Biblical Philosophy of Work

A Biblical Philosophy of Work


As we were standing in the back corner of his machine shed, a wise farmer once encouraged me, “never buy anything with a handle on it; it always means work!” He was joking of course; he really did know how to work hard and he enjoyed it. But some people really do view work as something to avoid. The truth is, we can’t avoid it. God feeds the birds, but He doesn’t drop food in their nests.

My first paying job opened my eyes to the concept of work. I landed a brief summer job at the local hatchery. My task: anything the boss assigned me but primarily cleaning out dead chicks from the chicken coops as well as the dung produced by the live ones. My pay was a generous $1 per hour.

The evening before my first day on the job, my Dad sat me down and looked dead into my eyes and nicely, but firmly, intoned, “Son, always give a day’s work for a day’s pay.” I never forgot it.

I. Basic Concepts of Work -  2 Thessalonians 3:6-10

After requesting the Thessalonians believers to pray for him and his ministry Paul proceeds to commend them for their fidelity to his apostolic teaching. However, he then censures some among the flock for their lackadaisical approach to work. Some considered work a waste of time. Was this colossal error a misapplication of the certainty of the Lord’s second coming (see 1 Thessalonians 2 and 4)? In any event, they needed correction, if not outright discipline, for their refusal to earn a living.

I see the following foundational concepts of work in this passage:

  • Refusal to work is tantamount to open rebellion against God 6 
  • Some Christians actually refuse to work 
    • This refusal is part of their daily walk of life (περιπατέω to walk around Gingrich 157 and et al; hence the back and forth repeating cycle of life).
    • The adverb that describes their daily “walk” is rendered “disorderly” (KJV); “unruly” (NAU); or “idle” (ESV/NIV). The term is a military term meaning to break ranks (ἀτάκτως - the root τάγμα  meaning order or rank (TDNT 783).  Hence I have used the term “rebellion”. Figuratively, it is expressed by idleness (Friberg 402; Louw-Nida 88.287). Thus, the ESV/NIV translation “idleness.”
    • Paul summarizes and offers slightly different nuances in vs 11-15. There he offers a play on words in v 11. These brothers are busybodies (περιεργάζομαι) in sharp contrast (ἀλλά)  to being busy workers ( ἐργάζομαι)!
    • Further, their walk is out of sync with apostolic teaching. Most versions render παράδοσις as “traditions” meaning a handling on from one to another (Friberg 20561). So, these brothers had “received” the instructions about how to live, but chose to ignore them.
  • Christians are expected to sever association with Christians who refuse to work
    • Note that Paul is addressing “brothers” regarding other “brothers”. He issues a direct command to working Christians regarding how they are relate to lazy Christians. 
    • Being idle is a serious error!  Paul says that relationships with these brothers must be severed. And Paul isn’t bashful about saying that his command has the authority of the Lord himself!
    • The command is “to keep away” (infinitive of στέλλω) meaning to set or place. When coupled with the preposition “from” indicating separation (ἀπό)  the idea is “to abstain from familiar contact with someone” (Thayer 4889). Hence to avoid or withdraw from.
  • In the summary of vs 11-15 Pau adds that these lazy brothers should be marked off as abnormal (“take note of”) that is to be distinguished in a different category. Thus, brothers should “have nothing to do with” them; literally, no mingling. 

  • Industrious effort should be a hallmark of all work 7-9

  • Paul boldly declares that the brothers should imitate the apostolic (us) model of work (7a). Consider the following descriptions of how the apostles conducted themselves.

  • Without laziness 7b.  “Not idle” is the same word as v 6 only with the negative “a” added to word.
  • Without mooching 8a. As a rule, they paid for what they received. In a work environment that means pulling your own load. So, in the restatement of v11-15 he commands the brothers to “eat their own bread” (v12).
  • Hard work 8b. Words pile up here. 
    • “Toil” - (κόπος) putting all your effort and power into a task resulting in exhaustion (Friberg 16436). Literally it means a beating. 
    • “Labor” (μόχθος)  - hard and difficult work involving suffering (Friberg 18742).
    • “Worked” - energetic work that accomplishes something (Friberg 11358). 
    • “Day and night” - they were willing to do whatever it took to get the job done.
    • “Not be a burden” -  They didn’t want to weigh down anyone else with their concerns and needs. (Friberg 10635).
    • And we might add, in the restatement of v11-15 he commands the brothers to “do their work quietly” (v12). That is to do their work with a purpose and resolve.

