CHARITY & How the Calvinistic Work Ethic Undercuts It

by Bob Whitesel D.Min., Ph.D., 8/1/16.

The Protestant work ethic was first described by Max Weber as growing out of a Calvinistic emphasis upon two things:

First was the emphasis on the German word “beruf,” i.e. every person’s occupation could be glorifying to God if undertaken with enthusiasm, diligence and honor to God. This Calvinistic viewpoint was widely accepted across most theological perspectives including Arminians as logical.

Secondly and more disturbingly, the Protestant work ethic believed that hard work would make “anyone” more successful. This according to Weber grew out of the Calvinist “double predestination” belief that God has destined people either for heaven or hell.

Part of this belief was that to show you were predestined for heaven you needed to be successful. And people who were not successful where undoubtedly so because they had not been pre-destined for heaven. The key had been always that people wanted to differentiate who is destined for heaven and who is destined for hell (though scripture reminds us this is knowledge that belongs to God alone). Still, the ability to make something of yourself and be a successful entrepreneur became a “sign” that you were predestined for heaven. The result was that Calvinism supported an outward view that people who were successful where so because they were predestined for glory.

This perspective may have subtly added to the view that non-dominant cultures, people who were/had been enslaved or Mediterranean immigrants who didn’t look like the majority culture in America, were insufficiently destined for heaven.

I see several troubling elements within the Calvinistic influence on the Protestant work ethic.

1. It creates a view that business success is a sign of God’s blessing. This would eventually morph into the more destructive prosperity gospel, in which accumulation of wealth was a sign that you were predestined for heaven.

2. The Protestant work ethic as seen through the lens of Calvinism branded people who were non-dominant or disadvantage cultures as culturally and inherently not destined for heaven. It may have contributed to a rise in bigotry.

3. The Protestant work ethic seen through a Calvinistic lens undermined charity, because it felt that giving money to the needy was under cutting their ability to work harder to make their life better. This is an informal fallacy because it does not recognize that many people because of culture, language, ethnicity, history as a enslaved culture, etc. prevented them from having a level playing field for advancement.

In conclusion, the Protestant work ethic has helped by allowing everyone to see that their work can be used to glorify God (Col. 3:23).

But a Protestant work ethic as viewed through the double predestination of Calvinism, can undercut our ability to see biases and challenges that people of non-dominant cultures face.

And finally, the Calvinistically influenced work ethic does not emphasize the benefit of “charity” for helping disadvantaged others to have a level playing field to rise in socioeconomics.

Herein lies my personal observations in working with hundreds of churches: that Calvinistically influenced churches tend to be less generous in their charity and Arminian influenced churches such as Methodist, Wesleyan, Penecostal, Salvation Army and others tend to be more generous in their charity to those who are economically or culturally disadvantaged.

Wesley was famous for saying (paraphrased): Earn all you can. Save all you can. Give all you can. And this is often been interpreted in a Calvinistic Protestant work ethic sense of “saving” your money by reinvesting it in capitalistic opportunities. A part of the Protestant work ethic as described by Weber is to invest money to make more money … as a sign that you are predestined for heaven.

However, that is not what Wesley meant by “save all you can.” Wesley meant “being thrifty.” By this he felt you would have more money to give to others.

Wesley instilled in his followers: the great sense of generosity that we see today reflected in Methodist Hospitals, parish nurse programs and ministry to the socially disadvantaged by groups such as the Salvation Army.

The purpose of this article is to emphasize that charity that lifts souls economically and socially is a bigger part of the Protestant work ethic than is usually interpreted through a Calvinistic lens of double predestination.


Max Weber, The Protestant Ethic and the Spirit of Capitalism (Die protestantische Ethik und der Geist des Kapitalismus).