Is There Any Such A Thing As A Biblical Work Ethic?

Part of reforming the market and building prosperity in developing nations is finding a method to generate prosperity that works “from the ground up” and builds dignity and self-respect into people. One of the assertions of this book is that the Protestant work ethic combined with a solution-focused and productive approach to generating the power to make wealth is the answer. Max Weber’s work on the Protestant work ethic has been much argued but, to my mind, never disproved. Sociologically speaking the Protestant nations tend also to be the prosperous nations. Of the ten most prosperous nations in the 1999 Human Development Report, the top three are all Protestant (Canada, Norway and the United States) followed by Japan, which is not a Protestant nation but still has a strong work ethic. Belgium is 5th and another Catholic country Netherlands is 8th but both of these have been substantially influenced by the Protestant work ethic. The other three countries in the top ten are Sweden, Australia and the UK and all are Protestant. Thus seven of the ten most prosperous countries have a Protestant work ethic and the other three, while not Protestant, take a similar approach to their work. In fact of the top 20 nations, 19 are Christian nations with Japan being the only exception. Of the poorest 20 nations, while some have recently been well evangelized, none have developed a Christian approach to work yet. Most are Christian on Sundays (or Muslim on Fridays) and animistic/tribal in work life. However as Christians while the sociological dimension is important, the biblical dimension is vital, so lets see what Scripture has to say about a Christian work ethic.

Work occupies about a third of our life, is where much of our character and discipline is formed and is the main interaction we have with society around us. It is thus of profound importance to God. Jesus called most of his disciples while they were at work -e.g. fishing, or at a tax office. David and Moses were both called when they were out with the sheep. Elisha was called while he was plowing. Jesus seemed to like busy industrious people, commending shrewd stewards, hard-working managers that turned a profit, and centurions who were senior military officers bearing considerable responsibility in tough times.

The Origin Of Work

Work originated before the fall when Adam was given a digging stick and told to till the garden of Eden. (Genesis 2:16). There was to be such a close relationship between man and the land that the two words are related as the masculine and feminine of each other. The Hebrew word for ground or land is adamah. It is from the adamah that Adam came. The extra “–ah” ending is the feminine. Adam is the generic word for “mankind” add an “ah” and you get the feminine adamah – the word for ground or earth. In Hebrew the feminine of Adam is not Eve but "ground"! Work was originally meant to be incredibly fulfilling and agricultural work became arduous after the Fall (Genesis 3:17) as a result of God cursing the adamah. Part of our redemption in Christ is a renewing of the meaningfulness of work.

God, Work and Craftsmanship

God is interested in our work and will supply us with wisdom so we can do our work excellently - whether it be sacred work such as building the tabernacle or the more mundane tasks of farming a field. God’s wisdom is not just speculative, philosophical or theological but practical and craftsmanlike. God’s wisdom constructs reality and all of creation in Proverbs 8. When it is passed onto mankind the recipients become skilled craftsmen also: (Exodus 31:1-4 NASB) Now the LORD spoke to Moses, saying, "See, I have called by name Bezalel, the son of Uri, the son of Hur, of the tribe of Judah. "And I have filled him with the Spirit of God in wisdom, in understanding, in knowledge, and in all kinds of craftsmanship, to make artistic designs for work in gold, in silver, and in bronze,

So we see that the Spirit of God filled Bezalel, the constructor of the tabernacle, with wisdom and that this wisdom resulted in a job well done. This is the first mention of someone being filled with the Spirit in Scripture and is foundational of our understanding of the concept. The Spirit does not send us off into a daydream but makes us wise, and productive, and co-creators with God.

Neither is God’s wisdom to us confined to the religious sphere such as building tabernacles but can be thoroughly mundane and ordinary as this passage from Isaiah indicates (emphasis mine).

(Isaiah 28:23-29 NASB) Give ear and hear my voice, Listen and hear my words. {24} Does the farmer plow continually to plant seed? Does he continually turn and harrow the ground? {25} Does he not level its surface, And sow dill and scatter cummin, And plant wheat in rows, Barley in its place, and rye within its area? {26} For his God instructs and teaches him properly. {27} For dill is not threshed with a threshing sledge, Nor is the cartwheel driven over cummin; But dill is beaten out with a rod, and cummin with a club. {28} Grain for bread is crushed, Indeed, he does not continue to thresh it forever. Because the wheel of his cart and his horses eventually damage it, He does not thresh it longer. {29} This also comes from the LORD of hosts, Who has made His counsel wonderful and His wisdom great.

The common daily farming practices regarding dill and cummin were nevertheless implanted by God and part of His wisdom in order that we may function practically, creatively and wisely on earth and thus demonstrate His nature to the world. God is not mere concept but is a pragmatic and clever constructor of reality and He wants us to work wisely and well with Him.

