What’s “Essential”

In order to effect the lockdown, many governments have categorized types of works as either “essential” or “non-essential”. This is because most governments, for a variety of reasons, have not quarantined only those who are ill or exposed, but everyone.

This differs from the historic and Scriptural versions of quarantine (Lev. 13:45-46; 14:33-53). But my point here is not to quibble with that approach, but to consider the resulting categorization of what’s “essential”.

History has witnessed, that when the gospel brings revival, it brings unexpected fruitfulness, in all areas of life. This is because Scripture has a way of aligning us with the deep structures of the universe.

This realignment happened during the Reformation, when the church rediscovered the gospel in Scripture. It started with several sparks, the most fiery being Martin Luther. At the time, the world was structured in medieval hierarchies, with layers of “essential” and “non-essential” categories. For instance, priests and kings were considered more “essential” than other vocations.

But as Luther opened his Bible, he saw that we are a kingdom of priests (1 Peter 2:9). Therefore all work has inherent dignity: “God is milking the cows through the vocation of the milkmaid . . . (God) gives the wool, but not without our labor. If it is on the sheep, it makes no garment”. And government can be a noble vocation: “. . . if you see there is a lack of hangmen, constables, judges . . . and you find that you are qualified, you should offer your services.”1

Luther’s logic: if it’s GOD Who is working through the baker, banker and butcher, then all (non-sinful) work has dignity; all are essential. Because “God wears us as His mask.”2

Later reformers would further refine Luther’s thought. If you can find better-suited work, do it (1 Cor. 7:23). In the meantime, when masters and kings are arrogant, we should still submit to them (Rom. 13:1-6; Eph. 6:5-8).

But that does not mean we only, always accept the status quo. If masters and kings cross the line and violently abuse their employees or citizens, staying silent means joining in their sin. Therefore, while submitting, it is also “essential” that Christians seek to humbly resist and change violently abusive situations and structures, if we encounter them.3 

The contours between submission and resistance are difficult to navigate. So we pray, for clarity that’s courageous; love that’s sacrificial; and grace that’s sufficient.  


1 https://www.thegospelcoalition.org/article/the-power-and-danger-in-luthers-concept-of-work/

2 It’s for this reason that I’m personally hesitant to ask government to carve out an exception to the lockdown for churches. If we are freed, so should hairstylists and art galleries.

3 “For example, Calvin urged citizens to obey ‘arrogant kings,’ but he added that lesser magistrates have a duty ‘to withstand kings who . . . violently assault’ their own people. Indeed if they ‘wink at’ violent kings, they are guilty of ‘nefarious perfidy.’” (ibid.) I’ll have more to say about “lesser magistrates” in another post.