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

Am I even a protestant?

Written by: on October 16, 2023

I have long heard about the Protestant Work Ethic and applied the term as a generalization about evangelical Christians, including myself, who are hard-working but who carry a little bit of a guilt complex against ever becoming too lazy “because God created us to thrive and make the best use of our gifs for His purposes.”  But that’s honestly about as far as my grasp of the concept went.

Though I am a protestant, as I engaged with Max Weber’s The Protestant Ethic and the “Spirit” of Capitalism, I had a difficult time locating myself in its thesis for two reasons. First, it was, admittedly, a dense, complex, challenging book to synthesize. To simplify and clarify, the following is, in my own words, how I understood the concept of the Protestant Work Ethic as Weber presents it:

The Calvinist theology of predestination induced a crisis of assurance. If only the elect were to be saved—and a person could not easily determine if they were a part of the elect—then assurance of salvation was a problem. Because a person’s work was equal to their calling, then how well someone did their work, and how well their work produced wealth, might then be a sign of their salvation, to both themselves, and to others. But because conspicuous consumption was a clear reflection of sins such as pride, greed, gluttony, etc., those protestants who created wealth did not use it for themselves (or give it to the poor, as that would have encouraged the sin of sloth). Unused wealth, therefore, compounded, creating massive capital that would be reinvested and exponentially grow.

But the real reason I had a hard time finding myself in Weber’s book was that its concepts didn’t resonate with my personal protestant-religious experience. Because I’m not a Calvinist I have little doubt about my assurance of salvation, and consumption isn’t a theological problem for me as long as I’m honoring God with my resources and choices.

It wasn’t until I read Jason Clark’s chapter on “Assurance, Anxiety and the Protestant Work Ethic” that I realized my life approach to work and wealth could be found connected to, but modified from, Weber’s framework. Clark points out that “MacKinnon, in his rebuttal of Weber’s thesis, suggests that it was the issue of “providence” that replaced “predestination” as an explanatory ethos for Protestant ascetics.” (Clark, 94)

In layman’s terms, the protestant work ethic morphed; no longer was working hard and producing wealth a sign that a person was saved, but wealth was a sign that God was blessing you.

My religious history fit squarely into that camp. Here is an example:

On a shelf in my library is a short book written by my great-great grandfather the same year Weber’s book was first published: “Every Man a Tither: How to be Healthy, Wealthy and Wise.” In this book he pushes every button imaginable to get people to tithe, including explaining that a lack of the practice is often why people’s prayers go unanswered, and that embracing tithing, and receiving the blessing that comes with it, is a sure sign that you are doing well before God.

So, though I grew up in a branch of Protestantism that is as theologically—and as stylistically—far away from Calvinism as one can imagine, the idea of material wealth as a sign of blessing was never far from our minds. Sure, it was mitigated by warnings against making money an idol, and honoring God with your wealth (thus, tithing) but we all had a sense that if you “pulled the right levers” with God, there should be some resultant blessing (if not financial then physical, relational, or emotional).

Recognizing this theological fallacy and rooting out inherited assumptions was a significant part of my formation as a pastor. I have had to recognize my bent towards seeing victory and provision as a sign of God’s pleasure with me and the people I serve, and I have had to learn to embrace and teach the way of the cross and reality of suffering as part of God’s Kingdom.

I still work hard, I still want to produce and multiply and consume and give-away wealth, and I still encourage the people I lead to grow in their gifts, and make their best contribution, and lean into God’s abundant life. But all that is tempered with the reality that sometimes, in the Kingdom, the way “up” is “down”, the way “in” is “out” and to keep your soul, sometimes you must lose the world.


About the Author


Tim Clark

I'm on a lifelong journey of discovering the person God has created me to be and aligning that with the purpose God has created me for. I've been pressing hard after Jesus for 40 years, and I currently serve Him as the lead pastor of vision and voice at The Church On The Way in Los Angeles. I live with my wife and 3 kids in Burbank California.

12 responses to “Am I even a protestant?”

  1. Kally Elliott says:

    How have you wrestled with the theology of the cross/suffering and the theology of material wealth being a sign of God’s blessing you? I guess what I mean by that is what has brought you to a more balanced place between the two?

    • mm Tim Clark says:

      Kally, Yes I’ve had to wrestle with it. I think the two most important things that helped me ditch a poor theology in that respect were a deeper grasp of Scripture and a better understanding of the world.

      1. As I learned hermeneutical and exegetical skills I realized that what I’d grown up around, in this respect, wasn’t very Biblical at all. (though I’m glad I didn’t throw out the baby with the bathwater, God does bless, and sometimes it’s material, but I don’t earn his blessing by working hard enough for it).

      2. As I traveled the globe as a teenager and young adult I came face to face with the reality of my poor theology… people who seemed to love God much more than I did and who worked much harder, who did not have the physical, financial, relational, etc. resources available to me, and who seemed just fine with that reality.

  2. mm Kim Sanford says:

    First of all, thank you for your recap of both Weber and Clark. It helped clarify a few things in my understanding.

    Secondly, the theological fallacy you mention seems like it goes back millennia. I’m thinking of the story of the man born blind in John 9. Jesus’ own disciples asked, “Rabbi, who sinned, this man or his parents, that he was born blind?” (vs. 2) Clearly they shared the mindset that God’s pleasure should result in visible, tangible blessings. Just as Jesus gently corrected his disciples, I think he could be saying the same thing to us today. He’s a lot less concerned about our physical and/or financial status than we might think. Rich or poor, healthy or sick, he is mostly concerned that “the work of God might be displayed in [our] life.” (vs. 3)

    • mm Tim Clark says:

      Kim, that’s a great connection with John 9. EXACTLY. We want to find blame or credit, but to really surrender to God means we know we don’t deserve and can’t earn anything good we get, and it is not evident that anything bad that happens is because of something we did wrong.

