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Lesson 7: Helping Unruly Believers (2 Thessalonians 3:6-15)

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March 19, 2017

In the early 1960’s there was a popular TV show called “Dobie Gillis.” Dobie’s buddy was an unkept beatnik (this was before the hippies) with a goatee, who always wore a sweatshirt and tennis shoes, named Maynard G. Krebs. Whenever Dobie would forget and say the word “work,” Maynard would get a terrified look on his face and shriek, “Work!” He viewed work as an infectious disease to avoid at all costs!

Apparently the church in Thessalonica had some Maynard G. Krebs types who refused to work. They were probably sponging off the brothers who were working, creating tension in the church. Some translations describe these non-working folks as “idle,” but most scholars agree that the word is better translated “unruly” or “disorderly.” It meant to be “out of step.” They seem to have had a defiant attitude, because they were deliberately disregarding the commands about working that the apostle Paul had given both when he was with them and in his first letter (1 Thess. 4:11-12; 2 Thess. 3:6, 10). They also may have been ignoring other apostolic teaching (“tradition,” 2 Thess. 2:15; 3:6, refers to teaching handed down by the apostles).

In our text, Paul’s main concern was that these unruly brothers were not working, but acting like busybodies (2 Thess. 3:11). Many translate his wordplay as, “they are not busy, but they are busybodies.” He commands them to work to support themselves.

Why weren’t they working? Some think that like Maynard, they avoided work because they were lazy, although Paul doesn’t say that. Others think that these unruly brothers were evangelists who, unlike Paul and his colleagues, were demanding support from the church. But most scholars draw a connection between these non-working brothers and Paul’s teaching about the coming of the Lord. They think that they became so caught up with the idea that Jesus would return soon that they quit working. They didn’t want to “waste time” working, since the end was near. But then they had to rely on those who did work. And, with all their extra time, they were going around spreading gossip and perhaps also false teaching, which is why Paul calls them “busybodies.”

Paul was concerned both with the tension that this created in the church and with the bad witness it gave to outsiders, who would think that Christians are religious hucksters. So he devotes this extended section to deal with this problem. He’s saying:

To help an unruly believer, lovingly exhort him to work, don’t enable his irresponsible lifestyle, and exercise church discipline if he does not respond to correction.

This problem was present in incipient form during Paul’s time in Thessalonica. He mentions a rule that he had given them while he was with them (2 Thess. 3:10), “If anyone is not willing to work, then he is not to eat, either.” But it continued to be a minor problem, because in 1 Thessalonians 4:11-12 he wrote, “… make it your ambition to lead a quiet life and attend to your own business and work with your hands, just as we commanded you, so that you will behave properly toward outsiders and not be in any need.” Now, he deals with it more aggressively, emphasizing his commands in verses 6, 10, and 12.

1. To help an unruly believer, lovingly exhort him to work.

Paul repeatedly uses the words “brethren” or “brother” (vv. 6, 13, 15), to underscore the loving family relationships that should characterize the church. Love should be our motivation in all ministry, including correcting an unruly brother. But biblical love does not mean being nice all the time. Rather, biblical love seeks the highest good of the one loved, namely, that he might be conformed to the image of Jesus Christ. If a person is disobeying God’s commandments, it’s not loving to let him go on without correcting him. If a doctor knows that his patient has cancer, it isn’t loving to hug him and say, “I love you, man!” Love requires gently telling him the truth with the aim of helping him get better.

Not working to provide for your family when you’re able to work is a serious sin! Paul wrote (1 Tim. 5:8), “But if anyone does not provide for his own, and especially for those of his household, he has denied the faith and is worse than an unbeliever.” I don’t know of anywhere else, except in the case of the immoral Corinthian man who was having relations with his father’s wife (1 Cor. 5:1), where Paul refers to a sin as being worse than that of unbelievers. Even most unbelievers who have never heard of Christ work to provide for their families. If a professing Christian doesn’t work when he is able, it’s a bad witness to the unbelieving world.