  • Selflessness 9
    • The apostles modeled industrious work for the benefit of others. 
    • They were willing to forfeit their right to special treatment

  • Work is the means to make provision for living 10
    • Another “command” (v10) is now given as an outgrowth of the command in vs 6 and expanded in vs 7-9. 
    • This didactic is expressed as a conditional statement that goes something like this: “If anyone is not willing to work, then let them not eat.” And the condition is fulfilled (1st class) - the person actually isn’t willing to work. In this case the conclusion is straight forward - he goes hungry - don’t bail him out!
    • It is important to note that the condition is the desire to work not work itself. Paul is not unsympathetic regarding those who are either genuinely unable to work or can not find work. In fact, he raised money for the needy saints in Jerusalem. So, the question is not, “does he have a job?” but rather “what is he doing to get a job?”.  

    So, it can be concluded that God expects people to work for what they get, to work hard, and to derive satisfaction from their work. Although, “if anyone is not willing to work, let him not eat”, is not exactly a plank in the social policy at all levels of our government, it is clearly a primary principle of God’s policy.

    II. Three Additional Principles of Work (see “Ready, Set, Go”, Flatt)

  • All work should be done conscientiously. When Paul advises young Timothy to, “Do your best to present yourself to God as one approved, a worker who has no need to be ashamed, rightly handling the word of truth” (2 Timolthy 2:15), he gives us a principle that can be extended beyond the special labor in which Timothy was engaged to all honest work. As my high school principal often said, “If it is worth doing , it is worth doing right.” Never be a slacker. Always give an honest effort. If you have to do it a second time, chances are that you had time to do it right the first time!  But, on the other hand, as a general rule, I believe diligent effort is a measure of personal success even if you fail to meet the institutional goal. The issue is not always what you do, but often it is how you do what you do.  

  • All work should be done as for the Lord. Paul covers all basses when He instructs us, “Whatever you do, work heartily, as for the Lord and not for men,” (Colossians 3:23). If the Lord were beside you as you worked, would it change the way you work? If you had to submit your project to the Lord for His approval, would it make a difference in the finished product? Get the picture?

  • Work is here to stay. There is nothing wrong with work per se. Adam worked in the garden of Eden. It was only after his fall into sin that work become burdensome (“By the sweat of your face you shall eat bread…”, Genesis 3:19. There is no sense trying to avoid work. Work is necessary for survival for those of us who do not live in the Garden! Work is God’s plan for us. So, why not enjoy it. 
  • III. Making Work Meaningful and Fulfilling

    Here are some practical helps for making your job rewarding:

  • Every Biblically legitimate vocation is “spiritual.”   (Note that I used the adjective “legitimate”. I believe this rules out vocations such as operating an abortion clinic, or a brothel, or a casino, or etc.). The fact is, the Holy Spirit does not place everyone into full-time Christian ministry as He does elders (Acts 20:28), but he does assign everyone to specific stations in life (see the discussion in 1 Corinthians 7:17-24). In God’s eyes every career is significant! Always remember that no matter what you choose to do in life, it is important to God.  What if there were no Christian teachers, attorneys, entrepreneurs, information techs, physicians, or tradesmen.? This also means that “entry level” work is okay too! Truth in advertising demands that most people should plan to start near bottom! 

  • Make how you approach your job a statement of your character. I’m speaking of your attitude. It is true, attitude is often everything. Sir Christopher Wren relates the following story. “A stranger came to three workman, all employed on the same job. He asked each worker what he was doing. Growled the first, ‘I;m breaking rocks.’ Said the second, ‘I’m earning a living.’ But the third man replied with a smile, ‘I’m building a cathedral.’” (Source unknown).

