Posted by: chuckbumgardner | February 27, 2008

Application of 2 Thessalonians 3:6-16 to Work and Charity

The last chapter of my thesis provides a historical overview of how 2 Thessalonians 3:6-16 has been applied by the church in three different areas: work and charity, church discipline, and ecclesiastical separation. I then evaluate the various applications and set forth a summary of what I see to be valid applications of the passage.  Here is the summary of the application to work and charity:
It seems clear that the necessity of working for one’s livelihood is a proper application of 2 Thess 3:6-16. It is not enough, however, merely to note that Paul expects believers to work – certain points must be understood about his instruction to apply it properly. First, as regards the Thessalonian situation, the context must be understood: the disorderly were to work for their own livelihood as opposed to (it may be inferred) sponging off others in the church, and thus abusing their Christian charity. Given this setting, it is saying too much to say that Paul insists that any believer who is not consistently engaging in physical labor is living in sin. So, for instance, Paul does not here address the question of whether or not those who are independently wealthy ought to work for a living. Nor does he address the question of whether or not a believer, having saved resources through his working life, ought to enter a state of retirement from work. However, when a believer is doing no work at all, unjustly relying upon others to support him, he is running afoul of Christian teaching.
Another point of clarification is that the disorderly in Thessalonica were refusing to work, not unable to work. Presumably, work was available and the disorderly were able to engage therein; it would otherwise be unreasonable for Paul to give the command that he does. It would therefore be an incorrect application of the passage to bring it to bear upon someone who is physically unable to work, or upon someone who is not presently working because he has lost his employment and is actively looking for another work.
Believers who are able to work and without work rightly apply this passage when they actively seek for work instead of meddling in the affairs of others (2 Thess 3:12). As well, it would be a fitting application of the passage for the church to initiate disciplinary action upon one of its members who is receiving material assistance from the church but (as it turns out) is doing little or nothing in the way of finding work for himself.
Further, this passage will be properly applied when it shapes proper motives for working. Working when one is able ought to be seen as a way that the reputation of Jesus is glorified in a Christian’s life (2 Thess 1:11-12) by means of (1) his obeying God’s command (2 Thess 3:6, 10); (2) his demonstrating love of brothers and sisters in Christ (1 Thess 4:9-12) in that he does not abuse their generosity, but allows the resources of the community to be used for the truly needy (cf. Eph 4:28); (3) his behaving with propriety toward outsiders (1 Thess 4:12); (4) by extension, his seeking to provide a worthy example for other believers to follow (as Paul did, 2 Thess 3:7-9).
Believers will continue to apply 2 Thess 3:6-16 properly by looking to Paul as an exemplar and encouragement to work strenuously for the sake of Jesus and his gospel (2 Thess 3:8-9), even giving up one’s rights in this pursuit. In particular, ministers of the gospel may look to Paul’s example given in this text as precedent for waiving (in circumstances that warrant it) one’s right to be supported by one’s church; this text demonstrates that “tentmaking” is a live option for a pastor.
In addition to the topic of work, however, Paul also indirectly addresses the charity of the church in the text at hand. The instruction of 3:10 (“If anyone will not work, neither let him eat”) implies that the church was in some way providing for the needs of the disorderly.
Christian charity unquestionably has a vital role in the church; the role is so important, in fact, that it must be reserved for true needs and not for illegitimate ones. Specifically, Paul’s understanding seems to be that where needs ought to be met in other legitimate ways, Christian charity should be withheld.
Paul’s instructions in 2 Thess 3:6-16 therefore inform the giving of Christian charity by individual believers and by churches. When faced with a material need, whether inside or outside the assembly, the church (and by extension, the individual believer) will apply 2 Thess 3:6-16 appropriately by not uncritically supplying material resources to meet that need. Rather, the circumstances of the need ought to be examined to determine the proper way that the need should be met. It may very well be the case that the one with the need will be confirmed in (perhaps unrealized) sinful patterns of life if his need is unconditionally met. In fact, instead of the church’s charity, it may be that what is needed is the church’s discipline.


  1. Hi Chuck
    Do you have any thoughts on how these and related scriptures apply in the case of an aspiring artist or author living on government welfare as they wait to published/discovered? There are a few intersecting issues in the case I have in mind:
    1. He is married and the welfare is not strictly given to him but his wife and children on the basis of the low income of their family as a whole.
    2. He works diligently at his portfolio (ie, is not lazy or idle) and has for more than five years, sending examples to publishers etc, but with little monetary return.
    3. The family is generous with time and resources to others and does not ask for handouts etc.
    4. He and his wife are happy living on what the welfare provides and live in the expectation that someday his talent will be discovered and they will live off the proceeds.
    I feel that this course of action (especially given the duration) is a violation of Paul’s exhortation to be “dependent on no-one” and to “walk properly before outsiders”.
    Any thoughts? Does your Thesis address these issues at all? Could you recommend other resources on the pastoral application (and mis-application) of these verses in a modern context?

  2. Hi, Nigel,

    Sorry it’s been so long to respond; I was finishing up a lot of classwork at the end of the semester.

    Paul’s concern is not merely that one live rightly before outsiders, although that is part of it. He grounds his instructions in “the tradition,” which I argue in this case goes back to the Garden where God indicates that we will because of the curse have to work hard in order to earn our bread. (That is not to say, of course, that there was no work before the curse.)

    There were indeed government “welfare programs”, especially for Roman citizens, back in Paul’s day, which varied considerably from time to time and place to place. I don’t know that the NT directly addresses those, and I don’t think that is what is in view here in 2 Thessalonians.

    That being said, Paul is certainly engaging a general principle which I think does apply to the situation of your acquaintance. The positive aspects of his situation that you have detailed (other than his diligent work) do not appear to me to really have a direct bearing on the question of whether or not he should be accepting government assistance.

    In my own thinking, I have generally made allowance for a short-term reliance upon government aid (although I’d prefer the church’s aid, that is a more difficult proposition in our day) in the case of a person who is out of work and actively looking for work; and by “actively”, I mean spending as much time looking for work as they would working the job they used to have.

    The situation with an artist is, I suppose, a bit different in that there is independent work that can be done in development of personal skills and portfolio. I am not particularly familiar with how earning one’s living as an artist proceeds. All the same, if your acquaintance has been laboring for over five years with extremely limited success, it would seem to me that it is time to obtain a steady line of work (preferably in some related field) and to relegate his independent artistic endeavors to the realm of a sideline or avocation. Such a course of action would seem to be more in line with Paul’s instructions than his present situation.

    Part of the challenge is that he is being supported by a government entity that apparently has a good deal of patience with long-term unemployment. If he were being supported by a patron or a group of people (say, a church), do you think his supporters would continue to underwrite his efforts given his lack of success? I suspect not. I suspect instead that his supporter(s) would come alongside and give him counsel similar to that I set forth in the preceding paragraph, particularly in that he is fit and able to work. And really, when it comes down to it, the government does not manufacture money; it redistributes it. So, your acquaintance is living on the money that other people are contributing to the system. Does he believe that those people, by and large, would agree with the way he is using it? When it comes to that, is that really what the government program is established for (perhaps so)?

    All in all, it seems that the best counsel for your acquaintance would be to turn his efforts toward finding a steady job, and to continue to use “spare time” toward his efforts at making a living through his art. If he begins to be successful in his artistic endeavors, then he could consider making it his full-time occupation.

    • Hi Chuck
      Thanks for taking the time to reply so fully. Very relevant and helpful. God bless you in your labours!

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