DLGP

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

Protestant Work Ethic 2.0

Written by: on February 17, 2022

First published in 1904-5, Max Weber’s The Protestant Ethic and The Spirit of Capitalism is a modern classic that seeks to address several important issues. First, weber set out to examine the development of the family business in Europe between the 17th century and the 19th century[1]. Family businesses are usually small enterprises which, in most countries, are responsible for employing the largest percentage of the population. Therefore, this is an important study, especially for low-income countries and least developed nations where unemployment rates are very high and often result in significant social problems such as poverty, stress, and substance abuse. Second, Weber wanted to understand the elements of continuity between 19th century family business capitalism and contemporary large-scale business, technology, and big government[2]. But, perhaps, Weber’s most significant motivation was to identify the role of values in determining social action[3], or the connection between “religious radicalism and economic progress[4].” Specifically, Weber sought to investigate how puritanism, methodism, and other forms of ascetic Protestantism might have resulted in the behaviour we have described [tendency of protestants, like Jews, for economic rationalism, advancement, and leadership through frugality, diligence, punctuality and honesty][5].

According to Weber one crucial element of the protestant work ethic is the calling of every individual, clergy and laity alike, to serve God. He notes that “It [calling] and it alone is the will of God, and hence every legitimate calling has exactly the same worth in the sight of God[6].”

Presumably, this understanding is what has resulted in the popular concept of the priesthood of all believers among many evangelicals. In fact, the Lausanne Congress even adopted a version of this thinking as her slogan, “The Whole Church Taking the Whole Gospel to the Whole World[7].” Bebbington also agrees with Weber’s idea of calling and points out that as far back as the 1700s and 1900s British Evangelicals, including several of the laity, were actively propagating their faith and not leaving this important task to the clergy alone[8].

Needless to say, reviving this ethic within my context in South Africa would have significant implications for the advancement of the gospel; because as several scholars have noted, this would do away with the sacred-secular divide and mobilize the vast majority of followers of Jesus for mission as they function daily in their frontlines, regardless of what economic sector they represent[9]. The whole Church of South Africa embracing her calling could also catalyze a discipleship-making-movement and improve social morality, business efficiency, and overall quality of life. Reviving the Protestant Ethic in South Africa would also help provide a Christian response to the rise of Islamic banking and adoption of Islamic principles in food production and distribution across the country (Halaal). Several products in the market are registered with the Islamic Council for South Africa. When followers of Jesus purchase these products, they naively support the propagation of the Islamic faith. Apparently, the decline of the protestant ethic opened the door for this sad situation.

Given the remarkable theological insight this generation enjoys, I think the principles need to be expanded today to include all that the theology of work encompasses. God demonstrates that He is a worker when He created the world. He clearly models initiative, problem-solving, organization, planning, diligence, efficiency, innovation, job-satisfaction, value-addition and other marketplace values in the creation narrative.[10]   In view of the above, God models good work ethics, thereby endorsing the Protestant ethic. It is remarkable that several individuals applying the Protestant ethic, and enjoying positive results, have little or no relationship with the God who created the principles. Naturally, the ultimate benefit would be a large-scale rediscovery of the God behind the principles.

In conclusion, as remarkable as The Protestant Work Ethic is, it also raises a few concerns. For example, Clark observes that Weber misinterprets Wesley by taking one of his statements out of context. In this instance, Wesley exhorts Christians to “gain all they can, save all they can … [and thereby] grow rich,” then “give all they can, so that they grow in grace and lay up treasure in heaven[11].” Weber considered this to be purely a work ethic leading to riches, while Wesley meant it to be a description of a work ethic as well as a warning that riches could also lead to “pride, and anger and the love of the world[12]”. Regardless of its minor flaws, The Protestant Work Ethic remains a remarkable classic with several lessons for this and future generations of leaders.

 

 

 

 

[1] Weber, Max and Talcott Parsons. The Protestant Ethic and the Spirit of Capitalism. (Kettering, OH: Angelico Press, 2014), 8.

