“Busy bodies, not busybodies.” That’s what the Apostle Paul stresses as he winds down his second letter to the Thessalonians. This is what he says: “For we hear that some among you walk in idleness, not busy at work, but busybodies” (2 Thess. 3:11).
Evidently, there were a number of people in the church who could work, but chose not to. Rather, they were sponging off others and creating dissension.
Since Paul speaks on the subject of work, it would be appropriate to see 2 Thessalonians 3:6-13 through that lens. But Paul doesn’t lay out a theology of work. Work is the topic, but what we particularly see are the dynamics behind the proper functioning of a church.
The factory that makes Herr’s snacks is in Nottingham, Pennsylvania, not far from where I live. They offer tours. It is fascinating to see how the various snacks are made. My favorite part comes at tour’s end, when we get to sample the hot potato chips as they roll off the line.
The snacks are the product but what is so fascinating is the process.
That’s what we see with Paul. His topic is work (or idleness) but what is particularly helpful is seeing the process behind the topic, the way the subject is brought to the church.
By examining the process, we discover two dimensions that are necessary to the proper functioning of Christ’s church. We will look at the first in this article and the second in the next.
A church that works properly is characterized by faithful leadership.
The issue at hand was idleness. How did Paul address it? In seeing how he did, we see how Christ’s church is built up.
We find three approaches mentioned in the epistles of the New Testament by which leaders lead and influence those for whom they are accountable. These ways are in evidence in Paul. These ways also apply to other situations where we lead for the sake of Christ, such as by parents in the home.
Paul led by teaching
“For even when we were with you, we would give you this command: If anyone is not willing to work, let him not eat” (1 Thess. 3:10).
Jesus, in giving the Great Commission, said that we are to make disciples, baptize them in the name of the triune God, and teach them to obey everything He had commanded. The goal of evangelism is not converts; it’s disciples. What is a disciple? One who sets aside his life for Christ. Christ is his Lord. He obeys his Lord. He becomes like his Lord, taking on His character, motivations and aspirations.
What is the incubator, the training ground for disciples? It is the church. To baptize is to enfold into the visible church, God’s covenant community. The church is place where disciples are taught to obey.
Paul taught on work and idleness, as he taught on other subjects, with Christ in view. He taught with the authority of Christ. “Now we command you, brothers, in the name of our Lord Jesus Christ…” (2 Thess. 3:6a).
To teach with the authority of Christ is to teach the Word of God, the Bible. The curriculum in view is the whole Bible—not just the New Testament, not just the red letters, but the whole of the Word of God. Because it’s all about Jesus.
In addition, our teaching must be clear and reinforced. Any parent knows children need to hear something repeatedly to understand it and appropriate it. We see Paul repeating his teaching on work. He “would give” this command when he was with them. He would bring it up, again.
Teaching also involves adjustment. Paul tells Timothy that God-breathed Scripture is useful for teaching, and for what is involved in the bringing that teaching to be part of life, namely, rebuking, correcting and training in righteousness (2 Tim. 3:16).
We see that rebuking and correcting function with those who were idle. “For we hear that some among you walk in idleness, not busy at work, but busybodies. Now such persons we command and encourage in the Lord Jesus Christ to do their work quietly and to earn their own living” (2 Thess. 3:11-12).
To make sure disciples know they are doing it right and to urge them on, we want to reinforce our teaching. That’s just what Paul does: “As for you, brothers, do not grow weary in doing good” (v. 13). “Good job. Keep it up,” Paul was saying.
Paul led by example
“For you yourselves know how you ought to imitate us, because we were not idle when we were with you, nor did we eat anyone’s bread without paying for it, but with toil and labor we worked night and day, that we might not be a burden to any of you. It was not because we do not have that right, but to give you in ourselves an example to imitate” (2 Thess. 3:7-9).
Paul holds out his own example. He practiced what he preached, and that practice was pedagogical. His example was not for show but to show.
Personal example is a powerful teacher. In my area, a 14-year-old boy was arrested for shoplifting at an area big box store. It turned out to be a horrible situation because the boy was tasered in the face, which led to charges of police brutality. The mother of the boy spoke out against the police tactics, from her prison cell where she had been arrested for shoplifting. Personal example is a powerful teacher, for both the right and for wrong.
In speaking of his own work ethic and approach, Paul cites two negatives. He was not idle when he was with the Thessalonians (v. 7), nor was he a freeloader (v. 8). He paid his own way.
This is all the more telling because, as an apostle and teacher of the Word, Paul had a right to get paid for his ministrations. But he didn’t claim that right. Why not? He gives two reasons. One he didn’t want to be a burden (v. 8). Perhaps this had to do with the church at Thessalonica being so young or because of the struggles they were already facing. Paul also says that he didn’t claim the right to financial support because he wanted to give them an “example to imitate” (v. 9).
Christ’s leaders lead and influence by educating and example. It is to these means the writer of Hebrews points us: “Remember your leaders, those who spoke to you the word of God. Consider the outcome of their way of life, and imitate their faith” (Heb. 13:7).
Paul led by prayer
Although Paul doesn’t mention prayer in this section of 2 Thessalonians 3, his letters are filled with his activity of prayer, including in this letter: “To this end we always pray for you, that our God may make you worthy of his calling and may fulfill every resolve for good and every work of faith by his power, so that the name of our Lord Jesus may be glorified in you, and you in him, according to the grace of our God and the Lord Jesus Christ (2 Thess. 1:11–12).
The effectiveness of his ministry was dependent on the work of the Spirit at every point. We can teach the mind, but it the Spirit who will reach the heart.
A church works properly through faithful leadership. Faithful to Christ, to His Word, to their word, to their call, to the people.