Problem of the Disorderly-Idle
Topic: Expository Passage: 2 Thessalonians 3:6-15
Problem of the Disorderly-Idle
2 Thessalonians 3:6-15
Good morning! Welcome to Sunday school. I trust that you were challenged and encouraged by Gary’s lesson last week. I’m thankful to Gary for filling in for me, but it’s good to be back with you. Turn in your Bibles to 2 Thessalonians 3:6-15.
You might have noticed in your bulletin that next Sunday, we are going to have a special speaker named Rob Howell. Rob is the one who started the ministry in Tanzania that Dan Eads now runs. He is going to speak in the church on Sunday, but he will also be speaking for a pastors’ fellowship that we are having here at the church Monday and Tuesday. And the specific topic that Pastor Kit has given Rob is to speak on at that fellowship is the topic of Christianity and culture.
Did you know that part of doing good ministry is evaluating the culture in which you live? I want you to think about the culture in Thessalonica for just a minute. What do you think it was like? What were some sins that might have been especially prevalent in a city like Thessalonica?
Just like certain sins might be prevalent in a place like Apple Valley, certain sins were prevalent in Thessalonica. And apparently, one of the biggest issues there was laziness. We’ll flesh that out as we go along today, but first, let’s read 2 Thessalonians 3:6-15 (2 Thess 3:6-15).
I’d like to divide my lesson up into two main questions this morning: 1) what was the problem? and 2) what were Paul’s instructions?
What Was the Problem?
From Paul’s letters, we know that Thessalonica was a very generous, missionary-minded church. But like all churches, Thessalonica also had its problems, and perhaps the greatest of these had to do with the work ethic of some of its members. Paul addresses this problem in both of his letters, and the strongest language in both letters is applied to it. In general, the problem had to do with these individuals that I will refer to as “the disorderly-idle.”
Now, I’ll unpack that further in just a minute, but first, I want to discuss some of the steps that Paul took to resolve this problem. I know that might seem backwards, but bear with me, and I think it will all make sense.
Paul noticed this problem of the lazy busybody as soon as he arrived in Thessalonica, and he took several steps to address it.
First, Paul and Silas determined not to collect offerings from the Thessalonians while they ministered in the city. Later on, in Corinth, Paul decided not to collect offerings so that no one could question his motives. But in Thessalonica, his reasons were different. He says in v. 8 that he and Silas did not want to burden the Thessalonians financially and in v. 9 that they wanted to set an example of hard work (vv. 7-9).
Now, just to be clear, this choice not to collect offerings was voluntary on the part of the missionaries. Paul says very clearly that they had the right to request love offerings, had they chosen to do so (v. 9). Paul makes different arguments for why it is okay for Christian workers to receive compensation in three of his other letters. However, in this situation, he and Silas chose not to ask for money because they wanted to set an example of manual labor. That was the first step they took to address this problem in the church. But they didn’t stop there. They also gave the church specific instructions regarding hard work and laziness (v. 10). Paul didn’t get to cover everything he had hoped to before he was driven out of town, but he did cover this topic! Why? Because Paul could see that based upon the culture, this was going to be a problem! Every culture has its pet sins. And apparently, poor work ethic was one of the pet sins in Thessalonica.
So Paul instructed the Thessalonian Christians about this matter when he first visited the city. However, when Timothy returned with word from the church, the problem was still ongoing, so Paul also gave them a reminder. 1 Thessalonians 4:11-12 says “…that you also aspire to lead a quiet life, to mind your own business, and to work with your own hands, as we commanded you, that you may walk properly toward those who are outside, and that you may lack nothing.”
Paul says, “Let me just remind you what we said when we were with you–mind your own business and work with your own hands.” As an added measure, Paul also told the church told the church to police themselves on this issue. In 1 Thessalonians 5:14, Paul told them to warn the “unruly,” which is the same word translated “disorderly” in 2 Thessalonians 3. If members of the Thessalonian church saw someone who ought to be working, they were to warn him to obey.
