2 THESSALONIANS 3: 6 – 12
Good morning. Welcome to our penultimate study on Thessalonians.
Those of you who follow me on Facebook will know that I enjoy a certain satirical page called The Babylon Bee. It is a church related page and has some very funny stories that often have a ring of truth about them. This past week there was one with the headline : ‘Why Doesn’t Our Church Have More Programs?’ Asks Family That Never Volunteers For Anything.
It goes on to say:- A local church family that has never once volunteered to help out in any capacity is constantly complaining about their church’s lack of programs, an exasperated pastor confirmed Tuesday.
The family fills out comment cards asking for more fun events, more classes in the children’s ministry, more potlucks, more outreaches, and more fellowship nights, though they weren’t willing to lift a finger to help out in any of these areas, according to sources within the congregation.
“Why don’t we have more youth and children’s programs?” asked the mother, though she’s never once volunteered to lead them. “If this keeps up, we’re gonna have to go to the megachurch down the road. Enough is enough.”
“Someone should really step up and take our young men on a camping trip. They need to learn what it means to be a real man,” said the father. “Not me, of course. Lord, here I am. Send someone else.”
The pastor met with them this week and said he’d be willing to start up a new fellowship night on Wednesday evenings. “Are you guys up to host it?” he asked.
The couple stormed away in a huff.
As I say it is satirical, it is a bit tongue in cheek, but it also has a ring of truth about it. In my nearly 30 years of ministry I have seen the sort of thing this article is talking about more than once. I get that some parents don’t want to be involved in things their kids are doing, they like giving their kids and themselves a bit of space but it does not preclude them from volunteering in another area which might free up the people who were doing that to do the sorts of things the parents are hoping for.
At the end of this letter the writer brings up the whole issue of laziness and an unwillingness to participate and it is that which we have to address this morning.
Warning Against Idleness
6 In the name of the Lord Jesus Christ, we command you, brothers and sisters, to keep away from every believer who is idle and disruptive and does not live according to the teaching[a] you received from us. 7 For you yourselves know how you ought to follow our example. We were not idle when we were with you, 8 nor did we eat anyone’s food without paying for it. On the contrary, we worked night and day, laboring and toiling so that we would not be a burden to any of you. 9 We did this, not because we do not have the right to such help, but in order to offer ourselves as a model for you to imitate. 10 For even when we were with you, we gave you this rule: “The one who is unwilling to work shall not eat.”
11 We hear that some among you are idle and disruptive. They are not busy; they are busybodies. 12 Such people we command and urge in the Lord Jesus Christ to settle down and earn the food they eat.
Although prayer is work, the author is requesting more than just prayer from the members of the congregation. They are expected to be spiritually aware, of course. They are also expected to be working—doing something good for the sake of the group!
This kind of “spiritual pragmatism” has been the centre of discussion in this series of meditations and is an attribute that is a special characteristic of the first-century community of faith in Thessaloniki. It is only in the Thessalonian correspondence that we can see this feature of faith most clearly. In Corinthians, for example, we are not as aware of the social or economic aspects of the community. In Romans, physical realities seem to pale in light of theological truths. Galatians is about shifting social values that relate to religion and race. But in Thessalonians, if we understand the community to be a working-class group of artisans who are committed not only to their God but also to their craft, then we see a community of faith unique in the New Testament. Within this world of words, it is absolutely necessary to confront the so-called bipolar dimensions of faithful living—work and prayer, prayer and work.
Paul has already suggested a code of ethics for the artisans in his letter. This letter is another reminder of the importance of work and industry in the community. Their idleness need not be explained by eschatological expectations. A simpler, more pragmatic rationale exists.
So what is the setting for this problem in the community? The author “instructs the brothers in the name of our Lord Jesus Christ, to keep away from every friend living idly and not according to the traditions that they have received” (3:6). This is a social rather than simply a theological problem among the community of artisans. This problem is severe. The economic realities are harsh; the rules of the professional group are clear. The economic structure of the artisan community demands that every member work. If one member fails, the entire project deteriorates. If a member of the guild is not properly carrying one’s own weight, or handling one’s own portion of the load, the entire workshop suffers. The working group depends on the productivity of each member. If, for example, the production is divided among the workers, with some members being responsible for the preparation of the raw goods, such as wood or leather, with another member being responsible for crafting the product, and yet another for cleaning and finishing the product at the final stage of production, then all the members have an important role in the work production of the community. If one member fails to fulfil his role, the entire group suffers.
