6 Now we command you, brothers, in the name of our Lord Jesus Christ, that you keep away from any brother who is walking in idleness and not in accord with the tradition that you received from us. 7 For you yourselves know how you ought to imitate us, because we were not idle when we were with you, 8 nor did we eat anyone’s bread without paying for it, but with toil and labor we worked night and day, that we might not be a burden to any of you. 9 It was not because we do not have that right, but to give you in ourselves an example to imitate. 10 For even when we were with you, we would give you this command: If anyone is not willing to work, let him not eat. – 2 Thessalonians 3:6-10 ESV
After making a personal request for their prayers on his behalf and expressing his desire that their hearts be directed “to the love of God and to the steadfastness of Christ” (2 Thessalonians 3:5 ESV), Paul shifts into apostle mode. He has one last issue he must address with the church in Thessalonica and it involves disorderly conduct. The Greek word Paul used is ataktōs and it could be used to refer to a soldier who was marching “out of ranks,” or out of step with his fellow soldiers and therefore, violating established military protocol.
But the word was also used to describe anyone who deviated from the prescribed order or rule of society. This could include immoral behavior, but it could also refer to any actions that were out of step with the societal norms of a community or group. In this case, Paul feels compelled to address a particular ataktōs taking place within the Thessalonian church, and it involves a “brother who is walking in idleness” (2 Thessalonians 3: 6 ESV). It seems likely that Paul is not referring to a particular individual, but to the spirit of idleness that must have become prevalent in the church. And rather than addressing the guilty offenders, Paul focuses his attention on the rest of the members of the church. He commands them, in the name of the Lord Jesus Christ, to avoid anyone who lives an undisciplined or disorderly life. Paul saw these people as a serious threat to the spiritual health of the body of Christ.
But why? What was it that these idle or undisciplined people were doing that was so dangerous that it required the rest of the church to avoid them like the plague? Part of the problem was that the actions of these people were “out of step” with the teachings of Paul and his companions. Paul accuses them of living their lives “not in accord with the tradition that you received from us” (2 Thessalonians 3:6 ESV). The word “tradition” is paradosis in the Greek and means “to give up” or “give over.” Paul and his fellow missionaries had “given over” clear instructions regarding the gospel and the Christian life, by word of mouth and in writing. They had taught the Thessalonians how to conduct their lives as followers of Christ, and these idle individuals were out of step with that instruction. They had heard it but were refusing to conduct to their lives according to it.
And Paul reminds the Thessalonians that he had not only taught them what to do, he had also modeled it in front of them.
For you know that you ought to imitate us. We were not idle when we were with you. We never accepted food from anyone without paying for it. We worked hard day and night so we would not be a burden to any of you. – 2 Thessalonians 3:7-8 NLT
With this statement, Paul seems to get to the heart of the matter. These idle members of the fellowship were freeloading off of the rest of the congregation, refusing to work, and expecting others to provide them with food to eat. They had become social parasites, depending upon the goodwill of their fellow church members, rather than using their God-given abilities to do their part. They were lazy. And Paul was not alone in his condemnation of such behavior. He was a student of the Hebrew Scriptures and knew what God’s Word had to say about the dangers of such a lifestyle.
Fools fold their idle hands, leading them to ruin. – Ecclesiastes 4:5 NLT
The hand of the diligent will rule, while the slothful will be put to forced labor. – Proverbs 12:24 ESV
Lazy people sleep soundly, but idleness leaves them hungry.– Proverbs 19:15 NLT
Those too lazy to plow in the right season will have no food at the harvest.– Proverbs 20:4 NLT
Paul understood that laziness was not just a personal problem. It was a drain on the community. But Paul was not suggesting that the church avoid the needs of the less fortunate or destitute. This was all about able-bodied individuals who were refusing to work with their hands and putting an unnecessary burden on the rest of the members of the faith community. As far as Paul was concerned, the idleness of these people was nothing less than godlessness, and according to the Scriptures, God has no intention of meeting the needs of the wicked.
