Doctor of Leadership in Global Perspectives: Crafting Ministry in an Interconnected World

A Call to Community

Written by: on March 8, 2018

Weber’s Protestant Ethic and the Spirit of Capitalism intrigues me. I understand why this work has stood the test of time, for though his empirical arguments seem to be rooted in personal observation, his theoretical explanations of the correlations between Protestantism and Capitalism resonate and draw the modern reader into the conversation. I found myself repeatedly pausing as I read, considering the validity of various assertions while constantly reminding myself that he was writing over a century ago.

Similar to Bebbington, who wrote Evangelicalism in Modern Britain in order to “consider the influence of Evangelicals on society… and the ways in which Evangelical religion has been moulded by its environment.”[1], Weber looks specifically at how “religious forces, not simply economic ones, paved the way for the mentality characteristic of modern, Western capitalism,”[2]

But as I read, I also kept asking myself, “What went wrong?” The editors Wells and Baehr summarize that “the Protestant radicals, inspired by a powerful sense of the divine, helped unwittingly to create a society and economic order its pioneers would have seen as godless, materialistic, and devoid of any ultimate purpose.”[6]

I accept the suggestion that the end result of capitalism was not their intended result. But was it avoidable?

The driving religious force, in Weber’s analysis, is the Protestant concept of “beruf,” a German word for which there is no English equivalent. “Work gained an unprecedented dignity by being understood as a vocation or calling (Beruf) ordained by God.”[3] In addition, Weber explains how a strong protestant work ethic, one infused with honesty and integrity and animated, by a sense of divine calling, led to a common understanding that Christians were good people with whom to do business.[4] Thus Protestants began to prosper under Capitalism. Or vice versa. Even Weber seems unclear on which is the chicken and which is the egg.

While the Roman Catholics frowned upon materialism and worldliness, and therefore considered work to be simply a means of meeting their basic needs, Protestants began to understand wages as proof of their election or “the expression of diligence in one’s calling.”[5]

And “one’s calling” is a highly personal endeavor, n’est-ce pas ?

Critic Donald Nielsen astutely points out a minor contradiction in Weber’s understanding of the telos of the Protestant work ethic. His observation is worth quoting at length:

Weber sometimes suggests that the Puritans resolved the problem of asceticism’s unintended consequence of wealth better than the  Medieval monastic orders…by resisting the temptation to use wealth to “ennoble” their middle class life style. On  the  other  hand,  Weber  concluded  his  study  on  a  very  different note concerning precisely this issue. He cites Baxter’s idea that concern for outward possessions, accumulated through ascetic devotion to one’s calling, ought to be like a cloak which can be thrown aside when it threatens the soul’s salvation. He liked this Baxterian image so much that he expanded it into his now famous metaphor in which the cloak becomes what Baehr and Wells call a “shell as hard as steel” (Parsons’ “iron cage”).[7]

And what do “shells as hard as steel” do, but isolate us from one another.

Enter Rebel Sell, a book that claims to have identified the Achilles heel of social justice countercultural movements that seek to clean up that godless, materialistic, purposeless mess that the Protestant rebels created. While the countercultural movements pride themselves in working above or outside of the corrupt systems and masses, authors Heath and Potter point out their heavy reliance on a romantic form of individualism that was fuelled by writers such as Emmerson and Thoreau. “They were romantic individualists who valued self-reliance and were possessed of a grand contempt for mass society.”[8]

It seems that the counterculteral rebellion has created it’s own “shell as hard as steel” through self-reliance and individualism. The very quality that they prize may be the thing that’s keeping them from reaching their goals.

Wells and Baehr insist that the Puritans knew not what they did. “The Puritan’s of Weber’s story did not know, could not know, what they were doing; people can only know what they intend to do, and even then, their self-knowledge is highly imperfect.”[9]

Enter The Dark Side of Leadership, where authors Macintosh and Rima write about the importance of self-knowledge in equipping leaders to avoid major pitfalls. And even though they rightly observe, “That is the role of leadership: to do the right things, not merely to do things right”[10] I wonder if their approach might not lead us down the same perilous path of the Puritans—one that is so myopically focused on personal salvation that it fails to acknowledge what the “right things” really are in the context of the Body of Christ.

Almost synonymous with the Reformation and certainly intertwined with both Capitalism and the Protestant work ethic is the rise of autonomy. Even the invention of the printing press contributted to this trend, for now individuals could possess and read the word of God in their own homes and on their own time, whereas before the reading of the Word of God was only ever a corporate activity. Christian communities in the States particularly prize autonomy and individualism and have (unwittingly?) reduced the faith to a “personal relationship with Jesus,” which renders participation in the body of Christ to an optional activity on Sunday mornings. When we seek to live a life of faith autonomously, we will, undoubtedly, end up doing the wrong things even if we have the right intentions. We need to be thinking and acting communally–this is the whole point of being Christ’s body on earth.

Enter Being Consumed, where Cavanaugh offers the solution of being re-membered to the Body of Christ.[11]  Might community-mindedness have been the antidote to the pitfalls of the Protestant work ethic?  What if we were better at honoring our connectedness? What if we thought about the impact that our actions had not only on ourselves, but on others. What if we acknowledged that the words “personal relationship with Jesus” never appear in the word of God, and that faith is always, only, and ever a team sport? What if we lived into the unity for which Jesus prayed?

