The Theology of Work: A Reflection

PRESCRIPT: In 2016, I was generously invited to give the Keynote Address to the Uniting Church Vic/Tas Synod Justice and International Mission (JIM) Unit’s Annual Conference. The Conference theme was: “Making Working Lives Better: A Christian Perspective on the Future of Work”. What follows is an extended version of the text of my Address: “extended” in the sense that it contains additional material which I deleted from my delivered speech for timing reasons, but which I nonetheless think is relevant.

May the grace and peace of our Lord, Jesus Christ, be with you all.

A reading from the Gospel According to Luke:

Now he was teaching in one of the synagogues on the Sabbath. And just then there appeared a woman with a spirit that had crippled her for eighteen years. She was bent over and was quite unable to stand up straight. When Jesus saw her, he called her over and said, “Woman, you are set free from your ailment.” When he laid his hands on her, immediately she stood up straight and began praising God. But the leader of the synagogue, indignant because Jesus had cured on the Sabbath, kept saying to the crowd, “There are six days on which work ought to be done; come on those days and be cured, and not on the Sabbath day.” But the Lord answered him and said, “You hypocrites! Does not each of you on the Sabbath untie his ox or his donkey from the manger, and lead it away to give it water? And ought not this woman, a daughter of Abraham whom Satan bound for eighteen long years, be set free from this bondage on the Sabbath day?” When he said this, all his opponents were put to shame; and the entire crowd was rejoicing at all the wonderful things that he was doing.


In accepting the invitation to provide the keynote address to this year’s JIM Convention, I realised that I had accepted an impossible commission: namely, the task of articulating – in 20 or so minutes – what the nature of work, and justice in the distribution of work and wealth, look like from a Christian perspective.  In other words, to spend less than half an hour talking about a Christian ethic and critique of work – a task that could easily fill many multiple-day conferences!

But my task is made all the more difficult because both an ethic and a critique of work cannot exist in a vacuum: they require a critical reflective framework that establishes the basic principles from which they proceed.  That is to say, in order to be Christian, an ethic or critique of work must also be theologically grounded: it must emerge from who Christians say God is, how the relationship between God and humanity operates, and the directive purpose to which that relationship points.  A Christian ethic or critique of work first requires an operative theology of work.

Unfortunately, no such theology exists[1]. Why is that absence important? Simply because it is essential that the Church take seriously the reality of work in human life – and everything which that reality implies for the Church’s ministry to the world; a world in which work has come to occupy a powerful – and powerfully destructive – place.  In the world of industrialised and internationalised economy, work is not merely a means for ensuring our physical survival, financial security, or consumer satisfaction.  Rather, work has come to occupy the central position in human self-understanding[2]: it has almost entirely colonized humanity’s daily existence; the workplace has become the primary social space within individualist society; and terms like “unemployed” are now thoroughly pejoratively loaded, as though work was the only valid employment with which human time could be occupied[3].

And yet, despite this centrality in human life, work has become less secure and less accessible; it is subject to ever-more powerful forces of market movement and technological innovation that lie well beyond the control of any worker or group of workers; and the very nature of work within industrialised economies has changed from one of skilled craftsmanship, through machine-dominated mass production, to information collation and analysis[4].  Agriculture and manufacturing, once the mainstays of Western economic life, now occupy a minority status within a landscape dominated by the service, information, and technology sectors[5]. Moreover, the ever-more efficient and productive possibilities of computerisation and automation raise the possibility of the human worker becoming permanently redundant[6].

It is this perfect storm of contradiction – of, on the one hand, the centrality of work in human life; and, on the other hand, of the forces which make that centrality highly problematic – that demands of the Church that it develop a theology of work that addresses work’s meaning, significance, and consequences.  Only once this is done can the Church hope to develop ethics and critiques of work that meaningfully address the impact of work from an authentically Christian perspective.