      Sometimes I really think Christians would do well to lean into Job more. It’s got a phenomenal message regarding suffering and trusting God.

  3. mm Russell Chun says:

    I really enjoyed your synopsis. I have been wondering how Weber/Clark are lived out in my own personal experience.

    Growing up poor in the slums of Hawaii (the most beautiful slums in the world). The “work ethic” surrounded me as immigrants from the Pacific rim flocked to Hawaii to find “work/a better life/identity?”

    Sugar cane/pineapple fields are tough places to work. But the benefits outweighed the poverty from the “homeland.” Some planned on going back laden with the riches of the west. Most stayed. Many traded one kind of slavery for another, but the majority worked. Worked hard.

    You wrote…”but we all had a sense that if you “pulled the right levers” with God, there should be some resultant blessing (if not financial then physical, relational, or emotional).

    Hmmm…Good Karma also explains the blessings (Hinduism, Buddhism, Jainism, and Sikhism). The essence of Ying and Yang (Taoism, Confucianism).

    I suppose with that background the “Protestant Work Ethic attached to Capitalism” helped many 2nd/3rd/4th generation immigrant folk to see some parallels with the “white devils” faith. (I am fourth).

    What was different of course, was the person of Jesus Christ. Interesting enough almost ALL of my high school friends from different faiths have accepted Christ at different points in their lives leaving their parents faith for their own relationship with Christ. (Sorry I rambled but you got me thinking).

    • mm Tim Clark says:

      Russ, I’m so glad you brought up Karma. One of my favorite “fights” is between Karma and Grace. Man I don’t want to live in a world of Karma where I get everything I deserve, because then I’d be dead. But I don’t want others to live there, either.

      Someone once said, Karma is what you want for your enemies, Grace is what you want for yourself. I want to keep leaning hard into Grace. How about you?

      Thanks for sharing part of your story. It’s meaningful to me.

  4. Travis Vaughn says:

    Tim, I loved the way you summed up Weber’s thesis. It was indeed dense, but you spelled it out well. I think your sentence about a person’s work being equal to their calling — and then what you said after that — reflects spot on where Weber was headed in his book.

    As one who IS in a Calvinist tradition (Presbyterian), I do think there are certain camps within Calvinism that do see their work as a calling. Maybe a secondary calling (subsequent to their call to Christ), or maybe one of many callings in their life as a disciple of Jesus. I’m not sure how many Calvinists equate material blessing with evidence of their salvation (working hard in their calling to the point of material blessings, evidencing that they are “living rightly”), but I’m sure this sort of thinking can easily creep in. Especially in the West, and especially in our socio-economic context. I would guess it’s a huge temptation for some to work hard in their business, only to see it fail…and then begin to question where they went wrong and if there might have been some sin that impeded their ability to make their business succeed. This, I suppose, could create doubt.

    I wonder what Mr. Weber personally experienced in his interaction with folks from a Calvinist tradition in the late 19th / early 20th century.

    • mm Tim Clark says:

      Travis, that’s a great response. And to be clear, I also see secular vocations (not just ‘ministry’) as a calling and ministry.

      I appreciate your thoughtful answer that while most Calvinists would not automatically or even consciously equate blessing with salvation, that it’s something that can sneak into the ‘background’ theology (the stuff we believe deeply but would never articulate).

      I too wonder about Weber and his relationship with Calvinists. Though his work is seminal, like many vital works, there are some gaps and errors that seem ‘of the time’.

  5. Jennifer Vernam says:

    I will jump on the bandwagon and agree with everyone else: GREAT summary of this work. It is clear you did some deep thinking on the topic. One line especially stood out:

    “Because a person’s work was equal to their calling, then how well someone did their work, and how well their work produced wealth, might then be a sign of their salvation, to both themselves, and to others.”

    I appreciated this because, while you don’t identify with it, I TOTALLY can see this is certain circles and you have articulated it so well. I think we could connect it to the “bootstrap” narrative that is in our culture. Sometimes, when we just describe the behavior we see, makes its irrational nature more clear.

    • mm Tim Clark says:

      Wow Jennifer, so true. Though I don’t identify with the Calvinist Theology Weber says is behind the Protestant Work Ethic, my picture is in the dictionary next to the term. From a secularized version of it, it’s how I was raised: Bootstrapping, multiple jobs at once, full-time job/full-time college, etc.

      In other words, like I commented to Kim, I learned to be productive and diligent but didn’t learn the principles of sabbath, joy, and celebration.

      So though theologically different, I’m practically like the Calvinists of Weber’s day (Though Jason dispelled the idea that people like me were seperated from that ethic to begin with).

  6. mm Dinka Utomo says:

    Hi Tim!
    I’m intrigued by your writing. Well said!
    God’s blessings are indeed much broader than just financial. God’s blessing brings what God gives, which is not the same as what the world gives, namely His peace (John 14:27).
    My question, without intending to repeat what has happened, is there a particular part of the Protestant work ethic of the past relevant to Protestants today?

    • mm Tim Clark says:

      Dinka. Great observation. Jesus peace/wholeness is what we seek over his material blessing.

      I do think Protestants today largely look little like those in Calvin’s time, both in style and substance. And the work ethic perhaps is similar in that it is based on getting something (whether assurance or blessing/providence). However I see very little asceticism as a part of the modern day ethos.

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