|The Real Biblical Work Ethic
The New York dramatist, Elmer Rice (1892-1967), is best known for his 1923 play, The Adding Machine. foIts main character, Mr. Zero, spends 25 years of his life faithfully crunching numbers r a department store until he is replaced by a machine. In a fit of rage, Mr. Zero kills his boss, only to find himself adding and subtracting in hell. For Mr. Zero, life boiled down to punching a time clock and receiving a paycheck—it was a meaningless existence that led to a meaningless afterlife. In The Adding Machine, Rice satirized his perception of the Protestant work ethic. He was wrong. The Protestant or, better yet, Christian work ethic is about much more than punctuality and profit.
Rice’s dreary view of the work ethic is attributed to Max Weber, author of The Protestant Ethic and the Spirit of Capitalism, first published in 1905.1 Weber linked the Reformers’ exaltation of work with the rise of capitalist greed. This thesis must not go unanswered or God’s view of work will be lost. Two careful thinkers who did much to restore a biblical view of work are theologian Carl F. H. Henry (1913 -2003) and the British businessman and politician, Sir Fred Catherwood (1925 – ). Henry cut down the Weber thesis, arguing that the Christian work ethic is only loosely connected to the modern “success” ethic. Catherwood continued the discussion with a positive explanation as to what it means to be a “working” Christian.2
Fifty years after the debut of The Adding Machine, Henry confronted a generation of youth supposedly condemning capitalism by rebelling against the Protestant work ethic. Henry wanted them to understand capitalism is not equivalent to the Christian work ethic; in fact, secular society, as Henry put it, “is almost entirely severed from Christian roots.”3 Indeed, Henry attributed the “success ethic” of modern America more to the rags to riches stories of Horatio Alger (1832 – 1899) than the theology of Luther or Calvin.4 Scripture approves a hard day’s work (the heart of Alger’s philosophy), but when reduced to merely this, the Christian work ethic becomes a secular work ethic and, thus, a “radical rejection of Christianity . . . motivated more by spiritual rebellion than by ethical earnestness.”5 Henry was clear: simply working hard for profit is not working for God—God has a greater design for our labor.
Catherwood explained that God’s design for work is about more than punching a timecard and earning a paycheck; it’s about honoring God and loving neighbor. God is honored when His creatures reflect back His creativity and efficiency in making the heavens and the earth. Therefore, the Christian worker innovates, improves, and pushes himself to the very limit. According to Catherwood, the Christian “has a duty to train himself and develop his abilities, both academically and experimentally, to the limit that his other responsibilities allow . . . He should not stop until it is quite clear that he has reached his ceiling.”6 Furthermore, Christians love their neighbors by exemplifying a quiet lifestyle of hard work to their non-Christian friends. By obeying God’s command to work, the believer, said Catherwood, “demonstrates the nature and purpose of God to those who do not believe. . .”7 Indeed, hard work can be evangelistic!
Society needs the correctives offered by Henry and Catherwood. Not only has hard work fallen on hard times, but when the modern person hears of the “Protestant work ethic,” too often they think of nothing more than the grim world of The Adding Machine (which has been revived on stages throughout the U.S. and U.K.), the quiet despair of Willy Loman in Death of a Salesman, and the hollow life of an insurance actuary in Alexander Payne’s 2002 movie, About Schmidt.
It remains for the Church to tell a different tale, a better tale. . . .