Posted by: chuckbumgardner | August 16, 2008

Thesis findings

Well, I’ve turned in a “final” draft of the thesis.  (“Final” is used here in a sense akin to that of Paul in Philipipans 3:1, after which he continues for two more chapters.) I’ve posted ruminations related to my thesis research along the way, and will be posting more in the days ahead, but here wanted to give a laundry list of some of my findings / conclusions, with the more mundane mixed with the less mundane.  The thesis title changed several times through the process but ended up as “INTERPRETATION AND APPLICATION OF 2 THESSALONIANS 3:6-16 IN THE LIGHT OF A PAULINE THEOLOGY OF CHURCH DISCIPLINE”. As will be evident, my level of certainty for some of these findings is higher than for others.


1) 2 Thess 3:6-16 describes the same situation to which Paul refers in 1 Thess 4:9-12 and 1 Thess 5:14 (“admonish the disorderly”), and its interpretation is informed by those passages.

2) The reason that some Thessalonians were not working is debated.  It is unlikely, though possible, that the reason is tightly related to the eschatological problems of 2 Thess 2. This is so because those problems seem to have evidenced themselves after the problem of the disorderly, which is referenced in 1 Thess 2.

3) 2 Thess 3:6-12 is chiastic in structure.

Exegesis of 2 Thess 3:6-16

1) The term “brother” (3:6, 13, 15) should be given due weight and is not to be taken lightly, given its conceptual background in the NT, and particularly in Paul.

2) The action Paul indicates by the term “withdraw” in 3:6 is clarified in 3:14-15.

3) The ataktos word group, usually translated either with words related to “idleness” or with words related to “disorderliness” or “unruliness” (3:6, 7, 11), is clearly to be understood in the latter sense. Translations which use “idle” or the like do a disservice to the text.

4) The concept of “tradition” in 3:6 should be understood in its broader NT context, as involving the authoritative body of material received from the Lord and passed on to his disciples and through them to the church.  It consists of certain interrelated categories of material, centered in the gospel: (1) a summary of the gospel message; (2) sayings and accounts of Jesus; (3) teachings of Christian doctrine; (4) moral and ethical guidelines for believers. Not only Christ’s direct words and teachings, but also those of the apostles (as official representatives of Christ) qualify as “tradition.”

5) Paul’s use of the singular “tradition” in 3:6 (vs. the plural in 2:15) refers to a particular point of the apostolic teaching, namely, its chiastic counterpart in 3:10: “If anyone will not work, neither let him eat.”

6) The example of Paul and company in 3:7-9 is quite significant, as demonstrated both by its length and in that it is the structural center of the chiasm of 3:6-12. The example is not part of the apostolic tradition per se, but is better understood as a means by which the apostolic tradition is expressed.

7) In commending manual labor to the Thessalonians (3:10-12), Paul differed from the prevalent attitude in Roman society, but agreed with the general attitude of the Jewish tradition.

8) “Meddling” (being a “busybody”, 3:11) was seen as a serious social transgression in Greco-Roman culture, and would not command the respect of outsiders (cf. 1 Thess 4:12).

9) Apart from contradicting the apostolic tradition (3:6), the background of the disorderly’s “not working at all” and “meddling” (3:11) indicates that their offense was a serious one, and no minor matter, as it is sometimes portrayed.

10) Paul uses very strong language of command toward the Thessalonian majority, particularly in 3:6, likely not because the Thessalonians had been lax in obeying his previous commands to admonish the disorderly (cf. 3:4; 1 Thess 5:14), but perhaps because he anticipated their reluctance to proceed with the next steps of church discipline, which he goes on to detail.

11) Paul’s correctives in 3:12 (“working with quietness” and “eating their own bread”) are chiastic counterparts to the offenses of 3:11 (“not working at all” and “being a meddler”).

12) The command “do not be weary in doing good” in 3:13 is debated, and the reference uncertain. The understanding of this phrase ought to be informed by Paul’s similar language in Gal 6:9, and likely is an encouragement to the Thessalonian church to persevere in disciplinary action upon the disorderly.