The Lord will not let the godly go hungry, but he refuses to satisfy the craving of the wicked. Lazy people are soon poor… – Proverbs 10:3-4 NLT
Even as a minister of the gospel, Paul had every right to expect and even demand payment for his services. In his first letter to the church in Corinth, Paul had defended his right to compensation as a minister of the gospel.
Don’t we have the right to live in your homes and share your meals? …Or is it only Barnabas and I who have to work to support ourselves? What soldier has to pay his own expenses? What farmer plants a vineyard and doesn’t have the right to eat some of its fruit? What shepherd cares for a flock of sheep and isn’t allowed to drink some of the milk? – 1 Corinthians 9:4, 6-7 NLT
Paul went on to accuse the Corinthians of having a double standard because they were caring for the needs of some ministers, but not those of he and Barnabas.
If you support others who preach to you, shouldn’t we have an even greater right to be supported? But we have never used this right. We would rather put up with anything than be an obstacle to the Good News about Christ. – 1 Corinthians 9:12 NLT
For Paul, it was always about the integrity of the gospel message. He was not going to let anything stand in the way of spreading the good news concerning Jesus Christ. And he would rather pay his own way rather than run the risk of being accused of being in the ministry for personal gain.
And, he reminds the Thessalonians that when he was among them, he never accepted a meal without paying for it.
We never accepted food from anyone without paying for it. We worked hard day and night so we would not be a burden to any of you. – 2 Thessalonians 3:8 NLT
He certainly had a right to demand payment for services rendered, but he had refused to do so. And his example was meant to be followed. So, there was no excuse for the church to tolerate the damaging influence of the willingly idle and disorderly. In fact, when Paul had been in Thessalonica, he had warned them not to provide food for those who refused to work.
…we gave you this command: “Those unwilling to work will not get to eat.” – 2 Thessalonians 3:10 NLT
The body of Christ is meant to be an organism, a living community of like-minded individuals who each contribute to the well-being of the whole. There is no place for laziness or self-centeredness. And Paul wrote often about this communal aspect of the body of Christ, encouraging believers to do their God-given part to contribute to the spiritual and physical well-being of the whole faith community.
Just as our bodies have many parts and each part has a special function, so it is with Christ’s body. We are many parts of one body, and we all belong to each other. – Romans 12:4-5 NLT
And Paul made it clear that God placed every member in the body with a particular gift designed to minister to the rest of the members.
In his grace, God has given us different gifts for doing certain things well. So if God has given you the ability to prophesy, speak out with as much faith as God has given you. If your gift is serving others, serve them well. If you are a teacher, teach well. If your gift is to encourage others, be encouraging. If it is giving, give generously. If God has given you leadership ability, take the responsibility seriously. And if you have a gift for showing kindness to others, do it gladly. – Romans 12:6-8 NLT
As Paul told the believers in Corinth, “A spiritual gift is given to each of us so we can help each other” (1 Corinthians 12:7 NLT). So, there was no place for idleness or laziness in the body of Christ. These lazy, self-absorbed individuals were living out of step with God’s plans for the church. Rather than acting as Spirit-empowered contributors to the flock, they were acting as self-centered drains on the limited resources and patience of their fellow members. And Paul would not allow it to continue.
This was not new information for the Thessalonians. They were not hearing this teaching for the first time. Paul had addressed the issue of diligence and hard work in his first letter to them.
Make it your goal to live a quiet life, minding your own business and working with your hands, just as we instructed you before. Then people who are not believers will respect the way you live, and you will not need to depend on others. – 1 Thessalonians 4:11-12 NLT
There is no place for disorderly conduct within the body of Christ. And those who are guilty of it should be treated as social pariahs. Because the danger they pose to the faith community is real and the discredit their actions bring to the cause of Christ is undeniable. The church has no place for the lazy and disorderly. While the needy and lost are always welcome, those who come to faith in Christ but who refuse to live in keeping with the teachings of Christ are to be avoided at all costs. Because not to do so could cause irreparable damage to the body of Christ and the integrity of the gospel.
New Living Translation (NLT)
Holy Bible, New Living Translation, copyright © 1996, 2004, 2015 by Tyndale House Foundation. Used by permission of Tyndale House Publishers Inc., Carol Stream, Illinois 60188. All rights reserved.