Therefore – and I hope you will forgive me – the presentation I will give you today will vary somewhat from the published schedule.  I will not be talking about the nature of work, or what the just distribution of work and wealth look like from a Christian perspective, except insofar as these may be inferred from what follows. Rather, I will talk about the theology of work and why the Church needs to undertake the task of bringing such a theology into being.


I began this presentation with a reading from The Gospel According to Luke precisely because subjection to oppressive forces that deform human life lie at the heart of Jesus’ encounter with the woman bent double. Whatever you understand to be the cause of her ailment is actually irrelevant.  What matters is that the person of this woman is representative of all the humanity that has ever been weighed down and crushed by overweening power – power that cuts people off from the fullness of human life, from one another, and from God.

In the 20-odd years of my involvement in the union movement in various capacities ranging from workplace delegate to paid official, I saw this narrative of oppression and destruction repeated on an almost daily basis.  And I saw people weighed down and crippled by that experience, until their lives were confined to as narrow a spectrum of possibilities as the tiny field of vision to which the woman bent double was confined by her ailment.

And it was precisely the same observation of the impact of work upon human life that caused the two founders of modern economic theory – Adam Smith and Karl Marx[7] – to place work at the heart of their political economies.  Moreover, central to their ideas about work was the concept of alienation: both Smith and Marx regarded alienation – the dehumanisation of work and the working person – as an inevitable consequence of industrialised labour[8].    Smith saw the situation as insoluble: the only way out was to possess enough wealth to not have to work; but the very possession of such wealth was in itself a source of alienation for everyone else[9].  Marx, on the other hand, regarded capitalism as an intermediary stage in human economic evolution[10], one that would inevitably collapse as a consequence of its own internal contradictions; but whose departure could be hastened by workers overcoming their alienation and taking control of the means of production.

By making alienation the essential experience of industrialised work, Smith and Marx made the observation that modernity’s construction of work is deeply dehumanising precisely because it commoditises the human person and makes work, not an end in itself, but the means to an end that has nothing to do with the worker’s own humanity[11].

But this is precisely where the passage from Luke cuts across both Smith and Marx, and the experience of work in modernity.  In his encounter with the woman bent double, Jesus’ response to her is a strident declaration that alienation is not normative, that it is, in fact, an aberration, the deforming operation of evil forces that distort human life.  Jesus’ act of healing is not a supernatural act of power; rather, it is an act of solidarity that opens the woman bent double to a new reality; a reality of dignity and liberation. Moreover, this new reality is not the result of either an escape or a revolution engineered by human power: rather, it is the direct result of the loving solidarity of God, embodied in Christ, which enters into the heart of her blighted existence, bringing reconciliation, restoration, and relationship.

In other words, this passage from Luke declares that the Kingdom of God is both drawing near and already among us: the healing and restoration which Jesus brings about are not pie-in-the-sky compensations for miseries suffered on earth; they are the work of the here-and-now, the labour of embodying and making real in the present that foreshadowing of the Kingdom to come. Or, as Christians declare in the Lord’s Prayer: the Father’s will being done on earth as in heaven.

And it is the Church that is tasked with this labour.  But the Church can only proclaim the Gospel into the reality of work from the basis of a genuine theology of work: a comprehensive critical reflection on the nature of work – and its consequences for the relation of humanity to God, to itself, and to the whole of creation[12]. Moreover, such a reflection cannot be limited to describing the role of work within creation: it must articulate the meaning of work within God’s purpose for creation.  A genuinely Christian theology of work must be both vocational – understanding work as part of humanity’s co-creativeness with God – as well as eschatological; it must locate work within the divine scheme of salvation that forms the directive purpose of creation itself[13].

Yet, why is it, given the centrality of work in modernity, that a theology of work doesn’t exist? Or why, at least, has the Uniting Church not developed such a theology?

The answer, quite simply, is that the Church has failed to take seriously the world of work as a legitimate subject for theological reflection[14]. The ethics and critiques of work which the Church has historically developed have for too long been considered sufficient for the purpose of responding to the reality of work. This assumption, however, has allowed a serious deficiency to emerge in the basis upon which the Church engages with the world; a deficiency which has grown to such proportions that it may go a long way to explaining why, in the Western world, people of working age are now largely absent from the Church.