[1] David William Bebbington, Evangelicalism in Modern Britain: A History from the 1730s to the 1980s, Repr (London [u.a.]: Routledge, 1995).

[2] Max Weber, The Protestant Ethic and the Spirit of Capitalism: And Other Writings, ed. Gordon C Wells and Peter Baehr (New York: Penguin Books, 2014), http://rbdigital.oneclickdigital.com. ix.

[3] Weber. xviii.

[4] Weber. xix.

[5] Weber. 12.

[6] Weber. xii.

[7] Donald A. Nielsen, “The Incredible Shrinking Protestant Ethic,” International Journal of Politics, Culture & Society 16, no. 4 (June 2003): 587.

[8] Joseph Heath and Andrew Potter, The Rebel Sell: How the Counterculture Became Consumer Culture (Chichester: Capstone, 2006). 72.

[9] Weber, The Protestant Ethic and the Spirit of Capitalism. xii.

[10] Gary L McIntosh and Samuel D. Sr. Sr Rima, Overcoming the Dark Side of Leadership: How to Become an Effective Leader by Confronting Potential Failures, Ebook (Grand Rapids: Baker Pub. Group, 2010). Loc 719.

[11] William T. Cavanaugh, Being Consumed: Economics and Christian Desire (Grand Rapids, Mich: William B. Eerdmans Pub. Co, 2008).

About the Author

Jennifer Williamson

Jenn Williamson is a wife and mother of two adult sons. Before moving to France in 2010, she was the women's pastor at Life Center Foursquare Church in Spokane, WA. As a missionary with Greater Europe Mission, she is involved in church planting and mentoring emerging leaders. Jenn benefitted from French mentors during her transition to the field, and recognizes that cross-cultural ministry success depends on being well integrated into the host culture. Academic research into missionary sustainability and cultural adaptation confirmed her own experience and gave her the vision to create Elan, an organization aimed at helping missionaries transition to the field in France through the participation of French partners.

6 responses to “A Call to Community”

  1. M Webb says:

    What do you think about “calling”? Do you lean towards Luther, Calvin, or somewhere else?
    Thanks for brining in the possession “cloak” and the translation differences between “shell as hard as steel” to “iron cage” from Parsons. This image is quite a somber conclusion by Weber after all the rather positive narrative about how the Protestant ethos influenced, intentionally or not, the Western model of Capitalism. I would prefer to think of the image as a “trap” instead of a cloak or cage. It is a trap, because we can avoid it if we are paying attention, walking in the Spirit, and seeking wisdom and discernment from the Holy Spirit.
    Excellent use of the Bayard technique to connect the ideas from our other readings with Weber’s work. You are very scholarly in your approach to connecting the theological and sociological dots for this problem with materialism. So, once we see all the fixes needed, what do we do? What impact can we have? Does it really matter in the eschatological path we are on?
    Stand firm,
    M. Webb

    • Jennifer Williamson says:

      My understanding of “calling” is in flux. My husband and I did have a clear moment of “calling” to France, but I know that our experience is actually pretty unique on the whole scale of things. And even when we received that “call” we did not have the sense that we were to change vocations, just addresses. I do think that God gifts and enables different people for different types of work. Like you , my husband is a pilot. He has spent the past 7.5 years trying to be a full-time missionary, and the truth is, he is not living intohiw true calling, which is to fly planes. We are working on getting him liscensed in Europe so that he can fly here, while I’ll continue to do full-time mission work. In this way, I think we will both be fulfilling our “call.” But do I think that success in work or ministry is evidence of election. Nope. I think we can struggle a lot in the world, and still be among God’s chosen.

  2. Great post as always Jenn! Wow I loved the beautiful summary of our last few readings and how you brought those masterfully together with the current text about Protestant ethic. I also loved how you brought a beautiful solution to the surface with…”What if we were better at honoring our connectedness? What if we thought about the impact that our actions had not only on ourselves, but on others. What if we acknowledged that the words “personal relationship with Jesus” never appear in the word of God, and that faith is always, only, and ever a team sport? What if we lived into the unity for which Jesus prayed?” I totally agree that connectedness can be the key and that our faith is designed to be a team sport. Wise words my dear, wise words!

  3. Jennifer Williamson says:

    So this idea of connectedness connects to your topic as well, Jake. If churches were better at gender equality, what kind of impact would that have on our connectedness and re-membering?

  4. Jennifer,

    You’ve done a great job knitting together past readings to come to your conclusions which I support wholeheartedly.

    Part of our problem, I would suggest, is we view calling as only having a spiritual end. What if, as you infer, that David’s calling of flying planes brought God (and David) much joy and fulfillment, and it contributed to the well-being of our places in society – an act of re-membering? As in “Chariots of Fire”: “When I run, I feel His pleasure!” so too can flying — or accounting, or gardening, or architecture — also be a beautiful way to worship our Lord and contribute to a more integrated community.

  5. Jean Ollis says:

    Wow Jenn! Powerful ending questions…yes to all of them. I imagine living overseas changes the typical perspective of Capitalist America and the “American Dream” – the fallacy that every person has equal opportunity to “make something of themselves.” Here I am preaching on your response lol! I always appreciate your real life experience and perspective. Does capitalism feel different in France?

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