Dominion and Work
In a prophecy of the “new heavens” and the “new earth,” Isaiah describes a time of covenant blessing, a golden age when God’s people “shall build houses and inhabit them; they shall plant vineyards and eat their fruit. They shall not build and another inhabit; they shall not plant and another eat; for as the days of a tree, so shall be the days of My people, and My elect shall long enjoy the work of their hands” (Isa 65:21, 22).
Such a time will be the zenith and pinnacle of the earthly kingdom of God, the fulfillment of both the original dominion mandate given by God to Adam in the Garden of Eden (Gen 1:26, 28), and the Great Commission, given by the Second Adam, the Lord Jesus Christ, to His Church (Mat 28:18). In the defeat of Satan, the success of the gospel and the cultural victory of His covenant people is guaranteed (1 John 3:8; Mat 12:28, 29; John 12:31, 32; Eph 4:8; Col 2:15; Heb 2:14).
Note, however, that in the Paradise of the new heavens and new earth, men will build, men will plant – and men will work.
Whether the New Heavens and the New Earth (Isa 65:17; 66:22; 2 Pet 3:13; Rev 21:1) is a description of the “first” world Millennial era (Rev 21:1), or the condition of the eternal, post-Resurrection-Final Judgment era, is open for discussion. Although pertinent, for our immediate purposes we are more concerned with the role of work, and its implication for dominion, in the present era. This paper is a discussion of the relationship between work – our vocations, occupations, professional careers, trades, etc. – and dominion; that is, the Christian’s calling to self-consciously build and expand Christ’s kingdom in the world (a.k.a. “Christendom”) until, in the words of the prophet, “it shall come to pass in the latter days that the mountain of the Lord’s house shall be established on the top of the mountains, and shall be exalted above the hills; and all nations shall flow to it” (Isa 2:2).
How is this “latter day glory” to be accomplished? Through the faithful preaching of the gospel, the application of God’s law-word in our personal and civil affairs, and with a lot of good old-fashioned hard work. According to the Fourth Commandment, “Six days you shall labor and do all your work, but the seventh day is the Sabbath of the LORD your God. In it you shall do no work” (Exo 20:9, 10b). Six days on, one day off. That’s the pattern. Contrary to how some of us may feel about it, work is not a curse; work became a curse because of the Fall. Work still is a curse – for fallen man. Not so for the righteous. “In redemption,” writes theologian H. D. McDonald, “work is again transformed into a means of blessing.”1
Work was in Paradise, and is now, a necessary aspect of God’s program of dominion. The fact that God commands that six out of seven days be devoted to work, and not play, ought to tell us some-thing about the importance, and seriousness, of our workday occupations.
Unfortunately, few of us see the connection between our lives at work and the advancement of the kingdom of God. It seems that everything is important to the kingdom of God – except where we work and how we spend most of our waking lives. It seems that our lives have meaning at home, at church, with our families, with our friends, in our prayer groups and Bible studies, at play – everywhere but at work. Our work lives have, in effect, become an interruption, a “parenthesis” to our “real” lives – before nine and after five. There are two possible explanations. There is either something terribly wrong with our work (or with work in general), or terribly wrong with us.
It is possible, of course, that we are not suited to our present vocations and would be genuinely happier and more productive someplace else. To be content with our wages is not to say that we shouldn’t have any ambition at all. It is to say that, in the providence of God, we are not to disdain our wages, or our occupations, whatever they may be. If we can improve our situations, so be it. Just don’t complain about it. Some work is miserable work, but someone has to do it. Maybe even you. Contentment in our wages is contentment with God – and ourselves. If we are not content with who we are or with what we do for a living now, it’s unlikely we will ever be content with our work, or our wages.
By way of illustration, we know of a man whose work-life has been a struggle and a source of frustration most of his adult life. He is intelligent and capable, but has never been content in his work. Vocationally, his will and God’s will seem to pull in opposite directions. But if you were to ask him what he should be doing, or wanted to do, he would shrug his shoulders and smile.
