It’s value judgement time!
Alex is always busy. From 9-5 Alex is at work in the office, and then attends prayer meetings and church outreach events in the evenings. At weekends Alex can be found leading worship and preaching the Gospel.
Jamie isn’t quite so busy. Jamie doesn’t work, receives welfare, and rarely makes it to church events. Jamie spends a lot of time in the house, reading, and praying.
Which of these two people is the most useful in the church, and more generally? In what they do with their time, is Jamie or Alex worth more?
The Value of Work
What did you think about the lives of Alex and Jamie? Alex has a job, and works hard to earn the money to feed himself and his family. Jamie doesn’t work, and the money he relies on comes from others, via the state. Both are Christians, but Alex is involved and visible in his church, leading and doing things, while Jamie stays at home, praying.
Our culture values work, and economic productivity above all else. Those of us who have been in Jamie’s position, who have spent any time unemployed, unable to work or on welfare will have experienced the lack of value that the world places upon us. The words the media uses to describe those who are not working, or who cannot work are deeply stigmatising – we are ‘scroungers’ who seek ‘handouts’; ‘lazy’, ‘fraudulent’, ‘work-shy’, and ‘undeserving’ people who are trapped in a ‘culture of dependence’. The stigma and shame of not working applies both to people who are unemployed, and those who are unable to be employed due to disability. As a culture, we see those who cannot contribute economically to our society as valueless, sometimes even describing them as ‘parasites’ who live off the work of others.
Your reaction to Jamie’s life may not have been as strong as saying he is a parasite, but our inclination is to exalt Alex the worker over Jamie the ‘economically unproductive’ non-worker. You might even be thinking of the Apostle Paul’s words, “If any one will not work, let him not eat” (2 Thess 3:10). You might have the proviso in mind that it’s OK for Jamie not to work if he is disabled, retired, or supported by a spouse but, for all that, there’s a sense that those who work for their living are worth a bit more than the rest.
There are, of course, many reasons why someone might be temporarily or permanently out of work, and we can’t neatly divide non-workers into “can’t work”, “don’t want to work” or “can’t find work”. There are complicating factors around unemployment, around working as a disabled person and around difficulty finding suitable work – which is outside the scope of this post. I’d like to look at how we see “work” in terms of our churches.
Most churches have someone who leads their individual church. In my tradition, that person is an ordained priest who is (usually) paid a small salary in order to give themselves to the church full-time. They will lead services, administer the Sacraments, preach sermons, conduct baptisms, weddings, and funerals, and provide pastoral care to their parish, among other things. Other people also take on bigger or smaller roles in the church, including preaching sermons, distributing consecrated wine at Communion, singing in the choir, playing music, making refreshments, fundraising and so on. The church has many activities for her people to join in with, and relies very heavily on the work of all the congregation to keep things running.
In our example, Alex is like the pastor, or a lay leader of his church. He’s always busy with both building up the people of God, and with reaching out to those outside the church. He is highly visible, and, in the church as in the rest of his life, he is a “worker”.
Jamie isn’t. You never see Jamie up at the front, preaching – in fact you rarely see him in church at all. He’s generally at home, reading the Scriptures, and praying for the people he knows, for his church, and for the world. He’s not employed, and he doesn’t work for the church in the way Alex does.
Our churches mirror our culture. We admire the pastor, the missionary, and those who give up their time to volunteer for church events. The heroes of the faith are people like the Apostle Paul, who spent his life travelling here, there, and everywhere to preach the gospel, despite dangers and persecution. We value those who are active and visible in the service of the church, who don’t sit around but get out there and do things.
I am very active in my own church. At various times I lead worship, preach, serve at the altar, distribute the wine at Communion, write for our magazine, make our rotas, sit on various committees and run our website. I am an active and visible person, and I am given a great deal of vocal appreciation for what I do. In terms of the church, I am an Alex, and my service is valued. The Jamies of the church, though – and there are lots of them – are not as valued. Partly, that’s because they aren’t as visible as I am, up there at the front of the church. There’s a deeper problem, though – my service is seen as greater than theirs, because my work for the church is involves actively doing, while Jamie’s service is more passive, and centred in his home.
I believe we should esteem Alex and Jamie alike, in and out of the church. I think our culture is deeply disordered where it values human beings based on their economic capacity – where a worker is more valuable than a non-worker, which leads to the belief that a wealthy person is more valuable than a poor person. People are more than “human capital”, more than commodities which create wealth. The Bible teaches a fundamental equality of all persons before God, where each human being has equal value – each human being is precious to the God who died for them. Our value as humans is tied not to our capacity to earn money, to our employment status, but to God, who loves all of us, and who makes all equal before him:
There is neither Jew nor Greek, there is neither slave nor free, there is neither male nor female; for you are all one in Christ Jesus. (Gal 3:28)
Within the church, our understanding of the worth of what people do is skewed when we value the service of an Alex above that of a Jamie. One type of service is not above another – and I happen to have a biblical illustration of that.
