Does Christianity have a work ethic?
Growing up, I remember frank conversations with my father about hard work, but few (if any) instructions from sermons and Sunday school. For years, I assumed the Bible addressed many other theological and spiritual subjects, but not something so earthy as work. But work ethic is, in fact, profoundly spiritual. And the Scriptures do have a great deal to teach us about work ethic — not just in the hands-on sayings of Proverbs, but especially in the life and theologically refined ministry of the apostle Paul.
“Paul doesn’t assume laziness must mean lostness, but he’s dead serious that genuine Christians don’t stay lazy.”
One striking instance to note in Paul’s letters is his surprisingly similar language in 1 Thessalonians 2:9 and 2 Thessalonians 3:8. I’m not aware of anything quite like it elsewhere, where he strings this much (almost) exact language together in the same order. Perhaps this was a regular refrain for Paul — and what does he speak about with such precision? Work ethic. His example of “toil and labor, night and day, working to not be a burden to any of you” (1 Thessalonians 2:9; 2 Thessalonians 3:8).
In 1 Thessalonians 2, he recounts his own work ethic as an example, but in 2 Thessalonians 3 he doubles down, and charges Christians to imitate him.
As a whole, Paul’s two letters to the Thessalonians focus on two particular issues in the young church: one more “theological” (the end times) and the other more “practical” (idleness). For this reason, many readers have connected the two and reasoned that the theological problem led to the practical. The expectation that Jesus was coming back at any moment (or already had) led to the devaluing, and even cessation, of daily labor.
However, idleness appears to have been an issue in Thessalonica from the time the gospel came to town. Writing shortly after the church’s founding, Paul enjoins, “Admonish the idle” (1 Thessalonians 5:14). The force, then, may have worked the other way: the Thessalonian (and human!) penchant for laziness, and seeking justification for it, may have led to twisted end-times views convenient to sinful impulses. It wouldn’t be the first time, or the last, where a sinful heart led to theological error, more than vice versa. Either way, they had a problem with laziness.
The trouble, however, isn’t simply that those who fail to work end up presuming on, mooching off, and unnecessarily burdening those who do work. “Idle” persons also create additional burdens by disrupting and distracting those trying to labor. Laziness gives birth to twin troubles: The lazy not only eat into others’ earnings, but also eat into their limited time, energy, and attention for work.
“Paul gladly poured himself out for the sake of others’ joy, not just from nine to five, but wherever he went.”
The word translated “idle(ness)” in 2 Thessalonians 3:6, 7, and 11 (as well as 1 Thessalonians 5:14) means, literally, “disorderly” or “irresponsible.” It describes someone who is “out of order” or “out of line” with the patterns and expectations of the community, in particular related to labor. When others wake up and head out to work, “the disorderly” sleep in and hang around. The irony is that they aren’t really idle. As Paul writes, with a play on words, “We hear that some among you walk in idleness, not busy at work, but busybodies” (2 Thessalonians 3:11). They may be idle from work, but they end up frittering away their time in unproductive ways that eventually disrupt and distract others from productive labor.
This problem of laziness may seem marginal at first glance, but we should take note how serious the problem is for Paul. He is blood-earnest. Paul doesn’t often resort to such explicit “commanding,” but here he does four times in short space (in verses 4, 6, 10, and 12). And he says any brother, no exceptions. We shouldn’t be too surprised when unbelievers are idle, but we should when it’s those claiming the name of Christ (2 Thessalonians 3:15).
Paul deems the stakes to be high enough that the church should “keep away from” anyone not working (2 Thessalonians 3:6). “Have nothing to do with him” (2 Thessalonians 3:14). The offense is severe enough to not associate with the offender. Such laziness is so dire, and detrimental to the gospel, that he institutes this drastic measure: “If anyone is not willing to work, let him not eat” (2 Thessalonians 3:10). Then, most significantly, twice in 2 Thessalonians 3:6–12, the apostle invokes the name of Jesus to communicate his seriousness:
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. . . . Now such persons we command and encourage in the Lord Jesus Christ to do their work quietly and to earn their own living.
Paul does not soft-pedal laziness. It is profoundly unchristian. It betrays a gospel that does not demand our activity up front but always produces activity in and through us. And laziness dishonors the power and strength that has come to dwell in us in Christ: God the Spirit himself.
Paul’s charge to the idle is to “do their work quietly and to earn their own living” (2 Thessalonians 3:12). Working quietly here isn’t a reference to volume, but to distracting behavior — to a noisy life that infringes gratuitously on the attention of others. The particular concern of being “quiet” is upholding the order and peace of society (as in 1 Thessalonians 4:11; 1 Timothy 2:2; 1 Peter 3:4).