But unfortunately, none of these measures did the trick, because when Paul writes 2 Thessalonians, the problem is still unresolved. So in 2 Thessalonians 3, he instructs the church to put teeth to its warnings. The church was to formally recognize and withdraw from these individuals. The disorderly people were to be disciplined.
As an aside, it is interesting to note how the process I just laid out corresponds to what Jesus said about church discipline in Matthew 18:15-17–specifically how the offending parties are instructed and then warned several times before the church as a whole takes any specific action.
But who exactly were these disorderly people, and what were they doing? First, I want you to see that these people were “disorderly.”
How many of your versions say “idle” or “idleness” in v. 6? Unfortunately, that is not the best translation. Now certainly, idleness was the problem, but that particular Greek word doesn’t mean “idle,” it means “disorderly.” So in what sense were these brethren disorderly? First, they were disorderly in the sense that their lives were disorganized. Second, they were disorderly in the sense that they were disrupting the order of the church. But most importantly, these people were disorderly in the sense that they had ignored repeated commands by Paul and others to get a job.
The second thing I want you to notice is that these people actually refused to work (vv. 10-11). Paul is not dealing with those who are trying to get a job and can’t for whatever reason–either because they are disabled or because of a bad economy. He’s dealing with those who are perfectly capable of getting a job, but have chosen not to do so.
The third thing you need to see is that these people were being busybodies (v. 12). Why does Paul say, “Work in quietness”? Were these people talking too much while they worked? No, the idea is that in place of working, they were spending an inordinate amount of time socializing and causing problems. One commentator defines busybodies this way: to be a busybody is “to waste someone else’s time, impose on him socially, or distract him from his daily responsibilities.” Have you ever known someone who did that? You might have thought, “Man, if you aren’t going to work, the least you can do is leave me alone so that I can work!”
Now, as clear as this picture might seem to you, it actually leaves a lot of unanswered questions. For instance, “Why did these people refuse to work?” and “How did they survive?” And I think it’s important to realize that the Bible does not answer these questions. So the best we can do is to make an educated guess. Some scholars have guessed that because the Thessalonians were mixed up in their eschatology, some of them had quit their jobs, figuring, “Jesus is coming back soon, so why even bother?” Others have suggested that the Thessalonians were trying to claim that because they were engaging in ministry like Paul and Silas, they deserved to be supported by the church. There are a couple problems with each of these theories, but the main problem I have is that as we have observed, laziness was an issue that was already present within the Thessalonian culture when Paul arrived on the scene; that’s why he and Silas chose not to collect offerings, and they made that choice right away. So although the problem may have been complicated by misunderstandings, it couldn’t have been caused by them. The timeline just doesn’t work. Does that make sense?
So then what was going on? Here’s my best guess. Several modern commentators have suggested that the problem in Thessalonica was connected with the practice of patronage. You say, “What on earth does that mean?” Well, in that society, power was centralized in a small group of social elites, and it flowed out from there through a network of personal connections. Therefore, it befitted you to make connections with people who knew people who knew people, so to speak. Also, in an honor-shame society, rich aristocrats wanted to further their power and reputation. The result was the client-patron relationship. Clients would flatter and serve their rich patrons in exchange for certain benefits. A client might receive a loan, legal representation, a better marriage for his son or daughter, or support for his candidacy for public office. Meanwhile, for the patrons, the name of the game was honor. The more clients you had, the better you would look. One ancient author makes fun of a patron by saying, “You know how to present a shivering client with a threadbare cloak, and then you say, ‘I love the Truth; tell me the truth about myself!’” I think that pretty much sums up the client-patron relationship.