13) Paul speaks in 3:14 of “our word by this epistle.” This phrase should be understood in light of similar terminology in the Pauline letters (most specifically, 2 Cor 10:10-11) simply to mean “what we say in this letter.” A broad reference of the phrase to the entire contents of the letter, or more narrowly, to the commands of the letter (following the use of “obey” in 3:14), is therefore lexically possible. 

14) Contextually, however, it is unlikely that the direct reference of “our word by this epistle” is to more than his command toward the disorderly.  That is, the direct reference of “our word by this epistle” likely does not include Paul’s command of 3:6 to separate from the disorderly. This is so because the instance of someone not withdrawing from the disorderly and the instance of the disorderly continuing not to work are not equivalent offenses, in that the former was not at the same stage as the latter.  That is, the disorderly had reached a point of persistence in their sin where expulsion from the church was necessary, but if the Thessalonian majority were to sin by not following Paul’s command to separate from the disorderly, certain steps would be necessary before expulsion could rightly occur.

15) “Taking note” of the disobedient (3:14) likely has reference to a public identification of them in the church as persistent in their disobedience.

16) “Having no company with” or “not associating with” the offender in 3:14 is another way of speaking of the final stage of church discipline. The underlying term is identical to that used in 1 Cor 5:9, 11, which clearly indicates a complete expulsion of the person from the church. Paul is not here speaking of a probationary ostracization of some sort, such as merely barring the offender from the Lord’s Supper.

17) Many suggest that the disassociation of 3:14 is partial in nature due to the command “admonish him as a brother” in 3:15, where the admonition is seen as occurring after the expulsion. Such a sequence is not indicated by the text, and the admonition is better understood as that which is to occur during the final stage of church discipline preliminary to expulsion. “Brother” is not being used in 3:15 as a reference to the offender after expulsion, but to the offender before expulsion.

Pauline theology of church discipline (exegetical findings from particular disciplinary passages are reserved for another post)

1) As a general rule, the sort of offense which warrants ecclesiastical discipline is either stated or implied by Paul to be inconsistent with the apostolic tradition.

2) Paul is not averse to naming sins worthy of discipline, but discipline-worthy sins should not be limited to a particular list or lists; any teaching or practice inconsistent with the gospel of Christ is grounds for church discipline.

3) For Paul discipline should result in expulsion from the church only when the offender persistently refuses to repent when confronted with sin. Repentance and restoration seem always to be an option for Paul.

4) For Paul, a church finds warrant to discipline its members in the responsibility of believers to spiritually nurture other believers, in its necessity to maintain purity in doctrine and life, and perhaps in its corporate responsibility for toleration of the known sins of its members.

5) For Paul, purposes of church discipline include the repentance and restoration of the offender, the holiness and purity of the congregation, and the maintenance of Christian witness.

6) Paul’s procedure of church discipline seems to have followed a general pattern: personal confrontation, steps taken to establish the impenitence of the offender, and expulsion from the church. Paul likely takes the instruction of Jesus (which is recorded in Matt 18) as his model.

7) On balance, it seems that Paul, as a rule, did not practice expulsion of an offender before an attempt at admonition and restoration.

8) For Paul, attitude in church discipline is marked by an absence of harshness, vindictiveness, enmity, and favoritism. Church discipline ought to be practiced in love and accompanied by mourning instead of complacency. Those who are involved in discipline ought to examine themselves.

Application of 2 Thess 3:6-16

1) The passage clearly indicates that it is inconsistent with the Christian faith to leech from others in the church while refusing to work to support oneself, although Paul does not directly address the question of whether the independently wealthy ought to work for a living or the question of retirement from work.

2) Believers rightly apply this passage when they work for a living, when they actively seek for work while unemployed, when they work with the right motives, and when they look to Paul as an example of strenuous work for the sake of the gospel.

3) A church rightly applies this passage when she initiates disciplinary action upon members who receive material assistance from the church but (as it turns out) who do little or nothing to find work.