Insofar as the Uniting Church is concerned, there are in my view a number of key causes as to why it has failed to develop a theology of work. These include:

  • Firstly, the Uniting Church is subject to a suburban captivity which continues to regard the local congregation as the hub of a village community, instead of recognising that most suburbs are near-empty dormitories whose populations are, at any given time, largely absent in the workplace. This captivity has not only resulted in insularity, parochialism, and fragmentation within the Uniting Church, it has also resulted in an addiction to attractional forms of “mission” whose fundamental purpose is not to witness to Christ in the world, but to gather recruits and preserve the status quo[15].
  • Secondly, the Uniting Church has become captive to a middle class liberalism that is often more interested in demonstrating its “progressive” credentials than it is in proclaiming the Gospel. Consequently, whilst this liberalism frequently – and correctly – identifies race and gender as sources of oppression and injustice, it just as frequently fails to recognise either class or the workplace itself as an equally destructive source of human degradation; indeed, it often dismisses or antagonises the working class by treating them as the source of racism and misogyny, rather than as the victims of an economically enforced narrative of cultural dispossession within which racism and misogyny flourish[16].
  • Thirdly, it has become somewhat common within the Uniting Church to replace theology with social justice activism. This is not to suggest that activism on social justice issues ought not be part of Christian life; rather, it is to make the point that activism in the absence of theological reflection fails to take seriously the connection between God’s preferential option for the poor and the oppressed and God’s prophetic activity in the world – or the eschatological purpose for creation to which that activity points.  Activism without theological foundations makes the church little more than a community service club with God added on as an optional extra.
  • Finally, the Uniting Church, like other Churches, has not only been captive to, but has actively conspired in, modernity’s bifurcation of life into the “private” realm of faith and the “public” world of work. This false dichotomy, which mirrors the false dichotomy people experience at work when the demand is made of them that they not introduce their “private” selves into the workplace and become instead unfeeling automata called “professionals” – has crippled the UCA’s capacity to meaningfully respond to the pastoral, prophetic, and teaching challenges which the centrality of work in modernity poses.  The degree of silent suffering that has arisen from work-related harm, and which has been allowed to continue unaddressed because of this sundering of faith from work, frankly does not bear thinking about[17].

In light of the above, from whence is a theology of work to emerge? The first thing I would like to say is that any genuinely Christian theology of work will acknowledge that work is both paid and unpaid, and takes place in the household and voluntary sector as much as it does in the factory or the office. Both Smith and Marx operated out of a patriarchal context which was blind to the work undertaken by women at home, as well as the voluntary work which women also largely performed within social welfare agencies.  But just as the reading from Luke cuts across Smith and Marx’s conviction that alienation in work is inevitable, so also a theology of work will cut across their blindness to the multiplicity of forms in which work occurs, the contexts in which it is undertaken, and the people by whom it is performed.

Insofar as the Uniting Church developing a theology of work is concerned, it is a perhaps tragic irony that it has all along possessed an agency capable of undertaking that task; by which I mean the Creative Ministries Network. At this point, I would like to publicly declare my interest as a member of the Interim Board of Governance of the CMN. But that is not why I mention the CMN now; rather, it is because the CMN is unique among the agencies of the Uniting Church because of its engagement with the world of work

Founded as the Urban Ministries Network in the 1970s by a group of ministers who had left congregational ministry for secular employment, but who were marginalised by the Church because they did not occupy “recognised” placements[18], CMN has produced a substantial body of research illustrating the significance and consequences of work in modernity.  It has implemented a pastoral ministry that seeks to companion and attend to the grief and suffering of those harmed by work, honouring the process of healing over time rather than treating the bereaved as a problem to be solved within a given timeframe or for particular statistical purposes.  CMN has sponsored creative arts projects that have explored the grimmer realities of work in human life, as well as the prophetic and redemptive Word which God speaks into those realities. It has also fostered peace-making initiatives that facilitate restorative justice for working people as well as Indigenous and international communities.

