"Work with Your Hands"
“What do you want to be when you grow up?” is a question we all have heard. Eventually, as we get a little older, it changes into, “What do you think you will do after school?” Or, it might get further refined into, “Are you doing Year 13 next year? And then what?” And often times, the first assumption behind the question is further study of some sort. Ideally, you will go to university to get a degree, or, if you are not quite so ‘academic,’ to polytech to get a diploma, or, going one rung further down the ladder, you might do a job-specific training programme and get work, or, lower again, you do a trade apprenticeship, stack shelves at Pak-N-Save or take drive-through orders at Maccas, become a secretary, or do a labouring job at a farm or factory!
Now, I realise that there are a whole lot of generalisations and assumptions in the previous paragraph, but they are found in many of us to one degree or another. And so, even though many university graduates use their degrees in occupations that have a practical component in them of one sort or another (engineering, agricultural sciences, accountancy, etc), we have this notion that the workforce is divided into two groups: ‘academics’ and ‘tradesmen’ or ‘brain workers’ and ‘hand workers’. One sits in an office and thinks while the other actually gets his hands dirty making stuff. And at the individual family level, this might amount to something along the lines of: I want my son to be a lawyer/accountant/doctor/teacher/CEO, but failing that, he can always be a baker.
Indeed, a quick look at education statistics reveals our society’s growing attraction for university education (For some reason, it was much easier to find Aussie statistics than it was NZ ones?! [There has to be a joke in there somewhere O] I expect, though, that they show similar trends by proportion). In 1939, Australia had a population of 7 million people, 6 universities, and 14000 enrolled students. In 1960, it was 10 million, 10 unis, and 53,000. In 1975, it was 14 million, 19 unis, and 148,000. Now, it is 23 million, 41 unis and over 1,000,000 enrolled students! But on the other hand (and I could find NZ statistics for this), official apprenticeships were at a high of 26,000 in 1980, dropping to 400 in 2000 (!), and just 12,000 today.
So, where does 1 Thessalonians 4:11-12 fit into this subject? For there Paul says to his readers, “Work with your hands.” And his words there echo those in Ephesians 4:28, where the saint who had been stealing is told that he “must steal no longer, but must work, doing something useful with his own hands.” Can we dismiss 1 Thess. 4 as no longer culturally appropriate (after all, they were all peasant farmers and tradesmen back then, weren’t they?)? Are we guilty of ‘looking down our noses’ at manual labour in favour of more ‘glamorous’ occupations? Where does a futures trader or a Google programmer, who spends his/ her whole day at a computer keyboard (striking keys with his or her hands!) fit into this verse? Are these words in fact very timely in our academic-focused age? Should we ignore university degrees and be tradesmen because the Bible elevates manual labour here?
Well, let’s consider the passage in 1 Thessalonians 4 in its own right before we jump to conclusions or seek application from it.
And in the first place, we should note that 1 Thessalonians 4:11-12 says more than just “work with your hands.” The two verses say, “Make it your ambition to lead a quiet life, to mind your own business and to work with your hands, just as we told you, so that your daily life may win the respect of outsiders and so that you will not be dependent on anybody.” And it will help us to spend a few moments thinking about the situation of the believers that Paul wrote to, as well as the words surrounding these two verses.
A Rebuke for Sloth
The two letters to the Thessalonians reveal that the believers there had an unhealthy fixation with the Second Coming of the Lord Jesus. They were so sure that He would return any day (1 Th. 4:13 5:11 & 2 Th. 2-3), that some had abandoned daily work as pointless, which led them to rely on the generosity of other Christians for daily necessities (2 Th. 3:6 15). And Paul had very strong words to say to such as these, even warning other believers to excommunicate them if they continued this idle lifestyle. And from his warning in 1 Thess. 1:4:11 about ‘minding your business,’ commentators agree that these folk were probably busy interfering in the running of the church and perhaps even demanding diaconal support from the church, and/or poking their noses into the lives of their neighbours in an undue manner.
