For even when we were with you, we gave you this rule: ‘The one who is unwilling to work shall not eat.’ (2 Thessalonians 3:10, NIV)
What are we to make of the Apostle Paul’s apparently strict policy about idleness?
The words quoted above come from his second letter to the church in Thessalonica. It looks as if this young church - of which Paul is very fond – had a number of people in it who thought day-to-day ‘regular’ work unspiritual. Commentators speculate whether the origin of this attitude lay in the Greek disdain for manual labour, or temperamental laziness, or a view that Christ’s return was so imminent that regular work was pointless.
Whatever the reason, the results of this attitude in Thessalonica were not good. People were being burdens on others (ironically, the seemingly less spiritual, who actually worked for a living!). More than that, these ‘loafers’, as one writer calls them, were being something of a nuisance. With a play on words, Paul says they are not busy; they are busybodies. With nothing much to do and time on their hands, they orbit the church putting their noses into things where not needed. The Greek word translated idle also has a sense of being disorderly – which is why the NIV translates it idle and disruptive.
Paul has a simple solution: go back to work! Indeed, in his earlier letter he’d already told the Thessalonian Christians to make it your ambition to lead a quiet life: you should mind your own business and work with your hands (1 Thessalonians 4:11).
The foundation of the Biblical understanding of work is God’s command to humanity to rule the world (Genesis 1:26-28). The world needs our stewardship if it is to be productive. The arrival of a loaf of bread on our tables is a massive team effort involving farmers, drivers, shop workers, finance people, packaging experts, and many more – even the person who made the table! If we opt out of working, we are expecting other members of society to do our share. We are acting towards society as a whole rather like the family member who never helps around the house.
Of course this point needs nuancing. The example I’ve given above might give the impression that non-physical work, such as academic research, is pointless. This is not so: we need learning, as C S Lewis pointed out in his famous sermon, “Learning in War Time”. Moreover, work in the Bible is wider than paid employment – it includes the rearing of children, for instance. We must also recognise that Paul is not speaking here about those who cannot work, for a variety of reasons. These are the weak whom the able-bodied must help! And paid, employed gospel work is real work (1 Corinthians 9:14).
But we must ask ourselves: where in churches or in our hearts do we find ourselves almost unconsciously assuming that regular, ordinary work is somehow unspiritual?
All this makes me think of two friends who are retired ministers. They both remain very active in gospel work, but have a tiny bit more time than they did. One of them volunteers at his village shop for a few hours each week, helping behind the counter. The other helps his local newsagent sort the papers every morning. These are men who are eager to do what is good (Titus 2:14) and whose daily life will win the respect of outsiders (1 Thessalonians 4:12).
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