Early in the 1900s, the German sociologist Max Weber (1864-1920) was pondering why some European countries had evolved into industrial powerhouses while others still had largely agrarian economies. He realised that the former group were the Protestant countries of northern Europe, while the latter group largely comprised the Mediterranean and Balkan countries where the predominant denomination was either Roman Catholic or Orthodox. He concluded that some aspect of Protestantism must be responsible for industrialisation, and the idea of the Protestant Work Ethic was born. Weber concluded that the teaching of the protestant reformers, reinforced by later writers like Benjamin “time is money” Franklin, placed an ethical value on hard work, diligence and frugality as the outward evidence of salvation. The negative value Protestants placed on ostentation meant that many of those who had wealth, particularly the non-conformists, re-invested it rather than spent it, resulting in the build up of capital and the start of capitalism.
Much discussed and frequently discredited, particularly with the decline of organised religion in Europe (see next week’s blog), the PWE has been nevertheless an interesting indicator of an economic dividing line across Europe which continues to this day. As a current example, what do the countries which suffered most in the Eurozone crisis have in common? They’re all in the non-protestant group: Ireland, Portugal, Italy, Spain, Cyprus and Greece. Or, as a more irreverent commentator put it, they’re countries where people work for less than 20 hours a week.
That commentator’s corollary was that in the Protestant countries, we live for less than 20 hours a week. And that is a perceptive observation. Because the PWE means that people in the protestant countries, even those who are not active believers, unwittingly subscribe to the view that work is a moral imperative, that one ought to work, and work hard, to use the gifts that God has given us wisely. We have even interpreted the parable of the talents to reinforce this view, and we will comment on that in a blog in two weeks’ time.
The PWE is still alive and kicking in the western church in the form of hard work and responsibility. It seems that Christians today in the west, while on one level fully buying into the idea that our salvation is a free gift of grace which we can do nothing to earn, spend the rest of their lives working hard for God to pay off the loan which they’ve taken out. This creates in us the drive to continue serving even when overwork is squeezing the life out of us.
Mission workers often typify this situation. Overworked into a joyless drudgery, they continue to drive themselves dutifully while drying up on the inside. They call it ‘laying down their lives’. But it is in many situations an unnecessary and unrequired sacrifice. Syzygy believes that the PWE has contributed significantly to the overwork and stress that cripples mission workers, leading to burnout. They carry the weight of their responsibility heavily, and feel guilty if they stop to enjoy themselves.
One of the questions that we at Syzygy frequently ask mission workers is:
Would God love you any less if you never did anything for God again?
The answer, of course, is always no. So why do we live our lives as if our salvation depended on our works alone? Max Weber knows.