Mere Christians

Jen Wilkin and JT English (Authors of You Are a Theologian)

Episode Summary

Everything you do is an act of theology

Episode Notes

Why everything you do at work is an act of theology, why Christians should view even mundane work as “infused with supernatural meaning,” and how Genesis 1 democratizes human dignity.

Links Mentioned:

Episode Transcription

[0:00:04] JR: Hey, friend. Welcome to the Mere Christians Podcast. I'm Jordan Raynor. How does the gospel influence the work of Mere Christians? Those of us who aren't pastors or religious professionals, but who work as middle managers, crossing guards, and marine biologists. That's the question we explore every week. Today, I'm posing it to Jen Wilkin and J.T. English, two of the very best Bible teachers I know.


They are not Mere Christians, but they have a lot to say to help you and I connect the gospel to our work today. Jen and J.T. and I recently sat down to talk about why everything we do at work is an act of theology, why Christians should view even mundane work as work that's infused with supernatural meaning. Finally, we talked about how Genesis 1 and the cultural mandate of verses 26-28 democratizes human dignity. You guys are going to love this short conversation with my new friends Jen Wilkin and J.T. English.




[0:01:13] JR: Jen and J.T. Welcome to the Mere Christians Podcast.


[0:01:17] JW: Thanks so much for having us on.


[0:01:18] JE: So glad to be here. Thanks, Jordan.


[0:01:19] JR: Oh, man. I'm pumped. I’ve been excited for this for a long time. Especially, as I've gotten into this new book, the you two wrote. You Are a Theologian. I think a lot of listeners are probably hearing that ton of back. Actually, I'm not. I'm a stock analyst. A sous chef. Jen, how do you define the word theologian?


[0:01:41] JR: Well, the word itself is a combination of two words that just mean, words about God. So, if you have words about God, then you are someone who is doing theology. You are a theologian. So, obviously, we recognize that there are people who are professional theologians and writing a book like this, talking about a topic like this in no way is meant to remove that distinction, but instead, it's meant to help all of us to realize that we each have a role to play in the work of theology. Not only do we have a role to play, but we're commanded to take up our space in the Great Commission doing so.


[0:02:16] JR: Yeah. That's good. Yeah, the case is, hey, you're already a theologian. You just might not be a good one, so let us help you be a better one. I can hear listeners thinking, J.T. you're a pastor, right? Like, yeah, J.T. you just don't know how demanding my job is. My family life is. I don't have time to really embrace that idea of a, as a theologian. I'm sure you hear this from some of your congregants. What would you say to that person?


[0:02:39] JE: I hear that from my wife. My wife is a business owner. She runs a marketing company, CEO and so like, she loves these conversations because she wouldn't push back. She agrees with this. She is somebody who's spending most of her time in the marketplace working, but also as a parent taking care of kids, so she's like, we've had this conversation. What does it mean for me to be a theologian? Because some of us are called to be theologians in perhaps more pastoral, or academic ways, or writing, or producing podcasts, and producing content, but the reality is if we're all theologians, it’s also okay that we embody that in different ways, and in different contexts. I'm really honestly reminded of the cultural mandate given to us in Genesis chapter one, which is a democratization of human dignity. In the ancient Near Eastern culture. There were image-bearers. It was a pharaoh, and it was other kings and queens of Assyrian or Babylonian kingdoms, but the Bible gives us a different picture.


The Bible tells us that every single human created is made with dignity, value, and worth and is meant to represent, reign, and rule on God's behalf. That is what it means to be a theologian. Every single human being is raining and ruling on God's behalf in whatever context they're in, whether there are, like you said, sous chefs or baristas or trading stocks or being a mom or a dad or being a pastor. All of us are representatives of God. The question is, are we representing him in a way that is accurate and true and good and beautiful or are we somehow distorting who the true God is?


[0:04:05] JR: Yeah. We can't represent him well if we don't know him well and know his word well. I love this line commenting on the cultural mandate of Genesis 1. You guys said, “The purpose of humanity is to extend the glory of God to all of creation.” To rightfully represent him as princes and princesses of the one true king. That's a really good definition of our purpose, right? But it's really lofty. Jen, what does it look like practically for the listener who's, take J. Ts wife, who's running a marketing agency? What does it look like for her to, “extend the glory of God to all of creation?”


