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Loving Your Idle Neighbor

It’s been a few weeks since I last posted something in my “Bible & Economics” series, but I think a return to the topic is well served by the verses from II Thessalonians I’ve selected to delve in to today. This passage, more than perhaps any other in all of the New Testament, is responsible for directing a younger version of the R.J. Moeller that blogs before you today on a path leading sharply away from conventional modern thinking on the topics of welfare, wealth redistribution and the seemingly inescapable “social justice.” (By the way, is there “social truth” or “social patience”?) From II Thessalonians 3:6-12:
Now we command you, brothers, in the name of our Lord Jesus Christ, that you keep away from any brother who is walking in idleness and not in accord with the tradition that you received from us. 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. For even when we were with you, we would give you this command: If anyone is not willing to work, let him not eat. 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.
A simple, straight-forward reading of this text is a clear and present danger to advocates of a welfare state, but especially to those who also claim allegiance to the body of Christ and his word. However, in a sinful, fallen world—one wrought with hypocrisies, guilt, past societal sins, etc.—“simple” and “straight-forward” are luxuries the thoughtful believer can rarely enjoy, at least not when entering the contentious fray of the public square with their theological convictions in tow (as they most definitely should). So let me quickly give my brief exegetical overview of the passage above, and then connect a few dots between what Paul wrote and some of the appropriate conclusions one ought to be able to draw in terms of public policy debates. Now there are some who try to deflect the very real importance of these verses to a Christian’s attitude about how best to help the poor by saying that the “idlers” Paul is calling out are simply misguided believers who are under the impression Christ’s return was imminent. This is a distinction without a difference. Being lazy on a nuclear submarine with the key that launches Armageddon might be different in form, but is no different in substance than an idle Dairy Queen worker who procrastinates sweeping up the sprinkles his portly manager asked him to take care of the previous day. Habitual idleness is a matter of the heart. (Believe me, I know first-hand.) Refusing to work or provide for your family because you’re convinced Jesus is returning over the upcoming three-day weekend is, according to scripture, just as much of a sin as an able-bodied human being refusing to work or provide for their family because some well-intentioned bureaucrat is intent on giving them money they didn’t earn. Right off the bat in verse 6, Paul exhorts the church body to “keep away from” anyone who is living an idle, lazy life and remains needlessly dependent on others. Pretty harsh, no? Not very “social” of him, right? I’ll even admit that nearly every time I read these words, I wince a little. All of the “But what about…” exceptions and exemptions start piling up on my conscience. But if we’re serious about scripture, we know that scripture is serious about sin. Idleness and making yourself a prolonged and unnecessary burden on someone else, is a sin. There’s no way around that. The Greek translation for the phrase “in idleness” translates to “in an undisciplined, irresponsible or disorderly manner.” Keep that definition in mind for later. Verses 7-9 are Paul’s reminder that he hasn’t simply preached against things like idleness and being a burden on others, but has modeled for the good people of Thessalonica the appropriate way to live. Paul was a minister of the gospel, and therefore was entitled to living off of the charity that came from other believers. But he feared that a lifetime of such dependency would weaken his witness, and, I don’t think it is unfair to infer, his character. Verse 10 is the big one: “For even when we were with you, we would give you this command: If anyone is not willing to work, let him not eat.” Paul did not teach this difficult practice of the Christian life from afar, but said it face-to-face. Christian friends don’t enjoy confronting friends. Christian parents don’t delight in having to withhold certain things from their beloved children. Confronting people with difficult subject matter is made no less daunting by how true the subject matter is. It stinks. No way around it. But for Paul, the call to speak God’s truth outweighed his own “Will these people hate me … Will they think I’m a jerk, ‘cause I’m really not” insecurities. And what is God’s truth in this case? Simply put: If you are able to work, and you are not willing to work, to take what others were willing to work for is not only unfair to the workers, but damaging to your own soul as a child of the living God who created you to work, worship and fellowship. I’d wager that most Christians—on both sides of the political aisle—hear this and instantly jump