1 & 2 Thessalonians Part Four Deep Dive
A FINAL DEEP DIVE INTO THESSALONIANS | DR ADAM WHITE
It’s perhaps appropriate that I am writing this final piece while travelling from Thessalonica to Athens. In the last post, I drew your attention to two passages in 1 Thessalonians. In 4:11–12 Paul says the following
Make it your ambition to lead a quiet life: You should mind your own business and work with your hands, just as we told you, so that your daily life may win the respect of outsiders and so that you will not be dependent on anybody.
He then says in 5:12–14
Now we ask you, brothers and sisters, to acknowledge those who work hard among you, who care for you in the Lord and who admonish you. Hold them in the highest regard in love because of their work. Live in peace with each other. And we urge you, brothers and sisters, warn those who are idle and disruptive.
One of the challenges in the early Christian communities was the social burden presented by new converts. Christians (particularly those from the Jewish communities) would have been ostracised from their families upon converting to the faith, which cut them off from support and livelihood. The result was that those who had the means would share the burden of concern for those who had nothing. Unfortunately, it also seems that there were some who were lazy and, rather than working to contribute to the collective good of the church, took advantage of the rest of the community. This is the central issue in Thessalonica. The reason, I suggested, was that some had the idea that Jesus is coming back tomorrow. In their thinking, if the next life is coming soon, why bother putting any effort into this one? It’s one of those occasions where bad theology is leading to worse behaviour. Paul is thus compelled to address it in his first letter as it has the potential to do real harm to the community. But, as in parenting, so in pastoring, it has become a case of “How many times do I need to tell you this?!”
The letter of 2 Thessalonians deals with three basic issues. The first has to do with the ongoing persecution the Christians are receiving from the Jews—which is the likely cause for the need for support for these members. We discussed this last week and nothing has changed, it appears. Paul begins the letter with a word of encouragement (1:5–12). He reminds them that those who give hell to Christians will reap what they sow. He then clears up another question about the resurrection (2:1–12). It seems that a report or a letter has come from Paul (or one of his associates) that has thrown them into further confusion. We can imagine the question: “Okay, Paul, thanks for clearing that up. So, even dead people will be resurrected. Cool. But what’s this we hear that Jesus has already come back? Did we miss it? Should we have met somewhere at a certain time? Asking for a friend.” Paul must also clear this up. But then in 3:6–15 he comes to the most pressing issue. Whoever it was that was being idle and taking advantage of the community is still doing it. The time has come for action.
I said in the first post that Thessalonians deals with excommunication from start to finish. I also discussed there the reasons for the practice of exile in ancient communities. The Christian community was no exception to this. In a small group of people that are already under pressure from the surrounding culture, solidarity was paramount. The smallest bit of leaven had the ability to leaven the whole lump, meaning that immorality of any kind could not be tolerated. It also meant that anyone who divided or drew away the strength of the community had to be removed. But unlike the surrounding community, where the smallest infraction would be dealt with swiftly and harshly, in the Christian community it was different. For the Christians, wherever possible, opportunity was given for repentance. We see it in the teaching of Jesus:
If your brother or sister sins, go and point out their fault, just between the two of you. If they listen to you, you have won them over. But if they will not listen, take one or two others along, so that “every matter may be established by the testimony of two or three witnesses.” If they still refuse to listen, tell it to the church; and if they refuse to listen even to the church, treat them as you would a pagan or a tax collector. (Matt 18:15–17)
The Christians seemed to have a “three strikes, you’re out!” policy. There are numerous examples of this in Paul’s letters that are implicitly indicated, but one of the clearest is in Titus 3:10: “Warn a divisive person once, and then warn them a second time. After that, have nothing to do with them.” For Paul, this was an important practice. He understood that people can be … well … a bit slow, and it doesn’t always click the first time. It was no different among the Thessalonians. Paul had already warned them while he was there in person. In 1 Thess 4:12 above, he says, “just as we told you”. The implication being that this was part of his teaching in the newly formed community. Paul then addresses the issue again in his first letter because (apparently) they were still doing it. But even this second warning didn’t do the trick. So, Paul has to put an end to it once and for all.
He commands the Thessalonians in 3:6 to stay away from such people, those who do not hold to the traditions he laid down while he was there. He then reminds them in 3:7–9 of how he and his colleagues had modelled this while they were there. Side note: one of the many things I love about Paul’s leadership is that he never asked anyone to do anything that he was not first willing to do. There’s a lesson in that for all of us. He then reminds them of another thing he said when he was there: “If anyone is not willing to work to contribute to the community, that person should not eat.” There is a clear implication that the person who is able to contribute but is too lazy should not share in the fruits of the community. But there is another layer to this. He says in verse 14 that the Thessalonians are to note these offenders and to refuse to eat with them, meaning they are not to share in communion. The implication: those who actively take advantage of the community, those who are a drain on its resources, should be excommunicated.
There are a number of issues to reflect on in these two letters and I have tried to highlight these over the past few weeks. For me though, there is a final and looming challenge that comes from this final post. What do I bring to my church community? Am I someone who contributes to the good of other members, or am I burden? Alternatively, as pastors and leaders, how tolerant are we of this sort of behaviour? Something to think about.