In Galatians 6:1, Paul instructs, “Brethren, even if anyone is caught in any trespass, you who are spiritual, restore such a one in a spirit of gentleness; each one looking to yourself, so that you too will not be tempted.” “You who are spiritual” refers to the spiritually mature, who walk in the Spirit and demonstrate the fruit of the Spirit in their lives (Gal. 5:16, 22, 23). “Restore” has the idea of bringing healing. The process is to be done with gentleness (a fruit of the Spirit), not with harsh scolding or angry rebuke. And, it must always be done in humility, realizing that you, too, easily could fall into temptation. Don’t come down on the person as if you never sin, but come alongside as a fellow sinner offering help.

In order to correct a sinning brother or sister, you have to set an example of godliness. You can’t exhort someone to do something that you’re not doing. In verses 7-10, Paul refers to his own example of working to provide for his own needs when he was in Thessalonica. As an apostle, he had the right to be supported in his gospel labors, as other apostles were (v. 9; cf. 1 Cor. 9:3-14), but he set aside this right to provide an example to these new believers and to squelch any accusations that he was preaching the gospel to bilk people out of their money. In 1 Timothy 5:17, Paul tells churches to support elders who work hard at preaching and teaching. The apostle John encourages churches to support missionaries and evangelists (3 John 5-8). So there’s nothing wrong with a Christian worker receiving support. But Paul went the extra mile to provide an example of hard work to these new converts.

When Paul says that he did not eat anyone’s bread without paying for it, he does not mean that he paid those who invited him over for a meal! Rather, he didn’t presume on the hospitality of these new believers by expecting them to cover his room and board. He was an example to them of financial integrity and thus he had a platform to exhort them to the same level of integrity.

So if you’re aware of someone who is irresponsibly mooching off others and not taking the initiative to get a job, you need to go to him in love, show him what the Bible teaches about working for a living, and exhort him to look for work. But, what if he doesn’t respond to your exhortation?

2. Since work is a God-given responsibility, don’t enable an unruly believer to continue in his irresponsible ways.

2 Thess.3:10: “If anyone is not willing to work, then he is not to eat, either.” He may need temporary assistance to get on his feet. He may need some coaching on how to get a job. But he should make it his full-time job to look for a job until he gets one. If he’s being irresponsible, don’t enable him to continue in his ways by giving him food or money. Don’t let him lay a guilt trip on you: “If you were a Christian, you’d love me and help me out!” Rather, if he refuses to get a job, he should suffer the consequences. This applies even to family members! To enable his irresponsible ways is not loving. Consider three principles here:

A. Work is a God-given responsibility for every able-bodied man.

You may be thinking, “Man? What about women?” The biblical pattern is that men should support their families financially (Gen. 2:15; 3:17-19), while women are to be “workers at home” (Titus 2:5). Yes, this is radically countercultural! Married women may help contribute to the family’s income (Prov. 31:10-31), but when there are young children in the home, her work should not hinder her from rearing them in the Lord. Of course, an unmarried woman needs to support herself (Acts 16:14). Older women may work if they wish or if the family needs the income. But since marriage should provide a picture of Christ and the church (Eph. 5:22-33), and Christ provides for His church, men are responsible to provide for their families.

The Bible extols work as God-given. God assigned work to Adam in the Garden before the fall. After the fall, God didn’t curse work. Rather, He cursed the ground which the fallen man had to work (Gen. 3:17-19). So work became more difficult because of the fall, but it is still God-given. Even slaves are commanded (Col. 3:23-24), “Whatever you do, do your work heartily, as for the Lord rather than for men, knowing that from the Lord you will receive the reward of the inheritance. It is the Lord Christ whom you serve.” The culture of Paul’s day despised manual labor, but the Bible consistently affirms the dignity of such work. It is significant that Jesus worked as a carpenter and He chose fishermen as his disciples. Paul made tents. So we are not to despise or avoid work.

At the same time, we should not be so consumed with work that our main aim is to become a success in our career or to make a lot of money so that we can buy more and more stuff. Jesus commanded all who follow Him not to seek what the Gentiles seek. Then He added (Matt. 6:33): “But seek first His kingdom and His righteousness, and all these things will be added to you.” Besides providing for our families, we should work so that we can help support the Lord’s kingdom work worldwide.

In his book, Life Work ([YWAM Publishing], p. xxi), Darrow Miller writes,

When we see our worth as determined by the marketplace and the amount of money we make, we often sacrifice what matters the most—family, friends, marriages, Christian fellowship—in pursuit of success, prestige, fame, power, and other goals prized by the world. All too often there is a direct relationship between our escalating material prosperity and our increasing moral and spiritual poverty.

