Holier Than Thou? A Theology of Church Work vs. Other Work

Many Christians have the impression that church workers — especially evangelists, missionaries, pastors, priests, ministers and the like — have a higher calling than other workers.

While there is little in the Bible to support this impression, by the Middle Ages, “religious” life — as a monk or nun — was widely considered holier than ordinary life.

Regrettably, this distortion remains influential in churches of all traditions, even though the doctrine of virtually every church today affirms the equal value of the work of lay people. In the Bible, God calls individuals both to church-related and non-church-related work.

Is Church Work a Higher Calling?

by the Theology of Work Project

Calls to Church Work

Exodus 28:1

Then bring near to you your brother Aaron, and his sons with him, from among the Israelites, to serve me as priests — Aaron and Aaron’s sons, Nadab and Abihu, Eleazar and Ithamar.

Mark 1:16-17

As Jesus passed along the Sea of Galilee, he saw Simon and his brother Andrew casting a net into the sea—for they were fishermen. And Jesus said to them, “Follow me and I will make you fish for people.

Acts 13:2, 5

While they were worshiping the Lord and fasting, the Holy Spirit said, “Set apart for me Barnabas and Saul for the work to which I have called them….When they arrived at Salamis, they proclaimed the word of God in the synagogues of the Jews. And they had John also to assist them.

Calls to Other Work

Deuteronomy 31:14

The LORD said to Moses, “Your time to die is near; call Joshua and present yourselves in the tent of meeting, so that I may commission him.”

1 Samuel 16:12-13

Now [David] was ruddy, and had beautiful eyes, and was handsome. The LORD said, “Rise and anoint him; for this is the one.” Then Samuel took the horn of oil, and anointed him in the presence of his brothers; and the spirit of the LORD came mightily upon David from that day forward. Samuel then set out and went to Ramah.

Given this biblical evidence, it would be inaccurate to think that God calls church workers but not other types of workers. David was called to be a king, not a priest. Moses and Joshua were both primarily military and political leaders, not religious leaders. They were both exceptionally close to God, but that doesn’t make them religious leaders. Rather it shows that God calls people in all walks of life.

A Strong Sense of Guidance

Some confusion arises because many churches require that their individuals be “called” to be ordained or to serve as pastors, priests or other ministers. Often the word “call” is used to describe the process of selecting a minister or the decision to enter church work full-time. However, as in the Bible itself, these situations are rarely direct, unmistakable, personal calls from God. Rather, they may describe a strong sense of guidance by God,

As we have seen, God’s guidance can occur just as strongly in non-church-related jobs and professions. We will not attempt to evaluate whether “callings” to church work are more intense, more direct, more evident or more necessary than callings to non-church work. We will affirm that church work is not in general a higher calling than non-church work, and that the term “call” applies just as much to non-church work as to church work. We also affirm that non-church work is as much “full-time Christian service” as church work.

All Christians are Called to Full-Time Service to God

God’s call in our lives covers all of our conduct, everything we do, round the clock.

Colossians 3:23

Whatever your task, put yourselves into it, as done for the Lord and not for your masters.

Before concluding our discussion on this point, however, we should note that one stream of thought interprets 1 Timothy 5:17-18 as contradicting this view.

1 Timothy 5:17-18

Let the elders who rule well be considered worthy of double honor, especially those who labor in preaching and teaching; for the scripture says, “You shall not muzzle an ox while it is treading out the grain,” and, “The laborer deserves to be paid.”

Given these verses, some argue that being an elder is a “double honor” compared to other professions. That would make being a church elder–which is roughly equivalent to a pastor or priest in modern church usage–a higher calling.

A more accurate rendering, however, is that elders who do their work well are worthy of a double honor (or honorarium) compared to elders who do their work merely adequately. This may also contrast elders who volunteer in their spare time and elders who work full-time for the church.

The text cites two Old Testament quotations about pay that further reinforce the sense that this passage is about rewarding high-performing or full-time elders, not about comparing church work to other work. It means that elders who work full-time for the church, and who do it well, deserve to be paid well by the church. So the passage compares different church workers, not those who are employed by the church and those employed outside of the church.

The only jobs that do not have equal status in God’s eyes are those that require work forbidden by Scripture or are incompatible with biblical values. For example, jobs requiring murder, adultery, stealing, false witness, or greed (Exodus 20:13-17), usury (Leviticus 25:36), damage to health (Matthew 10:8), or harm to the environment (Genesis 2:15) are illegitimate in God’s sight.

This is not to say that people who do these jobs have lesser status in God’s eyes. People whose circumstances lead them to illegitimate work are not necessarily bad people. For example, Deuteronomy 23:17 forbids becoming a prostitute, yet Jesus’ response to prostitutes was not condemnation, but deliverance (Luke 7:47-50; Matthew 21:31-32). Jobs of this sort are not God’s desired work for anyone, but they might well be the lesser of two evils in certain situations. .

A call to ministry or church work is no more sacred than a call to other types of work. What matters most is not one’s job title or place of work, but following God, the One who calls us.

This article was produced by The Theology of Work Project, Inc., and re-edited with permission for When You Work for the Church.

Do you agree with this article that
a hierarchy of different jobs persists
in spite of the theology that values both church work and other kinds of work?
What reasons might underlie this persistence?

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Author: April Yamasaki

I currently serve as resident author with a liturgical worship community, write online and in print publications, and often speak in churches and other settings. Publications include On the Way with Jesus, Four Gifts, Sacred Pauses, and other books on Christian living. Websites: AprilYamasaki.com and WhenYouWorkfortheChurch.com.

5 thoughts

  1. I completely agree with this, April. In fact, I’ve written about it on my blog, and my husband & I have said it many times when speaking to groups. I think the perspective of paid ministers leads lay-people to believe they don’t have to do the work of the church, such as sharing Jesus and visiting the sick. “After all,” they might say, “Isn’t that what we pay the pastor to do?”
    On the positive side, I think the rising entrepreneurship, participatory culture (yes, Millenials) turns the church in the right direction. One simple example is short-term mission trips, in which many people participate.
    Very well-written and biblically sound post, by the way.

    1. I’m glad we’re tracking in the same direction on this, Carole. I appreciate The Theology of Work Project which created the original post, and when I read it, I knew I wanted to share it here. The one thing I would phrase differently is the conclusion that a call to church work is “no more sacred” than a call to other types of work. I’d turn it around to say that a call to work in the wider community is “just as sacred” as a call to church work. For me, turning it around that way seems to lift everything as sacred and an offering to God, rather than somehow “demoting” church work so that it’s “no more sacred” than anything else.

  2. Thanks, April, for your thoughtful analysis as well as for the list of verses. I have to confess that the reference to double honour in I Timothy 5 was so new to my ears that I wasn’t even aware of the reading that you correct. 😦 I have often thought that we need to be much clearer in distinguishing vocation and employment, and that those of us who have been able to combine the two need to see this for the absolute luxury that it is. The vast majority believers throughout history and across cultures have needed to hoe millet, stamp out widgets, or trade non-religious goods or services, in order to live. Though some may feel called to these activities, many have needed to follow their calling outside of the way they gain their livelihood.

    1. Absolutely, Craig – your distinction between vocation and employment is helpful. Those who are able to combine the two are in the minority as you point out, and that happy combination lasts only for a limited time. Vocation continues quite apart from employment.

  3. Responding to the “call.” There were times in Japan when I just felt like running away, quitting. Had it not been for God’s call on our lives, I don’t think we would have lasted. Together with the call, knowing that many folks back home were praying for us was also a big factor in persevering in the midst of big troubles.

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