Labour of Love: Work in First and Second Thessalonians (Reviewing Work, Part 3)

If there’s any Bible portion that gets overused in the faith and work movement more than Genesis 1-2, it might be 2 Thessalonians 3:10: “ For even when we were with you, we gave you this command: Anyone unwilling to work should not eat.” It even rears its head outside the movement in political debates.

It seems right, then, that the third chapter of Work surveys the background of this text. It also reminds me of my youth in evangelical Bible studies at college that we get the chapter on work in the Pauline epistles before we get the chapter on Jesus’ view of work in the Gospels. What’s our baseline for understanding the New Testament: the narrative of Jesus’ life, death, and resurrection, or the theological explanation of that narrative? That’s a different debate, but worth thinking about.

At any rate, this chapter, by John Taylor of Gateway Seminary, sets this verse in the context not only of 2 Thessalonians but of Paul’s first letter to the Thessalonians as well. As with a previous chapter, I listened to the lecture he gave at Acton University on the same topic as well. It’s in many ways the same as the chapter, with two major differences in framing: he includes a lengthy prologue on Marx and Lenin as examples of what happens if we fail to understand the proper theological role of work, and the bulk of the lecture is focused on the general theme of work as an expression of love in 1 Thessalonians without the additional frame of explaining 2 Thessalonians 3.

The traditional view of the setting, Taylor says, is that Paul was criticizing idleness in the Thessalonian church which was occurring due to their belief that Jesus was coming back soon. He opposes this for several reasons.

First, he thinks the text points towards “distress and alarm” at the idea of Jesus’s imminent return, not “eschatalogical enthusiasm.”  Secondly, in the economic uncertainty of the first-century Roman Empire, “any ordinary people who gave up work, expecting to survive until the Lord returned, would be quickly disabused of their presumptions,” and we have reason to think the Thessalonian church was not rich. Thirdly, Paul only rarely connects his discussions of perceived idleness with his discussions of eschatology. Finally – and this is the main thrust of the essay – he thinks Paul is developing a theology that pictures work “as an act of love,” and we need to place the verses in that context.

Most of the essay centers on a reading of I Thessalonians. Taylor begins by considering the importance of faith, love, and hope, which begin and end the letter (1:3, 5:8), and connects them specifically to the work, labor, and endurance which Paul thankfully remembers in verse 3: “We always give thanks to God for all of you and mention you in our prayers, constantly remembering before our God and Father your work of faith and labor of love and steadfastness of hope in our Lord Jesus Christ.” There is debate on what exactly the Thessalonians have been laboring at, but Taylor believes Paul is encouraging them after enduring some kind of difficult period and that throughout his letters he seeks to connect “the work that derives from faith, and the endurance that derives from hope in the Lord Jesus” with “the labor and toil that derives from love.”

Taylor then moves on to 1 Thessalonians 2 where Paul discusses his own virtuous labor in Thessalonica. Why he feels the need to insist on this is also debated, but Taylor believes “Paul is emphasizing his integrity as an apostle whose word was received and believed.” The work here is not only Paul’s work in supporting himself but also his work in preaching: there is no distinction – in fact “his customers, suppliers, market neighbours, and even perhaps fellow guild members” would have been potential converts as he preached the gospel by words and life. Paul is also emphasizing that he is not participating in the client-patron relationships common in Roman society, and perhaps most importantly, that out of love for the Thessalonians he did not want to burden a poor church by having them provide him hospitality.

In 1 Thessalonians 4, Paul compliments the church for their showing of love and encourages them to do so even more – especially in the way Paul has already demonstrated, by not being a burden to others, “maintaining the credible witness of their lifestyle.”  The command to “live quietly” may mean to rest; it may also mean not to use their spare time to cause trouble. Against the background of a society which disdained manual labor, Paul tells them not to be afraid of it. He also may be criticizing the client-patron system again, Taylor says, because he thought that it was antithetical to the mutual, non-hierarchical community encouraged by the gospel. Taylor then discusses 1 Thessalonians 5, where hard-working leaders are contrasted with those not so hard-working. Here, Paul does make a connection between work and the eschaton, but it is one of encouragement to work because of Jesus’s return, not to give up working.

Finally, Taylor comes to the much-used passage in 2 Thessalonians 3. This letter came about six months later, he says, and in the case of work its points are even more enthusiastically stated. (“Not eating” would involve not only exclusion from the Lord’s Supper but from community meals, he reminds us.) With the background of 1 Thessalonians, he is confident in saying that the church there was “commanded to work, enduring long and hard-toil, so as to be self-supporting, and this enduring labor was an act of love.” It’s also clear from 2 Thessalonians that Paul feels this to be Jesus’ command, not merely his own.

Taylor does a good job of convincing the reader that the motivation for Paul’s words here was not the need to deal with an excess of eschatalogical fervor. (At least, his chapter does. The different framing of the lecture causes one to read political implications into the exegesis from the start.) It seems reasonably clear to me that Paul believed being self-supporting was an act of love undertaken out of obedience to Christ, at least in the particular Thessalonian context. I think that our theological and political discussions would be improved if we even just asked whether any particular example of someone not working was a failure of love on their part, or a failure of something else outside their control, something that we need to deal with by different means than the exhortation Paul demonstrates here.

But Paul was not Jesus, and here we come back to the question of whether the epistles precede the gospels (which they certainly do chronologically) or whether they follow the gospels (as, in the given shape of the New Testament canon as it has come down to us, they do theologically.) As the next chapter comes to us, we will think about what Jesus had to say on the subject. I am not convinced that it’s entirely the same thing.

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