2 Thessalonians: 3:6-13 (“If anyone is not willing to work, let him not eat”)

map of greece2 Thess 3:6-12

(2 Thess. 3:6-12 ESV)  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.

As we’ve covered in several earlier posts, the church — a congregation — as a duty to care for its own members that is higher than the duty to care for the surrounding world. For example,

(Gal. 6:10 ESV)  10 So then, as we have opportunity, let us do good to everyone, and especially to those who are of the household of faith. 

There is a priority or preference in favor of church members. We take care of our own. But it’s a preference that doesn’t stand in the way of helping non-members. We do both.

It’s analogous to —

(1 Tim. 5:8 ESV)  8 But if anyone does not provide for his relatives, and especially for members of his household, he has denied the faith and is worse than an unbeliever. 

I have duty to care for my own family which is higher than the duty to fellow church members, which is higher than the duty to non-members. I can’t let my family starve while I feed strangers. But neither can I provide luxuries to my family while ignoring the needs of my neighbors.

The principles are plenty clear, although there are no exact formulas or objective rules.

Now, the duty to support others who are in need is limited to those who are genuinely in need. We are not asked to enable laziness. Paul is very clear. The same principle shows up in —

(1 Tim. 5:14-16 ESV)  14 So I would have younger widows marry, bear children, manage their households, and give the adversary no occasion for slander.  15 For some have already strayed after Satan.  16 If any believing woman has relatives who are widows, let her care for them. Let the church not be burdened, so that it may care for those who are truly widows. 

The teachings re support for widows in 1 Tim 5 are difficult to translate and understand, but it’s very clear that Paul does not want the church burdened by widows who can support themselves, even by remarriage, or be supported by their families. The church is not the first resort. The first resort is the family.

It’s often argued that we shouldn’t “run the church like a business,” and so we should not check to see whether the people we support meet the NT’s standards to receive support. That’s not avoiding business practices; it’s avoiding conflict — which is not biblical, just lazy and cowardly.

I’ve been told countless times that it’s better to defrauded 19 times in order to be sure that the 20th person receives truly needed support. Again: not biblical. It sounds noble but it’s really lazy. After all, if you support 19 people who don’t really qualify, (1) you allowed them to sin contrary to the above scriptures, and (2) you’ve deprived 19 people with legitimate needs of needed support. I mean, we only have so much money to give away. We are charged as stewards to make sure God gets the best possible return on the money.

That’s not to say that we need to be tight-fisted and reluctant to help. We should be thrilled to help, generous, and quick to help. We just shouldn’t be enablers.

We are commanded to help those in need, especially fellow church members. But, as Paul says quite clearly, “If anyone is not willing to work, let him not eat.”

2 Thess 3:13

(2 Thess. 3:13 ESV)  13 As for you, brothers, do not grow weary in doing good.

Caring for others, determining priorities for the use of limited resources, turning down people because they ought to support themselves or be supported by their families is very hard work — especially when it means saying no to a beloved brother or sister in Christ. Burn out is a real risk.

Churches handle this various ways.

  • Some refuse to support their own members at all — to avoid conflict. But this violates plain scriptures.
  • Some have a deacon or a committee handle, so that the elders aren’t put in the position of saying no to a member.
  • Some give to anyone who asks until the money runs out, to avoid conflict.
  • Some let the elders handle these decisions.

Personally, my preference is for a committee or single member to handle. He or they may seek the counsel of the elders as they find necessary, but all discussions are had between this person and the member in need.

This way the member in need is assured of confidentiality and the decision to say no doesn’t harm the relationship of the member asking and the elders. More importantly, having a single person be the point of contact allows for consistent application of the principles the Scriptures insist on and lets the elders find someone gifted to handle such matters. I’m am not such a person, but I have a number of friends who are gifted to deal with people in need with great compassion, and the rare gift of saying no while communicating love.

In short, the solution to burn out is to assign the work to someone gifted in that work and to make the principles that guide the ministry explicit. And then don’t overrule the decisions of this person. There is no quicker way to run someone off than to take away their decision-making authority.

Delegate. Agree on principles. Get out of the way.