So here’s the problem: Vocationally, how can we expect to know God’s will for our lives, if we don’t know? This is an important point. Some people know from the time they’re small children what they want to be. Others – don’t. These are the people who end up “working” for a living in honorable occupations they more or less “fall into” and “settle” for as they grow older and assume the responsibilities of adult men and women.
The point, though, is that there is nothing wrong with simply “working” for a living. It’s not the same thing as being a movie star or a brain surgeon or a business tycoon, but what is? After all, celebrities and “suits” have their own problems: they need their packages delivered, homes built, cars repaired, newspapers printed, and lawns mowed just like everyone else.
But God is not asking us to “settle” for anything; His will for us is to accept, and be content, in our work, whatever it may be. If we have the choice between thinking small or thinking big, God would have us think big. God needs bankers and businessmen, as well as barbers and bakers. There is no occupation too insignificant or too extraordinary for the kingdom of God. All occupations contribute to the conglomerate that is the kingdom of God, and to the comprehensive task of dominion. For the Christian, all work is holy, for all work is kingdom work. The kingdom is an earthly, as well as a spiritual, kingdom. In this kingdom, as in other kingdoms, there are officers who lead and enlisted men who follow. Regardless of rank, everyone is expected to pull their own weight, accept their “assignment,” and get to work.
When work is reduced to survival, or to the accumulation of material things with no higher purpose in view, work becomes a curse: “For what has man for all his labor, and for the striving of his heart with which he has toiled under the sun? For all his days are sorrowful, and his work burdensome; even in the night his heart takes no rest” (Eccl 2:22, 23). Work becomes a curse, not so much because of the physical and mental effort required to get the job done, but because of its isolation from a higher purpose. “Work which looks beyond survival to long-term purposes in terms of dominion and the Kingdom of God is a characteristic of man alone in this universe.”2
For work to have a purpose, it must have meaning beyond itself, beyond the reward of its wages, and beyond the social approval it provides. Work is a curse when performed slavishly. Work is a blessing when performed by free men under God’s law, working with other free men toward a common goal.
Take the man of our illustration. Though still believing himself capable of doing or accomplishing more, because of his understanding of the nature of the kingdom of God, and of the kingdom’s relationship to work, he no longer sees the mundane tasks of his occupation as meaningless in and of themselves (which, in a purely mechanical, materialistic world they would be), but rather as indispensable parts of the whole; as necessary duties, not only upon which the larger social order relies, but, in the providence of God, the advancement of the kingdom depends.
This is not mere wishful thinking, for “the kingdom of God does not come with observation” (Luke 17:20); that is, it does not come with the glory and fanfare and suddenness of a conquering army, but slowly, incrementally, progressively over time. As God’s people take ground in their daily occupations – providing godly leadership, applying God’s law, assuming more responsibility – the kingdom, like a mustard seed, grows and grows.
Thus all work is holy, in that all work, no matter how modest, contributes to the kingdom of God. In this sense, the kingdom of God is composed of multiple “mini”-kingdoms, where each redeemed man is the governor-king of his appointed workplace. Where the kingdom-man rules, the law of God and the kingdom reigns. Like an enormous jigsaw puzzle, piece by piece our mini-kingdoms grow and interlock with neighboring mini-kingdoms until, gradually, in the fullness of time, the kingdom becomes complete. Thus, through diligent work, selfless service, and the attaining of more responsible positions, our families are blessed and the kingdom prospers.
