Voices: A theology of work in response to enabling the idle

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Paul spent very little time in the city of Thessaloniki, but he did establish a church there. Perhaps because he only spent a little time in that city, he had more work to do in instructing the new believers there.

Thessaloniki was a large port city on the Aegean Sea in ancient Greece. About 200,000 people lived in that city full of idol worship. The early Christians in the city likely were persecuted in some way, but they held onto the faith. They looked forward to Christ’s return, but some of the people started to show some signs that they needed encouragement to persevere.

And we exhort you, brothers and sisters: warn those who are idle, comfort the discouraged, help the weak, be patient with everyone (1 Thessalonians 5:14).

Warn the idle

The word “idle” (ataktous in the Greek) is a military term for the soldier who does not keep in rank. It is found only here in the New Testament. It characterizes a person as one who sets him/herself outside the necessary and given order. This is a disorderly or undisciplined person.

A Christian should be the best employee a company could possibly have. A Christian should be the best boss any employee could have. Why? Because Christians realize there is more at stake than just the company’s bottom line.

How Christians conduct themselves in the workplace gives witness to what they really believe. Consider these three biblical principles of work.

1. God intended for able-bodied people to work.

God gave people work to do and expected the work to be done. This pattern started way back in the Garden of Eden and has been the pattern ever since.

Notice, I say “able-bodied.” There are people who truly are unable to work, and that is OK. We are to help and support them, but we are not to enable a person who simply is unwilling to work.

I can’t believe it was said, but a lawmaker was quoted as saying a few weeks ago that she wanted to provide “economic security to all those who are unable or unwilling to work.” This is an ungodly and unbiblical idea. God intended for able-bodied people to work.

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2. The willingness to work hard is a positive character quality.

In fact, when we were with you, this is what we commanded you: “If anyone isn’t willing to work, he should not eat.” For we hear that there are some among you who are idle. They are not busy but busybodies (2 Thessalonians 3:10–11).

People who are unwilling to work are undisciplined and need discipline built into their lives. Self-control and self-discipline affect so many different areas of life and relationships.

I am seeing so many from this young generation who are consumed with entertainment and who are not learning the lessons of self-control, self-discipline and hard work. Parents must be building these character traits into their children.

3. Those who do not respond to correction should not be supported.

We are to warn them and teach them what is right. We are to help people get back on their feet; however, if a person refuses to heed counsel and is unwilling to work, then we cannot become enablers.

Love seeks to help the person become an obedient, responsible believer. And Paul commands such irresponsible brothers to “work in quiet fashion and eat their own bread.” They should stop being busybodies and get a job.

Warn the idle. This is hard stuff. This is the stuff that sets the Christian community of faith apart from others. It isn’t easy. Perhaps that is why Paul followed up his instructions on this subject in 2 Thessalonians 3 with this statement: But as for you, brothers and sisters, do not grow weary in doing good (2 Thessalonians 3:13).

Paul wrote this statement in direct reference to his warnings about irresponsible behaviors, especially about an unwillingness to work. He knew it would be hard on believers to admonish the idle. He knew it would be hard to hold the idle to account, but it is what must be done for the glory of God.

It would be easier just to give them something. It is easier to give away fish than it is to teach someone to fish. It is easier to throw money at the problem than it is truly to help people get their lives back on track, but we aren’t called to do what is easy. We are called to do what it right.

Benjamin Karner is the senior pastor of First Baptist Church in Laredo. For more about him and his ministry, please visit his website.

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