So it could be that some members of the church at Thessalonica were relying on their patrons for financial support rather than getting manual labor jobs, which may have been looked down upon in that culture. This theory seems to be corroborated by 1 Thessalonians 4:11-12. Again, let’s take a look at those verses on the screen (1 Thess 4:11-12). Again, in context, living a quiet life has to do with a humble, unassuming lifestyle. The first century Jewish writer Philo had this to say about people who failed to lead quiet lives. He said, “[T]he worthless man whose life is one long restlessness haunts market-places, theatres, law-courts, council-halls, assemblies, and every group and gathering of men; his tongue he lets loose for unmeasured, endless, indiscriminate talk, bringing chaos and confusion into everything, mixing true with false, fit with unfit, public with private, holy with profane, sensible with absurd, because he has not been trained to that silence which in season is most excellent.” This could very well be the kind of thing Paul had in mind in 2 Thessalonians 3.
In addition, notice that the phrases “lead a quiet life” and “mind your own business” are used together in 1 Thessalonians 4:11. These phrases were sometimes used together when a politician would refer to retiring from public life. So Paul appears to be saying that he wants the Thessalonians to quit making fools of themselves in the public arena and instead settle down and learn a profession–“make an honest living,” so to speak.
So it’s very likely that the Thessalonians were relying on the system of patronage. I suppose it’s also possible that they were depending on family and friends for support. One thing worth noting is that we shouldn’t assume that these people were misusing government welfare. There was no welfare for non-Roman citizens! Rome’s idea of government assistance was “You assist the government.” So we ought to keep that context in mind.
To summarize, there’s a lot we don’t know about the situation, but we do know that the disorderly-idle were refusing to work and instead, spending their time engaging in social activity that was a waste of time and a bad testimony. Then, in order to survive, they were relying on others to support them. To sum it all up, they were being lazy.
What Were Paul’s Instructions?
So what did Paul say to do?
First, he told the church as a whole to recognize and withdraw from these people (v. 6). If it sounds like Paul was being stern, it’s because he was. In fact, one commentator notes that this is one of the strongest commands found in any of Paul’s letters!
The word for “withdraw” means to “stand aloof” or “avoid”. Its imperative form means “Begone!” The church is supposed to distance itself from people who refuse to work. In v. 14, Paul says that they are not to keep company with them. This cannot mean that the church was not to speak to the disobedient brothers, because Paul says in the next verse that they are to admonish them. However, it does probably mean that the church was not allowed to share meals with these people or engage them socially. These people would probably also be excluded from taking the Lord’s Supper, since it was clear that they were not walking with God.
Of course, this kind of church-wide action cannot be taken until the disobedient brethren are formally recognized. That’s why in v. 14, Paul tells the church to make note of these people.
In short, the church was to enter into church discipline. However, I do want you to notice that this passage describes something slightly different than what is described in Matthew 18 or 1 Corinthians 6. Both of those passages stipulate that the disciplined individual is to be treated like an unbeliever because he no longer has a credible profession of faith. However, in this passage, the sinner’s profession is never called into question. Paul calls them brethren in v. 6, and he specifically says in v. 15 that they are not to be treated like an enemy, but warned as a brother.
So what are we to make of this difference? Well, the best answer that I came up with as I studied the past couple weeks is that this is actually the third step in a four-step process of church discipline. The first step is to speak with the brother individually. The second step is to take two or three others with you. The third step is to tell it to the church so that everyone has the opportunity to warn him. And the fourth step is to formally remove him from membership.
If that interpretation is correct, then Paul is describing something short of formally removing these individuals from membership. Also, although Paul instructs the Thessalonians not to treat these people like unbelievers, the assumption would be that if they continue to persist in their sin, eventually they would be removed from the church, at which time, they would be assumed to be unbelievers. Of course, if at any point, the sinning brothers or sisters repent, they are to be forgiven and received back into the church. Are there any questions about that interpretation?
Why would Paul tell a church to take this kind of action against one of its members? Well, in v. 14, Paul says that the immediate purpose is that the offender would be ashamed (or even just “shamed”). In an honor-shame society, church discipline would have been a powerful motivator. However, the action wasn’t intended to be punitive. The end goal was that the offenders would repent and obey Paul’s instructions. We see that clearly in v. 15 (v. 15). The reason for admonishing the brother is so that he will repent and be reconciled to the church.
