Eusebius of Caesarea was a bishop and a church historian during the time of Constantine (late 3rd to early 4th century). One of the indelible marks Eusebius left on the church was the idea that there were two kinds of callings in the Christian life. The perfect life and the permitted life. The perfect life was that spiritual, contemplative life reserved for those who worked as priests, monks, and nuns. He said this life was “above nature, and beyond common human living” (Proof of the Gospel, Bk. 1, ch. 8)
The permitted life, on the other hand, was that physical, active life reserved for those who worked a farmers, soldiers, merchants, and even those raising families. Eusebius went so far to say that those who live the permitted life have “a kind of secondary grade of piety (Proof, Bk. 1, ch. 8).
For the last 17 centuries, this dualistic view of work has plagued the church. We have divided work into sacred and secular, higher and lower, varsity Christian and JV Christian. Don’t get me wrong—it is a significant thing to be a pastor or a missionary. But it is not better or more holy or more important than being a surgeon, a mother, an architect, or a garbage man. Few of us would ever admit that there is a perfect life, of course. We would never say, “My pastor is living the perfect life. He’s a walking slice of heaven on earth!”
Yet the dualism Eusebius created is so ingrained into our culture (and Christian sub-culture) that we affirm and perpetuate it it when we say things like, “She’s going in to full-time ministry.” (As if there is part-time ministry for a disciple of Jesus.) “Those missionaries are doing God’s work.” (As if a mom changing diapers is not.)
Obviously some people earn their living by teaching the Scriptures, shepherding, and spreading the gospel. But that does not mean all other work—“permitted work,” as it were—is lower class.
Rather, the Christian perspective on work (labor, occupation, etc.) is holistic, robust, and profoundly empowering no matter what you do for your occupation. In fact, the beginning of the biblical story is abundantly clear that all work when done to the glory of God is sacred.
In Genesis 1-2, we see that God made human begins to “have dominion over” every created thing (1:28). Genesis 2:15 says, “The LORD God took the man and put him in the garden of Eden to work it and keep it.” In these two chapters we learn at least three potent truths:
- We are image bearers of God. Our inherent worth and value comes from being like God in some way. Our primary calling in life is not to something but to Someone—namely God. We were made to worship him and find our joy, meaning, significance, value, and purpose in him.
- A result of being made in God’s image is that, like God, we work. As image bearers of God, we reflect him. Therefore, God made humans to work. Adam and Eve were under-lords, charged with exercising dominion on God’s behalf by using their intelligence, creativity, organization, and diligence. The difference between God’s work and ours, of course, is that we aren’t creating from nothing. Human work takes the raw material of creation, brings it order and makes something beautiful. But work is not our identity—that comes from being made in the image of God. Still work in the beginning was the primary way human beings praised and glorified their Creator. Adam and Eve weren’t having church services all day long. They walked with God and worked in God’s garden.
- Work is very good. After each day of creation, God saw that what he made was good. But it wasn’t until he made human beings, male and female, and those human beings to work that everything was “very good” (1:31). Adam’s work was worthy and valuable and good! And get this: Adam was not a pastor or missionary or monk. He was a farmer (and, as my wife pointed out, a zookeeper, too)! If Eusebius was right—that there is a perfect life and a permitted life, then God was wrong because Adam’s occupation was working and keeping the Garden. But God was not wrong. Work, all work, when done to the glory of God, is very good. It is sacred and beautiful.
Most of us, Christian or not, get glimpses of Genesis 1-2 in our lives from time to time. Have you ever worked to create something or put something into order—a budget, a bridge, a song, a tomato plant, a sandbox, swept a floor, organized a pantry, unloaded a delivery truck—and had a deep sense of accomplishment and satisfaction? Have you ever said about your work, I was made for this? You felt this because you were made to work. In that moment, whether you admitted it or not, you believed God’s original design was very good.
Unfortunately, we don’t live in a Genesis 1-2 kind of world. We live in a world where sin has degraded everything, including our work. In the next post, I’ll consider Genesis 3 and what sin does to work.