Propositions on Christ, Culture, and Career

Dennis McCallum and Scott Risley

Christians’ relations to the world, money, position, and career involve judgment calls and gray areas. However, these are also areas where scripture teaches ethical content, either explicitly or by implication. Questions of ethics should be settled by biblical authority whenever possible, and by wise deliberation over possible dangers and options where scripture does not speak directly.

Problems with the traditional church

  1. The number one reason the American church lacks spirituality and power is their absorption into the world-system and its values of materialism and self-gratification. American Christians’ unwillingness to learn, disciple, evangelize, or even fellowship are all tied to their sense that they are too busy for these things—a busyness that comes mostly from their commitment to the goals of the world-system. Scripture teaches that Satan constructed the world system for this purpose: distracting people from the things of God (1 John 2:15-17).

  2. Dwell has been unusual in our history because we recognize these world-system sins as being just as bad as sins of the flesh (Colossians 3:5; Ephesians 5:3, 5; James 4:4; 1 Timothy 6:9-10; 1 Corinthians 5:11). Throughout our history, we have been critical of the established church in America for their failure to preach against materialistic and identity sins associated with the American worship of career.

  3. We think a change is noticeable in our church from the way leaders in the ‘70s and ‘80s viewed seeking a high-powered career. Concern about people being sucked into the world system and losing their spiritual edge has declined, in our opinion. Interest in simple living has also declined. While leaders used to view aggressive pursuit of high profile careers as dangerous and at best a waste of time, today it seems that they often see no problem with it, and even think it is a good idea. Those who still hold the same view as in the older days are the minority.

  4. One event that probably precipitated this shift was the arrival of hundreds of Dwell children to career-seeking age. Sociologists have also measured a shift in secular American culture in favor of driving kids to higher performance in sports and academics, usually in the belief that this will result in better careers later. Dwell parents may be imitating their neighbors in these areas. The majority of these Dwell parents have also moved to the suburbs where careerism is stronger.

Theology of Career

  1. God should be the first priority in every Christian’s life (Matthew 6:33; 22:37). Immediately after God comes the people of God, including the family. Prioritization becomes necessary because different activities requiring time and effort frequently collide. We can say all things are a part of our one life, but without prioritization, we have no way to make decisions in ethical areas. Career should be relatively low on the list of priorities in our thinking. You can see this in question 7 of the paper “Personal Finance Questions 1983” (a paper in use throughout our history): “Do opportunities for my spiritual and material advancement ever conflict? If they do not, what could this mean? If they do, how do I routinely choose?” The lower priority of career is also evident in question 9: “Have I demonstrated the ability to ‘draw the line’ with my job’s demand of my time? Am I willing to pass up promotions, or even get a different job if it conflicts with my spiritual growth and the advancement of my personal ministry?” These questions were intended to demonstrate that anyone who puts more importance into career than God, their families, or God’s people, is involved in the sin of idolatry.

  2. We are not arguing against planning for and developing a career. We believe young men and women should get a plan and pursue training that will result in a suitable career that can support them and their families. When considering what career to pursue, the factors below should be helpful in ruling out negative career choices and suggesting goals for good careers.

  3. Colossians 3:23-24 says, “Whatever you do, do your work heartily, as for the Lord rather than for men, knowing that from the Lord you will receive the reward of the inheritance. It is the Lord Christ whom you serve.” This verse can be used to teach that believers should work hard and be conscientious about their jobs, viewing them as service to God. However, Paul addresses this to slaves, primarily as the best way to avoid trouble and persecution from their masters. Therefore his statement should not be construed as directing Christians to seek high-paying or prestigious careers. The only time Paul suggested a career direction, it was the suggestion to “work with your hands,” like he did when sewing tents.

We do find it highly objectionable when students are too lazy to do their work at school and thus waste their parents’ or their own money. Also, losing jobs through sloth and poor work is immature and subject to discipline under the ministry house covenant. We also think it will hurt our witness at work if we are lazy.

  1. While people can minister at work, we think we need a reserved word for spiritual ministry as opposed to something I’m being paid to do primarily for profit. We would rather say that work is a place we can minister—not that the work is our ministry. Consider that non-Christians do the same things Christian workers or professionals do. The idea that God calls people to be cobblers, etc. was medieval teaching that the Reformers accepted from Catholicism, along with the clergy/laity distinction. In the medieval milieu, there was no concept of winning the lost, since all of Christendom was considered Christians. Also, significant spiritual ministry like teaching, counseling, leading groups, etc. were reserved for the clergy. What, then, to make of the language about ministry in the NT? It morphed into, “I am the priest, which means I handle the spiritual part (perhaps with some deacons), and you are a cobbler, and the town is the body of Christ with each person playing a different role.” The idea that God calls people in a Christian society to different roles became the application of 1 Corinthians 12. Here is J. I. Packer:

The word vocation means ‘calling.’ And right at the heart of vocation is, I believe in every case, the sense that God has called one to do what one is doing. The sense of being called comes out of thinking and praying about what one has been gifted and so fitted to do and which of the options for life activity is the best one.

