The Protestant Work Ethic & Welfare Reform

Those of us in the UK are well aware of the coalition government’s desire to reform the welfare state. Those of us affected by disability are certainly aware of the push to remove as many as possible from benefits, with the many mistakes and miscarriages of justice that that involves. The mass media seems delighted to report constantly on benefit cheats, particularly those who have been on disability/sickness benefits, and the consequent assumption that most/all of those who are on such benefits are cheating the system or “faking it”. The government has encouraged the hatred of those who are sick by their constant language against those on benefits, they are “feckless”, “lazy” etc. We live in a time of high unemployment where the discourse from our leaders seems to suggest that there are unlimited jobs out there for the taking and that those who are on benefits are simply too lazy to work. Hence the government has borrowed the idea of “workfare” from the USA, thus making sure that jobs – real ones that are paid – never come into existence, for there is someone there to work in return for their (less than minimum-wage) benefits instead.

There is an ideology behind the Conservative-led plans for welfare, for how welfare claimants are described and viewed. That ideology has Christian elements, it was born in Christian Europe and informs the sensibilities of our professedly Christian Ministers of State.

At one time, work was not viewed as a moral good, as something that we should do and should make our life’s aim. In Judaic and early Christian times, work was seen as a curse, something we have to do but not as something we would want to do unless we had to. This view came from the very start of the Bible, in Genesis.

Gen 2:15 The LORD God took the man and put him in the Garden of Eden to work it and take care of it.

Some Jewish sources state that the work of Adam was to study the Law and keep its commands, and that Eden is the Law itself (Gill) while others comment that Adam was not to be idle, but that the work would be more in the way of recreation than work as we know it now for..

Gen 3:19 By the sweat of your brow you will eat your food until you return to the ground, since from it you were taken; for dust you are and to dust you will return.

From this, early commentators took the view that work is a curse, not something to be sought out, and that (in common with Greek and Roman paganism) the best thing is to acquire enough wealth that work never needs to be a problem again. In other references in the Bible, work is described as a necessary evil, something that must be done in order to avoid poverty (Proverbs 10:14; 13:4; 14:23; 20:13; Ecclesiastes 9:10)

The idea of work as an end in itself came with the Reformers. Luther taught that we serve God through our work, and that all callings are of equal dignity, although he did not believe that workers should change occupation or seek to move socially. Calvin, on the other hand, taught that movement between classes was to be desired. Calvinists believe in predestination, that those who are saved (elect) have been chosen to be so since before they were born. However there is no way to know for certain who is elect, but there are some signs that might give a clue. A person who is hardworking and successful, and who accumulates wealth, is more likely to be elect than someone who is idle and profligate. The sociologist Max Weber defined the elements of the “Protestant ethic” as diligence, punctuality, deferment of gratification and primacy of the work domain.

At the time of the Reformation there was an explosion in population growth and high inflation, which led to poverty, unemployment and begging in the streets of cities. At that time those poor were blamed for their poverty, with others viewing them as lazy and simply unwilling to work. This is the background that fed into the Reformers’ views on working.

These views – or those like them – are still present today. Our society teaches that to be wealthy is the ultimate good, and those who have acquired wealth (particularly by their own endeavour) are to be admired, imitated and envied. We may not put it so bluntly that we serve God by working, but in the absence of a strong Christian statement we believe in money as the thing to be served. The government often says that work is the cure for social ills such as antisocial behaviour, child truancy, petty crime, the recent riots, etc. It also contends that work helps those who are disabled, particularly those who are mentally ill, and is helpful to the mental and physical states of all who engage in it.

Cameron owes a debt to the former Prime Minister Margaret Thatcher in his thinking on welfare. I believe she articulated the beliefs behind this purge on welfare, and – assuming that he does in truth hold to a Christian faith – that this is the sort of faith he believes in. In 1988 she gave a speech to the General Assembly of the Church of Scotland, later dubbed the “Sermon on the Mound” (named after the hill in Edinburgh where their building is) which articulated her thinking on welfare from a Christian viewpoint. She said:

“We are told we must work and use our talents to create wealth. ‘If a man will not work he shall not eat’ wrote St. Paul to the Thessalonians. Indeed, abundance rather than poverty has a legitimacy which derives from the very nature of Creation”

Paul does indeed tell the Thessalonians not to be “busybodies” but to work and earn their own living. I would point out in this that the unemployed and the disabled are not, in the vast majority of cases, unwilling to work but are simply unable. Yet Cameron seems to think that those who are not working are doing so because they do not wish to work. I would also point out that we are not told to “create wealth” but simply to support ourselves, and if it is a sign of “legitimacy” that we become wealthy I would rather be with Jesus who was evidently “illegitimate” because he was poor.

I have seen Christians argue that there should be no welfare state, that money for the disabled and the unemployed should be provided, if at all, from private charity. I believe in the welfare state as a Christian because we are told to do to others what we would like to do for ourselves. While I am currently not working, I have been in work for most of my adult past and I never begrudged my tax money for that. Too many people seem to forget that the unemployed and disabled were, in the majority, tax payers themselves. And of course it is true that the rich tax-dodger is forgiven more readily than the disabled person who, for instance, is able to work because they receive the Disability Living Allowance. Actually Thatcher had something to say about love-thy-neighbour as well:

“I confess that I always had difficulty with interpreting the Biblical precept to love our neighbours ‘as ourselves’…we don’t exactly love ourselves when we fall below the standards and beliefs we have accepted. Indeed we might even hate ourselves for some unworthy deed.”

I have to say, this takes the biscuit. Jesus did not say to love our neighbours so long as they did what we wanted – this is the man who said to love our enemies, to forgive our brother seventy times seven. If he could love to death (literally) those who hated him, how can we say we will only love our neighbours if they obey our “standards and beliefs”?

I believe that the foundation of Cameron and co’s welfare reform is the idea that work is a moral cure for us, that it is morally good and will help us in many ways. I tend to the view that work can be nice, if we are fortunate enough to get a job we like, but essentially it is there to provide enough money to live on. I don’t believe that the more wealth we have, the better Christians we are or the more blessed we have been. Jesus never said he would give us wealth, that we would be materially rich, through him we are spiritually blessed beyond all measure, but we still follow a poor man, not a rich one, and who is more blessed than Christ?

I would urge everyone to support those on benefits at the moment, and to spare thoughts and prayers for those who are going through assessment for those benefits at this time. There is lots of information on the internet about the current welfare reform – for example at Broken of Britain and Benefit Scrounging Scum, where you can find more information. I believe the withdrawal of benefits from disabled people in the face of testimony to their disabilities from specialist doctors/consultants is a terrible injustice and that we, as Christians, should be making more of a fuss about this. May justice prevail.

A History of the Work Ethic

The Sermon on the Mound


  1. As a disabled Christian myself, grappling with the lack of compassion demonstrated by this Government, I am really interested in this post. This bit I like particularly: ‘I believe the withdrawal of benefits from disabled people in the face of testimony to their disabilities from specialist doctors/consultants is a terrible injustice and that we, as Christians, should be making more of a fuss about this. May justice prevail.’

    I will post this on my FB page and on Twitter, especially as I’m currently trying to encourage my own church to get behind some of the less extreme campaigning such as Pat’s Petition.

    I’m also considering reblogging this to my own website at; I haven’t decided yet, as I have a new blogpost to write myself over the next 24 hours or so!

    Bless you, Emma x

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