When I was in grad school, I preached Sundays at a little church in Truby, Texas. One of my predecessors was one of my professors (i.e., my present teacher John Willis used to preach there) whom a member from those days quoted: “To work, to have, to give.”
In 2 Thessalonians 3, Paul addresses a problem about working—members were acting irresponsibly, failing to work. In his prior letter, Paul had urged the young Christians “to aspire to live quietly, to mind your own affairs, and to work with your own hands, as we charged you; so that you may command the respect of outsiders, and be dependent on no one” (1 Thess. 4:11-12).
This instruction may have come in response to a question about love (4:9-10). What does love mean? What are the limits and obligations of love? Does love require the support of those who will not support themselves? In short, Paul says, “Work with your own hands, mind your own business, earn your own living.” The church is to “admonish the idlers,” the indolent and disorderly (5:14).
It appears that advice went unheeded—at least by some. In 2 Thessalonians, Paul lays down the law: “We command you in the name of the Lord Jesus Christ”—by the highest authority!—to “keep away” or “withdraw” from “every brother living in idleness,” from any member who is “behaving irresponsibly” (3:6).
My 7th grade math teacher, Mrs. Price, was a taskmaster: She insisted we do our own homework! Woe to you if you came to class without it! She railed against being a leech, a parasite on society. My dad, half joking, said she put the fear of the Lord into me—very uncharacteristic language for him. She had a reputation for being tough: no freeloading! I was the beneficiary of that admonition.
Paul reminded the Thessalonians that a failure to work did not accord with the teaching they had received. Nor was it the example Paul had set, even though he had the “authority” to material support for his spiritual labor among them. Yet he did not accept bread “without paying.” Paul’s example was hard work, long hours, day after day, so as not to burden them (3:8; cf. 1 Thess. 2:9).
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While he was in Thessalonica Paul had repeated this command: “If anyone is not willing to work, let him not eat” (2 Thess. 3:10). The indolent are to go without. Their refusal is willful: they can work but they won’t.
Some, he continues, are “walking in idleness,” living in irresponsibility, “not busy at work, but busybodies” (3:11). They are meddling, not minding their own business, causing disorder. Paul will have none of it. To the shirkers, “we command and admonish in the Lord Jesus Christ”—again calling on divine authority!—to “work quietly” and “earn their own living” (3:12). By working they are “to eat their own bread,” to be self-sufficient under God.
A noble influence in my youth was the industry of my father. The expectation in those days was: “Dad is the breadwinner,” responsible for providing his family the essentials of life. In an Oct. 13, 2016 article for the Washington Post, Jeff Guo writes: “Once upon a time, nearly every man in America worked. In 1948, the labor-force participation rate was a staggering 96.7 percent among men in their prime working years.” That figure has declined. Today, “about 11.5 % of men between the ages of 24-54 are neither employed nor looking for a job.” Since these men are “out of the labor force,” economists say “they don’t figure into statistics like the unemployment rate.”
According to Paul, “love” means not taking advantage of others, not presuming on the kindness of fellow church members. Rather, families take care of families: in particular, family members assist their own widows lest the church be burdened unnecessarily (1 Timothy 5). At creation God worked, then rested from His work, setting an example for us. In Genesis 2, God created the man, put him in the garden, and gave him a job. My grandfather used to say, “Work is one of our greatest blessings – and least appreciated.”
In his 2000 anthology, Working: Its Meaning and Its Limits, Gilbert Meilaender includes a heavy-duty parable: One day a little red hen finds a grain of wheat. “Who will plant the wheat?” she asks. “I won’t,” says the cat. “I won’t,” says the dog. “I won’t,” says the pig. “I won’t,” says the turkey. “Then I will,” says the little red hen. And she does. The wheat ripens strong and tall.
“Who will cut the wheat?” she asks. The others all refuse. “Then I will,” she responds. The little red hen must cut the wheat, thresh the wheat, take the wheat to the mill, collect the flour, and bake the bread—alone. Finally she asks, “Who will eat this bread?” Now everyone is willing! “No,” she says, “I will.” And the little red hen ate the loaf of bread.
Henry Wadsworth Longfellow’s touching classic, “The Village Blacksmith,” extols the dignity of laborious work:
Under a spreading chestnut-tree
The village smithy stands;
The smith, a mighty man is he,
With large and sinewy hands;
And the muscles of his brawny arms
Are strong as iron bands.
His hair is crisp, and black, and long,
His face is like the tan;
His brow is wet with honest sweat,
He earns whate’er he can,
And looks the whole world in the face,
For he owes not any man.
Week in, week out, from morn till night,
You can hear his bellows blow;
You can hear him swing his heavy sledge,
With measured beat and slow,
Like a sexton ringing the village bell,
When the evening sun is low.
And children coming home from school
Look in at the open door;
They love to see the flaming forge,
And hear the bellows roar,
And catch the burning sparks that fly
Like chaff from a threshing-floor.
He goes on Sunday to the church,
And sits among his boys;
He hears the parson pray and preach,
He hears his daughter's voice,
Singing in the village choir,
And it makes his heart rejoice.
It sounds to him like her mother’s voice,
Singing in Paradise!
He needs must think of her once more,
How in the grave she lies;
And with his hard, rough hand he wipes
A tear out of his eyes.
Onward through life he goes;
Each morning sees some task begin,
Each evening sees it close;
Something attempted, something done,
Has earned a night’s repose.
Thanks, thanks to thee, my worthy friend,
For the lesson thou hast taught!
Thus at the flaming forge of life
Our fortunes must be wrought;
Thus on its sounding anvil shaped
Each burning deed and thought.
Taking responsibility, self-sufficiency, quiet work—to the glory of God.
The Scripture: 2 Thessalonians 3:6-12
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.
11 For we hear that some among you walk in idleness, not busy at work, but busybodies. 12 Now such persons we command and encourage in the Lord Jesus Christ to do their work quietly and to earn their own living.
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