Solomon and The Power To Make Wealth Through Work

In this book we have continually emphasized “the power to make wealth” which is a gift from God. The person that God gave the greatest power to make wealth to was Solomon, however God did not drop gold bars from heaven on Solomon, rather He gave Solomon deep business acumen and “wisdom”. It was this wisdom that enabled Solomon to rule wisely, judge accurately, and make a profit. Solomon, not Calvin, is really the first advocate of what has come to be known as “the Protestant work ethic”. Jews and Protestant are both wealthy because they take their financial attitudes from this great Old Testament king. In Proverbs and Ecclesiastes Solomon writes a great deal about work and wealth. Lest see what he had to say in addition to what we saw earlier in the section on “the power to make wealth”:

            Solomon sees work as a good thing that gives meaning and purpose to life: (Eccl 3:22 NRSV) So I saw that there is nothing better than that all should enjoy their work, for that is their lot; who can bring them to see what will be after them? For Solomon, doing one’s work well and being satisfied with it was a central human satisfaction. This is in contrast to the Greek view of work as a burden for slaves and commoners and aristocratic leisure as the ideal estate. Or Solomon God is a God at work and so work is good and when we work we become co-creators with God. Work is thus a noble and an ennobling activity. Work is to be done vigorously and diligently because the only time to attain prosperity is now. (Eccl 9:10 NRSV) Whatever your hand finds to do, do with your might; for there is no work or thought or knowledge or wisdom in Sheol, to which you are going.

On the other hand work is not an absolute good, it has to be balanced with the rest of life and to be in context as a source of prosperity not a treadmill. (Eccl 4:6 NRSV) Better is a handful with quiet than two handfuls with toil, and a chasing after wind. Again, I saw vanity under the sun: the case of solitary individuals, without sons or brothers; yet there is no end to all their toil, and their eyes are never satisfied with riches. "For whom am I toiling," they ask, "and depriving myself of pleasure?" This also is vanity and an unhappy business.

Enjoyment of work is a gift from God and while the sinner can be an accumulator of wealth such wealth will ultimately be distributed to others. (Ecclesiastes 2:24-26 NRSV) There is nothing better for mortals than to eat and drink, and find enjoyment in their toil. This also, I saw, is from the hand of God; for apart from him who can eat or who can have enjoyment? For to the one who pleases him God gives wisdom and knowledge and joy; but to the sinner he gives the work of gathering and heaping, only to give to one who pleases God. This also is vanity and a chasing after wind. True lasting prosperity and enjoyment of work is thus grounded in a solid relationship with God.

Solomon is particularly scathing on laziness with his portraits of the sluggard and the fool which we saw in a previous chapter. Solomon’s view is that entropy will take over unless disorder is kept at bay through work. {Entropy is the natural tendency of a system to ever increasing disorder.] The unworked field will soon be filled with thorns and thistles, the wall that is not maintained will soon become rubble, poverty will come “like an armed man”(Proverbs 24:30-34) For Solomon it takes effort just to keep things working, let alone to press ahead. Life consumes the lazy  (Eccl 4:5 NRSV) Fools fold their hands and consume their own flesh  and can even kill them (Proverbs 21:25).

For Solomon diligence, wisdom and pursuit of excellence are the secrets of success along with a craftsman’s pride in one’s work and a being a good judge of people especially those used for a vital task such as sending an important message. The righteous man and the good wife are both highly productive people. The good wife is able to sum a field and buy it, make goods and market them and to instruct and guide her staff (Proverbs 31). She is not an idle or merely decorative attachment to the powerful husband but is a productive and independent person with a judicious and practical mind. Proverbs advocates all members of the household being productive and household income, rather than personal income is seen as the true measure of wealth. The application of this principle by Chinese families in Asia has caused them to prosper.

Solomon is insistent on productivity. It is what we take the time and trouble to build that rewards us, not the fantasies we dream about (Proverbs 12:14 ) it is always better to get stuck into a project than waste production time by sitting around talking about doing it “one day”. (Proverbs 14:23 NKJV) In all labor there is profit, But idle chatter leads only to poverty. Work needs to be taken very seriously and professionally indeed as a little slackness can cause much trouble. For instance leaving the farm gate open can mean you lose all your livestock. For Solomon slackness is not akin to leisure but to destruction and is to be avoided at al costs. (Prov 18:9 NKJV) He who is slothful in his work Is a brother to him who is a great destroyer. Excellence however creates wealth and honor. (Prov 22:29 NKJV) Do you see a man who excels in his work? He will stand before kings; He will not stand before unknown men. It is easy to see this principle at work among sportsmen and artists where the most excellent 1% of sportspersons earn 95% of the money! Solomon sees productivity is a higher priority than domestic comfort or prestige and the wise person attends to their means of production, their power to make wealth, before anything else. (Prov 24:27 NKJV) Prepare your outside work, Make it fit for yourself in the field; And afterward build your house.

Finally, Solomon enjoins the value of synergy in partnerships where 1 plus 1 equals more than 2 and where three or more people add strength to the productive unit (Eccl 4:9-11). For Solomon work is a cooperative and productive activity guided by God’s wisdom and rewarded by His blessing and producing the power to make wealth. Work is the engine of prosperity in a world that will quickly send you broke if you fail to master it - through the concentrated application of specific and applied wisdom in a spirit of excellence.

