Martin Luther (1483-1546) is well-known for his stand against the Catholic Church and the start of the Protestant Reformation. But far fewer people know that he wrote extensively about work. In their paper, Martin Luther’s Notion of Work as an Individual Source for Meaning, published in the book Faith & Work: Christian Perspectives, Research, and Insights Into the Movement (Edited by Timothy Ewest, Information Age Publishing Inc, Charlotte, NC, 2018, pages 97-114), Dr. Chr. Lucas Zapf (University of Basel) and Dr. Peter Seele (Universià della Svizzera italiana in Lugano, Switzerland) grouped Luther’s interpretations of work into three broad categories.
First, work is a social activity. “Luther describes society as a body to whose health every single member contributes with his or her work. Every man [and woman] in every job is a priest, fulfilling his work as a God-given duty. Aggregated, individual work leads to social coherence. Luther interprets work as practiced caritas [charity] based on the division of labor. Work is service for the fellow man.” We live in community. Jesus Christ taught and practiced community. Individual work goes beyond the individual; it transforms the community into the body of Christ. “As work has the nimbus of the social, not to work becomes antisocial.”(p. 104) Rest is needed to refresh the body and soul; however, being idle does not contribute to the community.
Second, work is part of the natural order. Work is “a divine assignment and material task to human’s existence on earth. … Work has a naturalistic implicitness.” Luther wrote: “As the birds to flying, so is man born unto labor.” God calls humans to work. “To negate this natural state by being idle is an open affront to the structuring nature of work and considered counterproductive for social well-being.”(p. 105)
And third, work is self-realization. We become who God meant us to be through work. “Subsistence is only one, maybe even the lesser aspect of work. It is supposed to be meaningful, useful, and worthwhile. It reflects the worker’s personality and fulfills his or her inner expectations of what is good.” While Luther clearly articulates the social aspects of work, he also articulates the individualistic aspect of work. “Work serves the working individual.”(p. 106) Our current society has focused more on the individual, which is an important aspect of work. However, Luther balanced self-realization with community. Both are important.
Many people today seek meaning from their work. Meaning is derived from both self-realization and love of neighbor. Meaning is destroyed when humans are unemployed or under-employed. Being idle when desiring to work or being underemployed in a mind-numbing job violates the natural order and does not allow workers to reach self-actualization nor support their community. “Luther makes work an anthropological cornerstone of the human condition.”(p. 110) How we work has greatly changed since Luther’s sixteenth century world, but Luther’s notion of work is still relevant today.