As economic prosperity has increased, and as the American economy has transitioned from agrarian to industrial to information-driven, manual labor has been increasingly cast down in the popular imagination.
When our youth navigate and graduate from high school, they receive pressure from all directions to excel in particular areas and attend a four-year college, typically in pursuit of “white-collar” work. The trades, on the other hand — including brickmasons, plumbers, butchers, and carpenters — are not high on the minds of many, whether parents, pastors, teachers, or politicians.
In the latest issue of Christianity Today, Chris Horst and Jeff Haanen offer a challenge to this trend and the supporting stereotypes, arguing that the church has a particular precedent to build on when it comes to the ways we approach “work with the hands.”
Not only does a thriving economy and society need craftspeople, but the Bible elevates these occupations as filled with worth and dignity. Craftspeople are image-bearers, they argue, reflecting “the Divine Craftsman who will one day make all things new”:
Craftspeople (harashim)—masons, barbers, weavers, goldsmiths, stonecutters, carpenters, potters—are replete in the Bible. The first person Scripture says was filled with the Spirit of God was Bezalel, who was given “ability and intelligence, with knowledge and all craftsmanship, to devise artistic designs, to work in gold, silver, and bronze” (Ex. 31:1–5, ESV). Passages like these suggest God cares about craftsmanship, above all in his most holy places. From the tabernacle to the temple, what was built was meant to reflect and reveal God’s character. The temple was not just a majestic building; it spoke powerfully of his holiness.
Likewise, some of the most important New Testament figures worked with their hands. Like most Jewish sons, Jesus presumably apprenticed to his earthly father, Joseph, a carpenter. Paul built tents alongside Priscilla and Aquila, his friends and partners in the gospel.
Still, “mental work” has long been valued over and against physical labor. Greek philosophy elevated the mind and disdained the body. Christians have resisted this gnostic dichotomy for centuries, albeit often halfheartedly. Other Christians have resisted the spiritual-secular labor divide, notably Martin Luther. The reformer was one of the first to use the word vocation to describe work beyond that of clergy. And he offered strong correctives against the Greek view of work, which prized the scholar’s scroll over the weaver’s loom: “Works of monks and priests, however holy and arduous they may be, do not differ one whit in the sight of God from the works of the rustic laborer in the field.”
Further, I would add, as Lester DeKoster and Gerard Berghoef observe in their marvelous book, Faithful in All God’s House, there is something unique about manual labor that “structures the soul” in a way that other forms do not:
The forms of work are countless, but the typical one is work with the hands. The Bible has reference to the sower, to the making of tents and of things out of clay, to tilling the fields and tending the vine. Handwork makes visible the plan in the mind, just as the deed makes visible the love in the heart. While the classic Greek mind tended to scorn work with the hands, the Bible suggests that something about it structures the soul.
To illustrate these connections, Horst and Haanen interview a number of Christian craftsmen who view their work as a unique form of Christian stewardship. “We have to pay attention to detail and care for the contractors we work for,” says Brandon Yates, a master electrician. “As a tradesperson, I don’t know any other way to do that than by doing a really good job. We believe that God exists; therefore, the things we do and make now matter. The whole apprenticeship process is also a discipleship process.”
But craftsmanship is not only unique in its form and function. As Horst and Haanen go on to explain, it has a particular permanence in the local economy that other “blue-collar” occupations do not. “The manual trades…resist outsourcing,” they write. “These jobs must be completed here and now. When lights require installation or framing must be constructed, the work can’t be done in India. Skilled manual labor has an incarnational quality—it requires a person in the flesh. Cement and rebar can be imported, but highways cannot. For those, we need skilled craftsmen. Indeed, we need them more than ever.”
Craftsmen are indeed in high demand, and where a human need persists, God will surely be calling out vessels to be filled up and poured out to meet it. Thus, as Horst and Haanen conclude, the church must be prepared to support and send these stewards accordingly:
If there is a renaissance in craftsmanship, it should be welcomed—even heralded—by Christians. After all, we look to a day when we will inhabit a house God has built—a richly prepared mansion that owes its beauty to a single designer and laborer (John 14:2). God is Maker, Creator of the heavens and the earth; and God is Fixer, redeemer and restorer of a broken world.
As we look forward to the heavenly city, whose architect and builder is God (Heb. 11:10), perhaps we owe it to our children and grandchildren to encourage more of them to be makers and fixers, too.
Even as society ebbs and flows in its elevation of this particular industry or occupation over that, and even as the culture continues to assign status and value according to its own narrow and temporal views of human worth and destiny, the church ought to lead the way in demonstrating the true value of these needed services, and elevate and honor those who are called to provide them.