PAUL'S SECOND LETTER TO THE THESSALONIANS
CHRISTIAN CONCEPT OF WORK AND BENEVOLENCE
2 Thess. 3:6-15
At the present time our country is experiencing some severe turbulence. One of the most intense encounters of the presidential fall campaign was between President Obama and Joe the Plumber. When Obama approached him, Joe confronted him about limiting people on their income. Obama responded with the now-famous words that "we need to spread the wealth around." There are 2 radically different views about American society which are fighting it out in the political arena. Are we to be a socialist country or remain a capitalist country? Whereas Christianity can flourish under any political program, it definitely does deal with the issue of property. Although Paul is not specifically addressing this issue in 2 Thess. 3, his comments certainly have ramifications for this topic.
Earlier in 1 Thess. 4:9-12 Paul had addressed the issue of people needing to work with their own hands. Apparently this situation has continued to worsen because Paul spends not only more time about it in 2 Thess. than he did in 1 Thess., he also spends more time on this issue than any other issue except for the second coming in these 2 letters. Why were Christians and they were Christians, refusing to work?
Some claim that there was such a heightened expectation for Jesus' return that some people just quit working. Why work when the greatest event in human history is about to occur and there would no longer be any need for working? Others claim that these people were adopting the elitist Greek attitude which looked down upon work, which viewed work, especially manual labor, as beneath the dignity of the Greek man. A third possibility is that any time there is charity, there are scam artists. Look at what has been happening recently with the "stimulus" bill Congress is passing. Once businesses caught on that the government was going to help out the banking industry, all other industries and state governments started lining up with the hands outstretched behind the bankers. Now EVERYBODY wants a piece of the pie, whether they really need it or not. Charity without parameters is just begging to be scammed.
Why is this such a big problem for the church especially? For the most part the world believes in hard work. Most people in this country do not have their hands out wanting for somebody to take care of them; they work their shifts and get their expected pay. They expect nothing more. Hard work and dignity in achievement have been 2 elements which have help make this nation great. A church which promotes parasitic behavior is going to lose its primary target, the world. Getting scammed is the least of the church's worries. Losing the world is quite another (see 1 Thess. 4:12 where Paul says that our attitude about this could affect non-believers).
PAUL'S RESPONSE (3:6-11)
When we look at Paul's response, we see a certain tension operating. On the one hand, Paul is speaking with great authority as an apostle of Jesus Christ. On the other hand, he is speaking as a personal friend. Paul is fully aware of his standing as an apostle of Jesus Christ. Because the topic of work he is addressing is such a serious issue, he feels he cannot just appeal to his relationship with the Thessalonians. Instead he must also assert his apostolic authority. On the other hand, he doesn't want to come across too heavy handed. The minister who exercises only his authority as a minister will eventually lose his congregation. As a result, Paul combines both personal appeal with apostolic authority.
Paul Speaks for Christ
Look at the different ways Paul addresses this issue. "Now we command you in the name of our Lord Jesus Christ." When Paul speaks "in the name of Jesus," he is using the language of the ambassador. The U.S. Ambassador to the Court of St. James does not speak his or her own thoughts to the British Prime Minister. In fact the PM just couldn't care less what the U.S. ambassador thinks or desires. He wants to know one thing: what the President thinks or wants. That's all. So the U.S. ambassador speaks the words of the President. In the same way Paul is Christ's ambassador and here speaks Christ's words on this topic. Rejecting Paul's words here is tantamount to rejecting Jesus.
Paul Appeals to the Tradition
Second, Paul appeals to the tradition which the Thessalonians had received from him. Today "tradition" tends to get a bad rap. The truth is that the tradition of today was the contemporary of 50 years ago. In the same way what was contemporary 50 years ago was looked down upon by the traditionalist things of 50 years earlier. Here's the ironic thing: what is contemporary today and is so very important will be traditional and "out of touch" 50 years from now. That should help us keep things in perspective.
Although many times it doesn't matter if something is traditional or contemporary, the truth is that it does matter what is traditional and contemporary when it comes to the truth. Lewis said that only quacks are the ones who promote a new morality. Traditional morality is actually true morality. In this particular instance in Thessalonica where did the tradition begin that Paul is referring to? From the Lord Himself. Christ in keeping with the OT teaching actually endorsed work: "My Father is working until now, and I Myself am working" (John 5:17). In fact because Christ's Father works on the Sabbath, Jesus worked on the Sabbath. Work is a part of the fabric of the God-head. If God the Son thought it important to work, then how much more should mere mortal men work.
Some have claimed that "work" was the curse God placed upon man in the Garden of Eden. That's just simply not true. Man was working BEFORE God cursed the universe. The curse upon man was actually a curse upon the ground. Whereas man worked previously and with complete fulfillment and satisfaction, man would now work by the sweat of his brow since God had cursed the earth.
One last word here. How did Paul get this teaching from Jesus since he was not with Jesus while Jesus ministered on earth? Either by oral or written communication. It would have been really strange if at least one of the apostles like Matthew who could write had not written down some of Jesus' teachings. Jesus was a noted, famous rabbi. For one of His disciples not to have written down His teachings seems preposterous in the least.