up to defend their own “side’s” position on welfare, entitlements and redistribution of wealth. Put that aside for a moment. That stuff absolutely matters, and we are accountable for the positions we hold and support, but just for a moment step back and absorb what’s being said here. To be lazy or idle is a sin. To be an enabler of laziness or idleness is a sin. End of story. This is the theological truth we’re given to live by. It’s not true (or false) because it helps solidify a conservative political talking point. It’s not true (or false) because the prominent Republicans in your home church growing up never interacted with or helped the poor in your area. It’s true because the God of the universe designed things (and us) this way. Verse 12: “Now such (idle) persons we command and encourage in the Lord Jesus Christ to do their work quietly and to earn their own living.” There is room for both tough-love and godly compassion here. We are commanded to live lives in accordance with scripture, but no man or woman can meet a standard of perfection. God is patient, and so must we be. Neither the truth of the gospel, nor the kindness and empathy of the forgiven heart need be comprised. And here we run into what I believe is the heart of this intra-Evangelical (and intra-Christian) conflict over the poverty/welfare question. One side is accused of being too concerned with truth; the other, with grace. Despite my personal qualms with such a simplistic explanation for the differences that exist between a “social justice” Christian and a free-market believer, let’s keep it simple and accept the premise. One thing that must be pointed out to give this entire discussion the proper context it deserves is that Paul is writing to a community of believers and instructing them as such. As is the case with many of the most important, remarkable teachings in scripture, the author of this divinely inspired text does not offer up his in-depth commentary on Herman Cain’s “9-9-9 plan” or Jim Wallis’s endless support for more and more government spending on poverty in America. This passage is for believers, first and foremost. It’s a response to the question Francis Schaeffer asked in the title of his most popular work, “How Should We Then Live?” But even for those of you who, like clock-work, point to the “early church in Acts 2” as your refutation of free enterprise and capitalism, here in the context of a community of believers, giving someone something for free that they could/should have worked for (regardless of your intentions or good will) is condemned. We don’t live in a Roman-occupied Mediterranean world. Christians in America are privileged to operate within the parameters of the freest, most prosperous civilization in human history. We don’t have to have a theocracy led by Michele Bachmann’s pastor to positively influence society, culture, economics and politics. We are the government. We are the culture. We’re in it (just not supposed to be “of” it). We can take the “If a man will not work, he will not eat” command Paul originally intended for a 1st century AD audience, apply it to the way we operate our homes and churches, and then head to the voting booth every two, four and six years looking for a politician who best represents our worldview. In scripture, the “least among us” are almost always defined as some combination of the following groups: children, orphans, widows, the disabled, the sick and victims of great calamity. From the pre-fall Garden of Eden to our eternal home with Christ in the next world, work is a God-ordained component of existence. Sin makes work toilsome, laborious and frustrating, but it doesn’t have the power to remove that “God-ordained” status. So we’re supposed to work, supposed to show charity and compassion, but we’re not supposed to let able-bodied people have things they didn’t work for because of the impact it has on the rest of the group and, most importantly, the damage it does to the idler’s soul. In a free country, where Christians allegedly represent the overwhelmingly largest voting bloc and have every right to vote their theologically informed conscience, tell me how we have allowed a poverty-causing, soul-crippling “welfare” system to remain in place for half a century? Where is the statistical, moral or theological defense for such dereliction of duty? Because “church giving is down,” our response is to enslave people to government dependency? Regarding those who have more? Do not envy. Those with less? Give without ceasing. To those who will not work?
As for you, brothers, do not grow weary in doing good. If anyone does not obey what we say in this letter, take note of that person, and have nothing to do with him, that he may be ashamed. Do not regard him as an enemy, but warn him as a brother.
I am a proponent of limited government, free enterprise and personal responsibility (including the duty to look after the “least of these”) not because I love elephants, but because I know being stubborn like a donkey leads otherwise God-fearing, compassionate people to support policies and practices that are detrimental to the soul of this nation.