For much of Christian history, a sacred/secular divide was set up through the teachings of a fourth-century bishop Eusebius of Caesarea. He argued that there were two different types of calling in the world. The “perfect” life was a life given to church work, monastic life, to a priestly vocation. The “permitted” life was everything else, the task of making the world work. You might be a farmer, a mother, or a baker but that was only permitted, the perfect life was life in devoted service to Jesus.
In some sections of the church and maybe, at a subconscious level, for more of us than we’d like to admit, this distinction lingers on. Many of the conversations I’ve had with people about our work here in South Africa have often ended up revealing this divide. What is meaningful work? We have often attempted to allay the vocational anxiety of people we know doing what they perceive to be ‘less legitimate’ work than the work we do.
But all work has the aspect of the mundane, while some might imagine those of us in full-time ministry roll out of bed every morning glowing with purpose and a sense of meaning, the reality is that every job can become just that, a job. By saying that, I don’t want to downplay that our calling here has been deeply rewarding and a privilege, but some days you are just engaged in the kind of maintenance mode activities as everyone else, wondering, does this matter, does this count?
Over 500 years ago, the protestant reformation transformed Eusebius’ definition of the perfect life. The reformers were captivated by God’s activity in all the world, not just in the hallowed hall of religious institutions. The argument went that farming, mothering and shopkeeping could be as hallowed as any holy order you might seek to join. The reformers affirmed that those living with worshipful hearts to God in their work, those who contributed to the common flourishing of humanity towards the goal of God’s kingdom could enjoy the same dignity in their work as any bishop.
There has been somewhat of a revival of this faith and work movement in the last 20 or so years. Christian writers and pastors have recognised that the majority of their congregants are looking for a sense of meaning and integration between what they do Monday to Saturday and their worshipping life in the Church on a Sunday. It’s not enough to encourage church participation and programs but to equip the people of God, for the work of God in the spheres of society they spend their weeks.
Returning to Genesis for a moment, we see God create the context of creation as potential, not perfection (which I’ve written about previously
), and in this context, God places image bearers to work, keep and cultivate this creation. They are to take this creation somewhere, to increase the beauty, order and abundance that God has placed in creation.
Fast-forwarding to followers of Jesus now, we see Jesus reclaims the call given to Adam and breathes his resurrection power on his followers by the Spirit. He restores our call to be faithful image-bearers with the dual call to proclaim this good news that God has begun the work of restoration and to call us into that work.
Therefore, I have argued, that wherever followers of Jesus put their hands to work in the world to see the increase of beauty, order and abundance then that work is work which anticipates the new creation and has an inheritance in it.
Something of a rift in the church has appeared in these two callings though. Some argue that the emphasis is on the proclamation of God’s kingdom in words; evangelism, power ministry etc. While another group argues that proclaiming God’s kingdom is done through action; working for justice, equality and the like. Most in each group would affirm the importance of some form of both of these, but the key issue is emphasis and energy. Where to place and spend it.
The weakest forms of both of these emphases are plain to see. Proclaimers see the world as going to hell in a handbasket and call people to repent, believe and be saved to heaven upon their death. Justice workers do good works in the world but tend to downplay the societally embarrassing claims of Jesus as they do it if they don’t drift away from orthodox faith entirely.
Here, Scot McKnight, a New Testament professor at Northern Seminary enters the fray. He wants to place some serious bumps in the road of both of these approaches, and those ‘bumps’, he claims, are the scriptures themselves. What did Jesus mean when he spoke about the Kingdom, what did Paul mean? What did the Israelites and their prophets mean?
While one could argue that Israel before Jesus had misunderstood the kingdom a good bit, as evidenced by Jesus’ pronouncement of judgement on the religious enterprise of his day, at the same time he claims to fulfil not abolish what Jewish people had held to all those years.
McKnight after examining the New and Old Testament, as well as Josephus and the Dead Sea scrolls argues that there are 5 irreducible elements to a biblical definition of Kingdom;
1. A King: A Kingdom needs to have a king.
2. A Rule: The King needs to rule, by redeeming them into his rule from slavery (salvation) and governing them (Lordship).
3. A People: The King has a people
4. A Will: In biblical terms, this is seen in the Old Testament when God gives the 10 commandments as his intention for how to live, and in the New Testament in the sermon on the mount and the teachings of Paul on how to live in the Christian community.
5. A Land: This is a clear connection in the Old Testament, that the people of God need a land where they can dwell with God as in the garden. It is seen in the tabernacle, and then the temple, then in Jesus
McKnight argues that we need to take our use of the word Kingdom and put it through these 5 tests.
Much of what we might like to call Kingdom, he goes on to argue, may end up appearing to be more like what New Testament writers call “good works”. Good things are done by good people for the sake of the common good, but if these elements above are not present he doesn’t think it passes the test for being called Kingdom work.
What I think is helpful here is that when Christians, as I have, move into the world to pursue goodness and justice for the sake of the ‘least’, there can quickly become a disconnect. What starts out as a gospel-motivated pursuit for goodness (on earth as it is in heaven, so to speak), becomes flattened. Our aim, goals and values become stand-alone, we do good for goodness sake without recognising that;
a) Only God is good and that kind of goodness must break into earth from heaven not simply from earth.
b) Goodness is defined by, is rooted in and encompassed by God’s very self
When we subtly disconnect the aims, goals and values of our work from God, he ceases to, in practical terms, be Lord over them. We can ‘take the land’ as it were, but the King is conspicuously absent.
While the reformation restored value for ‘this world’ it also opened the door to forgetting heaven. Our language about “on earth as it is in heaven” can become flattened and our worldly efforts become just that, a flattened attempt at utopia without the need for God.
The new Jerusalem where God dwells with his people, wrongs are finally put right and there is no more suffering is not a bottom-up project. The New Jerusalem descends from heaven (Rev 21:2,10) and is an accomplishment of the risen, conquering lamb not our work.
So while our work in the world testifies to, foreshadows and anticipates God’s kingdom come, our worship reminds us that in order for the world to be made new, for God’s Kingdom to fully come we need the King on his throne, in the land, with his people under his rule and reign.