  • Operate on the assumption that diligent work will be rewarded. Certainly God will reward you for hard work (Colossians 3:24). And even in a day of seniority rather than skill, good quality work is normally recognized.  “Do you see a man skillful in his work? He will stand before kings; he will not stand before obscure men”, Proverbs 22:29. So, the wise worker will also attempt to do more than the minimum requirements. Be early; take the initiative; do what needs to be done. Not only will you feel better about the job you do, but others will notice. 

  • Never be so consumed by work that you fail to rest from work. There is a vital difference between a hard worker and a “workaholic.” Your work must not dominate your life so that it becomes a “god” to you. You are susceptible to this if you love your work or if you are a materialist or if you are a perfectionist. Remember, the Godhead rested on the seventh day: Genesis 2:2 “And on the seventh day God finished his work that he had done, and he rested on the seventh day from all his work that he had done.” In fact, the seventh day Sabbath rest for human beings is patterned after the work rest cycle of the Godhead during creation (Exodus 20:8-11).  And remember, Jesus Himself implored his disciples to, “‘Come away by yourselves to a desolate place and rest a while.’” For many were coming and going, and they had no leisure even to eat.” (Mark 6:31). 

  • Be motivated by the fact that work ultimately converts into the products you want. Your work earns a paycheck. Your paycheck is turned into money. Your money enables you to obey God by financially supporting your local church. Your money buys the goods and services you need to live as well as the some extra niceties along the way. Making these connections is helpful in seeing a purpose to our work. 

  • Choose a career you think you will enjoy. As you prepare for a life long vocation, beware of making money the primary factor ou consider. I like my job. Frankly, I can’t imagine working all my life at a job I didn’t enjoy. Oh sure, there are always things about my job that are unpleasant and maybe even boring. But if your job is one constant source of misery to you, don’t hesitate in searching for a new career. (Example of guidance counselor who tried to marginalize my daughter’s vocational goal of being a wife and mother.)

  • Never pursue success at work at the price of your commitment to the Lord. This would include relationships with people and, if married, your responsibilities to your family. This may require some tough decisions that could result in things such a smaller profit or missed opportunities or turning down a promotion in the interest of your family. (Examples: Chic-fill-A closed on Sundays).

  • Try to imagine that the Lord will inspect your work. View Him as the quality control officer. I vividly recall from my days as a casting inspector at a foundry that the quality of work I and others did sometimes depended on whom the quality control guy was! (Throwing the auto air conditioning housing over my shoulder into the pallet). Perhaps I forgot that God’s production standard is simple, “Moreover, it is required of stewards that they be found faithful” (1Corinthians 4:2). So, if you don’t get that promotion you think you deserve, be content anyway. The corporate world will sometimes not be  fair, but if you have satisfied God, who cares! 

  • Begin each day by thanking God for your job. This simple act tends to set the right atmosphere for the day. After all, another alternative might be no job at all. I would also encourage you to actively build bridges with co-workers so that you might be able to share the gospel. The workplace is one the greatest spheres of influence you will ever have. Of course, this means that you must do all you can to be a model worker.   
  • Final Thought

    Work is never below you, no matter what it is. Just remember, God worked too. He worked and the universe was created. He works and the universe remains.

    Genesis 1:1 In the beginning, God created the heavens and the earth. 2 The earth was without form and void, and darkness was over the face of the deep. And the Spirit of God was hovering over the face of the waters.

    Genesis 2:1 Thus the heavens and the earth were finished, and all the host of them. 2 And on the seventh day God finished his work that he had done, and he rested on the seventh day from all his work that he had done

    Colossians 1:16 For by him all things were created, in heaven and on earth, visible and invisible, whether thrones or dominions or rulers or authorities-- all things were created through him and for him. 17 And he is before all things, and in him all things hold together.

    © Copyright. Joseph Flatt. 2015. All rights reserved. May be used for educational purposes without written permission but with a citation to this source