Flatlander Faith

Apologetics from an Anabaptist perspective

Tag Archives: Protestant work ethic

The Mennonite service ethic

Protestant work ethic is a termed coined by German sociologist Max Weber in 1905 in his book Die Protestantische Ethik und der Geist des Kapitalismus (The Protestant Ethic and the Spirit of Capitalism).

The gist of Weber’s thinking is summarized thusly in Wikipedia: “Calvinist theologians taught that only those who were predestined to be saved would be saved. Since it was impossible to know who was predestined, the notion developed that it might be possible to discern that a person was elect (predestined) by observing their way of life. Hard work and frugality were thought to be two important consequences of being one of the elect. Protestants were thus attracted to these qualities and supposed to strive for reaching them.”

Mennonites have never taught a work ethic, or that there is any redemptive value in work for work’s sake. Nor do we find any basis in Holy Scripture for such an idea. We beliee that God grants salvation only by grace, upon repentance from dead works. The evidence of salvation is not in self-serving work, but in love, joy, peace, patience, temperance and the other aspects of the fruit of the Spirit.

What Mennonites do teach, and always have, is a service ethic, based on the golden rule and loving our neighbour as ourselves. Of course this leads to work, but it is work that is done without feeling a need to prove anything. It is not self-centred, but other-oriented.

We are taught that this service ethic should permeate and motivate all of our relationships with others: in the home; the congregation; at work; in business; helping others in time of distress or disaster; in everything we do. We don’t always get it right, sometimes our feelings may prompt us to be impatient and demanding. The Bible teaches that at such times an apology is in order.

Other people also serve, and that is a wonderful thing. The more people who are willing to serve others, the better this world will be. We are not in competition with anyone, we are not looking for publicity or reward. The Mennonite service ethic prompts us to not think only of ourselves, but to be aware of the needs of others and do what is in our power to do to serve and make life a little easier for them.

The dark side of the Protestant work ethic

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Image by Alexas_Fotos from Pixabay

In 1905 German sociologist published what many called the most important sociological work of the 20th century: Die protestantische Ethik und der Geist des Kapitalismus. The book was later translated into English and published in 1930 as: The Protestant Ethic and the Spirit of Capitalism.

His thesis was that because of the teaching of predestination, that one’s eternal destiny was determined before he was born, Protestants, especially Calvinists, were left with no clue as to their personal salvation. Protestantism also taught the deification of all productive work. Therefore the idea arose that material success, due to diligence on one’s work, was evidence of salvation. And this became the foundation for the rise of capitalism.

This is not the place to discuss whether Weber was right or wrong in his thesis. I mention it only to point out that the concept of a Protestant work ethic is drawn from this book by Weber.

Neither do I want to be understood as denying Christian values of honesty, integrity, responsibility and the value of a job well done. But I believe we can uphold those values without labelling them a “work ethic”.

For there is a dark side to the Protestant work ethic. It is that a human being is valued by his productive capacity, or in other terms, his earning capacity. For money so easily becomes the yardstick by which to measure a person’s work ethic. It is assumed that those who are poor are that way because they lack a work ethic. Work such as Bible study, the reading of good books, writing, etc., should be kept to a bare minimum, as they are a distraction from a person’s true purpose in life.

Where are the older men and the older women that the New Testament tells to instruct the younger ones? Too many of them are still pretending to be young. Why is being young at heart valued more than the wisdom of old age? Isn’t it because people have spent a lifetime striving to live up to the material values that they believed were expected of them and don’t believe they have acquired much spiritual wisdom that the younger generation wants to hear?

I’m not so sure the younger generation is so closed to learning spiritual lessons from their elders. But let them be genuine spiritual lessons, not just “this is the way we used to do things.”

I acknowledge that most Christians who talk of a work ethic don’t think of all the baggage that may be attached to the term in our society. I feel, however, that it does carry too much baggage in the minds of others and we might be better off to lay it aside. Work ethic is not a term found in the Bible and we do have clear instructions in that book about the values relating to work and material things that Christians should uphold.

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