From this ministry, CMN has identified three markers that point the way toward the transformation of work: healing, justice, and reconciliation. This discernment represents the fruit of over 30 years’ engagement with the world of work, and surely suggests the outline along which the Uniting Church might itself develop a theology of work. Indeed, how it might develop a theology that challenges Christians to identify that which is alienating in our work, and which asks us to discern where God’s Spirit is calling us into new life[19]. Personally, I think it is past high time that this potential was allowed to reach fruition.

Moreover, I think it necessary that the Uniting Church develop a theology of work, not just so that it can meaningfully engage modern humanity’s primary reality, but in order for the UCA to reflect upon its own status as an employer, and its own complicity in the dehumanising potentials of work.  Such reflection can only occur through a theological framework that holds the Church accountable to the same prophetic and redemptive Word which God speaks to the secular world of work.  In the reading from Luke, Jesus attacks the hypocrisy of religious leaders who, even on the Sabbath, liberate their animals so they might be fed and watered, but who object to Jesus liberating a “daughter of Abraham” so that she might be freed from oppression and humiliation.  If the Uniting Church fails to develop a theology of work from which it can reflect upon and critique its own conduct as an employer, as well as its membership of, and contribution to, wider economic and social life as a community of workers, the world will rightly dismiss the Church’s critiques of work, economic policy, and industrial relations as hypocritical and self-serving.  Such a theology of work will demand of all Churches a significant commitment to truth-telling, up to and including a recognition of the ways in which dissenting voices within the Church are silenced by appeals to Scriptural or theological nostrums.

More positively, a theology of work will enable the Uniting Church to draw links between its own inner life and the critique it can offer to the secular world.  One such link exists in the theology of stipend.  Most mainline churches hold a theology of stipend, which recognises the need of the clergy to be liberated from concern about the physical maintenance of themselves and their families, in order that they might fully devote themselves to the vocation of ministry.  This stipend is not an exchange of cash for labour – the very process which Marx argued commoditised the human worker and resulted in alienation. Rather, it is an act of liberation that frees the minister to fully embrace their vocation.

Imagine, therefore, the liberating potential which a theology of stipend might offer the world of work: it would not only overcome the alienating effect of commoditisation, it would also hold the potential to eliminate the vicious competition – based on power – that characterises the negotiation of workplace terms and conditions. Such an outcome could enable employers and employees alike to embrace the joyful fruits of healing, justice, and reconciliation which we have heard articulated in the passage from Luke.

Unfortunately, the Uniting Church, along with other churches, undermines this liberating potential by insisting that those who receive a stipend are “spiritual servants” and not employees, and that in regard to such persons the Church is not bound by industrial law. In other words, instead of exchanging cash for labour, the theology of stipend as it is practically implemented exchanges cash for equality under the law.  Moreover, the manner in which this theology is applied encourages ministers to buy into the “spiritual servant” trope and thus not to think of themselves as workers, to be uncomfortable talking about their own remuneration, and accordingly to participate in a self-inflicted blindness to their own exploitation as workers, and the harm which that exploitation inflicts upon their humanity.

A theology of work, however, could constructively help every Christian tradition by drawing attention both to the positive implications of a theology of stipend and the degrading realities which its misapplication perpetuates.  This would enable the Church to both align its own internal practices with the biblical witness of God’s abundant faithfulness, as well as offer these same insights to the world with authenticity and integrity.