Paul Appeals to His Own Personal Example
It is one thing for Paul to appeal to Christ and to his own apostolic authority; it is quite another for him to appeal to his own personal example. Paul claimed that while he was with them, he not only worked but that he also worked hard ("in labor and hardship"). Moreover, he didnt' work hard just a few hours each day, he worked from morning until night so that he could support himself and the missionaries with him so that they could have enough to live on while they were preaching in Thessalonica.
That alone should have been enough to motivate the slackers in Thessalonica to get up and work. But there is even more. Whereas the slackers had absolutely no right to stop working, Paul as an apostle did. Jesus had said that His ministers were to be compensated financially for the spiritual services they rendered (Matt. 10:10). Ministers shouldn't have to work to support themselves financially. It is the responsibility of the congregation to provide for their ministers financially (1 Cor. 9, the entire chapter). Paul as an apostle had the right not to work but instead had the right to expect financial remuneration for his services. Well, if Paul who had the right not to work indeed did work, then how much more should the slackers who had no right not to work indeed work! Paul's working cut out the legs beneath their arguments that they should not be expected to work.
It is the Moral Duty of Each Capable Person to Work
Finally, Paul utters his command: "If anyone will not work, neither let him eat." Some claim that Paul is not teaching anything new. Other teachers of ethics claimed that if people didn't work, then they didn't eat. There is a big difference though between what Paul said and what these other teachers said. These other teachers were just simply saying that you should not be expected to be able to eat because you haven't worked. I mean, if you don't have any money from a job, how can you expect to buy any food? If you don't plant the crops, how can you expect a harvest? That is NOT what Paul is saying here though. Paul is saying that we should NOT give food to the slacker in our midst. It is morally wrong to help somebody who can help themselves.
This last statement is huge. We ARE to help the poor who can't help themselves, however, if somebody has not taken advantage of their opportunities and worked hard, then they should receive NO HELP from the Christian church (or from the state either). It would be morally wrong to do help such persons. All you are doing is transforming them into parasites.
This does NOT mean that every poor person is a slacker. It's just that whenever a person is poor, he may be poor for invalid reasons: refusal to work, refusal to take advantages of educational opportunities.
This past fall in my ethics class one of my students was complaining about the disparity between the rich and the poor. "The rich are getting richer and the poor are getting poorer in America." Well, first of all, poverty is relative. I've been to Ethiopia which is one of the most progressive nations in Africa. Now THERE is poverty. About 75% of the people there make less than $1/day, and yet gas prices there were $4/gallon. People would get drinking water from the run-off in the gutters after the rain. NOW THAT IS POVERTY. We don't have anything like that in the U.S.
Second, that student had the same opportunity as the other students to make an "A" in the class. In that class grades are based upon amount of work you do, not how smart you are. Why have I structured the class that way? Because in life most of the people who succeed are not necessarily the smart people. They are the people who work hard. Well, this student had the same opportunity to make an "A" as the other students did. By refusing to do more work, he settled for a "C"; I felt no guilt at all giving him the grade he had settled for.
On the other hand, the New Testament definitely promotes giving charity to the poor, especially the Christian, especially the Christian widow and orphan. In fact the basis for Jesus separating people into either sheep or goats is the way they have treated the Christian poor (Matt. 25:31-46). It's just that whenever the Christian helps the poor, he is to do so not out of coercion (Acts 5:4) but rather out of a cheerful heart (2 Cor. 9:6, 7). (See also Gal. 2:10 where the apostles make giving to the Christian poor the only stipulation for Gentiles to follow.) A forced redistribution of wealth though is anti-Bible The Bible itself confers upon individuals the right of property (the seventh commandment Exod. 20:15.)
Why is voluntary redistribution of wealth promoted by the Bible? First, it honors right of property. Second, it also lends for accountability. When charity is local, people who give know the circumstances of those in need. When charity is federal or national, there is no way that the government can keep track of those in need. I had a relative one time who was a scam artist. The moment she moved into a town, she knew exactly where to go and what buttons to push to get help. We create that kind of scenario whenever we make charity national and not local.
In helping the poor though, we are not to excuse them from labor. The 2 specific categories Christians are to help are the Christian orphan and widow (James 1:27). Yet even the widow was expected to work if she could. The harvesters were not to strip the fields clean. Rather they were to leave enough on the ground so that the widows could come behind and reap enough for themselves (Ruth 2:2-7). Note that the harvesters didn't give wheat to the widows. They left enough on the ground so that the widows could reap their own wheat. Socialism may make one feel good and noble; however, it destroys the concept of work.
TREAT ALL AS BROTHERS IN THE LORD (3:15)
At this point it is easy for Christians to look down upon other Christians who are slackers. Paul totally rejects that kind of attitude. The church is supposed to discipline believers who get out of line; however, the church is discipline that believer as he would a brother. Yes, he is to discipline that person; however, he is not to demonize that person. Each and every person we deal with is either a son or daughter of God, or somebody God wants to be His son or daughter. God treats all people with great dignity and respect; moreover, He expects us to do likewise.