The Power—and Danger—in Luther’s Concept of Work
Acton Institute Powerblog

The Power—and Danger—in Luther’s Concept of Work

digging“Martin Luther probably did more than any Protestant to establish the theology of work many Christians embrace today,” says Dan Doriani. “Like no theologian before him, he insisted on the dignity and value of all labor.”

Doriani highlights many of Luther’s positive contributions to the theology of work, but warns that it can lead to confusing “work” and “vocation”:

There is occupation without vocation. One can earn bread as a cashier, cook, nanny, or salesperson without hearing a call to that life. A job pays the bills; our life’s work fits our gifts, interests, and training.

Luther’s view of calling better fits in a static society. In his day, economies were simpler and work fell into lines that seemed to follow a natural or created order, filled with farmers and carpenters. But these ideas fit less easily in societies with more flux and innovation. How can men and women stay put if their station is liable to disappear through layoffs, restructuring, or relocation?

People love to quote Luther when he says God milks cows through the milkmaid. But if all honest work is a divine call or station, how can we question dehumanizing forms of work? If the servant who cleans stalls hears Luther say it’s “divine” work to lift “a single straw,” that’s comforting. But if lifting straws is labeled a divine call, who dares ask if anyone should lift straws, and if we have found the best way to do it?

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Joe Carter

Joe Carter is a Senior Editor at the Acton Institute. Joe also serves as an editor at the The Gospel Coalition, a communications specialist for the Ethics and Religious Liberty Commission of the Southern Baptist Convention, and as an adjunct professor of journalism at Patrick Henry College. He is the editor of the NIV Lifehacks Bible and co-author of How to Argue like Jesus: Learning Persuasion from History's Greatest Communicator (Crossway).