Do not store up for yourselves treasures on earth, where moths and vermin destroy, and where thieves break in and steal. But store up for yourselves treasures in heaven, where moths and vermin do not destroy, and where thieves do not break in and steal. For where your treasure is, there your heart will be also.
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In 1494, Friar Luca Pacioli, the father of accounting and friend of Leonardo Di Vinci, made known to the world double-entry bookkeeping, a system that is believed to have been invented back in the 11th century by a Jewish community in the Middle East. Popularising this method of business allowed Mediterranean merchants to balance their books, manage their assets and cash flow, budget and forecast, and free up capital for investment. This system birthed the various forms of capitalism celebrated today, where wealth can be managed and used to create more wealth.
The growth of capitalism in Protestant culture
Through history, Catholic markets were initially hindered by limited capital, as usury (lending at interest) was deemed sinful. But the Reformation removed any such stigma. Those in reformed Protestant cultures believed themselves to be ‘elect’ and thus saved but laboured puritanically to prove their election by their fruits. Such theology increased productivity and capital. Protestant teachers such as Martin Luther also argued against the monastic lifestyle and promoted outward vocations to be used for God’s glory.
Unlike today’s capitalism, such reformed convictions were saturated in a culture of Christian asceticism and altruism. People worked for God’s glory, not for their own luxury. So, although they began to accumulate wealth for themselves, under the moral obligation of Protestantism, they were obliged to share their blessing through investment or philanthropy so that others could also share in their blessing and have the opportunity to work for God’s glory. Thus, we see the origins of the term, ‘Protestant work ethic’.
Today, capitalism has lost its religious foundation and become a system where profit is seen as the virtue even though it retains a moral compass at its core. Those who do not practise any religion still feel a moral obligation to work, and most grieve the excessive bonus payments for failing ‘fat cats’. The millennial generation, who know little of Jesus and his teaching, often seek ethical employment and condemn businesses, however profitable they may be, based on their ethical principles. The conscious consumer is on the rise as people are willing to spend more for ethically sourced, environmentally friendly products. But does this new form of capitalism mean the death of the Protestant work ethic and if so how long can this system be sustained without its Christian foundation?
In our modern, secular society we can see that the wealthy have no moral obligation to be socially responsible with their capital. Those in our society who are disempowered by the system, stuck in a mundane occupation, now feel valueless as there is no higher moral purpose to justify their labour. We risk a system that breeds a culture of hedonism at the top and dissolution at the base. As a result of this emptiness, people are defining themselves by where they are within the system and by what they can consume or produce, rather than their value in society as image bearers of God.
It is fair to say in our post-Christian society that the spirit of capitalism has surpassed the Protestant work ethic – but is the Protestant work ethic dead as the title implies? Well, I say only if we let it die!
The Christian’s attitude to work
As Bible-believing Christians our attitude to work should not have changed with our nation’s new ethos. As Christians, we should all be motivated by the same biblical principles as our Protestant forefathers. We should be working for God and not for excessive luxury, greed or pride. As Christians, our ‘capital’ (wealth) should still prayerfully be going into wise, ethical investments that will support various Christian concerns, especially our local church. Why? Because the truth we stand for has not changed.
We should not be tempted to accept the world’s view of an identity based on our consumption or production of material wealth. Instead, we should reclaim our identity as being children of God, made in his image and saved in Christ Jesus. We should not be content to sit as cogs in a godless system, but be willing to be salt and light in the world by living differently.
Whether you are a white-collar office worker or a blue-collar mechanic, whatever your task may be, as a Christian you are called to work hard wherever God has put you, for his glory. Our culture may have changed, but the Christian message has not and neither has its application to the world. So, let us who know the Lord continue to be the example in our place of work and keep the Protestant work ethic alive by acting honestly and selflessly, out-loving the cold, modern, lifeless system. Let our faith become infectious in the marketplace so that the system can once more be a tool for the gospel. Let our bosses and peers see our love for Jesus as we work responsibly, safely and contentedly. Whether rich or poor, whether we have just started our career or in a senior management position, we all have a responsibility to honour God by embracing the opportunities he has given us this day.
What a blessing it is to be alive at such a spiritually dark time. The gospel is so much better than the cold, lifeless, secular system that desires to replace it. Let us be encouraged by the opportunities modern capitalism gives us to be counter-cultural and holy in the workplace.
May the favour of the Lord our God rest on us; establish the work of our hands for us – yes, establish the work of our hands (Psalm 90:17).