Sunday, November 11, 2007

The Protestant Work Ethic

2 Thessalonians 3:6-13
This passage is the foundation of what academics now call 'The Protestant Work Ethic' – the idea that idleness is ungodly and wicked, that Christians are called to work quietly and earn their own living, and that anyone who is unwilling to work doesn't really deserve to eat. What's more, Paul says that we should never be weary in doing what is right. I don't think he means that it's right to work 24/7 but, if working diligently to earn our own living is godly and Christ-like, it's easy to take the further step of arguing that earning as much as we can, for as long as we can, is also the right thing to do.


Of course, the work ethic was around in Christianity before Protestantism came along. Perhaps we should call it 'The Pauline Work Ethic', but later observers have noticed that Roman Catholic and Orthodox Christian teachers never seemed to push the work ethic as far as some Protestant teachers were prepared to do. In fact, until the industrial revolution it was widely accepted that no one really needed to do more work than was absolutely necessary to support themselves and their dependents. Large parts of the year were given over to holy days and saints' days of various kinds, when no work was done at all.

Protestant Christians prepared the way for the industrial revolution by abolishing many of these holidays, by encouraging people to study the Bible for themselves – and so rediscover Paul's teaching, and by inventing the idea of hard work. However, Protestant teachers like John Calvin and John Wesley still stressed that once you had earned all that you could, the profit of your labour belonged to God and should be given away.

Paradoxically, something else had to happen before 'The Protestant Work Ethic' could really begin to drive the industrial revolution and the modern economy. That extra something was the Enlightenment, a new wave of scientific and humanist thinking when many industrialists and investors lost their faith in God. Set free from the need to do what is right, these new thinkers still clung onto the idea that idleness was wrong and persuaded politicians and opinion formers that it was morally justified to force people to work for long hours in large, soulless offices and factories.

Despite many subsequent reforms and refinements of 'The Protestant Work Ethic' it still shapes the kind of society we live in today. Britain is a hard work society whereas France, by comparison, is still more Catholic in its attitude to work.

Do we have Paul to blame for this? Why can't we be more like the lilies of the field, which are content simply to be? If all of us did just enough to get by, wouldn't that conserve a great deal more of the world's scarce resources? And yet, on the other hand, in a world where there are now so many hungry mouths to feed, perhaps hard work is more essential than ever.

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