The "Work is Instrumental" fallacy views human economic labor as purely instrumental in service to higher pursuits of spirituality and intellect.
Humanity was created in the image of God. The image of God has primarily been understood through substantive categories throughout much of Western Church history. The substantive view is expressed in two ways: ontological and comparative. Ontologically, we are a spirit, and therefore of the same substance as God. Comparatively, we are like God and unlike nature in some ways, but unlike God and like nature in other ways. The manner in which we are like God and unlike nature points to our image bearing qualities. We are substantively the same as God. This usually is expressed in terms of matters of the mind, like reason and volition.
While this substantive understanding is true, as far as it goes, it does not go far enough. The substantive view alone has led to damaging dualisms of spirit vs. body and mind vs. body. Personhood is equated with one’s spirit or mind. The body and material issues, including work and economic action, are merely instrumental to the spirit/mind half of the dualism.
Narrative scholars have come at the image of God from a functional view (and this view has existed as a minor theme throughout Church history). The functional view observes that, according to Genesis, we were created as material beings for a material world. We were placed in the world to be co-regents and stewards over the world. We are here to “work the garden” and bring creation to completion. Furthermore, there is eschatological importance to our work. We will be raised at the last day with new bodies to work a new creation with Christ. Christ is the firstborn of all creation and is bringing all creation to its fullness. We are participants with Christ in this work as his body in the world. As restored eikons we will once again be co-regents and stewards of creation. Work and economic activity world is not incidental or instrumental. It is central to our anthropology and teleology.
But we must go further. The danger with the substantive and functional views alone is that they don’t sufficiently locate us within the cosmos. They can lead to a low view of nature. The relational view, based in the Trinity, maintains that we exist only in relationship to others. “Others” includes God, fellow human beings, and the material world. We have a dual relationship to the material world. The material world is both the object of our work and the habitat in which we live. It was created good but it is not complete. It is owned by God yet we are stewards of it. (The very word “economics” comes from the Greek word oikonomos meaning “household manager,” the one who looks after an estate in the absence of the head of the household.) The Trinitarian God is complete without the existence of “the other.” However, human beings can only be truly defined in their relatedness to God, to other people, and to the material world. But it is also true that the material world only has its full meaning in its relatedness to God and humanity.
When we work, we exhibit God’s image in the world. Our work has eschatological meaning. The biblical narrative begins in a garden and ends in a garden city. Cities were the ultimate symbol of human commerce, government, and culture. In some sense, the cultural systems humanity is building today (including economic systems) will be redeemed and incorporated into the New Creation. At a more personal level, our work is part of our personal formation and spiritual sacrifice we offer to God. While some things are inherent in us at birth, others are more malleable. Our work, and the spirit in which our work is offered, forms us. That formation of who we are will be redeemed and carried over into the New Creation at the last day. Our work is also evangelistic in that it gives a shadowy witness to what work will look like when the New Creation is consummated.
The negative consequences of the “Work is Instrumental” fallacy are many. With no biblical mooring for understanding work, many in the Church unreflectively absorb the ethos of the culture as they endeavor to live spiritually holy lives. Work is an extra curricular activity to “spiritual” living but it is justified because it generates an income to be tithed in support of those who are engaged in “full-time” Christian ministry. Genuine desire for spiritual growth becomes entangled with the propensity to ground our identities in materialistic and consumeristic ideologies. Some try to take God into the workplace but this frequently translates only into personal piety and using the office as a staging ground for evangelism. Work itself has no intrinsic or eschatological value.
Other Christians recoil at the materialism they see in the Church. They adopt a more ascetic view of faith. People are to engage in economic pursuits only to achieve some level of minimal sustenance that allows them to pursue “higher” spiritual and intellectual calls. Those who engage in economic activity beyond this level are suspected of being materialists who have succumbed to the baser values of our day. Here again, economic action is of value only insofar as it generates an environment where we can move on to more “spiritual” living. Economic activity has little intrinsic value.
Finally, those who champion social justice routinely direct their greatest energy at leveling differences in wealth instead of on equipping the poor to become productive stewards. As we will see later, the Bible has much to say about care and provision for the poor but little to say about redistribution. The desire to radically redistribute wealth often belies a mindset characteristic of the communitarian wing of the Modernist era where human beings are seen purely as consumers. (It also belies a belief in the Zero-Sum Game fallacy, which we will visit later.) There is clearly a need for wealth transfers to the incapacitated and the hungry of the world but if societal redistribution is the primary agenda, then human beings are reduced to the level of just so many cattle that must be fed. Equipping people to work and fostering nurturing environments where the intrinsic human quality of work can flourish are made secondary.
Economic work is intrinsic to human beings bearing the image of God. Work has eschatological value. The “Work is Instrumental” fallacy leads to dualistic unproductive responses to economic questions and it is probably the most widespread economic fallacy believed by Christians of all different theological and political positions.