Secondly, from Acts 17, we learn that the Jewish community very quickly stirred up the crowds against the Christians in Thessalonica. Securing work in Jewish businesses there was nigh-on impossible for believers, as the Jews would ‘excommunicate’ those who left the Jewish faith. And working for and with Gentiles was equally problematic because many businesses were intimately connected with the pagan gods that were associated with each trade, including temple feasts and symbols and rituals. So work options were not exactly in plentiful supply. ‘Beggars’ were not able to be choosers.
In a Greek city such as Thessalonica, manual work was usually viewed with disdain as suitable for the lower social classes or slaves. But this would not even have rated as a possible concern for Paul given his own work as a tentmaker, something he points to in 2 Thess. 3:8-9, as well as for the Lord Jesus Christ who was also a tradesman (Mark 6:3). It is also true that many converts in the NT church were from the ‘lower social classes’ and slavery, which meant they knew only this kind of work. Here is what Hendriksen says in his commentary:
Manual labour was even more common in those days than it is now. There were slaves, hired labourers, independent artisans (cf. Acts 19:24) each having his own workshop, farmers or helpers on farms. Of course, a harbour-city like Thessalonica also had its ship-owners and its leaders in commercial enterprises. And there were the men who owned or worked in bazaars. It is certainly within the realm of possibility that some of the men in control of business, whether big or small, belonged to the church. In many cases, no doubt, manual labour was combined with business on a small scale. But in the present passage, at any rate, the emphasis is not on doing business but on working with the hands. The bulk of the membership must have consisted of manual labourers, skilled or unskilled.1
We see then that this passage does address a specific community who live in a specific context. And so, at the very least, this passage is not arguing in favour of manual labour versus what we might call professional work.
Dignity in Labour
What this passage does remind us of, however, is the inherent value and dignity of manual labour. One of the reasons for giving this instruction to the Thessalonians was that working like this would earn the respect of “outsiders (v11).” Industry, discipline, creativity, dedication, and ‘honest-toil’ would be noticed and esteemed by non-Christians. And it is worth recalling in connection with this that at the time of the Reformation there was an idea that religious or church-related work was sanctified in God’s eyes, while other work was a necessary evil. Part of the Protestant Reformation was recapturing the biblical concept of the dignity of all human labour (1 Corinthians 7:17). This became known as the doctrine of vocatio or vocation. It is described also as the ‘Protestant work ethic’ – My work is my calling from the Lord which I do to the best of my ability and to His honour and glory.
And in connection with this, consider the following quote from Ken Jones:
Sin causes some to have exalted views of themselves (and a corresponding low view of others) because of the type of work they do. Our culture is full of glamorous jobs that deceive us into thinking we are inherently better than others because of our positions. This leads to condescending judgments about the work, character, and dignity of those who do not have ‘glamorous’ jobs.2
But this is not in keeping with what we have discovered in our study of this topic.
Technical Jobs undersold
In fact, there are some in the world at large calling for a rethink about workforce training in the light of certain economic realities. In a recent B.B.C. online article,3 a journalist summarised a C.B.I.4 report that argues that “a growing demand for degree-level technical skills will not be met by traditional university courses ... In particular the authors say more young people should be encouraged to take technical and vocational courses which they say have long been undersold and should have parity of esteem with academic routes.”
Speaking personally, before entering the ministry, I spent 11 years working as a shoe repairer. I fondly remember the personal and customer satisfaction of a job well done, by my own hands!
It is interesting to observe, also, that many professionals often have a practical ‘hobby’ that enables them to work with their hands.
I think also of builders and bakers and farmers, etc, that I know in our churches who have given work opportunities to many young men, in particular, who were struggling at school but who found great satisfaction in a practical trade. And in addition, owning a business such as this has meant many men had some flexi-time, that meant they could make daytime visits as office-bearers, which might not be as easy for a professional to make.
There are Choices
By way of conclusion, then, we should at the very least acknowledge that a discussion such as this one is something of a luxury discussion. The fact is we do have choice today. Prosperity means we can make choices about our work. I have often heard people say that they could not do that job because “it would drive them up the wall!” Well, let’s first of all thank the Lord for the work He gives us, even as we remember that we work, first and foremost, for His glory. But let’s be careful also not to disdain work of any kind and to factor in the kinds of things we have talked about as we make our work choices.