Was Paul Mean?

I was meditating on Paul’s words in 2 Thess 3:6-12. Paul was concerned about those in the congregation who were obsessed with and confused over Jesus’ return (parousia). They had what theologians (rightly) call an “over realized eschatology.” In their anticipation of the parousia they had begun to act as if it was already here (and assumed perhaps that heaven involves no labor). They were so obsessed with the parousia that they were refusing to fulfill their vocations in this world.

In response, Paul reminds them of the “tradition” (paradosis) of moral instruction he had left with them. He had instructed them not to spend their days being lazy. He had taught them to fulfill their dual vocations as citizens of the heavenly kingdom (Phil 3:20) and as citizens of the earthly kingdom (Rom 13). He reminds them of the example he set for them, how he worked when he was with them even though, as an apostle and minister of the Word, he had a right to refrain from manual labor and rely on the congregation for support. What was that moral instruction, that law, that he left with them: “If anyone is not willing to work, let him not eat.”

There are a number of thoughts that come to mind here. First one is reminded of Paul’s eschatology in both the broad and narrow senses. He wasn’t an eschatological enthusiast. He had a doctrine of vocation. He was able to distinguish  between the eschatological kingdom and its semi-eschatological earthly manifestation (in the visible church) here and between our roles in the two spheres of God’s sovereign administration of all things. In the creational sphere there are basic laws that are in place that we must obey. It is an undeniable fact that food, shelter, clothing and the like do not simply fall out of the sky. They must be bought and money must be earned in order to buy them. Put in theological terms, economics is a covenant of works: “do this and live.” If one does not work but expects to eat then someone else must work for him. Expecting someone else to work for you, all things being equal, is a form of theft.

Christians are under this law, not for justification, but as the abiding moral norm for those who profess the faith. Entrance into the kingdom of God, sola gratia, sola fide doesn’t exempt Christians from fulfilling basic responsibilities. Indeed, as those who live in light of eternity, we ought to be all the more diligent to serve our Creator and Redeemer in both spheres of life according God’s ordination.

It is also interesting to observe Paul’s rhetoric here. He speaks bluntly, forcefully, and even dogmatically. He doesn’t qualify his statement. There’s no equivocation. He doesn’t seem terribly concerned with how the Thessalonian Christians will hear his words. There’s a certain sharpness and directness to his words that is, in our most sensitive culture, well, not very nice. Consider what he’s saying to Christians: “If you won’t be productive, then starve.” Hyperbolic? Perhaps but he said it. He’s an Apostle. 2 Thessalonians is God’s holy Word. Evidently he meant it and it’s hard to see how rhetoric of this sort squares with the reigning evangelical ethos of “niceness.”

It wasn’t very “nice” of him but maybe that’s the point? Maybe Paul wasn’t very concerned about what we consider “nice”? We may tend to associate love with warm feelings but did Paul do so? Maybe he was more concerned about truth, reality, righteousness and the actual well being of the Thessalonian Christians? Maybe this way of speaking (and writing) had the effect of awakening the conscience of those who read and heard these words, even if they stung a little?

Paul wasn’t being unloving. He was demonstrating true love. He was willing to risk the disapproval of the Thessalonian Christians in order to speak the truth to them in love. In fact, Paul gives us a clue why he spoke and wrote thus: It was because of his affection for them as brothers. He calls them such in v. 13. He instructs those whom he expects to be response as to how to deal with those who are unresponsive. They are to “take note of that person” and “have nothing to do with him in order that he may be ashamed.” The ultimate purpose, however, was not shame but repentance and correction. The obedient are to continue to regard him as a brother, not as an enemy. The goal is not to win a victory (i.e., to be triumphant) but to help the erring brother. If it takes shame, however difficult it is to accept and however painful it is to experience, to help bring about repentance, so be it.

How would these words go over today in the average evangelical or Reformed congregation? Would the one who spoke them find himself in trouble? One wonders. When we read (or hear) Paul’s words our first reaction might be to think, “My, that’s harsh.” If we do think so perhaps we need to re-calibrate our meters?

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