Seamless fabric

By Michael W. Metzger in "Reading the Word," critique, issue one 2008

Imagine this…

Here's an easy way to see the disconnect between Sunday and Monday. Ask a friend to draw the first five images that come to mind when he or she hears these words: worship, work, ministry, the arts and service. If a picture's worth a thousand words, we now have five thousand words depicting the disconnect. We also have a clearer picture as to why efforts to "integrate faith and work" generally fail.

From my experience, people draw five different pictures—something like hands raised for worship, a computer for work, people with other people for ministry, musical notes or paint brushes for the arts and people helping people for service. Yet the reality is that throughout the Old Testament, one word—"avodah"—is translated as worship, work, ministry, the arts and service. This doesn't mean God is tongue-tied or a millenial with a limited vocabulary. The truth is, God sees all five as threads in a seamless fabric labeled avodah. They were all created on the same loom, not cut from different bolts of cloth.

The fabric of avodah has a thread labeled "work" that is found in our human job description: "The Lord God took the man and placed him in the Garden of Eden to work it and take care of it."1 The Hebrew word "work" is avodah.2 Yet avodah is also rendered "worship" in Exodus 3:12, making a second thread: "And this will be the sign to you that it is I who have sent you: When you have brought the people out of Egypt, you will worship God on this mountain."3 The third and fourth threads are wound tightly together. Avodah is translated as "service" or "ministry" in verses like Numbers 8:11: "The Lord speaks to Moses and Aaron about how the Levites, the priestly class, will do the service of the Lord."4 Great Britain still recognizes service and ministry as threaded together, since the chief civil servant is the Prime Minister.

The fifth thread of avodah is "craftsmanship" or "the arts." King David, for example, said to his son, Solomon: "The divisions of the priests and Levites are ready for all the work on the temple of God, and every willing man skilled in any craft will help you in all the work."5 Feel the fabric? In one verse alone avodah is rendered two different ways—as "work" and "craftsmanship"—because avodah is a seamless fabric.

A great many Christians don't have this cloth in their word wardrobe. They imagine worship, service and ministry as confined to Sunday (and an evening Bible study). Work is Monday through Friday. The arts, as one friend put it, "are for people with orange hair." It's religious people who have unraveled this fabric into three different bolts of cloth. As Pogo put it, we have met the enemy and he is us.

God didn't use different looms for the different days of creation. He didn't cut three fabrics—one for religious people, one for business professionals and one for wierdos with orange hair. The fabric of avodah means there is no such thing as "full time Christian work"—unless we include the butcher, baker and candlestick maker along with monks, missionaries and clergy. All work is worship when done as it ought to be ("worship" comes from the old English word "worth-ship"). All work, paid and unpaid, can be service by loving our neighbor and helping them flourish as human beings made in the image of God. All work can be craftsmanship if it incorporates truth and beauty.

Einstein reminded us that we cannot solve a problem in the framework that created it. This is why efforts to "integrate faith and work" generally fail. "Integration" assumes work and faith are cut from two bolts of cloth. This gives away the game before it has even begun. "Integral" on the other hand comes from the Hebrew word "tôm," meaning to see all of life as part of a seamless fabric. Jesus himself said, "No one sews a patch of new cloth on an old garment, for the patch will pull away from the garment, making the tear worse."6 "Integrating" faith into work is like sewing new cloth on an old garment. It won't work.

This is tough for some Christians to embrace. Yet coming to faith is only the beginning of being undeceived. In other words, believing also requires unlearning what we previously assumed was right. God created all of life from one loom, so there is an integral and seamless nature to life. There is nothing to integrate. The difference between integral and integrate is not semantics. It's substantive. Of course, we can't help others if we don't see it ourselves. So rather than ask a friend to draw the images that come to mind, maybe we ought to first hone our own pictures. Otherwise, friends might imagine faith and work differently than God does.

Copyright © 2007 Michael W. Metzger, The Clapham Institute. Used by permission. Seamless fabric was first published as Clapham commentaries, October 8, 2007. For more information or to sign up to receive Commentaries (free via email), visit them online (www.claphaminstitute.org).


Michael W. Metzger is the President and Senior fellow of The Clapham Institute. He is a graduate of Western Michigan University, Dallas Theological Seminary, and Trinity International University. He and his wife Kathy live in Serverna, Maryland; they have two sons and a daughter.

The Clapham Insitute. Based in Annapolis, Maryland, the Institute mentors leaders, helping people and organizations connect Sunday to Monday, to advance faith-centered cultural reform. They emphasize reframing conversations as the first step, assuming we live in a post-Christian age.

Questions for reflection and discussion

  1. What was your initial reaction to "Seamless Fabric"? Why do you think you responded as you did?
  2. What is your reaction to Metzger's study of the Hebrew word avodah? What questions came to mind as a result?
  3. If Christians really believed that the fabric of life and faithfulness are seamless, how would their lives change? How would the language they use to express their faith change? How might non-Christians view us differently? Why?
  4. Near the end of "Seamless Fabric," Metzger writes: "This is tough for some Christians to embrace. Yet coming to faith is only the beginning of being undeceived. In other words, believing also requires unlearning what we previously assumed was right. God created all of life from one loom, so there is an integral and seamless nature to life. There is nothing to integrate. The difference between integral and integrate is not semantics. It's substantive." To what extent would you define yourself as someone eager to be "undeceived?" Would your closest friends agree? Since we often sense a need to "integrate faith with life," does Metzger's argument here seem compelling? What would we substitute for efforts to accomplish this integration?
  5. What questions or issues have been raised in your mind as a result of this study? What plans should you make?

Footnotes

1 Genesis 2:15

2 Other examples include Genesis 2:15—"The LORD God took the man and put him in the Garden of Eden to work it and take care of it." Genesis 29—Jacob working for Laban to win his wives Leah and Rachel. Exodus 34:21—Moses renewing the covenant with God says, "Six days you shall work, but on the seventh day you shall rest; even in plowing time and in harvest time you shall rest." Psalm 104:23—(A psalm about God as Creator and Provider) "Then man goes out to his work, to his labor until evening."

3 C.f. Exodus 8:1—Then the LORD said to Moses, "Go to Pharaoh and say to him, ‘This is what the LORD says: Let my people go, so that they may worship me.'"

4 C.f. Deuteronomy 10:12—Moses tells his people what the essence of the Law is: "So now, O Israel, what does the Lord your God require of you? Only to fear the Lord your God, to walk in all his ways, to love him, to serve the Lord your God with all your heart and with all your soul…." Joshua 24:15—Joshua asks all the tribes to renew the covenant, saying, "Now if you are unwilling to serve the Lord, choose this day whom you will serve, whether the gods your ancestors served in the region beyond the River or the gods of the Amorites in whose land you are living; but as for me and my household, we will serve the Lord."

5 1 Chronicles 28:21

6 Matthew 9:16

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