as we give up our lives for Jesus, do it in a way that leads us to asceticism or denies our freedom. Paul is adamant in 1 Timothy 4 that asceticism is a doctrine of demons. Rather, “everything created by God is good, and nothing is to be rejected if it is received with thanksgiving”. There are moments when taking a depressed friend to the movies, or sharing a beautiful meal, or even just sitting and watching the sunset and giving thanks to its creator is exactly the right thing to do.
For most of us, our problem is that we have a deeply inbuilt bias towards one side or the other of this equation. Either (a) someone mentions sitting and watching the sunset and we wonder secretly whether they’ve really got the priority of the gospel—“surely there are more important things to do!”—or (b) people talk about giving up their lives for the gospel and we wonder if they ever rest and we feel guilty because we are falling short of their marvellous example.
The greatest problem here is that ‘gospel priorities’ are things that need to be worked out in the mess of life, and in the context of God’s gracious goodness towards us. We need to understand the freedom that we have in Christ to live our lives for him—and to live in ways that look different to our neighbours who are doing the same daily ordinary things—while at the same time refusing to use our freedom as an excuse for our laziness or lack of conviction.
I think that we need to keep working at reminding each other of the importance of gospel ministry—it’s a priority for all of God’s people. That means that it’s worth stopping and asking questions like: Would I be better off working half a day less a week and teaching school Scripture? Should I give up playing football for the sake of spending time with the street evangelism team? The priority of the gospel means that we must be seeking, individually and corporately, to make the gospel known to our world.
But at the same time, we need to keep working at helping each other to feel freedom in this area. One person might choose to spend time sitting in a local park and striking up conversations. Someone else might join the local netball club and seek to share their faith in relationship as they enjoy God’s world with others. Another might be better suited to providing afternoon tea for the local kids club so that others can teach kids the gospel. I think that we need to find ways of creatively engaging the various gifts and talents of all the members of our congregations when seeking to see the gospel proclaimed to the entire world.
Thirdly, what the priority of the gospel must also mean is that we don’t hold back from unmasking the idolatry of careerism and calling on people to give up their careers for the sake of the gospel. Calling on people to think about missionary service (whether in their own country or in another) should be a part of every church’s life because the gospel calls on us to be concerned for the salvation of the world that we live in. To challenge some people to give up their career and move half way around the world to preach the gospel is not elevating some people over others. It is a concrete way in which our churches acknowledge the priority of the gospel. Most importantly, we need to see that it’s not just missionaries who need to give up their careers but all of us need to give up our careerism. We don’t live for the sake of our jobs. We live for the sake of the glory of Christ.
And because we live for the sake of Christ, we must acknowledge that the preaching of the gospel is a Christian priority. It is not the only thing that we will ever do, but likewise it is not exactly the same thing as mopping the floor or building a kitchen. We must learn how to express the priorities of the gospel both in our personal lives and in our congregational lives.
And so as we come to the end of this series on work, let’s stop and look at some final implications of the truths that we’ve seen.
If God’s commandment to fill the creation and rule over it is fulfilled first and foremost in Christ and then in us as we live for him, and if our vocation is not our job but the entirety of our lives, given to us to for the service of Christ, and if the gospel calls on us to acknowledge the value of all people by acknowledging that some tasks are more important than others, then how should we respond personally?
First, we need to prayerfully place ourselves before the Scriptures and continually ask God to help us to find our identity in Christ. Perhaps the cause of our greatest difficulty that we have is the way that we identify our value with our actions. Our world is so committed to us being what we do that nearly all of us identify ourselves by our work. It’s why I meet full-time mothers who describe themselves as “just a mum”, even though they’ve made thoughtful gospel decisions to spend time raising their children in Christ. We live in a world that values us by what we do—but we must learn to value ourselves and others in light of the gospel.
Second, as those who see the priority of the gospel, we need to prayerfully examine our lives and shape them around that priority. This will mean different decisions for different people, and it ought not to be a thing surrounded by feelings of guilt. We need to work at not worrying about what others think of us and we need to make our own decisions to place the gospel first in our lives.
Third, that will mean that many of us work in secular jobs—everything from cleaning to designing buildings to managing accounts to teaching. We will learn to see these jobs as gifts from God—part of the situation in life that God has given us so that we can learn to live for Jesus there. And we will encourage each other to work in such a way that our jobs honour Christ. We will respect and encourage and show grace and generosity in all of our work relationships—whether we’re relating to the CEO or the guy who comes in once a month to replace the bottles for the water cooler. We will ask Jesus to help us to work diligently and faithfully, even when we find the job boring or when nobody is watching. And we will persevere in trying to speak up for Christ whenever the opportunity presents itself.
Fourth, we will give thanks to God for our paid jobs, that through them we are provided for and enabled to be generous. Paul’s encouragement to the thief in Ephesians reminds us of the value of what is produced by our labour: “Let the thief no longer steal, but rather let him labour, doing honest work with his own hands, so that he may have something to share with anyone in need”. That our work produces money that enables our godliness—both in providing relief for those who are suffering and for the preaching of the gospel—is a great gift from God. Our labour matters, and the fruit of our labour matters.
Fifth, we will seek to remember continually that our jobs are only a part of what it means to do many good works in the name of Christ. There will be moments in life to examine how I work and why I work and how long I work, either because I am working too little (and ignoring my responsibilities to feed my family) or working too much (and ignoring my church family or my own growth in godliness).
A godly view of work will involve a great many challenges and encouragements, but most of all, it will involve understanding all of my works in light of the gospel. May God allow each of us to do that faithfully!
- This is basically the argument of the whole of 1 Corinthians 14. We’re not going to go into it in detail now, but you’d certainly benefit from reading it. ↩