The Protestant Work Ethic

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The Protestant work ethic promotes excellence. But what is the connection between Protestantism, work, and excellence? The pioneering sociologist Max Weber was the first to draw attention to the Protestant work ethic. In his book The Protestant Ethic and the Spirit of Capitalism, published in 1904, Weber studied the phenomenal economic growth, social mobility, and cultural change that accompanied the Reformation. He went so far as to credit the Reformation for the rise of capitalism.

Usually, he said, religion is otherworldly. But the Reformation doctrine of vocation taught that religion is to be lived out in this world. Weber did not completely understand the doctrine of vocation. He had the idea that the early Protestants worked so hard so as to build up evidence for their salvation. But the early Protestants knew better than anyone that their salvation had nothing to do with their works or their work, trusting in the grace of God through Christ alone.

Weber also assumed the early Protestants were ascetics. While their hard work inevitably made them lots of money, he said, their moral scruples prevented them from spending it, at least on worldly pleasures. So instead, they saved their money, put it in banks, and invested it. That is, they transformed their money into capital, thus creating capitalism. There may be something to this, but modern research has shown that the early reformers — despite the stereotype of “Puritans” — were not particularly ascetic, a quality that better describes the medieval Catholics they were reacting against.

But Weber is right to see the transforming power of the doctrine of vocation. Medieval Catholicism taught that spiritual perfection is to be found in celibacy, poverty, and the monastic withdrawal from the world, where higher spiritual life is found. But the reformers emphasized the spiritual dimension of family life, productive labor, and cultural engagement. “Vocation” is simply the Latinate word for “calling.” According to Luther, God calls each of us to various tasks and relationships. We have vocations in the family (marriage, parenthood), in the workplace (as master, servant, exercising our different talents in the way we make a living), and in the culture (as rulers, subjects, and citizens). We also have a vocation in the church (pastors, elders, organists, congregants), but the spiritual life is not to be lived out mainly in church and in church activities. Rather, when we come to church, we find the preaching of forgiveness for the sins we have committed in our vocations. Then, through Word and sacrament, our faith is strengthened. Our faith then bears fruit when we are sent back to our vocations in our families, our work, and our culture.

Luther stressed that vocation is not first about what we do. Rather, it is about what God does through us. God gives us this day our daily bread through the vocation of farmers, millers, bakers, and — we would add — the factory workers, truck drivers, grocery store employees, and the hands that prepared our meal. God creates and cares for new life by means of the vocations of mother and father, husband and wife. He protects us by means of police officers, judges, the military, and other Romans 13 vocations of those who “bear the sword.” God brings healing not primarily through miracles but through the vocation of doctors, nurses, pharmacists, and the other medical vocations. God teaches through teachers, conveys His Word through preachers, gives the blessings of technology through engineers, and creates beauty through artists. God works through all the people who do things for us, day by day. And He also works through us, in whatever tasks, offices, and relationships He has called us to do.

The doctrine of vocation charges our everyday lives and our mundane activities with spiritual significance, and it is indeed a powerful motivator to perform them with excellence. But there is another dimension to vocation, one that is often left out. Yes, we fulfill our callings to the glory of God. But how, exactly, do we glorify God? That is to say, how does God command us to glorify Him?

The medieval Catholics also spoke much of glorifying God. The Jesuits had as their motto: “to the greater glory of God.” The Inquisition burned Protestants at the stake for God’s glory.

Luther stressed that our vocations are not works that we perform “for” God. The monastics talked that way, as if the Lord of the universe needed or was impressed by our actions. “God does not need our good works,” Luther said. “But our neighbor does.” The monks insisted they were saved by their good works, but Luther denied that their self-chosen mystical exercises, performed in isolation from other people, could even be called good works. “Who are you helping?” he asked. Good works are those that help our neighbor. They are performed primarily in our callings.

Our relationship to God is based wholly on His works, not our own; on His grace; on our redemption in the life, death, and resurrection of Jesus Christ. He, in turn, calls us to love and serve our neighbors. And yet, we learn from Christ that “as you did it to the least of these my brothers, you did it to me” (Matt. 25:40). So it turns out that when we love and serve our neighbor, we are serving Christ after all.

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