Today I continue giving you a peek at my commentary with look at what Paul has to say in 1 Thessalonians 4 about the importance of work. Here is admonition to the Thessalonians.
9 Now about your love for one another we do not need to write to you, for you yourselves have been taught by God to love each other. 10 And in fact, you do love all of God’s family throughout Macedonia. Yet we urge you, brothers and sisters, to do so more and more, 11 and to make it your ambition to lead a quiet life: You should mind your own business and work with your hands, just as we told you, 12so that your daily life may win the respect of outsiders and so that you will not be dependent on anybody.
In this section Paul focuses on the community’s love for one other and how that love makes them different from those around them. Paul commends them for doing well in this area, but he wants them to do more. And he asks them to demonstrate it in some unusual ways. The physical expression of their love, if you will, is to be in the way that they interact with one another and those on the outside. And it all has to do with their jobs, the work that they do. Christians should strive to do and be the best they can, realizing that they have a biblical mandate to work. At the same time, we are to help those in need who are deserving of benefiting from our labor and the brotherly love of the church.
A Theology of Work
Most people will, at one time or another, complain about their work. But rarely do we think of our work in the context of our understanding of God, creation and calling. The tendency is to think that “work” is something we do that is distinct from “church.” For some, it’s something to be endured. But the Bible has much to say about work that is positive.
Of the many images and metaphors that we use to describe and explain God, he is also “worker.” In contrast to Greek mythology where the gods sit around drinking wine and meddling with the affairs of humans, the God of the Bible is a worker. We first meet God in the Bible as creator (Gen 1) and all though God is said to have rested from his “work” on the seventh day (Gen 2:2), this does not mean that he has ceased to work. A few verses he later is back at work making a wife for the man (Gen 2:21-22). Even then God does not cease working since he is portrayed not just as creator of the world but also caretaker (Ps 107).
As God’s creation we have a divine mandate to work. In Gen 2:15 God not only creates humanity, but places it in the garden “to work it and take care of it.” The curse that later is attached to work in Gen. 3:17-19 doesn’t make the work a curse, but harder because God cursed the ground. That leads to the recognition that work is part of our calling. In his essay, “The Place of Work in the Divine Economy,” Rob Banks outline how too often people differentiate between their “daily work” from God’s calling on and purposes for them. He points out that such a view of our work affects our understanding of the value of our work as well as how it contributes to God’s kingdom (p. 21). Putting it another way, Scot McKnight says; “Let God’s kingdom work swallow up what you do” (One Life, 145-56).
When we look at what the Bible has to say about “work” and Paul’s admonition to the Thessalonians we can see that our “work” is a witness of who God is and the relation of the church to God. Paul doesn’t mention the Thessalonians “call” to work, but he does place his statements in the context of their being “taught by God” to love each other. In light of the importance of work in the bible, we should try to be the best workers we can. As Paul suggests, our failure to work or shirk our responsibility can bring disgrace on the church and Paul seems concerned that society not get the wrong impression of the church. Paul is eager that those who persecute the Church have no legitimate grounds for their opposition. Similarly, Christians today should not fall below society’s standards in regard to work. Moreover, by failing to fulfill our own role within society, Christians are in danger of stirring up more anti-Christian rumors and resentment. Christians should be model citizens (See the Theologyof Work Web site).
Dealing with Slackers
It can be tempting to read Paul’s words above and try to apply it to our modern global, economic challenges. As I write this we are four years removed from the beginning of what has now been called the Great Recession. Unemployment remains persistently high and the number of people depending on public assistance is at an all time high too. And the debate surrounding the role of government is becoming more vitriolic. There is much that the Bible has to say to us about economic justice and how we should treat the poor and oppressed. But Paul is not formulating a theologically based theory for national economics here. He is talking about order in the church. He is reminding them that while brotherly love is important and something that they already excel at, it is also not to be taken advantage of. As John Stott puts it, “it is an expression of love to support others who are in need; but it is also an expression of love to support ourselves so as not to be supported by others” (The Gospel & the End of Time, 90).
When I was a teenager there was a man in our church borrowing money from people in the congregation. It seems that he was good with the borrowing part, but not the repaying part. It apparently reached a point where the leadership decided to address is it publicly. The pastor and elders outlined the situation, warned the congregation about the man and publicly rebuked and warned him not to borrow any more money. The only problem, however, was that they never named the person. They issued an anonymous warning and we didn’t know his identity. Six months later my father met “Ralph” and, you guessed it, “Ralph” was the unnamed man. I am not sure how much my father gave “Ralph,” but he was the next person to lose money to him. My father was just trying to do the right thing and help someone in need. Instead he was used by someone who took advantage of my father’s desire to live out kingdom ethics. This is the kind of situation Paul seems to have in view in 4:9-12. Sometimes there are those in the community who take advantage of our “love for one another.”
There will always be the “Ralphs” who move in and out of our houses of worship. As the church we need to find a way to balance between helping others and not being taken advantage of. And I suspect that is the one aspect of brotherly love that is the most difficult for those who practice it; there is always the chance that we will be taken advantage of. If the Thessalonian church had a hard time determining who should receive financial support, then we should not be surprised how difficult it is in the modern age when it is easier for people to move from church to church and benefit wrongly from brotherly love over and over again. Paul clearly thought that everyone should work to the extent that they are able. At the same time we know from his others letters that he thought that the church should take care of those in genuine need. I don’t know that there is a one-size fits all answer for dealing with the “Ralphs” of this world. But I don’t think we should assume that it is best to always err on the side of caution. For myself, I would rather help those who seem to be in need and adjust the practice when it becomes clear that the recipient is not deserving of support or is not making some efforts to become self-supporting. The finances of the church should be used strategically to help people get back on their feet. Hopefully they in turn will one day be in better position to help increase the church’s ability to minister to the poor and needy within and without the church. The biblical insistence that Christians should work and be self-supporting has in view the extension of the kingdom of God and we should keep that in mind even when dealing with the “Ralphs” of the world.