To Pray and To Do
I’d like to take a look at a vignette from the book of Exodus, one which shows an Alex, a man of action, and a Jamie, a man of prayer, together. There will, at a future time, be a further post on this passage, so watch out for it!
In Exodus 17:8-16 the people of Israel are in the wilderness of Sinai, making their way to the Promised Land. They are weary, but in the wadi (valley or dry riverbed) of Rephidim they find themselves attacked from the rear (Deut 25:17-18) by the Amalekites. This is the first battle they have faced since leaving Egypt, and Moses chooses Joshua, who will later become his successor (Josh 1:1-9) to lead the fight against them. While Joshua leads his men out to fight the Amalekites, Moses travels to a nearby hill with Aaron and Hur, taking with him the “rod of God”, the staff with which he parted the Red Sea (Exodus 14) with him. On the hill, whenever Moses lifts his hands, the tide of battle turns toward the Israelites, but when he lowers his hand, the Amalekites gain the advantage. Moses, who is 80 (Exod 7:7), becomes tired, and struggles to keep his hands up, so Aaron and Hur bring him a rock to sit on. Then they hold his hands aloft until the going down of the sun, and Joshua and his men utterly defeat the Amalekites. The vignette ends with Moses building an altar called “The Lord is my banner”, and pronouncing God’s curse upon the Amalekites from generation to generation.
Here, we see a mix of both practical and the prayer, words and actions, Alex and Jamie. Joshua is busy with his sword, fighting in the heat of battle, while Moses, away from the action, lifts his hands in prayer. It takes both of them to win the battle; both the action and the prayer are necessary for victory.
Moses does not have the skills or temperament to be a warrior, and so he gives that task to Joshua. At eighty, he’s not physically suited to fighting, either, and so the younger man takes that role. Age and temperament alike push Moses into being the prayer support, but the important thing to notice is that Moses’ role is not a lesser one. Without Moses’ prayers, the battle would have been lost, and without Joshua’s swords, the battle would have been lost. Their roles are of equal value – the man of action and the man of prayer are both necessary.
The world around us often devalues prayer, seeing it as a worthless sop – hence the derision about “thoughts and prayers” in the wake of tragedies. When we value less the ministry of those who pray, we are following this cultural trend. We are part of a faith that teaches the power of prayer to change us, and to change the world, and if we truly believed in the power of prayer, we would esteem the intercessor as highly as we do the preacher.
Just as Moses’ age made prayer a better choice for him than fighting, so we often find that older people, and people with disabilities may make prayer their ministry. Sadly, we often find the ministry of intercession seen as a second-best choice, something people do only because they are no longer able to do anything else. As the story of the battle in Exodus shows us, intercession is vital, equally as vital as action. We should not see it as a sop for the homebound, dying, or disabled, something to make them feel they are doing something for the church – because they are doing something for the church, something deeply important.
When we think, or act as though action has more worth than prayer, we unbalance ourselves. We are all one body, and all of us are vital (1 Cor 12:12-26) we have received various gifts (1 Peter 4:10-11) and all those gifts, and all our ways of serving God come from the same source – whether we are a Jamie or an Alex, whether we embrace action or prayer, or both, our gifts and our service are equal.
Now there are varieties of gifts, but the same Spirit; and there are varieties of service, but the same Lord; and there are varieties of working, but it is the same God who inspires them all in every one. (1 Cor 12:4-6)
We Are All Valued
Whether we are an Alex-Joshua, fighting, working and active, or whether we are a Jamie, at home, praying, our service to God and the world around us is of equal value. We should resist the cultural message that those who do not work are worth than those who do, for we are all one in the Body of Christ, equal before God. Within the church, all the ministries and services that the people of God do are equal. Guard against the temptation to see the ministry of prayer as a second-best option, fit only for those who are unable to do anything else. Look at it through Exodus eyes – both prayer and action are equally necessary; both Alex and Jamie are equally vital for the wellbeing of the church.
For in Christ Jesus you are all sons of God, through faith. For as many of you as were baptized into Christ have put on Christ. There is neither Jew nor Greek, there is neither slave nor free, there is neither male nor female; for you are all one in Christ Jesus. (Gal 3:26-28)