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A Theology of Retirement?

Tuesday, 6 December 2016  | Paul Arnott

‘You deserve it!’ is the one message that advertisers push more than any other. This slogan is designed to tap into the egocentricity that lies at the heart of fallen humanity. ‘I deserve the best. I’ve laboured long and hard and paid taxes all my life and now I deserve a good break and the opportunity to put my feet up!’ But this kind of thinking is deeply unbiblical.

There are few if any references in the Bible to what we call retirement. There is one obscure mention in Numbers 8:23-25, where the Levites were to retire when they turned fifty, but little else. None of the apostles, except John, died from old age. The rest of the apostles died while engaged in gospel ministry. Jesus ‘retired’ on the cross.

Rodney Macready, in his book Retiring Retirement, suggests that while retirement has spawned a host of businesses all keen to tap into the retirement dollar, and scholars have developed theologies of aging and ministering to the aged, the theology of retirement itself is a neglected field.

The book of Genesis makes it clear that God is a worker, busy with the creation of the world. Macready suggests that this is made explicit in Genesis 2:2-3, where it states that God has completed his work of creation. The vital implication from this is that work is not bad (or evil) in itself. God involves Himself in work. Indeed, Genesis 2:7 pictures God getting His hands dirty, as it were, when He fashions man out of the dust of the earth. It's not beneath God’s dignity to work. Nor was it beneath the dignity of the first humans who were placed in the garden ‘to till the earth and to tend it’ (Gen 2:15). Genesis 1:26 asserts that human beings were made in the image of God. From Genesis to Revelation, Scripture affirms that work is a critical part of what it means to be in His image.

If work is the norm for human beings, this means that the finish line for a follower of Jesus is the end of life on earth, not retirement. We may not stay in paid work until the end of our lives, and we may not work at the same pace and for the same hours we did when younger, but work will be part of our lives until we go to be with the Lord. As R. Paul Stevens suggests, we should work until we die. Indeed, great things have been achieved by older people. The French painter Monet did not begin his water lily panels until he was 76. Benjamin Franklin invented bifocals at 78. Leopold Stokowski signed a six-year recording contract at 94. Moses led the people of Israel until he was well over 100.

Stanley Hauerwas suggests that the manner of Jesus' death stands as a permanent reminder that fidelity is more important than longevity. James Houston, founding president of Regent College, claims that ‘Retirement is … not in the language of the Christian’. Few people have stopped to ask ‘Should we retire? Is retirement consistent with the values of our Christian faith? Does God endorse the concept of retirement?

There is currently a great deal of discussion about what makes for a happy and fulfilled life. But is this the right question for a follower of the Lord Jesus Christ to ask? The Bible suggests that the key to a fulfilled life is to live in close relationship to the One who created everything that exists. Tom and Christine Sine argue that we will find the best that God has for us, not by pursuing happiness, but by losing our lives in service to God and others. Then and only then can we discover the rich, satisfying life that God intends for us.

Jim is a part-time staff worker for The Fellowship of Independent Evangelical Churches (FIEC) and travels Australia in that role. He and his wife Lesley run one-day marriage courses for churches, CMS and Sydney Anglicans. They also do a range of personal and 1-to-1 pastoral and counselling work. Jim and Lesley have 10 grandchildren, which means they are never sitting around wondering what to do with their time! 

Jim and Lesley believe ‘it is important for Christians to make the most of their post-work lives because of the gospel imperative. When we see what is close to God’s heart, that should guide us in ongoing works of ministry/service. What is life really about? What is God’s big plan and how do I not muck it up? We should remember that it is not about us; it’s about God’. 

John Harris grew up in Northern Australia as a missionary kid. Now in his fourth quarter, he writes:

I do some retirement things like involvement with wonderful grandchildren, gardening and travel, but I am one of the blessed ones because Bible translation has always been my passion and I can continue to be involved in retirement. People like me are lucky because they hardly notice the transition to retirement, because they just keep doing what they love (although for less or no pay). I also research and write as I have always done but that is like a hobby, something exciting to get up in the morning for! It was good to get rid of admin stuff like reports, budgets and staff and just do the stuff I love doing anyway.

Harris believes it is important for Christians to make the most of their fourth quarter because they still have a great deal to offer. … ‘We have experienced life. But we are also conscious of the fleeting nature of life and the possibility of ill health. We need to make the most of time and health while we have them. We can also give of our time and talents freely.’

CMA is inviting those wanting assistance in exploring their fourth quarter to sign up for a four-step process at a minimal cost. The first step will help you discover/rediscover your passions, gifts and personality type. Step two will provide you with access to a wide range of articles by those currently doing the fourth quarter, and a number of other resources. The third step will direct you to a rich array of ministry possibilities both inside and outside Australia. Finally, step four will put you in touch with mentors to help you through the process of discerning what your fourth quarter could look like.

Q4 will be launched at a number of conventions around the nation in February 2017. If you would like to find out more about the Q4 journey. log on to or contact me on 0468 605 617 or at

Paul Arnott is the Executive Director of Special Projects for Christian Ministry Advancement.


Ken Rolph
February 14, 2017, 9:15PM
Retirement as a fourth quarter of life is a new concept. Most of my uncles and aunts died soon after they turned 65 or else were in poor health on the way down. Not so with people I know of my own vintage.

But the problem is that you have to deal with other people's perceptions. In Sydney, older couples living in homes they have occupied for decades are under pressure to "downsize" and give up their space to younger families. This may involve going to a retirement village on the outskirts of the city or in regional area. As one person said to us, "you don't have to be here anymore". I wondered how widely they meant that.
Paul Arnott
June 14, 2017, 7:54AM
Hi Ken,

At Q4, we are at noticing how widespread ageism is in Australian Society. Often the attitude seems to be that anyone over 60 doesn't have much to contribute. This links to both employment and euthanasia.

Spoke recently with an IT recruiter who said he finds it is almost impossible to find work for anyone over 55 as employers want young people.

Re the 'You don't have to be here anymore' comment, they may have meant it broadly. The biggest danger of euthanasia is elder abuse.

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