If we take the apostle Paul seriously, we have to ask ourselves some hard questions about careers.
Paul left a career as one of his day’s leading Jewish scholars to follow Jesus. He chose to become a bivocational teacher, at some point learning the skills of a leather worker so he could make tents for a living. He encouraged other believers to “make it your ambition to live a quiet life … work with your hands … so that your daily life may win the respect of outsiders …” (1 Thess. 4: 11-12)
Tent Making Career was Luxury Artisan Craft
As Ed Silvoso points out, tent-making was a luxury business at the time. Tents were the portable hotel suites used by merchants and nobles during their travels. So Paul’s career, although manual, was not what we would consider a “working class” job. It was more nearly an artisanal craft business serving the top echelons of his society.
It was also a strategically positioned business. The persons he served were people who traveled. The individuals he served, along with Priscilla and Aquilla, who had brought him into the business, would carry the ideas shared with them over long distances. So developing warm business relationships in the Middle Eastern tradition — where business was only done by way of relationship — could extend the message into Asia and Africa, as well as into the leadership of their own communities.
Business Draw: ‘See Scholar who Failed in Career’
But Paul and Priscilla and Aquilla were, again as Silvoso points out, people who built their day’s equivalent of hotels. They weren’t people you’d consider important or influential. Maybe some people chose to have tents made by their company simply to see how Paul, the once brilliant student of Gamaliel, had fallen. People would do that today, wouldn’t they? It would be kind of humiliating if your business’s number one draw was that people wanted to gawk at one of your employees so they could go home and gossip about his failures.
And yet Paul was able to say that he counted all of his prior accomplishments “offal” (the stuff you clean out of the turkey or the deer) compared to knowing Jesus. “For his sake I have suffered the loss of all things, and I regard them as rubbish [offal in Greek], in order that I may gain Christ. (Philippians 3:8)
So what did it matter what old acquaintances thought about his “fall”?
Scholar’s Perspective: I Failed Up
As far as he was concerned, he’d fallen up: from crap to child of God. And whatever kind of work he might do, he was working in partnership with the King of Glory.
God tells us that he has set good works before us, works for which he has re-made us in Christ (Eph. 2: 9-10) so that we will be prepared to do them. Some of us have been re-made as leaders, some as administrators, some as servants. And no matter what your campus Christian group has taught you, it simply is not true that you are more likely to influence someone to Christ from a position of professional equality. Read your Bible. Read Christian biographies. You do not need to struggle to become a business or professional leader to lead people to Christ. Just as Christ served from a position of service, so may you.
Whatever you do, do it knowing that it is God that you serve, not people. Understand that to mean, as Wesley taught his disciples, you do your work with excellence, always seeking to provide your best to your employer, as if it were God standing in front of you, not a person.
Career Choice: Must it be Manual Labor?
What does it mean, then, to “live quietly … work with your hands … that your daily life may win respect” ?
I don’t think it means you must be a manual laborer, although you certainly may. Times have changed and jobs have changed. Hands press keyboards today: would that make keyboarding and data entry “work with your hands” ?
It’s hard to know. Paul stepped away from scholarship to production and urged others to “work with your hands” for the sake of the respect that their lives would thereby earn. We live in an economy where general production is only beginning to return to these shores, although artisanal production for the wealthy, like the work Paul did, has a growing place in the economy.
When you think about careers suitable for Christians, what comes to mind?