Perhaps the members of the artisan community are simply tired—tired from too much work as I know those of you who have been working on the front line throughout this pandemic are tired and so their productivity has decreased. Perhaps they have taken a sabbatical from their labour. They have given themselves too many breaks and holidays and it affects the community. Or perhaps personal squabbles have lessened their enthusiasm for cooperative work. A sour personality or two can affect the productivity of a large group. Maybe they have been having tense disagreements and some of the members have just “thrown in the towel.” Maybe they want to quit and go do something else. How many of us have felt like that from time to time? Maybe they have lost their zeal for the creation of their product. We do not know the exact reason why they have stopped working but something has caused this problem to arise.
We do know, however, that their lack of productivity affects the well-being of the entire group. And they have forgotten that most important point. The members of the group need to be reminded of the responsibilities that each member brings to the success of the group. This group needs to function well in order to succeed economically as well as spiritually. The community is an important site of economic sustenance as well as spiritual formation. This community needs to survive for the well-being of the whole church. For this reason and this reason alone it is important for Paul and the church’s leaders to see them thrive—both spiritually and economically!
The same issues can arise in the church today, albeit in different forms, as my introduction suggested. Paul, in writing to the Corinthians likens the church to a body and if one part of the body does not work then the whole body suffers. God has created every one of us as unique individuals with our own skills, talents, abilities and personalities but not only that God has called us to be a part of his church in a certain place at a certain time. That is because he needs our particular gifts, skills and abilities to carry out his work at this time. Thus if we do not contribute ourselves to the work of the church, the church suffers, the whole body suffers. This passage is a challenge to anyone who is simply sitting back and receiving from the church without contributing. They are harsh words but they are also most necessary.
The problem was not simply lack of industry, however. The believers were not only living in an idle manner; they were also being busybodies. How often do we encounter that in the church? A creative word play is seen in 3:11. The two Greek words for working and meddling are similar in sound and spelling. The author writes, “We hear that some of you are living in an idle manner, not working but meddling.” The artisan without any work to do created a nuisance in the community. We are not given any detailed information as to the exact meaning of “meddling.”
Perhaps they are busy looking “over their shoulders” to see the progress of their neighbour and neglecting their own production. Their minds are not on their work. They are concerned about other things, perhaps their neighbour’s business, just as someone told me that they did not want a leadership role in the church on one occasion because they were afraid of what others would say. They were afraid of the meddlers who would be talking behind their back and saying that they were getting too big for their britches! For these people the language of correction directed to these meddlers is strong.
They are instructed and encouraged in the Lord Jesus Christ to work in quietness and eat their own bread. Isolation from the group appears to be the recommendation until they can calm themselves, stop meddling in the affairs of others and focus on their work once again. To work in quietness is the instruction. Without more detail surrounding this dilemma, we can only conjecture at best. Artisan work demands quiet, creative space. A person who is busy talking in the workshop, chatting mindlessly about the affairs of others, is a deterrent to the creative productivity of an artist colony.
In the same way someone who uses fellowship time in the church, maybe over coffee after the service or over a cup of tea at the guild or Thursday club, maybe even at Blether buddies to meddle or gossip should also be reminded that there is no place for such idle chatter in the church. If something is not going well, what can you do to improve it instead of putting down those who are doing their best? If there is a programme that is lacking in the church, can you help to see that it happens. There is always room for another volunteer. You can always bring your unique gifts and skills to any ministry we undertake.
As we gradually come out of lockdown I think now is a great time to reassess what we are doing. It is a time for people to step forward, to bring their own unique ways to the work of the church. In some ways we have a clean slate and can focus on what we see as the way ahead for the work of the church so let us not be idle but instead see this as a new opportunity to increase our effectiveness as we attempt to provide ministry for and in our community.