Book review by Bob Mink
Work: A Kingdom Perspective on Labor
Ben Witherington III
Wm. B. Eerdmans Publishing Co., 2011
Ben Witherington doesn’t merely suggest that modern American Christians know little of what the Bible says about work, and that theologians have seldom addressed the topic. In Work: A Kingdom Perspective on Labor, he offers solutions to both deficiencies. And in the course of his short book (166 pages), this professor of New Testament at Asbury Theological Seminary relays quite a bit of what the Bible says about work.
Foundational to a biblical and Christian view of work is that it was a part of “God’s original creation design for human beings” (2) and not a result of the fall. Beyond that important starting point, Witherington wants readers to consider how work should be viewed by Christians in light of the coming of Jesus.
Throughout the book, but especially in chapter two, the author discusses work as it relates to calling and vocation. As important as these subjects are, I thought the discussion was overly theoretical, lacking in practicality, as well as somewhat confusing. He does, however, make it clear that every Christian’s primary vocation is “to fulfill the Great Commandment and the Great Commission” (46), whatever their job or work.
When it comes to one’s work or job, Witherington is clear “there are limits to what can be considered legitimate, ethical work or ministry” (14). As a matter of fact, “any profession that inherently entails sinning and violating the law of Christ is not a profession a Christian should engage in” (45). But “any work that is good and godly, any work worth doing, can be done to the glory of God and for the help of humankind” (126).
How We Work, How We Treat Workers
With regard to a Christian’s work, it is not so much what he or she does, but how it is done. Christians will be judged by their work ethic as people ask, “Do they work hard, do they come to work on time, do they accept hardship without complaining, do they have honesty and integrity?” (118). Many readers will disagree with Witherington’s judgment that a Christian cannot be a soldier (45).
Not only does the book address Christian workers, the author also includes a brief but important call to Christian employers. They “must treat their employees as persons created in the image of God” because they know “that we are all God’s creatures” (136).
What I appreciate most about this book is the emphasis upon work in relation to rest, worship, and play. Witherington appropriately points out that Christians should not be slackers or sluggards, but neither should they be workaholics (65). He powerfully notes, “It is no accident that there is a dialectic established in Genesis between work and rest, between work and play, between work and worship” (83). Many readers no doubt need to hear his assessment that “an adequate amount of rest, play, and worship provides the boundaries for work and the reminders that work is not the be-all and end-all of our existence” (158).
While I appreciated some of the book’s interaction with several other authors’ ideas about various subjects, I found myself wishing Witherington would simply state his view rather than citing and either agreeing with or challenging the views of so many others. And he is certainly correct when he notes near the end of the book, “There is in fact room for much more fruitful reflection on all the topics discussed in this book” (162).
Bob Mink serves as adjunct professor of biblical studies with Hope International University, Fullerton, California.