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About Jay F Guin

My name is Jay Guin, and I’m a retired elder. I wrote The Holy Spirit and Revolutionary Grace about 18 years ago. I’ve spoken at the Pepperdine, Lipscomb, ACU, Harding, and Tulsa lectureships and at ElderLink. My wife’s name is Denise, and I have four sons, Chris, Jonathan, Tyler, and Philip. I have two grandchildren. And I practice law.
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6 Responses to 2 Thessalonians: 3:6-13 (“If anyone is not willing to work, let him not eat”)

  1. Paul is not talking about the disabled or mentally ill but those having the ability to work who are swindling the church and thereby robbing the truly poor of what the church could otherwise help the poor with. Beware of nullifying the teaching of Christ https://www.academia.edu/29279527/Decisions_for_the_Poor

  2. Johnny says:

    The Churches I have been involved with seem to do a great job responding to tragedy and crisis. We did a poorer job addressing long term poverty in the church of those who are unable to meet all their own needs. There are those who for mental or physical reasons can never meet all their needs. That is where I see the biggest blind spot.

  3. Charlie says:

    Jay – I find this approach to be very compatible with what I understand about the work of an elder. – Except for the last line.

    In my experience as an “overseer” (manager) in business there are two extremes of management style that are equally unacceptable and an intermediate style in the “middle” that is effective (and I believe there is Biblical support for applying this to elders)
    1) “hands-on” (micro) manager

    2) “hands off” (non)-manager – just tell them what needs to be done and leave them alone (no monitoring, oversight or mentoring)

    3) involved (or competent) managers who
    i) agree on the plan (goals, objectives, expected results, resources available, authority levels),
    ii) turn them loose and let them go (for a while),
    iii) monitor and evaluate progress (actual vs. expected results),
    iv) agree on “gaps” that need corrective action
    v) repeat from i) re-plan, 1ii) do, iii)check, iv) correct
    vi) until the job is done (or someone gets “fired” (from that job) because “you” (the manager and the delegate) aren’t getting the job done

    (Off course the appropriate place on the spectrum between “hands off” and “hands on” will vary based on the “management level) (from line supervisor to “board” (and this requires some adjustment in churches of Christ because of our aversion to any type of hierarchical structures It also depends on the experience and skill level of the “delegate” but that is a whole other discussion)

    My concern is when you end with “get out of the way” that signals (to me) you are saying be a “hands off” manager. (although it is likely good advice because in my experience (and my tendency as a manager) elders are more likely to err on the side of “hands on” than “hands off”)

    God Bless
    Charlie

  4. Dwight says:

    While I do concur that 2 Thess. 3:6-12 is talking about the church in general, I would argue that it is talking about individual believers and not the church as an organization or group. The impetus is “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 the brother to recognize and not aid the slothfulness of another, which would discourage work.
    Now it must be realized that Jesus and the apostles were nomadic and often at the mercy of those who took them in. Hospitality was a big thing and to be done. But Jesus and the apostles also most likely worked in their trades while traveling and teaching.
    The argument of Paul is placed towards “If anyone is not willing to work, let him not eat.” those that refuse work even when offered or within reach. Back during this time many of these who did not work often spent time in pleasure at the expense of others. This is what is in sight when we read about God’s law concerning the stoning of the rebellious son, Deut.21:20 “And they shall say to the elders of his city, ‘This son of ours is stubborn and rebellious; he will not obey our voice; he is a glutton and a drunkard.’”
    Jesus and the apostles did not spend their time engaged in pleasure seeking, even while often without a home or at being helped by others.
    vs.13 sets up the response for the helpers. “As for you, brothers, do not grow weary in doing good.”
    from brother towards others. Just as Jesus did.

  5. Dwight says:

    To me this is where deacons come in as seen in Acts and the seven. Stephen and the others were to feed the widows out of the treasury and kindness of other saints. We find no mention of elders here and the apostles appear to just turn this assignment over to the deacons to handle in all regards. The elders were spiritual feeders and the deacons were to take care of real physical needs for those who could not take care of themselves. The reality is that that there is no place that places the elders over the deacons in doing their duties, but this isn’t to say the elders had no say, but could indentify those in need.

  6. Alabama John says:

    its a faith. Jews do this helping and taking care of each other and always have better than we do.
    They feel alone against the gentile world.

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