Acton Institute Powerblog

Discerning Between Service and Disservice

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“‘I have the right to do anything,’ you say–but not everything is beneficial. ‘I have the right to do anything’–but not everything is constructive. No one should seek their own good, but the good of others” (1 Cor. 10:23-24).

Christians are called to productive service of others in our work. The fact that someone will pay you for your work is a sign that they value it, and we must say that they are better-positioned than anyone else (other than God) to decide what’s best for them. But human beings are not infallible. In fact, we are highly fallible. We deceive ourselves and desire things that are not good for us.

Does the provider of a good or service have a moral obligation not to provide certain goods (or bads) or services? When does a “service” become a “disservice”?

Lee Hardy provides some insights from the Christian tradition’s understanding of vocation:

Even when we move into the realm of the morally unobjectionable, however, clearly some jobs–given the priorities of the kingdom of God–are to be preferred over others. Here all things may be permissible but not all things are expedient. In some jobs my neighbor is less well served than others…. Simply having the right attitude, the Christian attitude, is not enough. One must take into consideration the social content of one’s work: am I, in my job, making a positive contribution to community, am I helping to meet legitimate needs, am I somehow enhancing what is true, what is noble, and what is worthy in human life?

I write a bit about this challenge in Get Your Hands Dirty, discussing the parable of the sheep and the goats as it is explicated in Lester DeKoster’s Work:

This perspective on work and service as understood in the parable of the sheep and the goats also provides us with other norms for judging whether our work is true service or not. One measure, as we have said, is whether someone finds our work to be valuable enough to pay us for doing it. But given the corruption of human nature, people will pay us to do all kinds of things that are not good for them (or for us). So beyond mere “salability” of our work we must judge it by its orientation and effects. Does our work actually help others? Is it for their good that this work is done? Does it foster independence or dependence? Does it humanize or dehumanize? Does it feed addiction or satisfy legitimate appetite? By necessity, then, things that are inherently harmful, such as the distribution of illegal drugs, pornography, or abortion, are ruled out of bounds. But there are innumerable other ways that otherwise valid service or work can be undermined by human sinfulness.

Christians have a duty to discern between that which is true service and that which is actually a disservice to our neighbor.

Get Your Hands Dirty: Essays on Christian Social Thought (and Action)

Get Your Hands Dirty: Essays on Christian Social Thought (and Action)

Addressing topics ranging from the family to work, politics, and the church, Jordan J. Ballor shows how the Christian faith calls us to get involved deeply and meaningfully in the messiness of the world. Drawing upon theologians and thinkers from across the great scope of the Christian tradition, including Augustine, Thomas Aquinas, Martin Luther, Abraham Kuyper, and Dietrich Bonhoeffer, and engaging a variety of current figures and cultural phenomena, these essays connect the timeless insights of the Christian faith to the pressing challenges of contemporary life.

Jordan J. Ballor Jordan J. Ballor (Dr. theol., University of Zurich; Ph.D., Calvin Theological Seminary) is a senior research fellow and director of publishing at the Acton Institute for the Study of Religion & Liberty, where he also serves as executive editor the Journal of Markets & Morality. He is author of Get Your Hands Dirty: Essays on Christian Social Thought (and Action) (Wipf & Stock, 2013), Covenant, Causality, and Law: A Study in the Theology of Wolfgang Musculus (Vandenhoeck & Ruprecht, 2012) and Ecumenical Babel: Confusing Economic Ideology and the Church's Social Witness (Christian's Library Press, 2010), as well as editor of numerous works, including Abraham Kuyper Collected Works in Public Theology. Jordan is also associate director of the Junius Institute for Digital Reformation Research at Calvin Theological Seminary. He has authored articles in academic publications such as The Journal of Religion, Scottish Journal of Theology, Reformation & Renaissance Review, and Journal of Scholarly Publishing, and has written popular pieces for newspapers including the Detroit News, Orange County Register, and The Atlanta Journal-Constitution. In 2006, Jordan was profiled in the book, The Relevant Nation: 50 Activists, Artists And Innovators Who Are Changing The World Through Faith. Jordan's scholarly interests include Reformation studies, church-state relations, theological anthropology, social ethics, theology and economics, and research methodology. Jordan is a member of the Christian Reformed Church in North America (CRCNA), and he resides in Jenison, Michigan with his wife and three children.