I took several shortcuts in my blog post, just to avoid having to write 6,000 words on the subject. But I did do my hermeneutical homework before posting it. For example, I read several different commentaries from multiple authors and multiple schools of thought (10 or so). I checked the NET translator notes (nearly nothing on the question I addressed). And sorted through the passage in terms of the great over-arching narrative of scripture.
Two approaches. I’m going to compare and contrast two approaches to hermeneutics. There is the approach that includes the Bible’s over-arching narrative (“narrative hermeneutics”), and then there’s the approach that simply says “means what it says, says what it means” (“simplistic hermeneutics”).
I’ve read several older commentaries and several lesson plans based on this passage from Church of Christ websites. No one that I can find uses simplistic hermeneutics when teaching this passage — although it’s very common when other passages are interpreted. I suppose the fact that preachers, as a rule, do not work with their hands keeps them from arguing that God commands us to work with our hands.
However, I have heard one sermon preached where the simplistic position was taken — and it proved very controversial. The preacher had just bought a farm and so considered himself to satisfy the rule. Now that he was doing manual labor, he called the rest of the congregation to repent and do manual labor. (He soon changed congregations.)
The approach that is often used when the simplistic method just won’t do is the Three-Card Monte method — just leap to a conclusion, don’t explain your reasons, and hope no one looks under the cards. That is, countless sermons and lesson plans just ignore the question but silently redefine “work with your hands” as “work” with no explanation.
My suspicion is that in his training, the preacher often isn’t equipped with the tools for sound hermeneutics. When he uses the simplistic approach, the result was clearly mistaken — but he had now way to defend his contrary conclusion. Hence … drop back 15 yards and punt. (Sorry for mixing metaphors.)
Commentaries. One of the biggest mistakes we in the Churches of Christ tend to make in interpreting the scriptures is refusing to read commentaries from outside the Churches of Christ — and as a denomination, we’ve not produced much in the way of commentaries. Worse yet, even the ones we have are often nearly a century old, and they are heavily reliant on 19th Century and older commentaries (Barnes Notes, Clarke’s, etc.). We simply ignore all else because, after all, those other commentaries are written by people going to hell (because they use instruments in their worship of God, at the least) </sarcasm font>.
Obviously, we should not mindlessly accept any human commentary as true — but two heads are better than one — and if you read 10 commentaries, well, each of those is built on literally hundreds of other sources. You get the benefit of the scholarship, wisdom, and experience of a lot of believers in Jesus who’ve dedicated their lives to Bible study.
That is, you have to approach the text with humility — not assuming that you know all there is to know about the text because of your choice of denomination. Rather, you read the text to find out what is true. You don’t start with what you think is true and then impose your assumptions on the text.
(Not everyone is blessed to own as many commentaries as I own. I am very blessed, and I received many of these for free as part of a review of a Bible study software product.)
Most of us have access to a church library. Some of us have access to multiple libraries because we have friends who attend other churches. And there are vast online resources, mostly for free, although you have to borrow or pay for what I would consider the most valuable commentaries.
Now, my use of so many commentaries doesn’t make me right. I still have to sort through the differing opinions to reach my own. And so there’s plenty of room for human error — but I’m far less prone to error when I have so many scholars teaching me. Because I now have a much better understanding of the historical background and the translation/grammar issues, I’ll make fewer mistakes.
The Narrative. As Bobby Valentine and John Mark Hicks have shown, the Churches of Christ had a surprisingly mature narrative theology in the 19th Century. Our preachers were saying many of the same things that N. T. Wright and Scot McKnight are saying today. But the 20th Century saw us take major steps backwards as we accepted just about any argument that might win a debate with the Baptists over baptism or instrumental music. Learning the biblical narrative did not help win debates, and so we lost interest in the question. We stopped reading to learn and instead read to find proof texts for a debate — two very different things.
(I enjoy a good Bible debate more than most, and so I must see that flaw in myself and always remember that it’s never about proving me right.)
Now, in the case of 1 Thess 4:11-12, we can fairly ask what “work with your hands” has to do with God’s redemptive scheme, the Kingdom, and such like. And that answer is that “work” has a great deal to do with the major themes of scripture. Adam and Eve worked in the Garden before sin entered the world. They were charged to keep and work the Garden (Gen 2:15).
In Rev 22, we see our vocation in the New Heavens and New Earth —
(Rev. 22:3-5 ESV) 3 No longer will there be anything accursed, but the throne of God and of the Lamb will be in it, and his servants will worship him. … 5 And night will be no more. They will need no light of lamp or sun, for the Lord God will be their light, and they will reign forever and ever.
The saved will worship (or serve; the Greek is ambiguous) and reign — a word used of kings and queens, and a reference back to the dominion given mankind back in Gen 1:26-28.
Of course, we learn in Matt 18 that leaders in the church are to be servants or slaves of those over whom they have leadership. So “reign” and “serve” are also overlapping concepts.
Now, there is much more that could be said on these things, but for now, it suffices to note that Paul’s worldview assumes that humanity works — more precisely, we have a vocation or mission from God that includes reigning over the Creation through service and worshiping or serving God (not necessarily two different things).
If I’m a follower of Jesus in First Century Thessalonica, there are many kinds of work I might do that serve God. But in that culture, to avoid manual labor, a believer would have to accept the patronage of a wealthy pagan, which may involve obligations inconsistent with Christianity.
And so, in terms of the Bible’s over-arching narrative, I don’t see a reason for Paul to insist on manual labor. As noted in the last post, there are many examples in the OT of honored worshipers of God who worked but not at manual labor. Jesus did not engage in manual labor during his three-years of ministry. Therefore, the intended contrast is between working (assuming good health and that jobs are available) and seeking to live a life of leisure.
And this makes for contemporary applications that are far more challenging to us than the simplistic reading insisting on manual labor as opposed to any God-honoring labor. In yesterday’s post, I pointed out questions raised regarding our approach to retirement. (I’m 62 and so the question is not abstract to me at all.) It also affects our approach to unemployment and other social safety net benefits when you are capable of working and there are jobs available.
And, to me, the fact that my reading leads to decidedly unpopular questions tells me that I’m probably on the right path. My reading keeps the text relevant to today’s reader and challenges our view of things at the worldview level. That’s a mark of a sound reading.
Simplistic hermeneutics. On the other hand, there is another approach. First, we don’t study Roman and Greek cultural backgrounds. Rather, we just read what the text says outside of its historical context.
Next, we ignore the immediate textual context —
(1 Thess. 4:9-12 ESV) 9 Now concerning brotherly love you have no need for anyone to write to you, for you yourselves have been taught by God to love one another, 10 for that indeed is what you are doing to all the brothers throughout Macedonia. But we urge you, brothers, to do this 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 you, 12 so that you may walk properly before outsiders and be dependent on no one.
For example, we don’t take into account the theme stated by Paul: “Now concerning brotherly love.” And “so that you may walk properly and be dependent on no one.”
Choosing an intellectual job, such as teaching, rather than manual labor, has nothing to do with whether someone is dependent on others. And it has nothing to do with “walking properly before outsiders.” However, the choice to earn your living rather than being dependent on a pagan obviously does.
Next, we aren’t bothered by the arbitrariness of the result. We just accept the simplistic interpretation because we read the Bible as a list of rules and commands, each of which is a test of our willingness to render “precision obedience.” The more arbitrary the command, the tougher the test and more we show ourselves faithful by honoring commands that don’t make sense in our current setting.
Now, this is obviously a highly abbreviated analysis, but hopefully it’s enough to demonstrate why simplistic readings are usually wrong even when they seem to best fit the literal words.