4) A minister of the gospel rightly applies this passage by considering “tentmaking” as a live option.

5) As to charity, the passage is applied appropriately when a church or believer responds to another’s material need by examining the circumstances of the need instead of supplying resources uncritically.

6) A believer must be resolute in taking part in the process of confrontation, discipline, and admonishment in his assembly, and must turn from sin when he himself is confronted.

7) Believers will rightly apply 2 Thess 3:6-16 when they maintain a proper attitude in implementing the disciplinary process to bring a sinning brother to repentance and restoration.

8) A church rightly, though indirectly, applies 2 Thess 3:6-16 when she initiates discipline upon those who engage in wrongful association with a disciplined person; it would likely be an invalid application of 2 Thess 3:6-16, however, to immediately expel such people from membership without due process.

9) Although “ecclesiastical separation” is understood in broader and narrower senses, it is best understood as the refusal of an assembly to engage in some level of Christian collaboration with an external party due to perceived deviance from proper Christian teaching or practice. Given this understanding, and due to differing levels of clarity and importance of particular biblical teachings, a “levels of fellowship” model of ecclesiastical separation is probably superior to an “all or nothing” model which insists on complete uniformity in doctrine and practice concerning all that Scripture “clearly teaches.”

10) Church discipline and ecclesiastical separation are similar in that they both may be understood as a church distancing itself from a party whose doctrine or persistent practice is understood to be inconsistent with the apostolic tradition. In addition, similarities exist in both purpose (repentance and restoration of an offender; holiness and purity of a congregation; maintenance of Christian witness) and warrant (responsibility of believers to nurture other believers in the faith; maintenance of purity in doctrine and life).

11) Church discipline and ecclesiastical separation are distinct in the relationship between the separating party and the offending party, the relationship in church discipline being much more significant. In addition, a distinction exists as to the effect of the separation upon the offender: church discipline considers his very profession of salvation to be invalid, while ecclesiastical separation does not necessarily do so.

12) Further, a common misunderstanding of 2 Thess 3:6-16 – specifically, viewing the term “brother” (3:15) to have reference to the state of the offender after the final stage of discipline – has led to its use as a support for the category of the “disobedient brother”: a person who is acknowledged as a Christian while involved in persistent sin after due process of confrontation. Such a category is not likely in view in 2 Thess 3:6-16.

13) Properly applying 2 Thess 3:6-16 to ecclesiastical separation would involve the implementation of a due process of confrontation, though not necessarily one identical with that of Matt 18:15-17 due to differences between ecclesiastical separation and church discipline. As well, the attitude enjoined by Paul in church discipline should be present in eccleesiastical separation as well.

14) Ecclesiastical separation on the basis of improper associations (sometimes styled “secondary” or “second-degree” separation) should be considered a valid, though indirect, application of 2 Thess 3:6-16. Distinctions must be made, however, between church discipline on the basis of improper associations and ecclesiastical separation for the same offense. (1) The identity of the party from whom the faithful are to separate is clearer in church discipline than in ecclesiastical separation. (2) The point of time when separation must occur because of improper associations is clearer in church discipline than in ecclesiastical separation. (3) The process of ecclesiastical separation is generally lengthier and more complex than that of church discipline in that the former generally deals with groups, not individuals. Because of these distinctions, while ecclesiastical separation based on improper associations is a legitimate practice, its implementation is not as clear or simple as church discipline based on improper associations.



  1. Who is your reader/advisor and how many pages is your thesis?

  2. Jon Pratt has patiently been serving as my advisor, and he and Jeff Straub will read the thesis.

    The body of the thesis runs to 123 pages, and supplemental material in appendices brings the count to 213 pages. Tack on the bibliography, and the number on the final page is 252.

  3. Halfway to a dissertation on the Pauline Theology of discipline! Are you moving straight on to a PhD now? Where will you go for that?

  4. […] I noticed that although I previously posted my thesis findings, I had not set forth the abstract.  Here is that […]

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