In our current cultural moment, many see work as frustrating, unrewarding, and not worth it (that is, as toil). So, in our cultural moment, Christians have an incredible, better vision of work to offer the larger world. We’ve also got a history to tell, of how a vision of human dignity and innovation became a blessing across economic and class lines. Just as in the past, the Christian view can move our imaginations about work beyond drudgery, to a renewed and redeemed way of thinking and living.
Physical labor was devalued in the ancient world. The exception, in classical Greece and the early days of the Roman Republic, was farming, which was considered the proper pursuit of citizens. All other labor was viewed as demeaning. In the later days of the Republic, as plantation agriculture replaced small farms, the work of farming was also seen as demeaning and relegated to slaves.
By the time of the Roman Empire, all physical labor was only thought proper for slaves and lower classes. Though the foundation of the empire’s wealth, the upper classes believed that production was beneath them. Their attention, or so they thought, belonged in the more “refined” areas of life, such as the arts and philosophy.
Of course, the biblical view of work is completely different. Scripture frames work as a good thing, an essential part of what it means to be human. Because God created us to work, at least in part, it’s inherently connected to our worship and dignity.
Put differently, work is not the result of the fall. It was, however, tainted by Adam’s sin. God’s created purposes for humanity, to fill and form His world through work, would now feature pain and frustration. Aspects of human work were twisted from dignity to drudgery. Human efforts to cultivate the earth, designed by God to be part of the joy of imaging Him, became sources of frustration, pain, sweat, and sorrow.
Because of the uniqueness of the Biblical framework, even the early Christians approached work with a very different view than their pagan neighbors did. They thought of work as good but marred by sin. So, for example, in monastic communities, monks were expected to do physical labor, if for no other reason than to grow their food. In his Rule for Monastic Life, St. Benedict of Nursia (480-547) insisted that monks should work both to fulfill the biblical mandate that God gave Adam, and to encourage humility in a world that thought of work as demeaning.