Solomon’s Secrets of Success

Some of Solomon’s other secrets of success can be summarized in the following 12 simple formulas:

1.       Stop Chasing Fantasies – Start Working Productively (Proverbs 12:11, 28:19).

2.       Stop Scheming For Quick Money – Start Honest Diligent Planning (Proverbs 1:30-33)

3.       Stop Sleeping - Start Working (Proverbs 6:6-11)

4.       Stop Borrowing – Start Earning (Proverbs 22:7)

5.       Stop Spending On Little Luxuries – Start Saving For The Future (Proverbs 21:17)

6.       Don’t think of distant future success – make it happen here and now. (Proverbs 17:24)

7.       Diversify your enterprises. (Eccl 11:2)

8.       When making plans get good advice from many sources (Proverbs 15:22, 20:18)

9.       Plan your work and work your plan. (Proverbs 21:5)

10.   But don’t fall for the paralysis of analysis. (Eccl 11:4)

11.   When dealing with governments follow the procedures even if you are upset. (Eccl 8:6)

12.   No matter how keen you are on your project Work steadily and carefully, do not be hasty. (Proverbs 19:2, 21:5)

Jesus and Work

Work seems to have been very important for Jesus. Nearly all the people that Jesus praises are hard-working middle managers or other people with a clear sense of priorities - such as the widow with her small copper coin. Muddle-headed, ineffective and lazy people end up being called "wicked" and cast into the outer darkness, foolish virgins are shut out of the wedding feast, and poor managers who rule unjustly are "cut in pieces" and assigned a place with the hypocrites.

At the other end of the spectrum James says oppressive masters that withhold wages will face severe judgment, Paul tells the day-dreaming busy-bodies in Thessalonica "if any man will not work, neither let him eat.” 

The New Testament was when the practical Hebrew culture encountered Greek culture with its dislike of work and manual labour. Whether it was "spiritual" to work hard was a real issue for many Christians. The Christian answer was a renewed emphasis on hard work and diligence. However a new emphasis appears in the NT - an emphasis on the motive for work.

Christians are not to work for "food which perishes" (John 6:27) or to fix their mind on "earthly things" (Colossians 3:1-3) anxiously worrying about food, shelter and clothing (Matt 6:19-34). They are not to love the world or the things of the world. ( 1 John 2:15-17). Rather Christians are to work "as unto the Lord" not pleasing men but God.(Colossians 3:23,24) They are to work hard and diligently and ethically.

Those who do so are rewarded with authority and receive God's approval. Faithful stewards (managers) are often commended (Luke 12:42). Christians are to work with their hands (1 Corinthians 4:12, Ephesians 4:28, 1 Thess 4:11) and they are to provide for their families. Not to do so is a denial of the faith and makes a Christian "worse than an unbeliever". (1 Timothy 5:8 NRSV) And whoever does not provide for relatives, and especially for family members, has denied the faith and is worse than an unbeliever.

If a Christian does not work then he or she is not to eat (2 Thessalonians 3:10-12). Work is defined to include preaching the gospel and Christian ministry providing that it is done diligently.( 1Thess 5:12,13) Support of Christian workers is commended and not seen as them merely indulging their religious sentiments. Jesus and the disciples (Luke 8:3) and Paul were supported by others. (2 Corinthians 11:7-9) and elders who taught and ruled well were to be given "double honor" - that is adequate financial support ( 1Timothy 5:17).

 There is a great wisdom in the NT approach which is only now (and unwittingly), being realised in the secular literature such as Rich Dad, Poor Dad. If we work to satisfy earthly desires we become enslaved and never have enough. We become ruled by fear and desire. Those who desire to become rich wander from the faith and pierce themselves with many a pang (1 Timothy 6:6-10). By working for something external to the economic process (for wisdom and for God) we gain a leverage point to control our life and in the end we gain greater prosperity - both financially and spiritually. (Matt 6:19-34)


When we see that the top ten nations have developed a strong and biblically based work ethic and that secular proponents have adopted many of the same principles we can be sure that we are onto a good thing. Part of what we as Christians in the developing world can do is to teach and to model a truly biblical work ethic. Instead of inviting people to become victims of a speculative, unpredictable and lawless market we can impart to them the power to make wealth through wok and wisdom. If you are a pastor or a bible study leader you can teach these principles so that people truly gain lasting prosperity.

At this point it may be worth saying that many of the Christian prosperity teachers are simply superstitious Christian animists. They do not impart the responsible power to make wealth to those they speak to but give them a believe in a “blessing” that will magically make them rich or a “hundred-fold anointing” that the evangelist possesses. God is interested in us becoming wise, mature, co-creators and rulers with Him not immature and greedy followers of gurus. There is a right and responsible prosperity teaching and I believe I have given it to you in this book. As we teach it to the nations we will greatly assist them in their development, maturity and wisdom.

Ok, the Church can help the poor with work ethics – but isn’t that just blaming the victim? What are we going to do about the excesses of the big end of town? Well its not just blaming the victim, its giving people part of the secret of success. But we also have to liberate them so that they can pursue that success in a rational and just environment where they stand a chance of making ends meet. Hence the next chapter – what the Church can do about the big end of town.

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