R.J. Moeller graduated from Taylor University in 2005 with a degree in business and is currently a…Read more about RJ Moeller
It’s been a few weeks since I last posted something in my “Bible & Economics” series, but I think a return to the topic is well served by the verses from II Thessalonians I’ve selected to delve in to today. This passage, more than perhaps any other in all of the New Testament, is responsible for directing a younger version of the R.J. Moeller that blogs before you today on a path leading sharply away from conventional modern thinking on the topics of welfare, wealth redistribution and the seemingly inescapable “social justice.” (By the way, is there “social truth” or “social patience”?)
From II Thessalonians 3:6-12:
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. For you yourselves know how you ought to imitate us, because we were not idle when we were with you, 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. It was not because we do not have that right, but to give you in ourselves an example to imitate. For even when we were with you, we would give you this command: If anyone is not willing to work, let him not eat. For we hear that some among you walk in idleness, not busy at work, but busybodies. Now such persons we command and encourage in the Lord Jesus Christ to do their work quietly and to earn their own living.
A simple, straight-forward reading of this text is a clear and present danger to advocates of a welfare state, but especially to those who also claim allegiance to the body of Christ and his word. However, in a sinful, fallen world—one wrought with hypocrisies, guilt, past societal sins, etc.—“simple” and “straight-forward” are luxuries the thoughtful believer can rarely enjoy, at least not when entering the contentious fray of the public square with their theological convictions in tow (as they most definitely should).
So let me quickly give my brief exegetical overview of the passage above, and then connect a few dots between what Paul wrote and some of the appropriate conclusions one ought to be able to draw in terms of public policy debates.
Now there are some who try to deflect the very real importance of these verses to a Christian’s attitude about how best to help the poor by saying that the “idlers” Paul is calling out are simply misguided believers who are under the impression Christ’s return was imminent. This is a distinction without a difference. Being lazy on a nuclear submarine with the key that launches Armageddon might be different in form, but is no different in substance than an idle Dairy Queen worker who procrastinates sweeping up the sprinkles his portly manager asked him to take care of the previous day.
Habitual idleness is a matter of the heart. (Believe me, I know first-hand.)
Refusing to work or provide for your family because you’re convinced Jesus is returning over the upcoming three-day weekend is, according to scripture, just as much of a sin as an able-bodied human being refusing to work or provide for their family because some well-intentioned bureaucrat is intent on giving them money they didn’t earn.
Right off the bat in verse 6, Paul exhorts the church body to “keep away from” anyone who is living an idle, lazy life and remains needlessly dependent on others. Pretty harsh, no? Not very “social” of him, right? I’ll even admit that nearly every time I read these words, I wince a little. All of the “But what about…” exceptions and exemptions start piling up on my conscience.
But if we’re serious about scripture, we know that scripture is serious about sin. Idleness and making yourself a prolonged and unnecessary burden on someone else, is a sin. There’s no way around that. The Greek translation for the phrase “in idleness” translates to “in an undisciplined, irresponsible or disorderly manner.” Keep that definition in mind for later.
Verses 7-9 are Paul’s reminder that he hasn’t simply preached against things like idleness and being a burden on others, but has modeled for the good people of Thessalonica the appropriate way to live. Paul was a minister of the gospel, and therefore was entitled to living off of the charity that came from other believers. But he feared that a lifetime of such dependency would weaken his witness, and, I don’t think it is unfair to infer, his character.
Verse 10 is the big one: “For even when we were with you, we would give you this command: If anyone is not willing to work, let him not eat.” Paul did not teach this difficult practice of the Christian life from afar, but said it face-to-face. Christian friends don’t enjoy confronting friends. Christian parents don’t delight in having to withhold certain things from their beloved children. Confronting people with difficult subject matter is made no less daunting by how true the subject matter is. It stinks. No way around it.