One of the problems we have with this theology is that it means I can say that I have fulfilled my ministry obligations under 1 Corinthians 12 by going to work, let’s say, as a business manager. The result is a loss of any urgent need to also establish a ministry building up the church.

If my work is my ministry, then it also seems to follow that I should go all-out for career. Reformed and Catholic theology from medieval to modern times gives little attention to the world system. They saw European society as Christian. This led to a major difference in theological emphasis.

  1. Any good theology of career needs to work just as well for a ditch-digger as a doctor. Most careers serve peoples’ needs in some way and cannot be deprecated or considered “worse” than high-level careers because of the amount of good they do. Imagine a world without garbage men, factory workers, or farmers. We should avoid advancing elitist theories of work that extol the rich, and carefully consider how that theology would play in a poverty stricken country, like Cambodia. The dignity of manual labor is taught in scripture (see 2 Thess. 3:8, where Paul says he “worked hard among” them, referring to tent making, and 1 Thessalonians 4:11, where he exhorts the Thessalonians to “live a quiet life and work with your hands”).

A line of work producing neither a good nor a service of use to others (like professional gambling) could be criticized along the lines that it lacks the serving element, although entertainment might be in this category as well. The critique is somewhat subjective.

  1. People who do ministry for pay are in a privileged position that also comes with higher expectations (James 3:1). We’re not sure we can say that full time Christian workers are the same as everyone else, or that their work lives have to be analogous to others’ work lives. We have always held it essential that paid workers also have a full volunteer ministry in addition to their paid ministry. Church leaders have lived as tradesmen, businessmen, professionals, and as full time ministers. They have enjoyed being in business and going to work, and they have felt they should do good work and give their employees and customers a good deal. However they have never viewed their careers as their ministries (though they could do ministry there, including evangelism, counseling, and discipleship).

  2. Some argue that Christians can use their careers to get more done for God by being more influential in the eyes of the world—politicians, professors, famous people, etc. We think this is suspicious. At the least we can observe that no such argument is found in scripture. Esther or Daniel may have been in good position to have influence, but they didn’t aim to get into that position as a strategy in life. They were propelled into those positions by God. Jesus chose the uneducated simple laborers as his disciples (Acts 4:13), except for the one Judean who was probably most educated – Judas Iscariot.

    We can also point to Paul’s observation that God calls “not many mighty” etc (1 Corinthians 1:25-29). The claim that influential people in the world’s sense will reach more or more important people is not born out in our experience or in scripture. There have been exceptions, and these are often called while already in an influential position (like William Wilberforce or C. S. Lewis). The reality of high-profile career people rarely lives up to the promise. Meanwhile, carnally minded Christians could use this argument to justify devoting their lives to high career attainment and materialism—just like most people in our culture. We suggest that if Christians really want to be influential for God, they should learn how to share their faith and disciple effectively.

  3. Paul says the purpose of a career is to pay one’s basic expenses for a simple life and to earn enough additional money to give to those in need (Ephesians 4:28, also Proverbs). Our careers also afford us opportunities for witness and serving, but these can also be done any time. Work is special because it pays our bills and enables giving. We observe efforts to portray career as somehow more than a way to earn a living. This view happens to coincide with the view of our culture, but we find it hard to back up from scripture. Why is the idea that a career is mainly to pay one’s bills wrong?

  4. Low-paying careers are undesirable and dangerous. A good career can accomplish the goals above without undue interference with other spiritual and relational pursuits, but low-paying careers take too much time to reach the basic goals for a career. Ruthless employers also more easily victimize low-paid employees later in life. In other words, a hamburger cook might be able to meet basic earning goals, but the time investment into low-paying jobs ultimately becomes a barrier to achieving the true goals in life.

    Low wage earners may be absent from their families and their ministries because of long hours of work. They risk diminished freedom in choosing hours worked and place of employment. They may also run low on money if expenses soar unexpectedly, or if they are laid off during times of economic recession. While “low-wage” is a relative concept, we think it is a useful ethical principle that young people should try to attain a skill that can win pay above the lowest levels in society.

  5. High-paying careers are undesirable and dangerous. Wealth is dangerous to people’s spiritual lives. Jesus taught that it was easier for a camel to go through the eye of a needle than for the rich to be saved. Believers like Solomon were swept away in large part because of their wealth. Paul teaches that the pursuit of wealth “plunges people into ruin and destruction” in 1 Timothy 6. Proverbs 30:8-9 says, “Keep deception and lies far from me, give me neither poverty nor riches; feed me with the food that is my portion, that I not be full and deny You and say, ‘Who is the Lord?’ Or that I not be in want and steal, and profane the name of my God.”

