This is our last week in Thessalonians. Next week we will start the new series on 1 and 2 Kings.
Paul rarely uses the word “command” in his letters. More often than not he will use “urge” as he does in Romans 12 and Ephesians 4. Sometimes, he uses the word “appeal” as in 1 Corinthians 1 and 2 Corinthians 10. Now and then he will actually use the word “plead” as he does in Galatians 4 and then in a couple of places he uses the word for “advice”. In fact, in two places he actually says “I have no command from the Lord” and “I am not commanding you.” So, to say “we command you” means Paul is very serious about something but even more so when he says, “In the name of the Lord Jesus Christ, we command you..” That underscores how seriously Paul takes this. It is not enough for him to use his own considerable authority with the believers but he thinks it necessary to call on the authority of Christ himself. That is rare and it is important.
So, what is so important that he calls on the authority of Christ? “Keep away from every brother who is idle and does not live according to the teaching you received yourselves.”
Some have taken that so seriously that they literally shun or excommunicate people. It’s a practice of the Amish in many places even though it is rarely invoked:
Shunning may take the form of eating separately, not doing business with a person, not accepting gifts or rides from a shunned individual, and generally excluding a person from community activities. Amish will still converse with an individual in the Bann, and will offer assistance if needed. But for all intents and purposes, that individual, through his own choice, is considered outside the flock.
Shunning is done out of concern for the deviant member. Shunning is also done to protect the body of the church. Shunning in some ways is a fence that keeps the wolves away from the flock. Amish people often point out that an individual can’t sit on the fence. Were the Amish to accept any practice or belief that came along, the body of the church would be in danger of being corrupted and members led astray spiritually. So, the offender may be placed in what is called the Bann temporarily for minor transgressions for which they show remorse and ask forgiveness. Otherwise, they are shunned for life.
Despite the criticisms, the Amish maintain that shunning is meant to be done out of love. Shunning is a key element upholding the integrity and fabric of Amish life, lending strength to the Amish church and undergirding a strong community based on Christian principles.
The purpose is not just punishment. It is, of course, a way of enforcing the rules of the Church but it is a drastic and last resort for protecting the fellowship from what they consider a communicable disease. It is like a quarantine. If the offending member continues to have unregulated contact with the others there is always the possibility that others will begin to act in the same way.
So, what is the behavior that Paul considers so dangerous to the fellowship? Who is the person we are to avoid?
It is the brother who is idle and does not live according to the teaching they received from Paul.
I like the way the KJV phrases it. “Now, we command you, brethren, in the name of our Lord Jesus Christ, that ye withdraw yourselves from every brother that walketh disorderly, and not after the tradition which he received of us.”
The word for tradition is different from the word for doctrine. The word means those things that have been handed down. Paul is not talking here about those who are heretics or apostates but about those who refuse to obey the traditions of the fellowship. These are values that are not Scripture but they hold the life of the church together. Those traditions are not binding as Scripture but they are the commonly accepted rules of the fellowship. Look at how it is used in other places; “I was extremely zealous for the traditions of my fathers” (Galatians 1:14) “See to it that no one takes you captive through hollow and deceptive philosophy, which depends on human tradition and the basic principles of this world rather than Christ.” (Colossians 1:8) “Then some of the Pharisees and teachers of the law came to Jesus from Jerusalem and asked, “Why do your disciples break the tradition of the elders? They don’t wash their hands before they eat?” (Matthew 15:1-2)
We all have our traditions which guide us. Sometimes they become sacred cows and we need to put them aside but traditions in and of themselves can be good and healthy. Every family has them even when we don’t necessarily call them that. We go to the same place every year in South Carolina. It is a tradition. We eat turkey for Thanksgiving and ham for Christmas. They are not doctrines. They are traditions. They are practices we received and which we pass down to our children. We have traditions in our community. They are not rules or Scripture but they are things we observe or practice along with others. I’ve told you before about my question about the rules when I was teaching at a boarding school in New York. I asked about the rules and the Assistant Headmaster said, “Fred, we don’t have rules. We have traditions.” People who love breaking traditions intentionally stir people up and cause trouble. There is no good reason for them to do this. They just like breaking traditions. Paul says we are to stay away from people like that. It doesn’t mean slavishly observing every tradition but it does mean that certain traditions are actually helpful and legitimate. And hard work is certainly one of the traditions and core values that Paul has in mind.
So, first, idle means more than being lazy or not working. It means having an intentionally disordered life. It is a life without discipline and habits. It is a life that overflows the banks and has no boundaries. It is a life that may be immoral but it is more than that. It is a life that has disordered loves as St. Augustine would put it. What are disordered loves?
Augustine set out to discover why it is that most people are so discontent in life. His conclusion was that for most of us, our lives are “out of order”; we have disordered loves.
Augustine was convinced that what defines a person more than anything is what they love. He said that when we ask if someone is a “good” person, what we are asking is not what they believe or what they hope for, but rather what they love. Sin, Augustine said, is ultimately a lack of love, either for God or for your neighbor. He famously stated that “The essence of sin is disordered love.”
It does not mean that we do not have legitimate things that we love but disordered love is having them in the wrong order. Disordered loves means that we often love less-important things more, and more-important things less than we ought to, and this wrong prioritization leads to unhappiness and disorder in our lives.
