The Theology of Work: Work in the Christian Vision
The Thessalonian epistles are a treasure-trove of biblical teaching on work. In the first epistle, Paul lays out his vision of the Christian life; in the second, he illustrates it.
Click here to view part one – The Theology of Work: Work in the Torah
Click here to view part two – The Theology of Work: Proverbial Lessons on Work
Click here to view part three – The Theology of Work: Labor and Vanity
Click here to view part four – The Theology of Work: Work and the Carpenter of Nazareth
Click here to view part five – The Theology of Work: Glorifying God through Work
Work in First Thessalonians
In Paul’s first epistle to the Thessalonians, the apostle answers some prominent questions of the fledging church. In the process, he lays out a vision of what the Christian life should look like. As you will see in the text below, his vision is essentially an orderly one: live quietly, mind your own affairs, and work with your hands.
“Now concerning brotherly love you have no need for anyone to write to you, for you yourselves have been taught by God to love one another, for that indeed is what you are doing to all the brothers throughout Macedonia. But we urge you, brothers, to do this more and more, and to aspire to live quietly, and to mind your own affairs, and to work with your hands, as we instructed you, so that you may walk properly before outsiders and be dependent on no one.” (1 Thessalonians 4:9-12)
Take a moment to do a simple heart-check. Does your idea of the Christian life align with Paul’s inspired vision of quietness, orderliness, and labor?
Paul appends two reasons why this orderly vision of Christian society is so essential. First, it is a primary strategy to influence public opinion about Christianity. Pagans who see orderly and industrious believers cannot rightly ridicule the Christian lifestyle as indecent or ungodly. Adjectives and phrases such as ‘lazy,’ ‘drain on society,’ and ‘meddlesome’ will never be able to describe God’s people. When obediently performed by followers of Jesus, active labor becomes a vindication of Christian doctrine, just as Jesus said, “But wisdom is justified of all her children” (Luke 7:35).
Second, orderly and industrious life leads to plenty. Here, Paul is not so much referring to a theological principle as to an obvious fact of living: those who quietly and industriously mind their own business will prosper, while those who are loud, mind the business of others, and don’t labor are rarely prosperous.
Work in Second Thessalonians
Paul’s follow-up letter to the Thessalonians includes this prolonged teaching on the necessity of work (2 Thessalonians 3:6-15) –
“Now we command you, brothers, in the name of our Lord Jesus Christ, that you keep away from any brother who is walking in idleness and not in accord with the tradition that you received from us. For you yourselves know how you ought to imitate us, because we were not idle when we were with you, nor did we eat anyone’s bread without paying for it, but with toil and labor we worked night and day, that we might not be a burden to any of you. It was not because we do not have that right, but to give you in ourselves an example to imitate. For even when we were with you, we would give you this command: If anyone is not willing to work, let him not eat. For we hear that some among you walk in idleness, not busy at work, but busybodies. Now such persons we command and encourage in the Lord Jesus Christ to do their work quietly and to earn their own living. As for you, brothers, do not grow weary in doing good. If anyone does not obey what we say in this letter, take note of that person, and have nothing to do with him, that he may be ashamed. Do not regard him as an enemy, but warn him as a brother.”
Was Paul just a high-minded philosopher who spoke about work, or did he practice the principles he taught? We may not think of Paul as living the quiet, orderly life he called others to – this was the man who caused riots, travelled itinerantly, and spent plenty of time in prison! Yet he says about himself that he did not behave disorderly, ate no man’s bread for free, and worked with toil and labor night and day. Ultimately, though he was not required to work, Paul did so as an example to believers.
Paul’s simple rule (whoever does not work does not eat) once saved an entire community. Jamestown, the first permanent English settlement in America, was founded by gentlemen who were unused to rough work. Regarding manual labor as beneath their dignity, they preferred to search for gold and other New World treasures. When the tiny colony faced starvation, a community leader named John Smith took matters into his own hands – he proclaimed that whoever would not work would not eat. By obeying the Biblical command, the settlement narrowly averted disaster.
In Paul’s mind, the necessity of work is a matter of the highest importance. The Thessalonian epistles are useful to us because they clarify the central role of work and industry in the Christian life. Christians need to compare their own understanding of life with Paul’s orderly vision of quiet labor.