[2] Weber and Parsons. The Protestant Ethic, 9.

[3] Ibid, 10.

[4] Ibid, 15.

[5] Ibid, 35.

[6] Ibid, 60.

[7] https://lausanne.org/content/twg-three-wholes

[8] Bebbington, D. W. Evangelicalism in Modern Britain: A History from the 1730s to the 1980s. (London: Routledge, 1989), 10.

[9] Greene, Mark. The Great Divide. (London: LICC, 2010), 3.

[10] Genesis 1 and 2

[11] Weber, Max and Talcott Parsons. The Protestant Ethic and the Spirit of Capitalism. (Kettering, OH: Angelico Press, 2014), 116.

[12] Clark, Jason Paul. Evangelism and Capitalism: A Reparative Account and Diagnosis of Pathogeneses in the Relationship (Portland, OR: George Fox University, 2018), 83.

About the Author

mm

Henry Gwani

Disciple, husband, father, community development practitioner and student of leadership working among marginalized communities in South Africa

12 responses to “Protestant Work Ethic 2.0”

  1. mm Roy Gruber says:

    Henry, thanks, as always, for you perspective from a different culture than my own. You mention how the revival of the spirit of capitalism would bring numerous benefits to South Africa. When you use the word “revive” it leads me to believe that it existed at one point but does not exist now. If I’m understanding that correctly, what lead to its demise in South Africa? How do you think that demise helped to create the inequity you now experience?

    • mm Henry Gwani says:

      Roy, thanks for your question. Generally speaking, I see the Protestant ethic as the Biblical approach to business. Against that background, I regret to say that there is an apparent decline in the reliability/efficiency that has characterized business in South Africa. For example, during lockdown, we had significant episodes of price-hiking, even among stores that traditionally stood for fair pricing. Understandably, some viewed this as taking advantage of a market “opportunity,” but where does that leave the issue of ethics? Then, sadly, there’s been a very sharp rise in corruption especially with regards to awarding and executing of government contracts. Obviously, not everyone is corrupt, but there is definitely a need to revive ethical business practices.

  2. Kayli Hillebrand says:

    Henry: It is interesting you write about the relationship and implications of the Islamic faith in the market within your context. I just posed a question to Troy about how the expansion of the Islamic faith has been paved and supported by their role in industry. Are there any active ministries or strategies that you see the church supporting to help followers of Christ understand the relationship between certain product choices and Islam? While ‘fair-trade’ is more and more common in the US, I have never seen anything that similar that is directed towards religious connections.

    • mm Henry Gwani says:

      Much thanks Kayli. In my opinion there are very few ministry efforts being done nation-wide to educate followers of Jesus about the implications of their product choices with regards to the rising/spread of Islam in South Africa. Around 2016-2018, a movement in this regard began to be formed but I think its impact was quite limited and there remains very little insight. I do not hear that conversation still going on and sadly, the vast majority of the church, and population at large, remain ignorant. I believe the local church must organize herself, with significant input from lawyers, politicians, entrepreneurs and church/mission leaders, in a strong and sustained effort to mobilize awareness among the millions of people who are ill informed about this issue of partaking in foods offered to idols. Due to legal implications with regards to “hate-speech” etc, wisdom is needed in how this is rolled out, but if we pray, I’m certain that God will give a viable nation-wide strategy.

  3. mm Troy Rappold says:

    You bring up some interesting points about the teachings of Weber and the religious and economic realities of South Africa. The sacred-secular divide that exists in your country is a different variety of divide in the U.S. This program really does bring a global perspective to this type of issues because of people like you. The decline of the protestant work ethic has declined and warped into something different in the U.S., just like it has in your country. Reading like Weber though gives us insight to help influence our communities for the Kingdom. You agree?