We could not have a better example of disordered loves than what has happened over the years with many Southern Baptist churches and the Southern Baptist Executive Committee. They loved the institution more than they loved the children who were abused in those churches. In a perverse statement one of the leaders said they should not expose the abuse because it would hinder evangelism and the spread of the Gospel. The same disordered love is illustrated by the response of the leadership of Kanakuk Christian Camps to the abuse of campers that has gone on for decades. We don’t want to ruin the reputation of the institution.
Second, an idle person engages in idle talk and idle words. Proverbs is full of warnings about people who are careless in their talk. It is not talk that is intended to damage another person but talk that shows no evidence of thought or consideration. It is sometimes slander but more often gossip. It is sometimes cutting but more often just saying too much or being incapable of keeping a confidence.
Proverbs 10:19 – When words are many, sin is not absent, but he who holds his tongue is wise.
Proverbs 11:12-13 – A man who lacks judgment derides his neighbor, but a man of understanding holds his tongue. A gossip betrays a confidence, but a trustworthy man keeps a secret.
Proverbs 13:3 – He who guards his lips guards his soul, but he who speaks rashly will come to ruin.
Third, an idle person refuses to support themselves but depends on the work or the abundance of others. This is a person who takes advantage of the kindness of others. It is the person who always expects someone else to pick up the tab or someone else to set the table and set out the chairs. It is a person who has learned how to live without contributing to the group – only finding benefit in it.
Fourth, an idle person demands respect without earning it. Recognition without effort. Reward without commitment. They criticize what they have not helped to create. They are the rotten apple that spoils the barrel. That is why Paul says we should avoid them not only for the possibility that they would eventually be ashamed of themselves but that they do not spread the infection of idleness.
Finally, the old adage is true about an idle mind is the Devil’s workshop. Idle minds are easily persuaded and influenced by manipulators. They are lazy minds that cannot take the time or effort to judge what they see and hear. They are undisciplined minds that prefer to be fed instead of looking for the facts themselves. They are in the best sense of the word stupid people. They are senseless – no matter how educated they are. Adolph Hitler said he loved these people because they were the easiest to manipulate. Thinking, judging and deciding are all hard work.
As Dietrich Bonhoeffer said, “In conversation with (a stupid person),” he said, “one virtually feels that one is dealing not at all with a person, but with slogans, catchwords and the like that have taken possession of him. He is under a spell, blinded, misused, and abused in his very being. Having thus become a mindless tool, the stupid person will also be capable of any evil and at the same time incapable of seeing that it is evil.”
What is the antidote to idle hands, idle minds, and idle tongues?
There were people in the congregation who had decided if the end was near then there was no reason to keep working. They would simply sit and wait for the second coming. Nothing could have been further from Paul’s mind than encouraging that. In fact, he goes out of his way to illustrate just the opposite with his own behavior. Paul does not want to be kept. He does not want to be just another full-time Christian worker dependent on charity and free meals. That is not his idea of ministry at all. My guess is Paul did not sell his tents cheap or advertise that all the proceeds went to a good cause. They were high quality craftsmanship.
What does Paul call it? Work that you can settle into. Work that gives substance to your life. Work that gives you a sense of integrity for yourself and with others. My father always said, “Work is the glue that holds life together” and I think he was on to something. Work is not what gives meaning to life. Working more is not where the meaning of life is found but work is both a gift and a responsibility. Work that not only satisfies but that makes it possible for us to do more for others. In Ephesians he says, “He who has been stealing must steal no longer, but must work, doing something useful with his own hands, that he may have something to share with those in need.”
The purpose of work is to create a daily life that earns the respect of those outside the faith. That is not the same as holding up examples of successful and rich Christian celebrities. It is quiet work that earns respect. It is work that contributes to the overall good of the fellowship.
Work is not the same as a career or a profession. It is more than how we make money. Being productive and useful is a way of life long after our formal careers. It is the antidote to idleness and the “work of our hands” is not simply the time we spent going to the office. I think that is why Scripture so often uses agricultural images. We sow, we plant, we reap, we harvest and we give. Sometimes the most meaningful work of our lives comes later in life. It is work for which we have been prepared all our lives. To have a mind and spirit that continues to work is a gift.
And then Paul writes those words which have had almost a more long lasting effect than anything he ever wrote. “If a man will not work, he shall not eat.” The earliest reading says it this way, “If a man is not willing to work then he will not eat.” It is all about the willingness to work. There is a difference and sometimes we lose sight of that. In some ways, these few words have shaped Western culture. We now call it the Protestant Work Ethic that turned eventually into capitalism. People worked not to earn their salvation but they worked as proof of their being one of the elect whose lives were productive and useful. They worked. They saved. They lived well within their means. They helped the poor. They invested their assets in ventures and business.
Calvin understood work as a means through which the believers expressed their gratitude to God for their redemption in Christ and as a service to their neighbours. Everybody was obliged to work; loafing and begging were rejected.
Work was not only a means of supporting yourself and your family but it became a mark of moral and spiritual growth. It was not earning salvation but it was one way of assuring yourself and others that you were one of the elect. Unfortunately, in some ways, work has become its own religion. It has for many people become the thing that gives their life meaning and their identity. It has become one of the disordered loves and instead of being the work of our hands has become our whole life. That is never what Paul intended.
Finally, here in the last few verses is what he intends for our lives. “Now may the Lord of peace himself give you peace at all times and in every way.”
Peace and not overwork. Peace and not an idle life. Peace about the return of Christ. Peace and not disordered loves. Peace and wisdom. Peace and righteousness. Peace and never tiring of doing what is right. Peace and a settled life. Peace and grace. Peace at all times and in every way.