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

Martin Luther probably did more than any Protestant to establish the theology of work many Christians embrace today. Like no theologian before him, he insisted on the dignity and value of all labor. Luther did more than break the split between sacred and secular work—he empowered all believers to know their work served humanity and enjoyed God’s full blessing.

He insisted that the farmer shoveling manure and the maid milking her cow please God as much as the minister preaching or praying.

Further, as we work in our God-given station in life, we become agents of his providential care: “God is milking the cows through the vocation of the milkmaid.” Through our hands God answers the prayers of his children. We pray for daily bread at night, and bakers rise in the morning to bake it. The same holds for clothing: God “gives the wool, but not without our labor. If it is on the sheep, it makes no garment.” Humans must sheer, card, and spin.

Through our work the naked are clothed, the hungry fed, the sick healed. Through our work we please our Maker and love our neighbor.

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Developing a Doctrine of Vocation 

Luther developed his doctrine of work not in the abstract but through his dispute with monastics. Priests and monks claimed the term vocation for religious, especially monastic, work. They believed the monastic life yielded unique opportunities to complete one’s faith through good works, and so find assurance of salvation. Luther countered that all Christians hear a call to the gospel and God’s kingdom, and then to a station in life. All honest work performed by a believer, then, is a calling, and all callings please God.

Luther advanced the Christian view of work in essential ways. First, he dignified all work, even if menial or unsavory. Beyond praising farmers, he advised that “if you see there is a lack of hangmen, constables, judges . . . and you find that you are qualified, you should offer your services.”

Second, he corrected medieval hierarchicalism. For Luther, the active life in society is as noble as the contemplative life in the monastery.

Third, while Roman Catholicism stressed the self-oriented benefits of work—material provision, divine rewards, the way work cures pride—Luther described work as the place to serve God and neighbor. 

Engaging His Thought

Since Luther is so influential, we ought to assess his thought, beginning with his desire to dignify all labor. When he insisted that God summons everyone to a “station,” it means all can serve God and neighbor where they are. This is a great consolation to all who feel trapped by their work. And our restless age needs this exhortation to labor in our place, instead of constantly asking “what’s next?”

Yet Luther’s consolation has a cost. If every legitimate task is a divine calling, it may be imperative for workers to remain where they are. But if all work is a divine calling, how can anyone seek a new position or try to reform abuses in the workplace? If we follow Luther too rigidly, the distance between what we do today and what we might do tomorrow evaporates and the motive to reform the conditions of labor dwindles.

For Luther 1 Corinthians 7:20 was an essential text: “Each one should remain in the condition in which he was called.” But this only covers half of the message. Yes, Paul says a slave should “remain in the condition in which he was called,” but he also says, “If you can gain your freedom, do so” (1 Cor. 7:23). “Stay where you are” is no absolute principle. Further, 1 Corinthians 7 instructs slaves, not all workers, and slaves were especially immobile. Though this passage helps Christians endure entrapment in difficult situations, it doesn’t instruct us to stay put no matter what.

Luther’s View of Calling

Luther’s treatise “Whether Soldiers Too Can Be Saved” illumines the point. He uses the terms “office,” “work,” “calling,” “occupation,” “work,” and “position” interchangeably, as if they are the same thing. Regrettably, this use obscures the difference between work and calling. There is a difference between a temporary summons to war and a life of soldiering. 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?

The tendency to bless the status quo is clear in Luther’s comments about slaughter in war: “War and killing . . . and martial law have been instituted by God.” And God’s involvement is direct: “For the hand that wields this sword and kills with it is not man’s hand, but God’s; and it is not man, but God, who hangs, tortures, beheads, kills, and fights. All these are God’s works and judgments.”

Luther knows that no Christian should be a thief or prostitute, but these comments seem blind to the way institutions and occupations can be legal and essential, yet corrupt and needing reform.  

How Calvin Helps 

The summer before I went to college, I worked at a milk-processing plant. One day the boss ordered me to tend the machine that made boxes for specialty cheeses. I mastered the task in an hour. The rest of the day I wondered about the woman who’d tended the machine for 15 years.

Is it right to ask humans to tend machines 40 hours per week, in tasks so simple one can master them in hour? But if every job is a call, how can anyone challenge dehumanizing work patterns? At worst, Luther’s concepts let exploitative leaders command pacified people to do their duty by following orders, whatever they may be. Clearly, we need the principle of semper reformanda here. Luther’s teaching on work made a great contribution but, like every reformer, he needed others to consolidate and refine his insights.

That fell to John Calvin.

Calvin saw that sin distorts the structures of work. Like Luther he said God placed people in permanent callings, yet he could still question the social order. For example, Calvin urged citizens to obey “arrogant kings,” but he added that lesser magistrates have a duty “to withstand kings who . . . violently assault” their own people. Indeed if they “wink at” violent kings, they are guilty of “nefarious perfidy.” Similarly, Luther condemned the behavior of abusive masters, but Calvin struggled with the institution of slavery itself. In his sermon on Ephesians 6:5–9 he observes that masters had “excessive authority . . . over their slaves” and proposes that God allowed “this state of affairs . . . because of man’s wickedness.” In itself, slavery is “totally against all the order of nature”; it exists because Adam “perverted the order of nature.” So Calvin advocates reform of social structures.

Working to Transform

As the 500th anniversary of the Reformation approaches, Luther’s doctrine of work reminds us of how much we owe the Reformers. He encourages us to go to work thinking, Today, I serve the Lord

But the Reformation lies in the future as well as the past. Calvin and others urge us to serve in our place, and to transform that place, if we can.


Editors’ note: Join us for our 2017 National Conference, “No Other Gospel: Reformation 500 and Beyond,” April 3 to 5 in Indianapolis. There will be several workshops devoted to faith and work. Browse the full list of 65 speakers and 50 talks, and register soon!

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