Faith Time: The Protestant Work Ethic


MOBILE, Ala. (WKRG) — Dr. Lonnie Burnett with the University of Mobile joins us to talk about the Protestant Work Ethic. Here’s a look at our conversation:

Anchor: It’s Labor Day Weekend–we wanted to talk about something akin to work, and that is the Protestant Work Ethic? What is that?

Guest: Response.

The “Protestant Work Ethic” sometimes called the “Puritan Work Ethic” is the belief that hard work, discipline, and frugality are outward displays of Protestant, Christian values. The term became popular in the writings of Sociologist Max Weber in the early 1900’s in which he said you could trace the rise of modern capitalism to this Protestant ethic, especially in the Puritan/Calvinist strand because secular work became an expression of religion.

Anchor: How has the idea of work evolved throughout history?

Guest: Response.

It is fascinating how the view of work has evolved throughout history. In the Garden of Eden, part of the punishment for sin was “painful toil.” In the earliest days, royals used slaves for work so work was viewed as something the oppressed did. This view would hang on throughout much of modern history. Elites tended to look down on the working masses. Somewhere along the way, a shift occurred. By the 19th century, candidates for office tried to prove that they had come from hard-working backgrounds. Think of Abraham Lincoln as the “rail-splitter.” No one wanted to be thought of as an “elite.”

Anchor: Why was it somewhat of a sea change to equate hard work and thriftiness to something that gives glory to God?

Guest: Response

The change can probably be traced back to the Reformation. Martin Luther stressed that “The just shall live by faith” which downplayed works, but the Calvinist wing believed in predestination. How did you know that you were one of the elect? One way to prove your salvation to yourself was through a disciplined, hard-working lifestyle. This naturally led to the accumulation of wealth. It was, in effect, God’s grace that was allowing you to be successful, so it must be good.

Anchor: Can the notion of the Protestant work ethic ever have a negative consequence?

Guest: Response.

Absolutely. There are at least two ways. First, you will sometimes see TV pastors teaching that a faith in Christ will automatically lead you to material prosperity. So a person that struggles might doubt their faith. Second, there is a danger that we will blame the poor for not be industrious enough. We will be less inclined to help because it is their own fault.

Anchor: How does a person balance the idea of work and career with the idea of spirituality?

Guest: response

This is something we do at a Christian University. Parents send their sons and daughters to us to prepare them for a career. There is nothing wrong with this, but we also stress that you seek your purpose in life. There is nothing more miserable than going to a job every day that you hate—no matter how much money you make. If our career is built on that purpose, work is never a drudgery. I like the verse in Colossians that says “Whatever you do, work at it with all your heart, as working for the Lord, not for human masters.”

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