[0:04:46] JW: Well, we know that the Bible says whatever you do to work at it is unto the Lord. I think it's, I'm sure that's a verse that's come up on your podcast before. I don't mean to – I know I'm not introducing a novel concept here. Really, what we're saying is that no matter what the labor is that has fallen into your lot rather than viewing it simply as work, we understand it also as worship and that everything we do to bring, I would say, I would even back it further into the language of bringing order out of chaos. We take up the work that the Lord begins in creation narrative and we become agents of bringing order out of chaos just as he set the pattern for us. So, that means that even something like the stay-at-home mom who is cleaning toilets, she's bringing order out of chaos. So, she is –


[0:05:27] JE: A lot of chaos.


[0:05:28] JW: So, she is fulfilling her a lot of chaos. Yeah, we owned a relatively small house for many years that grew, inexplicable reason had five toilets in it. So, I thought about that a lot as we would say, to the glory of God and take up my wand and go for it. So, I do think it means that we see our work not as an aggravation, but as an opportunity for worshiping and for reflecting God.


[0:05:50] JR: Define worshiping, though, Jen, right? Cause somebody hears that big, how does bringing order to a chaotic bathroom, how is that worship? We like to be real explicit on this, but how would you define worship and what's the connection there to ruling over a bathroom as a stay-at-home parent?


[0:06:06] JW: I would default to the way that the scriptures speak of loving God with heart, soul, mind and strength and of loving neighbor as you love yourself. So, that means that we worship the Lord when we bring everything that we have to the circumstance that we are in or to the relationships that the Lord has given to us. It means that when I think about conflict with a family member, I don't think of it just in terms of how it impacts me. I'm thinking about it in terms of how it impacts everyone who's connected to us, and how it's impacting my relationship with the God of the universe.


I'm going to respond differently to conflict with a family member when I have that reference point. That's a form of work as well, bringing order out of a chaotic relationship, right? We don't have the miraculous ability to bring order out of chaos the way that God does. We don't speak things into existence, but we are given very real skills and abilities and gifts that we can bring to the work of imaging God.


[0:07:03] JR: Yeah. That's good. Yeah. J.T. you guys expound upon this first commission, if you will. This cultural mandate in Genesis 1. It’s called a rule over every aspect of creation that God called good, including toilets and bathrooms and whatever, everything in the material world. I talked to a lot of Christians on this podcast, outside the podcast, who really only see how their spiritual tasks matter to God, right? Explicit acts of evangelism and prayer. How does Genesis 1 help our listeners see eternal meaning in the most non “spiritual tasks” that they do at work all day?


[0:07:41] JE: Yeah. I mean, think about it this way. That's such a good question. I love helping Christians think about this, because evangelism is beautiful. Prayer, spiritual disciplines. We should celebrate those things, but before all of those things came into being, before we even needed those things, before we had brokenness in the world, humans were called to work. In Genesis 1 and 2, humans are working before there was evangelism and before there was prayer in the sense that we understand.


Now, we were actually just walking with God in a garden and enjoying his presence. We were cultivating his beautiful world and extending, as Jen said, order into the chaos of the rest of creation. I think the thing that I would want to encourage Christians to think about is there is no task that is more spiritual than another task.


[0:08:27] JR: Go deeper on that.


[0:08:29] JE: There is obedience and disobedience. That's a different conversation.


[0:08:30] JR: Yeah, sure. Yeah.


[0:08:31] JE: There are things that are good and things that create beauty in the world. There are things that are bad and create disorder and brokenness in the world, but if you are rightly ordering your home, so Jen and I did a podcast about an hour ago and now we're doing this podcast, do you know what I did between it? I mowed stripes in my lawn. I've got to tell you, how good I feel about it. I brought order into the chaos of the weeds and the lawn of J.T. English's house. So, that's a good thing.


It's an imaging of God that I would want to care for my home, to care for God's creation, to bring beauty and not just think, okay, it's shorter than it was, though that's better, but it's also pretty. I care about it looking good. My first job at a college was working in Excel spreadsheets. For anybody who knows me, knows that this is part of the brokenness of the world in my life. But for some of our listeners, I mean, that's just where you live. That is such a wonderful thing. You are bringing beauty and goodness and value to things that if you weren't there and doing that could be broken.


I just want to encourage your listeners who are maybe thinking about, like in Excel, maybe I'll say it this way, in Excel spreadsheet is a theological task. You are being a theologian when you write an email. You're being a theologian when you jump on that Zoom call or you have that meeting at work or you have a sales presentation. All of those things are theological and you have an opportunity to represent virtue, beauty, goodness, namely the character of God or an opportunity to distort what God is like. Everything, ultimately, is spiritual and theological.


