Here’s a follow-up to my recent post on the two great anxieties Christians have about culture making. Drawing on Bavinck, Jordan Ballor appropriates two of the super-short parables in Matthew 13 to depict this tension in terms of “the gospel as leaven that leavens all of life” and “the gospel as pearl of great price.”
Today I put some thought into where in scripture we might find these two imperatives stated more clearly in the form of ethical commands, rather than in parables. Here’s what I came up with.
One of the loci classicus for faith/work integration is Colossians 3:23-24:
Whatever you do, work heartily, as for the Lord and not for men, knowing that from the Lord you will receive the inheritance as your reward. You are serving the Lord Christ.
Here we see the gospel as leaven that leavens all of life. When you show up at work and do your job, you are serving Jesus. You want the gospel to work its way so deeply into the warp and woof of your daily life that as you carry out your cultural tasks, in your mind’s eye you are thinking of Jesus as your boss rather than only your human superiors.
This sheds new light on what I said before about the job of the ordinary factory line worker as meaningful culture-making. It is noteworthy that in this passage, Paul specifically addresses his remarks to slaves. If ancient Greek slaves are serving Christ in their work, then absolutely the so-called “menial” line worker is doing so:
It’s a beautiful thing that he does for God and his neighbor. And if we say otherwise, we’re not only in rebellion against the clear teaching of the Bible, we’re also condemning that Christian to live in a meaningless universe where what he does all day has nothing to do with God. (Not to mention the fact that we’re creating poverty and undermining our community, and also destroying religious freedom.)
On the other side, there is this from Romans 12:2:
Do not be conformed to this world, but be transformed by the renewal of your mind, that by testing you may discern what is the will of God, what is good and acceptable and perfect.
Here is the gospel as pearl of great price. Even as the gospel is worked deeply into the warp and woof of the cultural tasks that make up our daily lives, it also stands dramatically apart from those tasks and from the culture as a whole. It shines a radiant light upon the culture, and in its illumination our participation in the culture and its daily tasks is to be evaluated and “transformed.” Anything too dull to reflect the gospel’s light must be either diligently polished or ruthlessly discarded. Just as the man who found the pearl sold all his possessions to buy it, so we must subject our cultural tasks to the gospel and “sell” whatever does not pass the bar.
This again brings me back to our line worker. Superficially, he seems to have no opportunity to “transform” his daily cultural tasks. He seems powerless. So if we only speak to him about his work with a “leaven” concern and not a “pearl” concern, he’s likely to be conformed rather than transformed. On the other hand, if we think of him not as a cog in a big corporate machine but rather as a human being with stewardship over his circle of influence (however small), we can think creatively about his opportunities for transformation:
He should radiate the gospel in both objective and subjective ways. Objectively, he should not only be a highly virtuous worker, he should go above and beyond the predominant ethical expectations that prevail on his factory floor. Perhaps he will take on more tasks or be a peacemaker when coworkers are in conflict. He may need to constructively challenge unethical practices. Subjectively, his bearing, spirit and demeanor should radiate the gospel. His company should taste different to those around him.
And, of course, Christians with larger domains of stewardship will have greater opportunities for transformation. In fact, in their cases it’s important not to lose sight of the leavening impulse. Pastors often assume that the capacity of a business owner to “transform” cultural activity within his business is limitless. It often becomes necessary to gently remind the pastors that human culture – even within a single company - is a highly complex ecosystem. It can never be very dramatically transformed even by the most powerful individuals. That’s why good Christian business owners pursue transformation as they’re able, but also work diligently to “leaven” a sense of meaningfulness and responsibility into all the work done by all their people, simply as it is.