-- some reflections on the mission of the contemporary church
1 Thessalonians 4:11, 12
... aspire to
live quietly, to mind your own affairs, and to work with your hands, as we
directed you, so that you may behave properly towards outsiders and be
dependent on no one.
I find this an intriguing passage, particularly because it makes me feel the distance between Paul's world and ours. What exactly is he talking about? What would the Thessalonians have understood by his instructions? In order to help understand the context into which Paul was writing and the lives of his correspondents below I draw on Peter Oakes' study Reading Romans in Pompeii -- Paul's letter at ground level for although Pompeii isn't Thessalonica, Oakes' work gives fascinating insights into Christian communities in ancient cities and helps us understand what Paul's words might mean for us today.
The ancient city was a dangerous and unstable place. There wasn't much of a police force. There wasn't a health service and there weren't any of the other civil services which we take for granted. It was run on the basis of patronage. Your life depended on who you knew and the more powerful these people were the better for you, for without them you didn't have any protection and were subject to the rough-and-tumble of life on the streets. People lived in what sounds to me pretty much like gangs, groups of people with strict hierarchies who defended their patch and took it upon themselves to sort out any trouble.
Within this context Christianity provided a new kind of gang -- a new community which supported its members and helped protect them from the unstable and violent city. I believe when you read this passage in this kind of context then it makes a whole different kind of sense.
The phrase translated in the NRSV 'aspire to live quietly' literally means 'love the honour of silence'. Honour was very important in ancient societies, everything depended on your reputation and it was crucial to maintain it and people struggled hard to do so. This, perhaps, is why the word 'love the honour' came to mean aspiring or trying earnestly; but I love the idea of loving the honour of silence. Isn't silence, stillness or quietness a strange thing to strive for -- it might make sense for a hermit in the desert but for a working person in the city? I will go on to try to get an idea of what this phrase might mean for us today.
Next the Thessalonians are told to 'mind your own affairs', literally 'and practice your own things' which is then echoed in the next phrase 'and work with your own hands'. This is something that Paul had been very clear about when he was with them for he says 'as we directed you'. The word directed is a strong one and Paul is very clear about this. It is very important that the Thessalonians should do this. But why?
We need to remember that the ancient city was a dangerous place. Paul himself knew only too well how people groups in the cities could turn on him, physically assault him, have him thrown into prison and even kill him. Basically what he seems to be saying is 'keep your heads down, make sure you live exemplary lives and don't stick your noses into other people's business'. This is reinforced by his next phrase 'that you may behave properly', literally the Greek means 'walk with good or beautiful appearance'. The Thessalonians Christians are called to live quiet, hard-working lives, but not completely cut off from other people. That would be impossible in the noisy, communitarian life of Thessalonica. Rather their lives should have a quiet beauty which causes people outside the Christian community to respect them and think they are 'a good thing'.
This reminds me of the experience you have sometimes in the city when you are quietly sitting waiting for a bus or have time on your hands and are simply watching the world go by. Then you see someone walk by who just has a presence about them, they aren't drawing attention to themselves, they aren't doing anything unusual but you just notice them because they have a quiet beauty in just being themselves. It seems to me that this is what Paul was hoping the Thessalonians would be like. For this 'walking with beautiful appearance' is directed towards outsiders. They shouldn't be criticizing outsiders, pointing out what was wrong about them or their lifestyles. They should simply be walking their lives in such a way that they would be noticed for their quiet goodness and authentic sincerity.
The final phrase is interesting. 'Be dependent on no one' or literally 'having need of nothing'. This reminds me of the patronage which dominated ancient cities. It seems that the Christians were not to depend on powerful patrons, probably because that would put pressure on them to get involved in unchristian activities such as pagan worship. It was important for these Christian communities to be self-sufficient but in a way which was beautiful and attractive to their fellow citizens. This was to be the foundation of their mission.
And this has much to teach us today. The problems the church faces, it seems to me, are not really so much to do with being old-fashioned or out of touch, not so much a matter of failing to use modern media or fashionable techniques. There are issues to be addressed here and there is nothing to be gained from living in the past, but there are more fundamental problems which cause us to fail to 'walk with beautiful appearance'. I think particularly of the failure of the church to fully embrace women's leadership. The equality of women is a fundamental value in our society. It is absolutely not acceptable for women to be excluded, yet in the church we are always arguing about this and lobbying to be made exempt from equal opportunities legislation. This is simply weird and makes the church ridiculous. There is a time for the church to make itself distinctive and stand out against society -- the example of the Confessing Church in Nazi Germany is an obvious one. But do we really want to make restrictions on women's leadership what makes us distinctive? Being out of step with society in this way makes it impossible for us to live a quiet and dignified life as a church. It means we're always making a lot of noise which disturbs and infuriates contemporary society, repelling people looking for a spiritual path and making the church look ugly and pointless.
I think Paul would
have been amazed and disturbed at the contemporary church. He was well aware
that men and women were equal in Christ (Galatians 3:28), but it seems clear to
me that his restrictions on the role of women were based on his sense of what
the society would find acceptable -- both pagan and Jewish. Again it is clear that
Paul worked with women leaders in the church (e.g. Phoebe in Romans 16:1) and
knew what they could do, but he felt he had to be cautious because he knew that
the future of the church depended on its ability to live a quiet life,
attracting people not by its strange ideas and peculiar practices but by the
ability to walk with a beautiful appearance: precisely what our contemporary
practices are failing to do.
During the centuries of Christendom it was not possible for the church to love the honour of silence. It was big and brash and noisy and maybe it had to be. Loving the honour of silence could only be practiced in obscure monasteries and by socially excluded hermits. But now as Christendom decays and the church is increasingly just one more group in an increasingly urbanized world we need to recover the missionary practice of living quietly and doing our own thing with dignity and grace: walking with beautiful appearance. We must not be dependent on patrons, such as the media or the state but must work with our own hands, accepting what is good about our society -- especially its commitment to equality for women, disabled people and (the issue is unavoidable) people of all sexual orientations -- and seeking to be distinctive not because we use unintelligible language, exclude people or make a lot of noise but because there is something beautiful about the way we quietly walk through the world, minding our own business and yet offering a genuine alternative which is based on mutual interdependence, hard work, simple goodness and love.
© James Ashdown 2012