This is the 8th episode in our series examining the impact Christianity has had on history & culture. Today we take a look at the influence the Faith has had on labor and work.
Historians of the traditional school laud Greco-Roman civilization for what it bequeathed the modern world in politics & philosophy. But in the classical world poly-phi was done by the elite; the wealthy & powerful 1% who had the leisure time to engage exclusively in intellectual pursuits. What gets glossed over in this era is the low regard paid manual labor & those classes of society that did it. You could make a good case that it was the tension between the tiny elite, patrician class & the lower masses of plebeians that was the deciding factor in shaping Roman history.
Both Greeks & Romans thought manual labor fit only for slaves & the lower classes who had to work because they couldn’t afford slaves. The wealthy shunned work or any kind. Plutarch reported that Plato was infuriated at 2 fellow philosophers because they constructed a machine to help solve problems of geometry. Such a device ought to have been made by a slave or artisan—not by thinkers & freemen. But that wasn’t the end or extent of Plato’s outrage. He was also incensed that a machine had been constructed to make geometry practical; it corrupted the excellence of geometry as a thought-experiment! In Plato, at least, and his thinking here likely expresses the rest of the Athenian elite – there was utter disdain with & for the everyday world of the common man.
The ancient mathematician Archimedes was embarrassed by having constructed devices that aided his studies in geometry. The 1st C BC Roman philosopher Cicero said no gentleman ought to lower himself to engage in daily labor to provide for his needs. He said, “Vulgar are the means of livelihood of all hired workmen whom we pay for mere manual labor…and all mechanics are engaged in vulgar trades.” Seneca, who lists the honorable activities for freemen, never mentions manual labor.
In Athens in the 1st C AD, 1/3rd of the freemen did nothing more than sit in the city’s political assembly hall and discuss issues of State while slaves performed the work that made the State run. There were 5 times as many slaves in Athens as citizens.
So, if the elite 1% weren’t working, what were they doing? They were seeking pleasure purchased by the wealth earned by the lower classes they despised. It was into this anti-work cultural environment the early Christians entered the Greco-Roman world.
The value assigned simple work by Christians stemmed from 3 sources.
First – they had Jesus as their example.
He grew up in the home of a craftsman. Tradition says Joseph was a carpenter but the NT word tecknon refers to a skilled construction worker. Remember that though Joseph & Mary were from Bethlehem in the S just a few miles from Jerusalem, they lived up N in Nazareth when Jesus was born. That’s where He was raised. Joseph lived in Nazareth because in that day, that’s where the work was. Herod was building a new capital for Galilee in the city of Sepphoris, a short hike from Nazareth, which in that day was little more than a work camp for Jewish laborers working on Herod’s project. Tour the ruins of Sepphoris today and you come to the conclusion, Joseph probably did more work as a mason than as a carpenter. And following custom, Jesus would have learned his father’s trade & spent many hours in the quarries & on-site shaping stones. He plied this trade till he was 30.
Second – The early Christians had another excellent role model in the Apostle Paul who from his Hebrew heritage had learned a trade, even though his real career was as a rabbi. Paul repeatedly used his tent-making as the means of supporting his ministry. So much so, that phrase has come over into our vernacular.
Third – Early Christians were well aware of Paul’s admonition in 2 Thess. 3:10 that “If a man won’t work, he shall not eat.”
This embrace of work as noble not only set Christians apart from the Greco-Roman culture, it enabled them to prosper. Their strong work ethic bore fruit. But their increasing prosperity brought them under the eye of Roman officials wary of the power wealth inevitably secured. Though Christians used their wealth to better the lives of others, the Romans couldn’t help but assume they were constructing a secret society that would eventually challenge their control. This became one more reason to be suspicious & to persecute Christians – because of their success in business.
Another effect the Christian view of work had on Greco-Roman culture was the way it undermined slavery. If work is noble & industry is a virtue, then slaves possess dignity because they do nearly ALL the work. It was easy for freemen to overlook the suffering of slaves when they were regarded as nothing more than living tools, as Greeks called them. Assigning them dignity was dangerous, because ate away at the conscience of freemen. If a salve is a man or woman, not just a tool—it’s not right for them to be subjected to such treatment. A man can own a thing; but can he own another man? // It was the introduction of Christianity that began the long, slow road toward abolition.
