This is part 2 of a 2-part mini-series on Work for Justice.
In Isaiah 1:2, the LORD accuses his children of rebellion against Him. The rebellion is named in 1:10. The LORD compares the rulers and people of Judah to the sins of Sodom and Gomorrah and then in 1:11-17 goes on to claim that they have a religion devoid of justice. He’s had enough of their sacrifices (modern day church attendance? Bible studies? Prayer nights?) without the corresponding justice He wants them to bring into the world.
This message should be potent for us. We as well have separated faith into a separate bucket where we focus on praying and reading the Word in small groups more but don’t connect the Word of God to everyday life. Some things are considered holy to put our attention to, like marriage and raising children; but the most of the rest of everyday life is not thought to be worthy of our energy—things like how we treat our employees, how we think about money/investments/retirement, recycling, the role and the form of education, music, our involvement in politics, our dealings with the poor/marginalized, etc.
One of the biggest problems with this is that it causes us to form our own sub-culture, huddled up among ourselves and unwilling/unable to influence the majority culture around us. For instance, we can boycott movies we disagree with, but are we putting forth our own high-quality content that competes? Often the answer is “no.”
Jesus-centered values are absent from majority society precisely because we have failed to teach Jesus followers in the media, arts, corporations, and universities how their faith relates to their work. Consequently, justice is not as high a priority as it should be, and the widows and orphans take the hit (Isaiah 1:17). We are often afraid to engage “the world” because we think dealings with the world are bad. Let’s take a closer look.
Christians Engaging Culture
We are told in Romans 12:2 not to be conformed to the pattern of this world. In John 18:36 Jesus told Pilate that His Kingdom was not of this world, and in John 15:19 Jesus said we do not belong to this world. The problem is that there are several meanings of the word, “world” in the Bible and we get confused going back and forth among them.
One refers to the sinful aspects of life under the sun. That is what Romans 12:2 is talking about. Another is geographical, as in “this gospel of the Kingdom will be preached throughout the whole world…” (Matthew 24:14). Lastly, “world” can refer to God’s created order. This is what God created and seeks to restore and redeem, which is why He can say that God so loved the world that He sent Jesus not to condemn the world but to save it (John 3:16-17). 1 John 2:15 can instruct us not to love the world, and John 3:16 can tell us that God so loved the world, because they are speaking of two distinct concepts using the same Greek word “kosmos.” Therefore, we should not read, “My Kingdom is not of this world” as though Jesus cares nothing for the kosmos that God created and is actively restoring.
Lifeboat or Ark?
In the words of Paul Marshall, we often have a lifeboat theology instead of an Ark theology. In lifeboat theology, we get in a lifeboat to save ourselves from a sinking ship. In the Ark, Noah acted as a preserver of all forms of life while God’s judgment sat over creation to cleanse it. Everyone was later supposed to leave the Ark and restore creation. We cannot abandon the world around us that desperately needs justice; we need to actively engage it.
Sin doesn’t create; it only mars and destroys. It has no originality but is only a parasite, latching on to what is good and sucking life from it. Work can not only repair and restore what sin has marred—it can also create.
We shouldn’t choose between the false dichotomy of knowing the Bible or knowing the world; rather, we should know the world biblically. We shouldn’t choose between working for the Kingdom of God and working in the world; we should work in the world for the King.
Paul and Work
Paul’s very argument to the Thessalonians about working and eating (2 Thessalonians 3:10) was made because people got too focused on Jesus’ second coming and didn’t want to work. Paul told them not to think like that. Even though most believed Jesus’ return to be imminent, Paul still told them to work with their own hands and contribute to the greater good.
Paul talks a lot about work, and it isn’t always easy to figure out if he is talking about church work or regular labor because he himself didn’t distinguish between the two either in value or in practice. In fact, because of how much he valued working with his hands, you could read the following verses and struggle to make a distinction – in other words, he is likely speaking of both at the same time:
[A]nd we labor, working with our own hands. When reviled, we bless; when persecuted, we endure… – 1 Corinthians 4:12
But by the grace of God I am what I am, and his grace toward me was not in vain. On the contrary, I worked harder than any of them, though it was not I, but the grace of God that is with me. – 1 Corinthians 15:10 (he is likely meaning he worked towards making disciples and with his hands at the same time here, which is why he worked harder than the rest)
I am afraid I may have labored over you in vain – Galatians 4:11
[H]olding fast to the word of life, so that in the day of Christ I may be proud that I did not run in vain or labor in vain. – Philippians 2:16
For this I toil, struggling with all his energy that he powerfully works within me. – Colossians 1:29
We ask you, brothers, to respect those who labor among you and are over you in the Lord and admonish you, and to esteem them very highly in love because of their work. Be at peace among yourselves. – 1 Thessalonians 5:12-13
We have taught ourselves that there holy and there is less-holy. But work should be viewed as holy so long as it seeks to glorify God in the world and bring His Kingdom via bringing His justice to society. Giving dignity to least-reached peoples by employing them with fair wages, excellent working conditions, and loving them is an excellent way to plant the Gospel in a hostile culture.
Greg is the President of OPEN USA. He used his education to work as a tentmaker in the Middle East for 8.5 years seeking to plant a church amongst a least-reached people group. Currently back in the USA with his wife and children, they aim to return to finish what the LORD used them to start.
To learn more about B4T, read Business for Transformation by Patrick Lai.