How do you respond to the question: where do you work? I would state that I worked for Shell in their trading department. Because Shell was a large international corporation with recognizable service stations over much of the developed world, people would quickly grasp both my company and the type of work I performed. They understood that I worked in hydrocarbon energy and that trading was primarily a financial business.
The definition of work has long been a struggle for many people, including theologians who study faith and work. Is volunteering work? Is parenting work? Is playing a sport work? The definitions vary over time, cultures, and professions.
Dr. Paul Sevier Minear (1906-2007), formerly the Winkley Professor of Biblical Theology at Yale University Divinity School, wrote Work and Vocation in Scripture, Chapter I in the book Work and Vocation: A Christian Discussion (edited by John Oliver Nelson, Harper & Brothers Publishers, New York, NY, 1954, pages 35-40). He defines four meanings of work “in our modern usage.” The first meaning is the most obvious and is called “the immediate meaning.” “We normally distinguish work from sleep, from leisure, and from anything done before the age of sixteen and after the age of seventy. Our work is what we do regularly for pay; and most of us work because we must.” This is the most common meaning of work.
The second meaning of work is called “the collective meaning.” “Work is what a particular craft or industry contributes to the functioning of society as a whole.” I worked in the energy business which supplied hydrocarbon and other energy products to individuals, businesses, governments, and other organizations. This differentiates my work from medical, agriculture, and other types of employment. “A given individual finds work within a given class of workers.” The collective meaning of work is more expansive than the immediate meaning.
The third meaning of work reflects “on the different types of economy represented by various societies.” While Minear does not specifically name this meaning of work, I will call it the economic meaning. “In an industrial society, work has features very different from those dominant in an agrarian society.” An economist “is concerned with the total impact of work on the economy and of the economy on work.” The economic meaning of work is broader than both the immediate and collective meanings.
The fourth meaning of work I have named the existential meaning: “work is that universal, agelong activity of man by which he seeks to sustain, to vindicate, to realize that which as man he seeks in life.” Work is a part of our being as humans were created in the image of God. “From time’s beginning, work has been a source of deepest discouragements and highest dreams. It has conditioned all human relationships, has molded the soul of the worker, has shaped the pattern of community.” All humans share this meaning of work.
The four meanings of work overlap. I was employed as a trader and manager (immediate). I worked in the energy business (collective) within a post-modern, capitalistic economy (economic). I work to live by using my God-given gifts to reach self-actualization (existential).
A clear separation of the four meanings of work is virtually impossible because an individual’s work cannot be separated from the economy, type of work, or our general human characteristics. Individuals are part of a larger community. No man is an island.
Our modern meanings of work are not fully present in Scripture. “The Bible does not discuss work as ‘the total labor force in the economy as a whole.’ It does not compare the conditions of work in one economy with those in another.” The Biblical professions are a smaller subset of modern professions although “Biblical writers use the collective meaning” of work. One must “make certain mental adjustments” to our modern meaning of work to understand the Biblical meaning of work: “The significance of any job stemmed from its bearing upon God’s overarching purposes, Israel’s enduring covenants, man’s perennial rebellions, and his ultimate destiny.” After explaining the four meanings of work, Dr. Minear begins his analysis of Work and Vocation in Scripture.