Why the argument from silence about the NT teaching on work doesn’t work

A common line that gets thrown around is: "The New Testament hardly says anything about work". From this it is concluded that work should be relatively unimportant for the Christian. There are explicit commands about working to provide for ourselves, not be a burden on others, give to the poor and support gospel ministry. But that's about it.

Of course Colossians 3 and Ephesians 5 contain teaching about how slaves are to serve their masters. However, it is rightly observed that this is a very unique class of 'work'—if it is helpful to think of it in that category at all. Rather, the work of a slave is really the life circumstances of a slave—listed alongside marriage, age, gender and ethnicity, not alongside farming and tax collecting. To apply these texts directly and generally to all Christians is not to make the most direct application. We need to consider why such instructions are only explicitly applied to slaves, and we have no similar passage for general Christians in other forms of employment.

So should the biblically faithful Christian only be concerned about their paid employment in so far as it makes it possible for them to provide for themselves and give to the poor and to gospel ministry?

The problem with this whole train of thought is at least twofold:

1.  It begs the question

Almost everyone in this discussion is begging the question by framing the whole discussion around 'what does the Bible say about Christians and work'?

We shouldn't assume that the category of 'work'—as opposed to leisure, volunteering, hobbies, ministry and so on—is the best biblical caregory. Did the people in ancient agrarian societies think of work-leisure-rest in the way modern, post-industrial Christians do? I don't think there's much evidence that they did.

As a result, trying to group together our biblical information around word groups related to employment or 'work' is far too narrow.

For a farmer, work is all caught up in their leisure and home and family and role in society—how much more for a slave!

Perhaps better to ask: "What does the Bible have to say about how we should conduct ourselves in our lives?" For this is true for work and play, rest and family, hobbies and ministry.

2. Argument from silence

It is risky to make too much of what the Bible doesn't say. We have no record of the Apostle Paul laughing or playing music or writing strategic plans. That doesn't mean he didn't do these things. Nor does it mean that therefore the emphasis of the New Testament is that we should not bother with these things. It's just means that in the descriptions of the Apostle Paul we cannot find strong explicit ground for these things.

The lack of explicit teaching in the New Testament around the value of medical research or political service does not necessarily say thing one way or the other about their value.

At the very most, it shows us that these things as distinct things are not explicit priorities for the New Testament. To argue that playing music or laughing should be a major, focal concern for the Christian would be a hard case to make.

Of course one point 1 (above) is taken into account, the Bible actually says a lot more about these things than we might think by a narrow investigation of words related to work and employment. As an outworking of the Golden Rule and Great Commandments there is much that motivates us to diligently love our neighbours in a whole range of ways, including through our jobs.

Beyond this, the argument from silence can massively neglect the way in which the 39 books of the Old Testament serve as an assumed background to the much smaller 27 books of the New Testament.

Sometimes it seems that when it comes to work, some Christians work off a kind of 'regulative principle hermeneutic': unless it is explicitly taught in the New Testament, it is not relevant. This is a thin way to reach our Bibles.

Rather, the broad sweep of realities that the Old Testament builds up for us informs the way in which we understand the smaller number of texts we find in the New Testament. And so Genesis and Ecclesiastes, for example, both inform how we live out our godly lives as Christians—including our work.

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