In AD 375, church leaders compiled a list of policies regarding what constituted Christian practice. Called The Apostolic Constitutions, they were 8 treatises on discipline, worship, & doctrine, intended to serve as a manual of guidance for clergy & to a lesser extent, for the laity. In no uncertain terms, based on what Paul wrote the Thess., the Constitutions stated – “The Lord our God hates the slothful.”
The monasteries of the early Middle Ages were organized around Christianity’s high regard for work. Benedictine monks of the 6th C. considered labor an integral & spiritual part of their discipline that did much to increase the prestige of labor and the self-respect of the laborer. All the monastic orders honored work as they tilled the soil, tended herds, milked cows, & crafted artifacts.
Work was also considered an antidote to the sin of laziness. Basil of Caesarea in the 4th C said, “Idleness is a great evil; work preserves us from evil thoughts.” This is where the phrase, “Idle hands are the devil’s workshop” originated. In the 12th C St. Bernard taught; “The handmaid of Christ ought always to pray, read, & work, lest the spirit of uncleanness should lead astray the slothful mind. The [willful] delights of the flesh are overcome by labor.” So strong was the Christian concern in the Middle Ages regarding the willful avoidance of work, the Church counted sloth as one of the 7 Deadly Sins.
The high value Christianity assigned manual labor was further bolstered during the Reformation. Martin Luther saw work not only as pleasing to the Lord but as a means by which His glory could be expanded. Work was a calling to serve God. The Latin word was vocatio comes over into English as vocation; a divine call to the service of God, in whatever form that took. Up to that time, it was believed the only calling God gave was into the clergy. The idea that He also called farmers & merchants and the rest of the occupations of society was new & novel & revolutionized people’s view of a career. There was no low-status or high-status work, good work or bad work. It made no difference what kind work the Christian did so long as he/she performed it to the glory of God. Work was not an end in itself but something someone did in everyday life to the glory of God and to the service of mankind. It was thru work, especially the work of Christians, that God maintained and preserved the world and the people in it. Thus, all legitimate work was noble and God-pleasing. Work became a Christian duty.
And while the curse of the Fall had turned work into toil, the work itself was still noble because even BEFORE the Fall, God had commanded Adam to tend the Garden. He had work to do before sin made that work hard.
All of this conspired to produce the Protestant Work Ethic which found a society wide application in the Puritan settlements of Massachusetts & helped launch American prosperity.
When in Luke 10:7 Jesus said “the worker deserves his wages”, He paraphrased Deut 25:4, an OT norm first spoken by Moses when he commanded the Israelites: “Do not muzzle an ox while it is treading out the grain.” Just as the ox treading out the grain needs to be rewarded for his work, so too, laborers are worthy of the reward of their wages. These biblical references made it mandatory workers be paid for their efforts. It also underscored once more in the eyes of Christians that work was honorable.
It’s simply assumed by workers today that they deserve a wage or salary for services performed. This hasn’t always been so. In pagan societies of the ancient world right up thru the era of the early church, the norm was for societies to have the majority of their residents work as slaves. These slaves, who performed all manual labor, received little other than a meager subsistence allowance. And that was only given so that they’d be able to keep working, not as a reward for their toil. People today ought to appreciate that the current practice of compensating workers & the belief it’s unjust to deprive them of fair compensation, would not be in place were it not for Christianity establishing the norm that “a worker deserves his wages.”
If employers who identified themselves as Christian, had faithfully heeded the biblical admonition to pay their workers as they deserved, labor unions might never have needed to come into existence. And unions, some of them being so rabidly anti-Christian in their policies, ought to consider this: The influence of the biblical admonition that the laborer is worthy of his hire lies behind today’s institutionalized practice of unions negotiating contracts for their members. If it didn’t come from this biblical norm, from where did it come? It certainly wasn’t present in the Greco-Roman era, where slaves performed nearly all manual labor.
Christianity’s 2000 year influence is more deeply ingrained and pervasive in Western economic values and practices than is realized.
Before Christians brought dignity to work and labor, there wasn’t much of a middle class in the Greek or Roman society. People were either rich or poor, & the poor were commonly slaves. The Christian emphasis on everyone being required to work and work being honorable had the effect of producing a class between the wealthy & the poor. People like the Christians, who didn’t just live for “bread & games” to use Cicero’s expression. Christians couldn’t fail to prosper. So the economic phenomenon of a middle class arose, now present in Western societies but unknown before the advent of Christianity.
The presence of a middle class in Western societies has rightly been credited w/greatly reducing the extent of poverty & its inevitable by-product, disease. It’s also been a potent factor in fostering and maintaining political and economic freedom.