One of the casualties of the West’s cultural shift from Christian theism to Deism, and from that to late modern subjectivism (and neo-paganism) is the death of the Christian work ethic. The act of work has been emptied of its intrinsic value. If work has no value in and of itself, then it becomes only bitterness, only drudgery, only toil. If it labor no inherent value then life becomes a game whereby we seek to find the benefits of labor (satisfaction, wages, food, shelter) without working. Why has work lost its value? Because it has been removed from its original context. Humans were created as analogues of God and he is a worker. He worked for six days and rested and it was good. As a father teaches his children how to do things by showing them, our Lord set a pattern for us. He made us to imitate him. Scripture says:
Then God said, “Let us make man in our image, after our likeness. And let them have dominion over the fish of the sea and over the birds of the heavens and over the livestock and over all the earth and over every creeping thing that creeps on the earth.” …And God blessed them. And God said to them, “Be fruitful and multiply and fill the earth and subdue it, and have dominion over the fish of the sea and over the birds of the heavens and over every living thing that moves on the earth.” …The Lord God took the man and put him in the garden of Eden to work it and keep it. (Genesis 1:26, 28, 2:15, ESV)
It’s true that Adam had priestly duties in the garden. It was a holy place but it he also had natural or creational duties. He was to guard the temple but he was also a farmer in God’s good creation. Work, imitation of God the worker was a reflection of God’s goodness and appropriate to a good creation.
The fall introduced corruption, frustration, and death but it did not change the fundamental goodness of creation. One of the great heresies of the ancient church was the heresy that creation is inherently evil. It isn’t. Good corrupted is still good. God is still good and we are still image bearers. Nothing about the fall changed those fundamental truths.
We know that the advent of Christ and the new covenant did not overturn the creational order. Our Lord Jesus himself appealed to creation to correct those corruptions of creation that had been permitted under Moses: “from the beginning it was not so” (Matt 19:8). He did not repudiate the one day in seven pattern. He re-asserted his Lordship over the Sabbath against the Pharisees who had turned a blessing into a curse (Matt 12:8). The Apostle Paul applied this same creational ethic to the question of work.
The Thessalonian congregation had, as many have done since, become obsessed with eschatology, the end of all things. They were so concerned with the return of Christ and associated events that some of them had given up fulfilling their creational ethic. They had ceased to fulfill their vocation to serve God and their neighbor. They had lost track of the pattern of working six days and resting one.
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. For you yourselves know how you ought to imitate us, because we were not idle when we were with you, nor did we eat anyone’s bread without paying for it, but with toil and labor we worked night and day, that we might not be a burden to any of you. It was not because we do not have that right, but to give you in ourselves an example to imitate. For even when we were with you, we would give you this command: If anyone is not willing to work, let him not eat. For we hear that some among you walk in idleness, not busy at work, but busybodies. Now such persons we command and encourage in the Lord Jesus Christ to do their work quietly and to earn their own living. (2 Thessalonians 3:6-12, ESV)
Paul grounded his opposition to idleness, to laziness, in the nature of things and he began with our Lord Jesus. He issued a command but it was not a new command. It was as ancient as creation itself. He issued the command, however, in the name of Christ. In so doing, he made it clear that, whatever differences exist between the new and old covenants, i.e., between Moses and Christ, there is a fundamental unity between Christ (the new covenant) and creation. To set the against each other, as the Gnostics and other dualists did, as many evangelicals seem to do, is not a biblical way of thinking.
Further, Paul himself modeled for the Thessalonians the value of work. He did not assert his apostolic authority (as Roman prelates have done for centuries) to receive support without working (or, in the case of Roman bishops and archbishops) to receive support without even showing up. He wrote to the lazy with the authority of his office and with the moral authority of his own example. He was so adamant about the importance of work he wrote something of which I suppose a lot of us are unfamiliar: “If anyone is not willing to work, let him not eat.” One can almost hear the squeals from certain quarters about the alleged harshness of such language. I understand but let’s get something straight. 2 Thessalonians is the authoritative, inerrant, inspired Word of God. If it makes you uncomfortable, the problem is not with God’s Word. It’s with us. Paul describes this teaching as a “command.” It’s not an option. It’s not an opinion. It’s not just one option which we may choose to obey or disobey.
Work is intrinsically good. It can be difficult. It does not always pay well or even justly. Sometimes employers and bosses are unfair but labor, in and of itself, is good because it is grounded in the analogy between God and man. It has intrinsic value. It is one of the things for which we were created. When we work, we express what we are: bearers of the divine image. Even after the fall, even before the return of Christ, when we are fulfilling our vocation before the Lord, to the benefit of our families and our neighbors, we even sense that things are as they were intended to be.
The neo-pagan, post-Christian, post-theistic West is dying and with it the work ethic but it should not be so among those who know the Lord of creation and the grace of redemption.