Darrow Miller and Friends

The Protestant WORD Ethic?

For many years I have been teaching about the need to revive the Reformation. At the heart of this message is what Max Weber, the German social philosopher, called the Protestant work ethic, the virtues of hard work, thrift, and generosity which created an economic revolution that lifted the nations of the Reformation out of poverty.

Now I am finishing British historian Niall Ferguson’s latest book, Civilization: The West and the Rest. In the book he deals with the question of what caused the West to prosper while the rest of the world languished. His thesis is summarized here.

Of course he treats the impact the Protestant Reformation had on lifting nations out of poverty. He writes a chapter on the Biblical concept of the sacredness of work. He also says something I have believed and taught, but had never formulated as clearly.

Protestantism made the West not only work, but also save and read. The Industrial Revolution … also required an increase in the intensity and duration of work, combined with the accumulation of capital through saving and investment. Above all, it depended on the accumulation of human capital. The literacy that Protestantism promoted was vital to all of this. On reflection, we would do better to talk about the Protestant word ethic.

Ferguson describes how the West has converted people all over the world “more by the word than by the sword.”

The Reformers took the words of Christ seriously: To the Jews who had believed him, Jesus said, “If you hold to my teaching, you are really my disciples. Then you will know the truth, and the truth will set you free” (John 8:31-32).

Christ said that believers become disciples when they “abide” or “remain” in his word. He continued that truth sets them free. Accordingly, the Reformers translated scriptures into the vernacular and then started schools so everyone could learn to read and write.

The Reformers understood that:

  • There is a distinction between professing faith in Christ and becoming His disciple.
  • One must “abide” or “continue” in the word of Christ to be his disciple.
  • Truth is found in the word of God.
  • Truth sets people and nations free.

At the time the scriptures were available only in Latin. If people were to abide in the word, it would have to be translated into their mother tongue. Accordingly, the Reformers launched a massive project to translate and publish the Bible into the languages of the people.

But they faced another problem. Most people could not read. So the Reformers began schools to teach all people to read and write. As we have written previously, it was John Amos Comenius, the Czech-Moravian educational reformer (considered the Father of Modern Education) who wrote the Didactica Magna – The Whole Art of Teaching. In it he introduced the pansophic principle: everything must be taught to everyone. This became the foundation of universal education, a concept taken for granted in much of today’s world. Guttenberg’s printing press is often credited with transforming society, and so it did. But the idea of educating all people—not just an elite few—could never have succeeded apart from the Reformers’ vision of making the Bible available in the vernacular, and teaching people to read.

This is what Ferguson describes as the Protestant word ethic. The Reformers’ emphasis on literacy and universal education contributed profoundly to the discipling of nations by building Western culture and civilization that set the West apart.

Yet today, culture-creating Christianity has died in Europe and is dying in the United States. We have moved from Christianity to Modernism (Secular-Materialism) and now on to Postmodernism (Neo-Paganism). Pagan animistic culture is largely oral with little or no emphasis on reading and writing.

Postmodern culture is mimicking its ancient roots in pagan culture. We see this in the decline in reading by children and adults. We spend more and more time online: viewing images on TV and computer screens, interacting with our electronic gadgets, texting, using social media, tweeting. Conversely we are engaged less and less in thoughtful reading and writing. Unless this trend is reversed, the result will be catastrophic. Just as a human language is lost when the last speaker dies, so it could be with Western civilization itself. We are losing the literacy which lies at the heart of Western civilization.

Consider a world without the art, music, or literature of the West. Imagine a planet without Western science or technology, without the concepts of economic and political freedom, or the rule of law, or the belief that human beings are made in the image of God, or the concept of a real future and the possibility of progress in the material world. All these were birthed by Judeo-Christian culture. These are the essence of Western civilization. And that civilization was built on the foundation of literacy. As we have already argued in this blog, the West is in the throes of cultural suicide. And one of the main evidences is the decline of literacy.

The church should be calling society back to the Protestant word ethic. Sadly, she seems to be following the trends of postmodernism. As an example, we see the trend within the evangelical missionary movement toward an orality strategy for communicating the gospel to people who best learn through oral means. I have no qualms about using orality as a technical means for bringing the gospel to oral learners. My problem comes when people come to Christ and are not challenged to learn to read and write.

For 27 years I worked for a relief and development organization. I witnessed small and large organizations begin working among the poor by doing relief work in response to natural and man-made disasters. But when the disaster was over, instead of following the Biblical comprehensive transformation model of relief → rehabilitation → development, too many agencies remained in a relief posture, thereby teaching individuals, communities, and entire nations to be dependent on Western aid. My sense is that too few workers in orality ministries are discipling Christians with a view to John 8:31-32, teaching the word ethic which is essential for personal, community, and national development.

I celebrate orality workers’ passion to enable oral learners to hear the gospel and come to Christ. But in addition to leading people to Christ these ministries need to ensure that these new Christians are discipled at the level of culture. For this to occur they need two other ministry goals: transforming the spoken language into the language of the people and teaching literacy.   This is the path to development.

Ideally, orality ministries would use storying to connect people to HIStory and  saving purpose, and then teach them to read and write so they gain access to the world of ideas. But if they assume that oral learners cannot learn to read and write, or if the missionaries have no vision and desire to help people learn to read and write, in my judgment they are reinforcing pagan rather than Christian culture.

In a recent letter, Indian philosopher, missionary, author, and social commentator Vishal Mangalwadi illustrates the impact the Protestant word ethic had on India. He powerfully connects the fulfillment of the Great Commission of discipling nations to the ability to read and write WORDS. I urge you to read Vishal’s paper, How Protestantism Built Modern India.

–          Darrow Miller


print this page Print this page

Darrow is co-founder of the Disciple Nations Alliance and a featured author and teacher. For over 30 years, Darrow has been a popular conference speaker on topics that include Christianity and culture, apologetics, worldview, poverty, and the dignity of women. From 1981 to 2007 Darrow served with Food for the Hungry International (now FH association), and from 1994 as Vice President. Before joining FH, Darrow spent three years on staff at L’Abri Fellowship in Switzerland where he was discipled by Francis Schaeffer. He also served as a student pastor at Northern Arizona University and two years as a pastor of Sherman Street Fellowship in urban Denver, CO. In addition to earning his Master’s degree in Adult Education from Arizona State University, Darrow pursued graduate studies in philosophy, theology, Christian apologetics, biblical studies, and missions in the United States, Israel, and Switzerland. Darrow has authored numerous studies, articles, Bible studies and books, including Discipling Nations: The Power of Truth to Transform Culture (YWAM Publishing, 1998), Nurturing the Nations: Reclaiming the Dignity of Women for Building Healthy Cultures (InterVarsity Press, 2008), LifeWork: A Biblical Theology for What You Do Every Day (YWAM, 2009), Rethinking Social Justice: Restoring Biblical Compassion (YWAM, 2015), and more. These resources along with links to free e-books, podcasts, online training programs and more can be found at Disciple Nations Alliance (https://disciplenations.org).


  1. Koela Brian

    August 10, 2012 - 12:30 am

    dear Darrow
    I love the work you are doing. i thought I was insane when I told people that Reformation theology in Africa has been limited. I am so glad to see people who do not want to limit the reformation theology. I am convinced that it can achieve what it has achieved in the west which it has dismally failed in africa.
    I am involved in transformational development and very keen to see the reformation work and word ethic take root in africa

    • admin

      August 10, 2012 - 8:21 am

      Thanks for your response, Brian. We always rejoice to hear of those who are laboring in these truths in the context where God has placed them. May Christ give you much fruit and joy.
      Gary Brumbelow