The issue of the “quiet life” may be the big issue that Paul has to deal with in the letter. It comes up again in 5:13-14 and in 2 Thess 3. In general, it appears that the some in the church believed (rightly so) that the Lord was to return very soon. If the Lord was to come very soon, why not stop working and live off the generosity of the church until the Rapture. Perhaps they were doing this to devote themselves to the ministry, but that is not at all clear in this passage. It is possible some saw the soon-return of Christ as an opportunity to not work.
Paul says that the “quiet life” is to be an ambition. This is something of a paradox, since the phrase might be translated “study to be quiet,” or “be ambitious about being unambitious.” The first century Jewish philosopher Philo said the quiet life was the goal of the righteous. “…while those who pay due honor to excellence cultivate a tranquil, and quiet, and stable, and peaceful life” (Philo, On Abraham, 27). Paul reflects this thinking by saying that the goal of the Christian should be to lead a quiet, peaceful, tranquil life. What Paul means is that we should strive for the following attributes, that we should seek a peaceful life without conflict with our community. It is not enough to print “quiet life” in t-shirts and to trumpet as a slogan, one has to (ironically) be diligent at pursuing a quiet life!
Paul describes the “quiet life” in several ways. First, he tells his readers to “mind your own business.” Paul’s exhortation here is that the believers should not go out into their town telling everybody how to live their lives. This is very practical advice, considering the church was under persecution from the civil authorities as well as the Jews. By “laying low” and minding their business, they avoided an increase of persecution.
Second, Paul tells his readers to “work with your hands” (Be diligent!) Of the three, this one sounds the most Amish, working with your hands is in contrast to the traveling “teachers” of the ancient world that lived off of a few rich patrons, and wandered around producing nothing of value. In fact, in the Greco-Roman world, manual labor was somewhat to be looked-down upon. If you were a person of substance, you had “people” who did that sort of work for you. (The Jews valued hard work, Paul is probably reflecting that sort of thinking; eventually it becomes the Judeao-Christian work ethic.)
Third, Paul says that the Chrsitian is to “be dependant on no one.” If one is self-sufficient, no one can charge you with impure motives. If the church was thinking that the Rapture was coming very soon, they might very well have had many people that wanted to avoid work and live off the church, perhaps devoting themselves to prayer and ministry. The problem was that if too many people did this, no one would be supported since no one was actually producing anything like food and shelter. Paul’s argument is that if you are self sufficient, no one can accuse you of having impure motives (as they had Paul.) Don’t be like the world, looking for the cheap way out, work hard and be independent so that you do not look like the world!
Why lead a quiet life? The “quiet life” will earn the respect of outsiders (v.12). This is the justification for living the quiet diligent life, those outside of the church will see and hear, and they will respect the church for the way that they live their lives. This does not guarantee that they will be rushing into the church to join up, but it is the initial step, someone realizing that the church is actually doing what they say, and that the people in the church are really living a satisfied life rather than bickering among themselves like spoiled children.
Christianity ought to impact the lives of those that claim to be Christians in such a way that they in turn impact their culture and community in a positive way. The question is not whether we will impact our culture and community, that is a given. The issue is whether that will be a positive or a negative influence. This vision of a “quiet life” could potentially transform how we do ministry.