“Work ethic is profoundly spiritual.”
Working hard in righteous labor means “doing good” for others. Which is why Paul says in the next verse, “Do not grow weary in doing good” (2 Thessalonians 3:13). Fulfilling the daily work of our God-given vocations produces value that meets human needs. Conversely, those creating the “noise” of idle disorder are a danger to the health of the church. Soon others too, dragged down by the lazy, may grow weary in their labors for good.
Paul makes a subtle but important qualification that we shouldn’t overlook: “If anyone is not willing to work, let him not eat” (2 Thessalonians 3:10). He doesn’t say “able” but “willing.” Some in the church, no doubt, will be willing to work but unable, because of sickness, injury, disability, or other extenuating circumstances. Such people, restricted beyond their physical ability, can be some of the most willing. These willing-but-unable are not the problem in the church. The church delights to care and provide for such persons. Rather, the serious, Christ-dishonoring trouble is with the able-but-unwilling.
Paul’s Own Ethic
Paul does issue commands here, but doesn’t lean on them. He leads with his own example, not expecting of others what he himself doesn’t live up to. He commands in such a way that he also encourages: “such persons we command and encourage in the Lord Jesus Christ to do their work quietly and to earn their own living” (2 Thessalonians 3:12). He fronted his own example in 1 Thessalonians 3; now in his second letter, he commends to the church “the tradition that you received from us.”
What is this tradition? It is not mere teaching communicated in word, but a lifestyle modeled in hard work. This is a tradition to be imitated: “with toil and labor we worked night and day, that we might not be a burden to any of you” (2 Thessalonians 3:8). Verses 7 and 9 mention imitation, and what appears in the middle shows what they were to imitate. And we all can find some encouragement here that Paul would have other Christians imitate, rather than replicate, his gargantuan industriousness.
What does Paul mean by “toil and labor, night and day”? Not that he didn’t sleep, but that he worked — he expended energy, he leaned forward into productive activity, rather than laziness — in all his waking hours. He didn’t limit energetic exertions, his “work,” to his day job making tents, and then zone out after the workday. He wasn’t diligent at work then slothful at home. Rather, all of life — day and night — he embraced the necessary discomforts of “labor,” whether he was making tents, discipling men, or sharing the gospel. He gladly poured himself out for the sake of others’ joy (Philippians 2:17), not just from nine to five, but wherever he went, in every sphere of life.
Despite the seriousness with which he speaks, and the high bar he raises, Paul writes with hope for any Christian battling laziness. We’ve seen it already. He not only commands but also encourages (2 Thessalonians 3:12) — because, we can assume, he believes change will happen for genuine disciples. For those who truly are “brothers” in the Lord, they already have dwelling in them an industrious Spirit who happily toils and labors day and night to exalt the Son.
“Christianity, emphatically, does not make men lazy. It makes lazy men, at long last, into serious workers.”
Conversion may not produce a drastic, overnight change in work ethic, but it will produce change in time. Christianity, emphatically, does not make men lazy. It makes lazy men, at long last, into serious workers. The gospel, in the power of the Spirit, will soon make us increasingly “zealous for good works” (Titus 2:14). Those who are saved in Christ “not because of works done by us in righteousness” (Titus 3:5) are finally liberated, and divinely empowered, “to be ready for every good work” and to “devote themselves to good works” (Titus 3:1, 8, 14).
Developing and strengthening a Christian work ethic, like Paul’s, is a lifelong process. We fight the battles over and over again, day after day, week after week. Every moment of emotional resistance, standing face to face with the friction and discomfort that tempts us to grow weary and cease, is an opportunity: to move forward in the strength God supplies, rather than backwards into lethargy.
Never Tire of Doing Good
We’re not the first Christians to face this. Overcoming laziness is well within the normal scope of what God is pleased to do by the power of his Spirit in the work of sanctification. We may not be born again with a new work ethic in full form. We may still wrestle with all sorts of poor patterns from our past and upbringing and indwelling sin. But God has poured his own power in us in the person of his Spirit, and he is working in us the very energy of Jesus himself (Colossians 1:29).
Paul doesn’t assume laziness must mean lostness, but he’s dead serious that genuine Christians don’t stay lazy. In Christ, massive new powers are now in place that make this progress not just possible, but hopeful, even certain.
Credit: David Mathis