The economic crisis has forced our culture to confront deep questions about the purpose and value of our work. These questions matter now more than ever, as surveys show that as many as three-quarters of Americans have no sense of dignity or higher purpose in their jobs. Meanwhile, a faith and work movement has been exploding among American evangelicals, with tens of thousands of ministries reaching millions of people.

A recent empirical study found that Protestants suffer more distress from unemployment than others. The authors interpret this as evidence that Protestant faith motivates people to work. Some media outlets, even outside the church, have noticed their findings and asked whether the research proves the so-called Protestant work ethic.

This research is only the latest in a long series of studies to raise questions about calling and the spiritual meaning in our work. Tricky methodological issues make it difficult for social scientists to reach a consensus, but we don't need social science to know that God cares about our work.

American evangelicals have been rediscovering the precious truth that all honest work serves as a spiritual calling to fruitful and worshipful service (Gen. 2:15; Col. 3:22-24). That means everyone – not just religious professionals – has the opportunity to glorify God with their work. We shape ourselves into the kind of people God wants us to be in everything we do, not just in the few hours we spend engaged in church activities. Most of life is work, because God designed us that way.

This truth has been championed by Christians in every era. In a recent article in Leadership Journal, Chris Armstrong, professor of church history at Bethel Seminary, traces the concept of vocation from the New Testament through Gregory the Great, the monastic founders, and the German mystics of the High Middle Ages. The economic thought of Thomas Aquinas and the late-medieval Salamanca School also represented important steps forward in acknowledging how people's work advances God's purposes in the world.

That doesn't mean all the issues are clear and simple. Nothing shows the difficulty of understanding the relationship between work and faith more than our continued insistence on framing this issue as a debate over Max Weber's long-discredited theory of the Protestant work ethic. Weber argued that Protestants value work because they think prosperity is proof that you're saved; as anyone who knows anything about church history can tell you, this was and is slanderous nonsense. He also argued that teaching people that God values their work created an economic system that thrives on greed and materialism; as anyone who knows economic history can tell you, this is just as preposterous. Weber's theory has been almost universally dismissed by a century of theologians, historians, and economists.

Article continues below

Nonetheless, Weber's terms and categories continue to dominate popular discussions, because his approach strictly separates "facts" from "values." This allows secularists to think about possible cultural connections between faith and work while preserving a comfortable work/spirit dualism in their own lives. That dualism is exactly what the faith and work movement seeks to challenge. As long as Weber dominates the conversation it's difficult to get people to understand the message.

However, the idea that Protestantism impacts attitudes about work—which the recent research investigates—is not misplaced. The Protestant Reformation brought unique advances in our understanding of God's purposes for work and vocation. Luther's message that justification is by faith without the works of the law forced the church to discover God's purposes for daily work at a much deeper level. The first thesis in his 95 Theses states that "the whole life of believers" is to be transformed for Christ. When we forget that we serve God through all our work, we tend to focus on church activities and become unspiritual in the activity that takes up the majority of our lives.

Luther also showed that the gospel demands equal human dignity for ordinary workers. He stood up against the church hierarchy to defend the humanity, virtue, dignity, spirituality, and freedom of people in all economic and social stations. As Luther explains in his theses, the church can preach the gospel or it can legitimize a leisure class that sustains itself by exploiting the people who work for a living, but it cannot do both.

These concerns have enduring importance for our own time. As the church in America struggles to raise its level of discipleship and holiness, rediscovering vocation will be key to restoring a sense of consecration to God and obedience to his will in all things. Christians are blessed and encouraged in their vocational stewardship when their churches recognize the value of the service they render through their workaday lives. And as "knowledge workers," politicians, financiers, entertainers, and other elites are developing increasingly paternalistic attitudes toward ordinary people who do ordinary work, Christians should take a stand with Brother Martin for the dignity, virtue, and freedom of all workers.

Article continues below

Our culture's hunger for meaning and dignity in everyday work is a window through which Christians can shine the light of the gospel. No civilization can grow and flourish when its people spend the vast majority of their waking hours in an activity they find meaningless. The deepest root of our economic crisis is that people no longer find a worthy purpose in the daily practice of diligence, honesty, self-control, generosity, and service. This creates a timely moment for people to rediscover how God brings dignity and meaning to daily life.

Our theology equips us to help our neighbors understand why work is meaningful and where economic flourishing really comes from. We can challenge the comfortable work/spirit dualism of secularists, showing that the dignity of ordinary work is not an arbitrary "value" but a metaphysical fact. Helping our neighbors see the transcendent dignity of work will reveal to them the power and grace of God at the level where they really live their daily lives.

God has a mighty challenge in store for us. Let's get to work.

Greg Forster is a program director in the Faith, Work, and Economics program at The Kern Family Foundation.