    • mm Henry Gwani says:

      Troy, I fully agree that readings like Weber help us influence our communities for the kingdom. First, it is a “wake-up” call to the reality that if previous generations applied Biblical principles as they understood them and saw radical transformations in their businesses/lives, there is hope that our generation can do likewise. Plus, we have the advantage of a little more Biblical/theological insight, given the greater incidence of theological institutions globally compared to weber’s time. Second Weber, as Clark notes, highlights the need for theological accuracy in our interpretation and application of the Bible in daily life/business. If we improve upon the gains of Weber’s generation, and teach our children to sustain the tempo in their generation, I think we will do well.

  4. Henry, I appreciate your perspective here. One of the results of the Protestant ethic is individual anxiety. Weber, and others, sees how this impacts the growth of capitalism, but I’m fascinated by the specific impact it has on evangelism. You write, “[…] reviving this ethic within my context in South Africa would have significant implications for the advancement of the gospel […]” What is it about the protestant ethic that you believe would mobilize people for this?

    • mm Henry Gwani says:

      Michael, I think the protestant ethic might inspire greater evangelism through integrity, efficiency, and product excellence within a culture of corruption, mediocrity and “cutting-corners,” as the case is in some parts of the developing world. This may not be the case in the USA, where there is often very high competition through product excellence; for example, Apple and her android competitors. But on this side of the world, I believe authentic/excellent customer service and excellent products will open the door for evangelistic conversation, as customers will notice the difference and ask why a Christian entrepreneur does not behave like others. Several years ago, when I was in the gemstone business in Nigeria, a Muslim customer remarked that from interacting with me and my Christian partners he could tell that Jesus is the way. The interesting thing is that I don’t remember ever discussing significantly with him before then about Jesus. I believe this Muslim friend simply observed our little application of the protestant ethic and a door was opened to his heart.

  5. mm Eric Basye says:

    Excellent post, Henry. It is my opinion and perspective that in and among the poor of America, we are in desperate need of a theology of work. I see this all throughout Scripture and hope to instill such principles into my doctoral project – a leadership development cohort for vulnerable communities. In order for us to see flourishing happen, especially among the poor, I believe this is a component that we must redeem as part of our discipleship of others leading to transformation.

    In what ways do you see (or not see) similarities in your context?

    • mm Henry Gwani says:

      Eric, I would love to know more about your doctoral project. I think there are several similarities between our contexts in the need for a theology of work. One similarity might be the need for taking initiative for solving personal/community needs and not waiting for external, whether government or private sector, assistance. My theology in this regard is shaped by the narratives of people like Nehemiah, who took the initiative for rebuilding Jerusalem by crafting a plan and prayerfully mobilizing people and resources to achieve his goal. Obviously, external assistance is always needed because God created us to live in community and not isolation. But I think the initiative must be an indigenous one. Given the political condition of Israel at the time, Nehemiah may be described as being in a disadvantaged situation, yet he took initiative for community development and God’s grace was released on his behalf.

  6. mm Andy Hale says:

    Henry,

    You’ve raised some fascinating points, especially about supporting the businesses of those of different faith.

    However, I’m cautious in throwing my weight behind the idea that supporting the business of those of a different faith is promoting that faith. If we believe in the freedom of religion for all people and truly love our neighbors, we want to see our neighbors become successful and thrive. Therefore, I do not personally want to only support the business of “Christians,” believing this will only detriment people who own businesses of a different faith. I think this is a slippery slope that can easily lead companies to only serve the customers that fit into their beliefs, way of life, sexuality, political affiliation, and more.

    • mm Henry Gwani says:

      Andy, I agree with your perspective. We are called to love our neighbor and, like you, I think one way that can be fleshed out is through supporting the business of a neighbor. However, Paul also cautions us about eating food sacrificed to idols (1 Corinthians 12). Plus, Daniel and his three friends chose not to “defile” themselves with food offered by neighbors and, presumably, offered to idols in Babylon (Daniel 1:8). So how do I love my neighbor without misrepresenting the Lord, or being seen to endorse idolatry, is a question I continue to wrestle with. One resource that has helped me is Paul and Frances Hibbert’s book, Case Studies in Missions.

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