Here’s a great question from a podcast listener named Nolan: “Pastor John, my name is Nolan from West Palm Beach, Florida. In 1 Thessalonians 4:11 Paul writes, ‘Make it your goal to live a quiet life, minding your own business and working with your hands, just as we instructed you before’ (NIV). Instantly, I thought of faithful Christians who led revolutions (Martin Luther; Martin Luther King, Jr.; and so on) and noted that they did not live quiet lives minding their own business. So my question is: Does this passage prevent us from leading social movements, many of which are bold and up front, like the Civil Rights Movement?”
Of course, you don’t have to jump over two thousand years of church history to find examples of people who stirred up trouble almost everywhere they went like you find in the New Testament. The first thing we think of is Paul, and the other person we think of is Jesus, who never did anything wrong, and both were accused of turning the world upside down. When they opened their mouths, quietness did not follow — division followed, riots followed, murder followed. Jesus says, “I have not come to bring peace, but a sword” (Matthew 10:34). So this is a good question — it’s just that you don’t need Martin Luther or MLK to ask it, although they are relevant, and I will come back to that.
Fit the Pieces Together
We have Paul against Paul here, and we have Jesus, who drove the money changers out of the temple (Matthew 21:12), over against Jesus who said, “Turn the other cheek” (Matthew 5:39). Of course, that is not the right way to put it. Excuse me, Paul. Sorry. No, it is not Paul against Paul, and Jesus is not against Jesus.
The solution lies in finding how the pieces fit together in the Bible — not walking away from the table where the jigsaw puzzle is lying there, complaining “Nothing fits, nothing fits.” A lot of people leave God and the Bible that way. They just see these hundred pieces spread out or maybe a thousand pieces spread out on the table, and they can’t find the one that fits next to make the picture beautiful, and they dump the table over because they are so angry. And that is not good for them.
Idleness and Meddling
So let’s read the text that Nolan is referring to. It’s very important. And I am going to put one other with it, which I think sheds a lot of light on it. So 1 Thessalonians 4:9–11 says,
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, 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, and to aspire to live quietly, and to mind your own affairs [2 Thessalonians spells that out as meddling in other people’s business], and to work with your hands, as we instructed you, so that you may walk properly before outsiders and be dependent on no one.
So what is the situation here? Some in the church seem to be idlers, lazy, not working for a living — mooching off of others, and bringing the church and the name of Jesus into disrepute among outsiders. And the quietness that Paul has in mind seems to be the opposite of bothersome talk when you hang around others who are trying to do their work and you aren’t doing any work. All you are is talk. So be quiet and get to work. Pull your own economic weight and stop making Christianity look like the birthplace of laziness. That is my paraphrase. See if that is confirmed in 2 Thessalonians 3:10–12:
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 [meddling in others’ affairs]. Now such persons we command and encourage in the Lord Jesus Christ to do their work quietly and to earn their own living.
So the situation is exactly the same, I think. It is the same church, and these letters are not separated by very long. There are lazy idlers in the church in Thessalonica, and maybe they are people who think the Lord is coming back so soon that they quit their jobs just to look up into the sky, and they are making an absolute nuisance of themselves as they idle around while other people are trying to do their work. And their mouths are filled with chatter and talk about what other people are doing rather than doing their own work.
And he connects explicitly the quietness and the work. It says, “We encourage others in the Lord to do their work quietly.” So the quietness in mind flows from focused, diligent, gainful employment. If you are laying brick all day or digging a ditch or winnowing grain, you are not a nuisance, gabbing about and gossiping about other people while they are trying to work.
Walk in Love for Christ
So the big question then is: Is it a contradiction when Paul walks into town, preaches the gospel, and a riot breaks out? Does Paul say, “Oh, I shouldn’t have done that. My goal is quietness.” He clearly touched other people’s affairs when he did that, like the silversmiths in Ephesus in Acts 19. They were about to be put out of business by Paul’s denouncing idolatry, because these idols were made out of silver. And so if people renounce idolatry, the silversmiths are going out of business — and Paul is preaching the gospel anyway. Is that a contradiction to 1 Thessalonians?
And my answer is no. It is not a contradiction because Paul wasn’t talking about that at all in 1 and 2 Thessalonians. The overarching concern of Paul in Thessalonica was that the saints walk in love and that they truly exalt Christ in the community, so the outsiders see what he is really like. And that is exactly what Paul was doing everywhere he went, and that’s what those who led great Christian movements were doing: they were loving people and exalting Christ.
Likewise for us, let’s do the same. If it causes a public uproar, let’s make sure it is for love and for Christ.