Dominion & Work
The Bible opens with a picture of a working God. God worked in creating a universe. He has been at the job of sustaining creation since He fashioned it. To be created in God’s image means, in part, that people have the capacity to work, to fashion, to create…Sin hinders the progress of men’s and women’s efforts and thwarts their genius. Nature does not cooperate like it would without the curse. People’s physical ability has been limited by the effect of sin. A person’s mental capacity has been drastically reduced by the ravages of sinHowever, the primary commission for humanity to subdue the earth remains in force. In the garden imagery, cultivation was the scope of the original pair’s labor. Today the range would be broadened to include every pursuit of people – cultural, physical, social, and spiritual.3
Where the first Adam failed in His dominion task, the Second Adam will be successful. “Our present duties remain the same as ever,” comments Bible scholar, James Jordan. “The Christian is not called to play God and manipulate history, but to serve God in his calling. And this pulls us back to basics: Bible study, prayer, the sacraments, godly home life, public worship, faithful work on the job.”4
As God’s image bearer, dominion is the business of man. “You have made him to have dominion over the works of Your hands; You have put all things under his feet” (Psa 8:6). Although ultimate dominion belongs to God (Ps. 72:8; Dan. 4:3,34), man has been given the unique task of exercising dominion in the physical world. As we share in Christ’s office of Prophet, Priest and King, what is true of Christ’s dominion is, representatively, also true of ours. That is, dominion is a real, tangible, jurisdictional authority. Not simply a “spiritual” or “otherworldly” authority; but a historical and governing authority, here and now, on earth.
“The task of dominion began in the Garden of Eden,” writes pastor and Bible scholar, David Chilton, “but it was not supposed to end there, for man was ordered to have dominion over the whole earth: Adam and Eve (and their children) were to expand the blessings of Paradise throughout the entire world.”5 Adam, as lord and landowner, began with a small Garden-kingdom, and was given the task of cultivating and enlarging the borders of his kingdom until the Garden-kingdom filled the entire earth. The dominion mandate was repeated to Noah after the Fall (Gen 9:1, 2). Both the dominion mandate and its New Testament equivalent, the Great Commission, represent the same God and the same covenant. According to Dr. Rushdoony, “God’s covenant with Adam required him to exercise dominion over the earth and to subdue it under God and according to God’s law-word…The restoration of that covenant relationship was the work of Christ…The fulfillment of that covenant is the Great Commission: to subdue all things and all nations to Christ and His law-word…There is not one word of Scripture to indicate that this mandate was ever revoked.”6
Redemption is comprehensive, involving more than the salvation of individual sinners. Redemption, observes theologian Cornelius Van Til, must be as far-reaching as the sweep of sin. “Redemption must, in the nature of the case, be for the whole world. This does not mean that it must save every individual sinner in the world. It does mean, however, that the created universe must also be saved as a unit.”7
The scope and power of sin is limited and defined by the power of a redemption that is not only personal, but environmental. Christ redeemed the world, as well as the elect. John 3:16 tells us that “God so loved the world” – that is, the kosmos, the entire created space-time-matter continuum. Every atom was affected by the Fall; it follows that every atom must be affected by redemption. “For the creation was subjected to futility, not willingly, but because of Him who subjected it in hope; because the creation itself also will be delivered from the bondage of corruption into the glorious liberty of the children of God. For we know that the whole creation groans and labors with birth pangs together until now” (Rom 8:20-22).
The entire world – recreated by the life- and culture-transforming power of the Cross – born-again as the “new heavens” and “new earth” – is being redeemed, not just fallen man. Biblically, redemption is a matter of ownership. “Religious redemption language grows out of the custom of buying back something which formerly belonged to the purchaser but for some reason had passed into the ownership of another.”8 Adam and Adam’s heirs lost title to the land when Adam broke covenant with God and allied himself with Satan. Through the redemptive work of Christ, God literally “bought back” the world. Vocational faithfulness is an essential aspect of this work.
An Everlasting Kingdom
Nebuchadnezzar’s dream of the Great Image removes any doubt about the timing and global nature of the kingdom (Dan 2:31ff). Recall that the Image, representing successive historical kingdoms, had a head of gold (Babylon), chest and arms of silver (Medo-Persia), stomach and thighs of bronze (Greece), and legs and feet of iron and clay (Rome). A stone “cut out without hands” struck the feet of iron and clay, “and broke them to pieces” (v. 34). “Then the iron, the clay, the bronze, the silver, and the gold were crushed together, and became like chaff from the summer threshing floors; the wind carried them away so that no trace of them was found. And the stone that struck the image became a great mountain and filled the whole earth” (v. 35).
