The Testimony of Diligence

10b But we urge you, brothers, to do this [love one another] more and more, 11 and to aspire to live quietly, and to mind your own affairs, and to work with your hands, as we instructed, 12 so that you may live properly before outsiders and be dependent on no one.

1 Thessalonians 4:10b-12 (ESV)

In the 1360s, John Wyclif, morning star of the Reformation and Master of Balliol College, Oxford, published his Objections to the Friars. He attacked the Mendicant Friars who had departed from the simple life taught and exemplified by Francis of Assisi. Their presence in Oxford had become unbearable because their idleness and begging became a heavy drain on the resources of the people who felt obliged to support them. Their indolence was unbiblical; it denied brotherly love.

Paul regarded the Thessalonian church as a model Christian community, demonstrating faith, love, and hope (1:3). Yet he exhorted them throughout his letter to “please God” and to do so “more and more” (4:1). Having urged them to control themselves sexually (4:3-8), he then called them to love one another by working (4:9-12). He moved from the need to help the weak to the need to warn those who were “idle” (ataktos, unruly and undisciplined, 5:14). In the face of some who had an irresponsible attitude toward work, Paul used their brotherly love (philadelphia) as the basis for urging them to get back to work.

They were to love one another “more and more” (v. 10b, cf. 3:12) by working for their own living, not to exploit fellow Christians (v. 12b). He also knew that brotherly love was evidence that God had been at work in their community, so he urged them to work for the sake of the “outsider” (v. 12a, cf. 4:9). He urged them not to be busybodies or self-promoters, but to be busy and to work with their own hands (v. 11), as Paul did.

Indolence in the Church is a blight on the gospel, whereby the watching world sees lazy Christians as parasites and those who support them as gullible. Of course, there are those who are indisposed, needing charity, and the Church distinguishes herself by her concern for them. But this cannot excuse the behavior of those who, though they could work, force the body of Christ to rescue them. The church that puts up with such spongers encourages selfish presumption. Unfortunately, spiritual leaders are not immune to self-promotion or idleness. Like the friars Wyclif criticized, these ministers forfeit their moral influence.

Most pastors, however, believe in work itself and in their own work in particular. Instead of calculating and engineering their own career “advancement,” they focus wholeheartedly on the task at hand, trusting God to place or keep them where they are best employed. And their example of calm diligence is an antidote to two of the world’s potent poisons, grasping ambition and worthlessness, poisons which can cripple the Church when taken internally. (Like physical toxins, they effect frenzy or paralysis in the body of Christ.) Believers who know how to work will resonate with cheerful, industrious pastors and join them in helping others up to the next level of responsible service and consequent joy.