[0:10:03] JR: Because all of those actions, the email, the Excel spreadsheet are being informed by what we believe about God and for the believer being done as unto the Lord. So, 1 Corinthians 15:58, our labor in the Lord, our labor done by faith for God's glory rather than my own is an expression of that theology. I'm putting words in your mouth, but is that what you're saying, J.T.?


[0:10:28] JE: That's exactly right. Yeah. I think again, we have an opportunity. Everything that we do is done by faith. I think about even Genesis chapter 10 and 11. We can work to our own glory or we can work unto the glory of the Lord. So, we can build monuments to ourselves to show ourselves how great we are or we can take either mundane tasks or magnificent tasks like mowing a lawn, like a mundane task or building a beautiful church, or making a beautiful piece of art and show that God gets glory in this. Humans can work to their own glory, but we are called ever since Genesis chapters 1 and 2 to work for the glory of God.


[0:11:02] JR: Yeah. That's good. I love this line. Commenting on Genesis 1 and 2, it says, “This means in your commenting on the cultural mandate that even the most mundane tasks, doing yard work, creating a filing system, changing the diaper can be infused with supernatural meaning.” Jen, after I read that. I was reminded of something that you wrote years ago in one of my all-time favorite books. I probably recommend None Like Him more than almost any other book on the planet.


There you said, “When we invest our time in what is eternal significance, we store up treasure in heaven. This side of heaven, the only investments with eternal significance are people.” I've come back to that quote over and over again. I'm curious for you to unpack it a little bit more, because given what we've been talking about, about the supernatural meaning that God has given our work with the material world. I'm curious how you see this side of eternity are only investments mattering our investments with people, unpack that for us. Help us understand that.


[0:12:03] JW: Well, a lot of this has to do with the way that we view ourselves in relation to God. If we recognize that God is our origin and that he therefore has the right to say how we live and what we do. Then we understand ourselves to be in charge, but to be stewards of resources. That's a very different mentality than the world is going to recommend to you. The world is going to say, “He who has the most toys wins.”


And in our case, we're saying some things have been entrusted to me for a while and some people have been entrusted to me for a while. I'm going to use those things in a way that shows the people who are entrusted to me that I am a steward and that I am an image bearer. So, it means that even though I might be at work all day long while my kids are somewhere else, the time that I have with my kids, they understand the why behind my work. They know that I am not at work to make much of myself, but I'm there because I've been given a good task to fulfill. I'm doing it to the glory of God.


Every single thing we do will either illuminate or obscure the character of God. I think when we enter into our daily tasks like that, not everyone who we come in contact with will perceive whether our motive was to self-elevate or to elevate God. But I tell you who will know, it's the people with who we've been placed in relationship with over the long term. They will absolutely know the content of the character behind every choice that we make.


[0:13:25] JR: Yes. Amen. Very well said. Hey, J.T. you wrote this piece in the Gospel Coalition a couple of years ago. You said, “We all too often create systems that prioritize professional ministers and not the whole body, but Ephesians four reminds us that we need the entire church to be engaged in mission, not just professional ministers.” I love it. That's a whole purpose of this podcast. I'm curious how you're doing this in your church. What are you all doing to help the Mere Christians in your pews see that they too are part of the royal priesthood and scratching off glimpses of the kingdom through their work?


[0:13:59] JE: Yeah. This is going to sound so boring, but I think it's true. I tell my church on a regular basis. My job is not to do ministry for you, but to do ministry with you and to equip the work of ministry that God has called you to. So, the way that we do that is we teach them the Bible. We have a theological Institute, but I think what happened 20 or 30 years ago is in those kinds of environments. This is not wrong. This needs to be not an either or, but a both and we would call people to ministry as if that was the highest calling that God had on their life.


We should call people to ministry. I love doing ministry. I love preaching. I love pastoring. We need more missionaries. We need more pastors. We need more ministers of the gospel. This again, not either or, but both and, but I try to remind people that, because sometimes what happens is when you learn these beautiful truths, you think, “Oh, my gosh. I have to go into ministry. I have to tell a lot of people.” No, no, no, no, no, please don't go into ministry. You're going to lose your mind. You don't want to do this. Please.


You're right, because a lot of us in ministry are like, “Why am I not in medical device sales?” That sounds really intriguing right now, but the reality is I have to tell them, no, now that you see the beauty of the gospel and deeper and richer ways, I want you to stay in your chiropractor or in law practice or working as a mom, stay at home mom, whatever it might be, because that is where you have already been called. You have a sphere of influence that God has already given you and it actually diminishes the work of the kingdom. If you come join my staff at the church, but it can accelerate the work of the kingdom if you stay in your sphere of influence that God has given you.


