Christians are Expected to Work, to the Degree They are Able
Paul highlights that God expects every Christian who can work to do so (1 Thess. 4:11–12). He exhorts the Thessalonians “to work with [their] hands” (1 Thess. 4:11) and to “have need of no one” (1 Thess. 4:12). Rather than evading work, the Thessalonian Christians are to be industrious, laboring so as to earn their own living and thereby avoid putting undue burdens on others. Being a manual laborer in a Greco-Roman city was a hard life by modern and ancient standards, and the thought that it might not be necessary must have been appealing. However, abandoning work in favor of living off the work of others is unacceptable. It is striking that Paul’s treatment of the issue in 1 Thessalonians is framed in terms of “brotherly love” (1 Thess. 4:9). The idea is plainly that love and respect are essential in Christian relationships, and that living off the charity of others unnecessarily is unloving and disrespectful to the charitable brother(s) or sister(s) concerned.
It is important to remember that work does not always mean paid work. Many forms of work—cooking, cleaning, repairing, beautifying, raising children, coaching youth, and thousands of others—meet the needs of family or community but do not receive remuneration. Others—the arts come to mind—may be offered free of charge or at prices too low to support those who do them. Nonetheless, they are all work.
Christians are not necessarily expected to earn money, but to work to support themselves, their families, and the church and community.
The Creation Mandate Remains in Effect
The mandate in Genesis 2:15 (“The Lord God took the man and put him in the Garden of Eden to work it and keep it”) is still in effect. The work of Christ has not eliminated or supplanted humanity’s original work, but it has made it more fruitful and ultimately valuable. Paul may have the Genesis 2:15 text in view when he refers to the idlers with the Greek adjective, adverb, and verb derived from the root atakt- (“disorder”) in 1 Thessalonians 5:14, 2 Thessalonians 3:6 and 11, and 1 Thessalonians 5:7, respectively. These words all portray the idlers’ behavior as disorderly, betraying an “irresponsible attitude to the obligation to work.” The order being violated may well be the work mandate in Genesis 2.
Paul’s insistence on the ongoing validity of work is not a concession to a bourgeois agenda, but rather reflects a balanced perspective on the already/not yet of God’s kingdom. Already, God’s kingdom has come to earth in the person of Jesus, but it has not yet been brought to completion (1 Thess. 4:9–10). When Christians work with diligence and excellence, they demonstrate that God’s kingdom is not an escapist fantasy, but a fulfillment of the world’s deepest reality.
Christians are to Work with Excellence
Given the importance of work, Christians are to be the best workers they can be. Failure to work with excellence may bring the church into disrepute. Many Cynics in the Greco-Roman world abandoned their jobs, and this behavior was widely regarded as disgraceful. Paul is aware that when Christians evade their responsibility to work, the standing of the church as a whole is undermined. In 1 Thessalonians 4:11–12, Paul is evidently concerned that society is getting a wrong view of the church. In the context of the Greco-Roman world his concern makes a lot of sense, for what was happening in the Thessalonian church not only fell below society’s standards for decency, but it also made the charitable Christians look gullible and foolish. Paul does not want Christians to fall below society’s standards in regard to work, but rather to exceed them. Moreover, by failing to fulfill their proper role within society, these Christians are in danger of stirring up more anti-Christian rumors and resentment. Paul is eager that those who persecute the church should have no legitimate grounds for their hostility. With respect to work, Christians should be model citizens. By placing the idlers under discipline, the church would effectively be distancing itself from their defective behavior.
Mature Christians are to set an example for young Christians by modeling a good work ethos. Although Paul knew it was the right of the minister of the gospel to be financially supported (1 Tim. 5:17–18), he himself refused to take advantage of this (1 Thess. 2:9; 2 Thess. 3:8). He saw the need to set new converts an example of what the Christian life looked like, and that meant joining them in manual labor. Itinerant philosophers in the Greco-Roman world were often quick to burden their converts financially, but Paul did not care about having an easy life or projecting an image of superiority over his spiritual charges. Christian leadership is servant leadership, even in the arena of work.
Manual Labor and Hard Work Are Honorable
The positive view of hard work that Paul was promoting was countercultural. The Greco-Roman world had a very negative view of manual labor. To some extent, this is understandable in view of how unpleasant urban workhouses were. If the idle in Thessalonica were in fact unemployed manual laborers, it is not difficult to appreciate how easy it would have been to rationalize this exploitation of the charity of their brothers and sisters over against returning to their workhouses. After all, weren’t all Christians equal in Christ? However, Paul has no time for any rationalizations. He approaches the matter from an understanding strongly rooted in the Old Testament, where God is portrayed as creating Adam to work, and Adam’s manual labor is not divorced from worship, but rather is to be a form of worship. In Paul’s assessment, manual labor is not beneath Christians, and Paul himself had done what he demands that these idle brothers do. The apostle plainly regards work as one way believers may honor God, show love to their fellow-Christians, and display the transforming power of the gospel to outsiders. He wants the idle brothers to embrace his perspective and to set an impressive, not disgraceful, example for their unbelieving contemporaries.
Gerhard Kittel, Gerhard Friedrich, and Geoffrey William Bromiley, eds., Theological Dictionary of the New Testament (Grand Rapids: Eerdmans, 1985), 8:48. For a helpful study, see Ceslas Spicq, “Les Thessalonicien ‘inquiets’ etaient-ils des parrassuex?” Studia theologica 10 (1956): 1–13.
See Abraham J. Malherbe, The Letters to the Thessalonians, Anchor Bible (New York: Doubleday, 2000), 258–29; idem, Paul and the Thessalonians: The Philosophic Tradition of Pastoral Care (Philadelphia: Fortress, 1987), 99–107.
So, e.g., Gustav Wohlenberg, Der erste und zweite Thessalonicherbrief, Kommentar zum Neuen Testament (Leipzig: Deichert, 1903), 93; I. Howard Marshall, 1 and 2 Thessalonians, New Century Bible Commentary (London: Marshall, Morgan, and Scott, 1983), 223; Ernest Best, The First and Second Epistles to the Thessalonians, 2nd ed., British New Testament Conference (London: A & C Black, 1986), 338.