In conclusion, let me return to where we began – the reading from Luke.  Modernity and its narrative of the autonomous individual encourages us to appeal to our own activist spirit, to correct by acts of power the ailments that afflict our essential selves.  The extent to which the Church itself has succumbed to this narrative may be reflected in the many acts of power by which the Church attempts to correct ailments of its inner spirit.  But the reading from Luke calls us to present ourselves, not before the idol of our own presumption, but before the compassion of Christ, who sees our crippled spirit and who invites us into healing and redemption.  The identification of the deforming impact of work is embodied in Jesus noticing the woman bent double; God’s prophetic judgement upon that deforming impact is represented both by the healing act and the rebuke to the religious leaders; and the reconciling work of that judgement is rendered in the joyful solidarity which the healed woman shares with the rest of the people in their praise of God.

If the world of work is to experience the fruits of healing, justice, and liberation which are proclaimed in this reading from Luke, then the development of a theology of work is one of the Church’s most critically important tasks.  A theology of work, properly conceived and developed, will enable all Christian traditions to not only speak into the reality of work, but to understand their own identity as communities of people who work.  Thus the need for healing which we understand to be present within human work will come to be understood as our need also; and this shared understanding will enable the kind of truth-telling that provides a place for the wounded healers among us, which models the way work causes and perpetuates harm, and which encourages the Christian community to bear witness to Christ’s healing grace.

Jesus commissioned all those who would follow him to take the Good News into the world, and into all the realities of human life.  The failure of the Church to engage the centrality of work in modernity is a failure to live up to that commission.  But the opportunity to develop a theology of work not only represents a faithful recommitment to that commissioning, it also enables positive response to the justice, reconciliation and peace to which Christ invites us – the heavenly shalom that sees our crippled spirit and which commands us to be crippled no more, made whole and new by the love of God.

In the Name of the Father, and of the Son, and of the Holy Spirit. Amen.

[1] This statement requires clarification.  A number of theologians, chief among them Miroslav Volf, have proposed frameworks around which a theology of work might be constructed. However, as far as is known, none have been adopted as an “official” Christian theology of work. Likewise, while the series of papal encyclicals beginning with Rerum novarum in 1891 might be considered an “unofficial” theology of work, this is not the same as a comprehensive theological framework reflecting on the reality of work in human life.

[2] Volf, Miroslav Work In The Spirit: Toward A Theology of Work. Eugene: Wipf and Stock Publishers, 2001, p.3, 26-7

[3] As illustrated, for example, by politicians’ references to “lifters and leaners” – the latter category including those unemployed who are not “contributing” to society by being “gainfully” employed (ie: in paid employment)

[4] Volf, Miroslav, op. cit., p.27-8, 31-5. See also Bloomquist, Karen L. The Dream Betrayed: Religious Challenge of the Working Class. Minneapolis: Fortress Press, 1990, p.11-12.

[5] It should be noted that the service sector in particular is dominated by people who once worked as full-time employees but who, for a range of reasons, now work for themselves. The “self-employed” are a growing sector of the workforce, a reality which poses its own issues for work and its meaning in human life.

[6] Dunlop, Tim Why The Future Is Workless. Sydney: NewSouth Publishing/University of NSW Press Ltd, 2016, p.78-115

[7] Volf, Miroslav op. cit., p.47

[8] Ibid., p. 53-4, 58-60

[9] Ibid., p.50

[10] Ibid., p.61

[11] Bloomquist, Karen L. op. cit. p. 32-3

[12] Volf, Miroslav, op. cit., p.74

[13] Ibid., p.83-4

[14] Ibid., p.69

[15] Bottomley, John, and Wallace, Howard, Hope For Justice And Reconciliation: Isaiah’s Voice In An Australian Context. Melbourne: United Academic Press, 2012, p.85-88

[16] Bloomquist, Karen L., op. cit. p.12-14

[17] 2011 National Church Life Survey, cited in Bottomley, John On The Way Together: The Uniting Church’s 40 Years in the Wilderness.  St Kilda: Creative Ministries Network, 2014, p.26-30

[18] Bottomley, John Hard Work Never Killed Anybody: How The Idolisation of Work Sustains This Deadly Lie. Northcote: Morning Star Publications, 2015, p.13-14

[19] Ibid. p.15-18

(c) Copyright Brendan Byrne 2018. All rights reserved.