We've got a guy at our church who did our institute this past year. He was a senior vice president of hospitality at Disney. I did not know this when I first met him. He was working at our New Here table. I was like, “Do you have any ideas about how we could maybe do some hospitality in better ways.” He was like, “I've got some ideas for you.”


[0:15:43] JW: I thought you’d never ask.


[0:15:46] JE: What could happen in a situation like that is, “Why don't you come be our next steps pastor, connections, whatever it might be, rather than that. It's like, “Great, I want to hear everything you have to say. Keep serving, keep leading, keep volunteering.” He's in an elder process for us right now, but the better thing is for him to stay in his current context of work, because that's a space I'll never get to. That's a space Jen will never get to. That's a space that many of us will never get to.


I just want to encourage people that as soon as you begin to learn and not begin to, as you continue to learn about the glory of the gospel, the beauty of God, what you should not feel unless you know that you know, that you know God is calling you to ministry, vocational ministry, you need to view your current vocation as ministry, because God has placed you there in his providence for the sake of him receiving glory from you and whatever your vocation might be.


[0:16:32] JR: Yeah. That's exactly right. Jen, you mentioned talking to kids about work. How old are your kids now?


[0:16:37] JW: My kids are 27, 26, 25, 25, and 23.


[0:16:44] JR: What were you teaching them about work when they were still at home?


[0:16:44] JW: Well, a lot of it is just teaching by example that you want them to see you working hard and hopefully seeing you work hard at something that you love, but even if it's something that you don't love, seeing how you persevere through the work that is in front of you in the moment. I think so much of this conversation is shaped by just the sheer number of choices that we have available to us has a big impact on the way that we think about our work.


We keep thinking that there is another place that we could be working that would be more to the glory of God, because we enjoy the gift of choice, but most of human existence has been you just had a job and you just did it. I think modeling for our kids that it's not your circumstance that determines, whether you are pursuing the Lord through your work. It's your heart. It's your heart posture. I don't know if this is like a black tick next to my name or not, but none of my kids are in ministry. I don't feel like –


[0:17:39] JE: I think you actually won the gold medal, Jen.


[0:17:41] JR: I was going to say –


[0:17:41] JE: On this podcast.


[0:17:42] JW: Yeah. But they are all very involved in serving in the local church. They understand the significance of their place in their place of work as a minister of the gospel. I've wondered how did they pick that up. I mean, in various seasons Jeff was either miserable or happy in his job. I was either miserable or happy in my job. So, I do think it is important for parents to ask, how am I spending number of years that I have with these kids in the home to show them either I love what I do and I'm working as unto the Lord or what I do is really challenging and I'm still working as unto the Lord in my heart posture, even if I don't particularly love the work at hand.


[0:18:19] JR: Yeah. Let's not forget, Colossians 3:23 and 24 was given to people who probably didn't love their jobs.


[0:18:24] JW: Yeah.


[0:18:25] JR: Right. Let's keep in mind the context of this passage to be good theologians. Hey, so Jen and J.T. we always wrap up with three questions. I just said that I gift none like him like crazy. Jen, if I pulled open your Amazon order history, what book would I see you buying over and over and over again as gifts for other people?


[0:18:45] JW: Oh, I constantly hand out the book that made me want to write, None Like him, and that's A.W. Tozer's, The Knowledge of the Holy.


[0:18:51] JR: So good. So good. What about you, J.T.?


[0:18:54] JE: Oh, for me, it would definitely be Michael Reeves, Delighting in the Trinity. I think so many Christians have been told that the Trinity is too mysterious or elite for them to understand, but it's the grounding of our faith. Michael writes in such a compelling and gospel-centered way that it just helps me to delight in the beauty of God.


[0:19:10] JR: What's the 30-second pitch of that being the grounding of our faith? Give us the synopsis of that book real quick.


[0:19:16] JE: Yeah. The Trinity, basically, we're told that it's too mysterious for you to understand and it's too challenging for you to grasp, but it's not. It's God. Despite the fact that God is mysterious, he's also revealed himself as Father, Son, and Holy Spirit. The gospel can't be true, if God the Father, isn't God the Father. God the son, God the Son, and God the Spirit, and the Spirit. Then acting in that way. God the Father, sending God the Son to die in our place as a propitiation for our sins and then ascending into heaven to send the Holy Spirit to empower us for life and godliness, as we wait as the church for God to son to come back and make all things right.