    Notice that this proverb refers to deception and lies in connection with the wealth question. Jesus said the “worry and cares of the world and the deceitfulness of riches” choke out fruitfulness in Christian workers (Matthew 13:22, cf Revelation 3:15-17). These passages warn that people don’t realize they are being seduced by wealth, and this makes it more dangerous still.

    Jesus said, “You cannot serve God and wealth” (Matthew 6:21-24). His warning that where our treasure is determines where our hearts will be is sobering. Theoretically, wealthy people could give away all their excess wealth and live simple lives. But how often does this happen? Studies show that people give proportionately less, the more they make. The many warnings about the dangers of wealth suggest that urging our children to achieve high paying careers is very dangerous for them and unwise on our part. “High paying” is also a relative concept, but it should be clear that the higher the pay gets, the greater the danger.

  6. Careers that involve frequent travel, extended absence from home, odd hours, and frequent moving are undesirable and dangerous. Careers like these break down the most important parts of life (like your family and your ministry) in favor of the least important parts (like your career). Studies are unambiguous in showing the negative impact of wage earners being frequently absent on trips or needing to move frequently. These features are associated with maladjustment in children and with divorce. They also make developing a ministry virtually impossible.

  7. Families with young children choosing to pursue dual incomes is undesirable and dangerous. Studies show that daycare is harmful to children’s development, and even high-quality daycare can’t match the attention of parents during the same period. Instead of choosing dual incomes, families would do better to cut expenses so they can live on one income. The role of full-time mother and homemaker should be extolled and appreciated, not marginalized. While single mothers or fathers and very poor people may not be able to sustain a stay-at-home parent, most families can do so. (See the Servant Team meeting from Sept 2012).

  8. The path one takes to career selection is an area of Christian freedom, provided no other scriptural imperatives are violated. These other imperatives include not performing sins of commission (e.g. lying, sex acts, crime, etc). Any career that requires such violations of God’s will would be wrong for a Christian to pursue, with few exceptions. God’s imperatives also cover sins of omission (e.g. failure to engage in fellowship or other means of growth, failure to love others in ministry, failure to put God and his agenda first in one’s life for a prolonged period, etc.). Christians should not pursue career paths that require violating these imperatives except in the most extreme cases of special calling.

  9. Urging our kids to pursue high profile careers that require excessive sacrifice is like urging them to invest in VCR manufacturing. All such careers will disappear suddenly in the near future. Christians who choose to pursue a high profile career should do so in a way that allows them to live normal Christian lives while doing so, and should find postings in their field that do not disrupt more important features in life like family, the body of Christ, friendships, and ministry. We have to invest time, energy, and money into developing a career. But we should show frugality, investing no more than necessary to get a decent career without extravagance.

  10. When selecting an institution of higher education for one’s children, the factors to weigh include:
    - God and his will for children to be spiritually healthy and growing
    - The proven adequacy of provision for these spiritual factors at different places
    - The adequacy of the educational institution to deliver reasonable career training
    - The affordability of the education and avoidance of waste or bad stewardship
    - The capabilities of the child
    - The desire of the child

    We believe the order or weighting of these factors should be roughly as shown. Our values system should be evident in how we make decisions. If parents put school prestige at the top of the list, it shows a worldly values system.

  11. Parents who opt to send their kids to a distant institution with little knowledge of the spiritual provision available there and its suitability to their children’s lives are manifesting by their actions a wrongful values system. Such decisions suggest that other factors, such as the prestige of the institution or dollars (in the case of scholarships) are being ranked as more important than the spiritual values.

  12. Since God has sovereignly placed these students in Dwell, shouldn’t the burden of proof be on why you should go away to school? If someone had a perfectly good job and decided they would leave their church and established relationships to move to another city to take a slightly better job wouldn't we critique that decision? Why wouldn't the same critique apply if we're talking about colleges?

  13. Christians who meet Christ when already in a high-powered profession are in a different ethical position than those who still have the chance to choose their futures. Paul’s principlized ethics in 1 Corinthians 7 teach that in most cases people should stay in that condition wherein they met the Lord. However, he also allows for improving one’s situation in the case of slaves, in order to gain more freedom.

    Some highly paid professionals should consider changing careers if their current one interferes with more important values or calls for unethical behavior. For instance, certain lines of legal practice may require too much lying. A judge called on to support evil laws (like slavery) may have to find another career. A salesman or policeman may find his job interfering too much with family and spiritual commitments. If we would suggest that these people change their careers for the Lord’s sake as adults, surely we would also advise young people against choosing these lines of work in the first place.

