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People have all sorts of strange ideas as to the purpose of the church. One of the most frequent is that the church exists to meet the needs of the community. There is a particular beggar who, for many years, has come to the church office gate whenever he is drunk, demanding food and clothing. In his drunkenness, he tends to wax eloquent about how Jesus told his followers to feed the poor and clothe the hungry and that, if the church is serious about obeying Jesus, it should provide him food and clothing on demand.

Unfortunately, that mentality is not exclusive to the unbelieving world. There are, at times, people within the church who appear to think the same way. This is not a new problem, either: Paul addressed it in the text before us this morning (2 Thessalonians 3:6–18). Evidently, there were some in the church in Thessalonica who were refusing to work but expecting others in the church to meet their material needs. Miroslav Volf summarises Paul’s burden in these closing verses when he writes that Paul seeks “to make sure that no able people live unjustifiably from other people’s work, and that those who are unable to work still have their basic needs met.”

Paul does not explicitly state the reason that these church members refused to work but he had very strong counsel for how they should be treated. Responsible church members should not be burdened to meet the needs of irresponsible church members. A church member who will not fulfil his or her responsibility must face the consequences. “If anyone is not willing to work, let him not eat.” This instruction may seem extreme, but there are at least four New Testament reasons for it.

First, Paul did not want irresponsible members to be an unnecessary burden to responsible members. He had modelled this unburdening mentality himself (v. 8) and exhorted irresponsible church members to follow his example (v. 12).

Second, Paul wanted the church to be respectable to outsiders (1 Thessalonians 4:12). If the church was characterised as a place where laziness was tolerated and supported, it would mar its testimony to the world.

Third, Paul was burdened that the church be characterised as a place of genuine love (1 Thessalonians 4:9). While it is loving to generously meet the needs of those who cannot meet their own, it is also loving to fulfil one’s own responsibility so that others are not burdened to meet needs that are not their own.

Fourth, it was crucial to fulfil one’s own responsibility so that, having met one’s own needs, one might have something to share with those in need (Ephesians 4:28).

Those who refused to work were both neglecting their responsibility to provide for themselves and their family and were unduly burdening church members who were committed to working to meet their own needs. Paul does not dismiss the need for generosity, but generosity ought not to negate a church members’ responsibility to see to their own needs and that of their family.

The instruction here is very much others-centred, which is the ordinary expectation of church members. The problem in Thessalonica was that there were members who refused to work, but the attitude behind that problem manifests itself in various ways in churches. Churches sometimes have members who appear to expect to be served without serving others. Churches sometimes have members who are always in some form of need who seem reluctant to take any counsel to fulfil basic responsibilities that will improve their situation. Paul’s counsel to them would be to take personal responsibility or face the consequences.

Of course, there are sometimes members who, despite their willingness, are simply unable to do anything to improve their situation. Paul calls for church members to be generous in in these situations so that there is no need in the church that is unmet. There is tension between meeting genuine needs and allowing laziness to reap its reward.

As you meditate on 2 Thessalonians 3:6–18 this morning, ask God to show you where you might be burdening others by neglecting your responsibility. And pray for a spirit of generosity that will reach out to those in need.