The church needed to take swift action, not only for the sake of the disobedient brethren, but also for the sake of the church’s testimony. Again, look at 1 Thessalonians 4:12 on the screen (1 Thess 4:12). Apparently, the disobedient brethren were acting improperly towards unbelievers.
So Paul’s instruction to the church as a whole was to practice church discipline. Of course, to the disobedient brethren, his instruction is simple: “work in quietness and eat your own bread”! But there’s also one more challenge to the church that I don’t want you to miss. Look at v. 13 (v. 13).
Sometimes when people feel they’ve been taken advantage of or when they are called upon to do something hard like practice church discipline, they get burned out and don’t want to help anymore. Paul is instructing the Thessalonians, who had always excelled at generosity and benevolence, not to let this issue discourage them from future acts of kindness.
So how do we apply this passage to Life Point Baptist Church? I’d like to start by mentioning some inappropriate applications.
1. “Welfare is Evil.”
Some people have taken v. 10 to mean that welfare is evil because the government is supporting people who aren’t working. But as we’ve already seen, the situation in Thessalonica was in many ways very different than the situation we face today. Whether or not to use welfare is a conscience decision. This passage does not forbid the use of welfare. (Besides, if we were to apply that rule strictly and say that all welfare is evil, most of us parents would be guilty because all of our kids are on Medical!)
So you can’t say that all welfare is evil. It’s just not that simple. However, you can say that if someone uses welfare as an excuse to be a lazy busybody, that person is violating this passage.
2. Applying this passage to those who are unable to work
Some people legitimately cannot work, like disabled people and the elderly. These are the kinds of people that the New Testament repeatedly commands the church to take care of, provided that they do not have family to provide for them. So this passage is not about those kinds of people. However, again, if a person uses disability as an excuse to be a lazy busybody, he would be violating this passage.
3. Applying this passage exclusively to lower-class people
We tend to read this passage with our western eyes and immediately think, “lower-class people.” But notice Paul never says anything about lower class or upper class. What he does condemn in laziness. In fact, commentators who point to the client-patron relationship as a means to explain what was going on here also point out that it was most likely those with social status who were best able to manipulate that system. Just because a person has money doesn’t mean that he is exempt from being a lazy busybody who ought to get a job or volunteer his time, etc.
4. “Manual labor is better.”
Many people have noted Paul’s emphasis especially in 1 Thessalonians 4 about not only working, but working with one’s hands. Unfortunately, some people have taken this to mean that manual labor is somehow more noble than desk jobs. But that would be implying too much. We live in a different society in which many of our jobs are desk jobs.
However, Paul is certainly saying that manual labor should not be despised. I said before that there was tendency in Greek society to look down on manual labor. Don’t people still do that today? “Get a job at McDonald’s? I couldn’t possibly do that! Work at a gas station? Bag groceries? Clean toilets? No way!” But Paul’s point is that there is nothing wrong with that sort of work.
So now that we’ve gotten through some inappropriate applications, what are some appropriate applications?
First, let’s talk about applications for the lazy busybody.
1. Seek to support yourself. If you consistently come to the end of the month and don’t have enough money for the basic necessities, you probably need to fix something.
Some people come up with all different sorts of plans and schemes in order to make it by. And many of their plans hinge on some other person coming through for them in the clutch or delivering on some promise or sharing a paycheck or paying back money. Now, there are certainly times when God just lays us flat on our faces and we have to depend on others even to survive. That is what the church is here for. But I think it’s instructive that even in an economy that was nothing like ours, Paul instructs the Thessalonians to “eat their own bread.” In other words, in ordinary cases, you should be able to provide for yourself and your family.
