Analyzing the Christian Duty of Work – Part 1

This post is something that has been swimming in my head for a couple of months, probably. It may even have its roots back to a period of deep questioning I had in 2007, but recent events have brought it to the forefront of my attention once again. This is much more an exploratory essay arising questions than it is some sort of definitive thesis claiming to have answers. Answers have I none on this topic, so I throw it out into the community to get some perspective, conversation, and opinion on the matter (hopefully). I think it was Rob Bell who wrote in one of his books about the isolated academic study of the Bible being completely against the grain of how Christians originally struggled with scripture. He pointed out that certainly in the first century (and for hundreds of years later), the only way anyone had access to the Word of God was to gather and hear it read aloud. Then the community in attendance would talk about what it meant and discuss together the ramifications for their lives. This isn’t to say that isolated reading has no value, but that perhaps the best understanding can come from looking at these things together. So…

Growing up as a middle-class American, the topics of work, wealth, and giving in relation to faith were clear cut and simple. A good person works hard, provides for himself, and gives to the church and other charitable organizations. Through college and now living on my own, however, the challenging questions which have arisen have made me wonder. On the one hand is the radical message of Jesus to sell all you have and give to the poor, and on the other hand the Protestant Work Ethic and writings of the apostles encouraging a model where responsibility for self is at the core. At the center of this topic (in my struggle, anyway) is the question of giving, and particularly from one Christian to another.

In a fashion typical of his radical message, Jesus tells us, “Give to everyone who asks you, and if anyone takes what belongs to you, do not demand it back.” (Luke 6:30). That sounds pretty straight-forward, if not entirely easy to live out. If someone asks me for something, I am to give it to them. But if I were a Christian in the young church in Thessalonica, I would have been told by the apostle Paul, “If a man will not work, he shall not eat” (2 Thess 3:10). So what do I do, then, if a fellow able-bodied Christian doesn’t feel compelled to actively seek employment to provide for himself and asks me for money? Surely I will have mercy on my brother if he is starving and give him something initially, as James instructs us. “Suppose a brother or sister is without clothes and daily food. If one of you says to him, ‘Go, I wish you well; keep warm and well fed,’ but does nothing about his physical needs, what good is it?” (James 2:15-16). But if this becomes an exhibited pattern, how does that speak to Paul’s harsh words to Timothy, “If anyone does not provide for his relatives, and especially for his immediate family, he has denied the faith and is worse than an unbeliever” (1 Timothy 5:8)? The sobering parable of the sheep and the goats (Matthew 25) notes precisely that when we give to the hungry, we are giving to Christ. So should I take that mindset and keep giving to my brother? Or should I point him to the same passage and note that he, too, ought to be gainfully employed and giving to others regardless of his income level? These are not easy questions.

The established pattern seems to be that Christians are to do everything in their power to provide for their own physical needs, and also those who cannot provide for themselves. “Surely you remember, brothers, our toil and hardship; we worked night and day in order not to be a burden to anyone while we preached the gospel of God to you” (1 Thess 2:9). Even what we would consider full-time missionaries engaged in labor to make a living instead of counting on the generosity of others. But this seems to contrast with Jesus sending out his disciples where he commands, “Take nothing for the journey except a staff—no bread, no bag, no money in your belts” (Mark 6:8). They did the exact opposite of Paul and his traveling companions, relying completely on handouts from those along the way. Are the commands found in scripture conditional or relative to one’s situation? Is it a larger act of faith to take nothing with you, or is it a shame to the name of Christ to expect others to take care of you (whether in a specific evangelistic endeavor or everyday life)?

Despite the advice sprinkled throughout the apostolic letters to the early church, the radical way of Jesus still tugs on my heart. Should I give generously even when it makes no sense, and I may in fact be enabling another believer to avoid his duty to work and provide for others? Is this an example of crazy love that would make the world stop and take notice of a drastically different lifestyle? I will continue this questioning and exploration in another entry, but for now I would love to hear anyone else’s perspective on the issue as it stands so far.

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