The Protestant Work Crisis

Cover of the "Sonderausgabe" 1934 ed...

Cover of the “Sonderausgabe” 1934 edition of Die protestantische Ethik und der ‘Geist’ des Kapitalismus (Photo credit: Wikipedia)

Last month, IFWE’s book club read The Protestant Ethic and the Spirit of Capitalism by Max Weber. Weber coined the phrase “Protestant work ethic” over one hundred years ago, referring to the Protestant belief in hard work and frugality as proof of salvation. Weber argues that this ethic is an important force in developing capitalist economies.

Though his work is regarded as one of the most influential sociological books of the twentieth century, many historians have discredited his thesis. Greg Forster writes in Christianity Today,

Weber argued that Protestants value work because they think prosperity is proof that you’re saved; as anyone who knows anything about church history can tell you, this was and is slanderous nonsense.

In our book discussion, we shared similar sentiments to those of Forster: Weber’s thesis was not true then, nor is it true today. But we also wondered why his work has had such a profound impact on culture. There must be something true buried in his messy idea of the “Protestant work ethic.” What, if anything, can we glean from Weber’s influence today? Do we even have a “Protestant” way of working today? And if not, should we?

What Weber Got Right

One point Weber got right is the Christian idea that work is good. The Scriptures certainly do not teach that success and prosperity are evidence of salvation as Weber argues (though there is historical evidence that some Christians in Weber’s day did believe this), but Christians do believe God created us to work, and work is good (Genesis 2:15). Forster says this idea was revived during the Reformation, and credits Weber for picking up on it:

[Weber’s] idea that Protestantism impacts attitudes about work…is not misplaced. The Protestant Reformation brought unique advances in our understanding of God’s purposes for work and vocation.

We can also give Weber credit for claiming that Christian theology gave rise to the culture and institutions of freedom. When a culture embraces freedom and believes that work is good, the economy will flourish. We see this in America’s history. According to Niall Ferguson,

Through a mixture of hard work and thrift the Protestant societies of the North and West Atlantic achieved the most rapid economic growth in history.

This breed of “Protestant work ethic”—the idea that hard work is good and is linked to economic prosperity—should still hold true today, but some sources suggest otherwise.

The Protestant Work Ethic Today

Surveys show as much as three-quarters of Americans struggle to find dignity in their jobs and do not see a higher purpose in their work. This indicates that Christians and non-Christians alike question whether there’s anything good or meaningful to their career beyond their paycheck. Today, we don’t have a Protestant work ethic, but a Protestant work crisis.

Workplace dissatisfaction among Christians is a dangerous theological silo to fall into because it separates our physical life from our spiritual life. Not only that, but failing to find meaning in our work suffocates economic growth. Forster argues,

No civilization can grow and flourish when its people spend the vast majority of their waking hours in an activity they find meaningless. The deepest root of our economic crisis is that people no longer find a worthy purpose in the daily practice of diligence, honesty, self-control, generosity, and service.

A Protestant Work Ethic Revival

The Protestant work crisis that our Christian culture faces today in America is one of meaninglessness. But Forster believes this brings a unique opportunity to the Church:

Our culture’s hunger for meaning and dignity in everyday work is a window through which Christians can shine the light of the gospel…This creates a timely moment for people to rediscover how God brings dignity and meaning to daily life.

The growing faith and work movement, which has recently exploded among American evangelicals, is an encouraging indicator that we are in the midst of a “Protestant work ethic” revival. As Christians, we know that everything we do has a higher purpose. It’s about time we destroy our self-inflicted silos and rediscover the eternal significance and joy in what we do forty-plus hours a week.

*This article was originally published at the Creativity. Purpose. Freedom. blog. 

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