[0:19:49] JR: Yeah. That's good. That was a heck of a 30-second pitch, man. Jeez. You should book summarize, as a side hustle.


[0:19:56] JW: He knows anything.


[0:19:56] JR: Hey, Jen. Who would you want to hear in this podcast? Ideally, not a theologian or a pastor, but a Mere Christian talking about how their faith shapes the work they do in the world?


[0:20:06] JW: Well, I'm wondering if you've had Hannah Anderson on.


[0:20:09] JR: I have not.


[0:20:10] JW: Oh, my goodness. She is a sage among sages. Yeah. She's done a lot of work thinking about the nature of our work. She does a lot of work with anthropology and she has done a lot of really intriguing work talking about nostalgia for forms of work that used to be subsistence living that have now become glamorized. You think about the homesteading movement and things like that, where now the only people who can afford to be homesteaders are people who are not subsistence-living people by any stretch. So, it's fascinating to me the way that she thinks. She's a good thinker across many planes, but I would say particularly in the area of work, I find fascinating.


[0:20:46] JR: Yeah. That's good. That's a great answer. How about you, J.T.? Who would you want to hear on the podcast?


[0:20:51] JE: Oh, man. Have you had Andy Crouch on the podcast?


[0:20:54] JR: Oh, yeah.


[0:20:54] JE: Then you got to have him again, because he's the best. Let me give you a different maybe a non-conventional answer for your folks. He's an academic. He's been a theologian, but he's somebody who helps me think well, theologically, Kevin Vanhoozer. He writes at a very high theological level, but is also very accessible. I would say, Kevin.


[0:21:10] JR: I like that. Yeah. From time to time, we bring in theologians. We've had Dr. Wright on. We've had – we just had Andreas Kostenberger on. Yeah. I know, we love these friends. All right. Jen and J.T. I want you both to leave this audience with one thing before we sign off. Again, you're talking to an audience of Mere Christians who is very diverse vocationally. What they share is a deep desire for the gospel to shape everything they do at work, what they do, why they do it, how they do it. What's one thing you want to leave them with before we sign off J.T.?


[0:21:43] JE: I think I would just encourage you your work is good. You were meant to do it. You're bringing beauty and glory to God, even in the mundane. So, it's not those who have podcasts or large Instagram followings or speaking platforms. I'm grateful for those of us who are able to do those kinds of vocations. It's the mundane also that can bring glory to God. So, don't stretch yourself into grasping for more. Rather be faithful where God has placed you, because he receives beauty in these mundane, anonymous spaces. I'm really proud of you for staying there. That's you and you're listening to this. You feel encouraged by that. Just keep hanging in there. Do the thing that you didn't think you were going to be doing and do it to the glory of God.


[0:22:24] JR: That's good. How about you, Jen?


[0:22:26] JW: Yeah. I think just going to the fundamental truth that the thing that separates Christianity from all other religions is that we work out of gratitude and not to earn. So, we understand the true joy of vocation in a way that those who are not believers can't understand, because relationship is not at stake for us when it comes to the Lord. So, therefore, we can labor with joy as an expression of gratitude instead of in some vain attempt to try to ascend to the heavens as the biblical account shows us people trying to do over and over again, but instead, just as an expression of gratitude for what we received.


[0:23:04] JR: One of my favorite quotes from None Like Him is, “God is never and will never declare His need for us.” Right? He doesn’t it need us to do this work. It's an invitation to be in partnership and relationship with Him in revealing the kingdom on earth as it is in heaven. Thank you for reminding us of that. I just want to commend you both for the extraordinary work you do of equipping the church, for helping make theology feel accessible and for challenging the Mere Christians listening.


To be good theologians, we're all already theologians. Let's be really good ones, so that we can best reflect and honor the Lord in whatever it is that we do. Guys, I'm loving this book. You Are a Theologian. I highly recommend it to you all. Jen and J.T. thank you so much for spending some time with us today.


[0:23:54] JW: Oh, thanks so much for having us.




[0:23:56] JR: Hey, I want to hear who you want to hear on this show., fill out the form there. Listen, some of my favorite episodes on this show are not with religious professionals and professional theologians like Jen and J.T. It's from mechanics and marine biologists and crossing guards and middle managers. If that's you, especially if you've got a job that we've never featured here in the Mere Christians podcast, please reach out Guys, thank you so much for listening. I'll see you next week.