  14. Most twenty-first century secular American parents consider getting their kids into high-prestige careers as more important than any other thing. Can we be sure that we are not imitating their values system? If a parent argues that they fear letting their kid go into the college ministry because it might result in their academic performance declining, what is that parent saying? This strikes us as implying that academic excellence supercedes spiritual growth in importance. Further, there is no evidence that being in college ministry is bad for academics, since ministry houses are designed to hold students accountable for performance in school.

  15. Americans routinely take their identity from their own careers and from the careers of their children. Arguably, career means more to Americans than anything else, as seen by their willingness to do things unhealthy to their families and even themselves for the sake of career. Can we demonstrate that we are not following this bankrupt approach to self-importance?

  16. Unless the leaders in Dwell exert strong leadership on these issues, we can only expect our people to flow with our culture, as has happened throughout the history of the church and is happening all around us today in the western church. The church needs strong, persuasive teaching and counseling against following the course of the world, including material and career lust.

  17. We have heard both parents and students argue, “God is sovereign, so if a kid’s heart is right with God, he can go anywhere and things will work out. Columbus isn’t the only place God works.” This argument might hold water in some cases, but usually, if a kid’s heart is right with God, he doesn’t want to go elsewhere. The kids we see taking this move follow one of two patterns: either the kid would rather stay here, but is being pressured by parents to leave, or the kid has never served God in the first place.

    If a truly spiritually oriented kid were to go to a distant school, his or her first step would be to scout out the fellowship options and devise ministry plans in connection with the move. Instead, we find them saying, “Something will work out.” This shows that their main value is the world-system. They’ve done all the research about how the school will be better than any school here in town, but no research on how the spiritual climate there will be better than here. In fact, they don’t care about that. Imagine them doing so little research about which school to attend!

  18. How many Dwell parents had the experience of being walking Christians in college? We think many did not experience this, and now have nostalgic memories of “the college experience,” which they want their kids to have as well. This phrase keeps coming up, and has been reported by many student workers as coming from Dwell parents. These parents use the phrase as something they want for their kids, and in context is usually put over against life in a ministry house and home church. They have probably romanticized their college experience, forgetting that they were sleeping with lovers, doing drugs, and committing other sins as nonbelievers. Those who remember the intensity of temptation in college are more likely to see the value of ministry houses and an accountable body where students get support for their lifestyles instead of ridicule.

    Some parents seem not to realize that today’s dorm room is likely to include roommates having sex along with pornography, drugs, and hardcore partying. Their professors and peers will be powerfully arguing for anti-Christian conclusions. How could parents expect a spiritually weak teenage child to withstand this environment without any support? Don’t we, as leaders, have to lodge protests against such reckless parenting?

  19. We are hearing an argument that if kids have a high IQ enabling them to excel in some discipline, it would be “bad stewardship” to do less than the greatest thing possible, career-wise. This is a distortion of the biblical notion of stewardship. Stewardship refers to our responsibility to maximize our capability for God and his kingdom, not for the world (Matthew 25:14-30). The talents given in the parable and God’s assessment of the stewards’ work are to be understood in spiritual, not carnal terms. Maximizing one’s treasure on earth is against the will of God.

  20. Normal students today can go to college and graduate from a top 20 public university (OSU) with some help from their parents. We should urge parents to be willing to save money for their kids’ educations, and/or to co-sign for loans if necessary. We should discourage parents from overspending in such a way that they cannot help their kids and therefore end up pressuring kids to get scholarships as a substitute for parental help. These scholarships are unnecessary and often come with strings attached, often from small schools in other cities. Parents have encouraged kids to join the military or to attend school elsewhere as a way to afford the expense of college, when this is not necessary and limits the student’s freedom for years to come. Some parents are too willing to see students’ lives distorted and endangered for the sake of money—money that they should be providing as parents (2 Corinthians 12:14).

  21. There is a danger that representing God’s point of view on the world system, career, money, and pride could cost us some current or would-be members. However, failure to tell the truth in these areas could cost us God’s support for our ministry, and all will be lost. The letters to the churches in Revelation show that Jesus is insistent that churches be faithful to teaching and practicing the truth (Revelation 2-3). James also warns that friendship with the world-system is enmity with God (James 4:2). As leaders, we are responsible to fight against this fate—a fate already suffered in the western church—with everything we have.

  22. On the question of limiting church authority: These areas of teaching are not based on church authority. We suggest teaching, counseling, and pleading, not giving authoritative directives. We agree that we need to be careful to avoid specifying what people should and should not do. But just as we would counsel against a dating relationship with a non-Christian, we can counsel against unwise career preparation choices. As the “Limits to Church Authority” paper says, referring to counseling people who waste their time, “Leaders find themselves in a very sensitive position when they try to explain that failure to prioritize relational investment or time in fellowship could impact a member's growth.”