Daniel’s interpretation identifies the “mountain” as the kingdom of God: “And in the days of these kings the God of heaven will set up a kingdom which shall never be destroyed; and the kingdom shall not be left to other people; it shall break in pieces and consume all these kingdoms, and it shall stand forever” (v. 44). The kingdom of God, we are told, will invade history at a specific point in time. To the casual observer, its beginning will seem inauspicious – as inconsequential as a small stone striking the base of a gigantic statue. But, over time, its affects on history would be monumental.
In terms of redemptive history and the coming of the kingdom of God, what singular event coincides with the fall of the Roman empire? What – or Who – is this “stone cut out without hands,” so central to this prophecy? Could it be the “Stone” that falls on and breaks all who oppose Him (Mat 21:44)? Could it be the “Stone” which became a Stumbling Stone, and a Rock of offense (Rom 9:32)? What else – Who else – could it be but the Lord Jesus Christ, the “Stone” the builders rejected, and became the Chief Cornerstone (Mark 12:10)? The kingdom of God, inaugurated at Christ’s first coming, would begin small, a mere pebble. But it would grow and grow until it became a mountain and filled – dominated – the entire world.
As important as evangelizing the unconverted is, the primary means of dominion is not the con-version of the heathen, but the preservation of the spiritual and material health of the covenant-keeping family. Referring to the covenantal basis of marriage, historian and economist, Gary North, notes that marriage “is the primary training ground for the next generation. It is the primary institution for welfare, care of the young, care of the aged, and education. It is the primary agency of economic inheritance. The family is therefore the primary institutional arrangement for fulfilling the terms of the dominion covenant (Gen 1:26-28).”9
Dr. Rushdoony agrees. As the central community of society, “the family is the Kingdom of God in miniature when it is a godly family, and the more faithfully it serves the triune God, the more clearly it becomes an embassy of the Kingdom.”10
The connection, then, between dominion and work becomes clear. Prosperous, property-owning families are in a better position to take dominion – i.e., to rule under God’s law – than under-funded “leaseholder” families. Not every family will achieve the same level of prosperity. But prosperity in the form of material wealth and private property ought to be the goal of every Christian family. It is a multi-generational undertaking. “A good man leaves an inheritance to his children’s children” (Prov 13:22a). Biblically, wealth is to be accumulated, generation after generation, for the good of the kingdom.
After the death of Moses, Joshua was faced with a formidable task. Across the Jordan River lay the Promised Land – a “new earth” – occupied by the enemies of God. Israel had legal title to the land; but to possess the land, the pagan nations had to be removed. Man’s purpose under Christ, restated in the Great Commission, is nothing less than the extension of this legal claim, and the winning of the entire world. “Only be strong and very courageous,” the Lord exhorted Joshua, “that you may observe to do according to all the law which Moses My servant commanded you; do not turn from it to the right hand or to the left, that you may prosper wherever you go” (Josh 1:7).
The Lord has promised victory, but it won’t be easy. Which is why, we suppose, they call it work.
- H. D. McDonald, “Work,” The New Bible Dictionary
- R. J. Rushdoony, “Inheritance and Work,” Law and Society, Ross House Books, 1982
- T. R. McNeal, “The Theology of Work,” Holman’s Bible Dictionary
- James Jordan, Through New Eyes, Wolgemuth & Hyatt, 1999
- David Chilton, Paradise Restored, Dominion Press, 1987
- R. J. Rushdoony, The Institutes of Biblical Law, The Craig Press, 1973
- Cornelius Van Til, An Introduction to Systematic Theology, Presbyterian and Reformed, 1974
- Ray Summers, Holman Bible Dictionary, 1994
- Gary North, Tools of Dominion, Institute for Christian Economics
- Dr. Rushdoony, “The Theology of the Family,” Law and Society, Ross House Books, 1982