This post stems from the Kern reading group on Faith, Work and Economics at Talbot, a small group comprised of Talbot and Crowell faculty that discusses the intersection of the Christian faith with issues like poverty, work, economics and justice.
Recently, I read the following chapter: John Taylor, “Labour of Love: The Theology of Work in First and Second Thessalonians” in Work: Theological Foundations and Practical Implications edited by R. Keith Loftin and Trey Dimsdale, SCM Press, 2018. In Taylor’s contribution to this book, he focuses on several important passages pertaining to the topic of work in the two letters to the Thessalonians (1 Thessalonians 1:1-3; 2:8-9; 4:9-12; 5:12-14; and 2 Thessalonians 3:6-15). The chapter needs to be read in its entirety in order to fully grasp Taylor’s remarks on 2 Thessalonians 3:6-15, but I want to bypass his exegesis on these earlier passages and draw your attention to an important point/implication in this final passage. He makes his concluding remark:
“In other words, the Thessalonian believers were commanded to work, enduring long and hard toil, so as to be self-supporting, and this enduring labour was an act of love. To live this way required the hearts focus on the love of God and the endurance of Christ. Even if some in the church have been taking advantage of others’ generosity, and have made themselves burdens to the community, Paul tells the church, ‘Do not be weary in doing good.’ The prohibitive subjunctive command raises the possibility that the believers had already grown weary of well-doing, Paul wanted them to renew their love of those with needs at the same time as they disciplined idle brothers and sisters” (emphasis mine; page 63).
This paragraph provides a good overall summary of his exegetical work, and I have highlighted his two main points. First, he concludes that we must view our work as acts of love to the world in which we live. And, second, we must not grow weary of helping those who find reasons to not work. It is this second point that I think warrants further consideration in the church today.
Although his conclusions are clear, application can present challenges to the contemporary church in the USA. Why might this be a challenge? First, let’s consider the primary ways that a person who is not willing to work might receive assistance:
- Government welfare
- Church benevolence fund
- Church/community food bank
- Generosity of those in the church
With these categories in mind, changing Paul’s charge to fit our modern-day culture might sound more like this: “Do not encourage those, who are unwilling to work, to apply for welfare or to seek other assistance; instead admonish them to find a job, providing whatever guidance they need to do this. However, do not grow weary in providing for those who have legitimate needs.”
So, what are some particular challenges that we might face? As we answer this question, we will focus specifically on the issues within the body of Christ because that is Paul’s concern. The first challenge is the fact that our welfare system is funded by our taxes but dispensed at the discretion of our government rather than through the church. Our government’s welfare system is a good program even though it can be abused by those who are unwilling to work. However, the challenge is that we, in the church, do not necessarily have control over the ones to whom the government might dispense money. Therefore, Paul’s charge to believers is ultimately reduced for us to an encouragement to believers.
The second challenge concerns a church’s benevolence fund or food bank. These funds and food are made available because people have genuine needs. The monetary gifts are often used for a particular unexpected expense and usually are one-time gifts. A church generally has guidelines for how these funds are dispensed, and IRS guidelines must also be followed. Keeping close records allows a church to monitor these gifts, which provides a moderate check-and-balance that the gifts are not enabling a lack of responsibility on the part of the recipient. The provision of food items also may have some rules and restrictions in order to exercise due diligence so that the food goes to the needy, not the idle. The major challenge for these acts of kindness is not usually that a person is not willing to work (i.e., a church will not provide someone a paycheck every month), but rather under employment or the unwillingness to control spending. In our culture, “wants” have become “needs,” and this often leads to financial issues. In this case, the church must respond, not just by the provision of assistance but by addressing the deeper roots of the problem. A person may need the means to increase employability or to be taught financial management skills. Wisdom must be exercised.
The third challenge concerns the generosity of those in the church. Christians are kind, and their hearts will often be filled with compassion, resulting in the provision of assistance to those in need. This is good and right, but a person can take advantage of it. It is easier than one might think for a believer to make the rounds in seeking help from those in their church. They may approach people, one at a time, with a private conversation, requesting a one-time gift to “get me to the next month.” Once in my church, I had to confront an individual like this. As I dug deeper I found out that they were actually attending three churches in order to maintain the money flow. People learn to work the system, and there are plenty of means from which they are able to seek provision. Again, we need wisdom.
So, what are we to do a we face these challenges? Is there a way to implement Paul’s charge in our churches? To apply Paul’s charge, perhaps, we can consider the following as potential principles. If not these particular principles, I encourage you to think through Paul’s teaching and the church’s challenges and formulate your own principles. Any principles we set forth have an assumption: we must know deeply the lives of the people with whom we are worshipping.
Principle #1: We should encourage those who are in vulnerable situations to seek governmental assistance with a satisfaction that we have played a role in that assistance by paying our taxes.
Although we may have many concerns about government spending, we should pay our taxes gratefully and trust that welfare will be a blessing to those who truly need it.
Principle #2: We should admonish those who are avoiding employment opportunities and discourage their seeking governmental assistance.
Our goal is not to create hardship for them, but rather to focus them on the importance of work as a labor of love. Taylor concludes, “Paul is associating love with work…As in 3:12, they are to love one another and those outside, and here, they are to do as through the way they work” (page 57). People need to be taught this important truth. Paul had provided the Thessalonians an example by the way he lived his own life, and Taylor concludes, “Work, especially, work as self-support, was for Paul an act of love” (page 56). This is the reason why we are to admonish those with whom we worship. It is actually an exhortation to love. And further, our admonishment is not to be harsh. It must address the deeper problems and be an invitation to assist with issues of employability and financial management skills. This may require a significant amount of time and resources from a church body. People need to grow in the Lord, and we each have our own areas that need growth. For some, it is in the area of work and money. We must be committed to the body.
Principle #3: There will be many instances when others will take advantage of us, even the ones we are admonishing when they are irresponsibly taking welfare, but we are not to grow weary in the provision of assistance.
When people rebel against God’s word, refuse to heed our admonishment, or simply need to grow in a particular area of life, it does not mean that we send them away. We are to compassionately provide for them even as we admonish them. And, although we may have many concerns about the execution of church benevolence funds or food, we should be offering our support of these opportunities for assistance so that those in need will be helped. And, although we may find that people will take advantage of our kindness in giving to them, we should still have compassion as we exercise the best wisdom that we can in specific circumstances. We must not grow weary.
May the Lord grant us wisdom to heed the charge: “Do not encourage those, who are unwilling to work, to apply for welfare or to seek other assistance; instead admonish them to find a job, providing whatever guidance they need to do this. However, do not grow weary in providing for those who have legitimate needs.”