2. Don’t shy away from manual labor. In order to make things work for your family, you might have to get your hands dirty. You might have to work up a sweat. You may have to go to bed each night totally exhausted. That’s okay. In fact, it’s normal. That’s exactly what Paul and Silas did in this passage (v. 8). Paul and Silas didn’t just work; they “worked with labor and toil night and day.”
We often think of Paul as a man of ideas, a polished speaker and writer. But I love to have seen him make a tent! Can you imagine Paul at midnight, trying to problem-solve because his material was acting up and he needed to have that tent done by morning? That was real life! Paul would preach the gospel during the day and then turn around and make tents late into the night in order to earn a living. So don’t shy away from manual labor.
3. Look for positive examples to follow. One of the most difficult things about teaching people to work is that some people don’t know what hard work feels like. They think that they’re working hard, but they’re not. Paul knew this. That’s why he chose to make tents in Thessalonica. He wanted to give the people an example of hard work.
If you think you may struggle in this area, one of the most practical pieces of advice I could give you is to find someone who works hard and watch what he or she does. Ask to join him on a project. Try to match his pace. Push yourself. That’s one of the best ways you can learn to work hard.
4. Make it your ambition to lead a quiet life. People get ambitious about a lot of things, don’t they? How about this ambition from 1 Thessalonians 4:11–lead a quiet life, mind your own business, and work with your own hands. It sounds too simple, right? But if you think about it, that’s actually quite a thing to aspire to. Who cares if you’re rich and famous, as long as you’re humble and faithful. This isn’t to say that we aren’t to be ambitious for the spread of the gospel. Paul uses the same word that way in Romans 14. But at the same time, a quiet domestic life is a wonderful thing to aspire to.
5. Understand that this is important. There are a few things that the lazy busybody needs to realize. First, you are imposing on others. Other people are having to bend over backwards so that you can have food to eat and a roof over your head. You ought to feel the weight of that. Second, laziness and being a busybody hurt the church’s testimony. When others see that you call yourself a Christian but yet refuse to work or work hard, they don’t think nice thoughts about Jesus. Third, Paul considered this a church discipline issue. Pause to think about that. Now he didn’t call for church discipline immediately. He was patient with these people for a long time and gave them plenty of warnings! But eventually, that was the process that was to be followed.
Those are some applications for the lazy busybody. Next, what’s an application for the unbeliever?
Trust Christ for Forgiveness and Cleansing. You may be feeling very guilty right now. And maybe you say, “I’m going to turn over a new leaf and do better!” There are lots of self-help books about motivation. There are lots of government programs that will help you find a job. But only Christ can cleanse your conscience from laziness and give you something worth living for. Jesus came to die for lazy, self-indulgent people. His work ethic was perfect. He worked better than any other human being has ever worked. You say, “Wow, someone like that could really have gone places! He could have been rich and famous!” That’s right, He could have been. But that’s not what He came for. You see, Jesus didn’t come to be served but to serve; He came to die on the cross.
And as He hung on that cross, He paid for every lazy act of procrastination that you have ever committed. Every time you slept in when you knew you should have gotten out of bed. Every time you called in sick when you were really just fine. Jesus died for all of that. And now He commands you to repent of your laziness along with all your other sins and trust Him as Savior.
Finally, what are a couple of applications for the church?
1. Challenge fellow believers in this area. In 1 Thessalonians 5:14, Paul told the church warn those who are unruly, or disorderly. So if you see a brother or sister struggling in this area, try to be a help to them.
2. Practice loving, thoughtful discipline.
3. Keep Doing Good. Maybe you feel like you’ve been burned by a lazy busybody. I pray that this sermon gives you some resources to address the issue from a biblical perspective and perhaps exercise some “tough love.” But I also hope that you won’t stop being kind and generous altogether. As much as we wish everyone would just shape up and take care of themselves, that will never be the case. And Christian love demands that we repeatedly sacrifice of our own money and comfort for the sake of others. So don’t enable. But don’t become jaded, either. Stay compassionate, and serve others like Jesus.