So working is a God-given responsibility so that we can provide for ourselves and our families, which means that work is good. But, at the same time we need to keep in mind Paul’s warning (1 Tim. 6:9-10),

But those who want to get rich fall into temptation and a snare and many foolish and harmful desires which plunge men into ruin and destruction. For the love of money is a root of all sorts of evil, and some by longing for it have wandered away from the faith and pierced themselves with many griefs.

Underlying Paul’s command for unruly brothers to work is a character issue:

B. Self-discipline is an important character quality that every believer must develop.

Paul reminds them (2 Thess. 3:7) that he and his fellow-workers “did not act in an undisciplined manner among you.” By way of contrast, he confronts the unruly (2 Thess. 3:11), “For we hear that some among you are leading an undisciplined life, doing no work at all, but acting like busybodies.” Self-control or self-discipline is a fruit of the Holy Spirit (Gal. 5:23), which every believer should be developing. These unruly brothers were not working because they were undisciplined.

Have you ever thought about how self-control affects just about every area of life? A self-controlled person uses his time wisely in line with biblical goals. One key to spending time alone with the Lord each day in the Word and prayer is disciplining yourself to set aside the time to do it. Self-discipline is also required to get to work on time and be faithful to do your job well. Discipline also affects your finances, enabling you to live within your means and stay out of debt. It keeps you from buying stuff on impulse that you can’t afford. It helps you pay your bills on time.

Self-control also affects your relationships. People who lack self-control lose their temper and say things that damage relationships. Those who lack self-control look at pornography and sometimes are unfaithful in their marriages. A lack of self-control is behind drug and alcohol abuse. Self-control also affects your health: you eat properly and in the right amounts; you exercise to stay in shape. So it’s crucial for all believers to develop self-discipline or self-control. (For help in how to develop this quality, see my message, “Learning to Control Yourself,” 12/31/06, on

C. We are not responsible to support an unruly brother who refuses to respond to correction.

Paul says, “If he won’t work, don’t give him food or money. Let him go hungry.” The Book of Proverbs commends hard work and thrift, but it mocks fools who are lazy and who spend their money unwisely (Prov. 6:1-11; 10:4-5; 13:4; 20:4; 21:24; 24:30-34; 26:14-16). While it’s fine to buy a meal for a hungry man, that is not helping him deal with the underlying problem of why he doesn’t have money for food. If he’s using his money for alcohol or drugs, we aren’t obligated to help him with food. The loving thing is to help him face his need for Christ or, if he is a Christian, to develop a self-controlled, responsible way of life.

Sometimes people will cite Jesus’ words (Matt. 5:42), “Give to him who asks of you, and do not turn away from him who wants to borrow from you,” to claim that you should give indiscriminately to anyone who asks or that you should loan money to irresponsible people who will squander it and never pay it back. But in the context, Jesus is speaking against those who selfishly cling to their money, refusing to help people with genuine needs. As 1 John 3:17 rhetorically asks, “But whoever has the world’s goods, and sees his brother in need and closes his heart against him, how does the love of God abide in him?”

But if Jesus and John meant that we are to give indiscriminately to anyone who asks, then Paul in our text (and many other Scriptures) would be contradicting them. To encourage further irresponsibility and sin in someone by giving to him every time he asks for more would be sin. Love seeks to help the person become an obedient, responsible believer. And Paul commands (v. 12, not suggests!) such irresponsible brothers to “work in quiet fashion and eat their own bread.” They should stop being busybodies and get a job.

But, what if a person in the church ignores repeated exhortations to get a job? What if he continues to ask people in the church for money? What if he is a family member? Should you keep giving him more money? No,

3. The church is responsible to discipline an unruly believer who refuses to respond to correction.

Paul mentions this first in verse 6, “Now we command you, brethren, in the name of our Lord Jesus Christ, that you keep away from every brother who leads an unruly life and not according to the tradition which you received from us.” He elaborates further in verses 14 & 15: “If anyone does not obey our instruction in this letter, take special note of that person and do not associate with him, so that he will be put to shame. Yet do not regard him as an enemy, but admonish him as a brother.”

What does church discipline look like? First, as we’ve seen, those who are spiritual should seek to restore the unruly brother by admonishing him (Gal. 6:1; Matt. 18:15; 1 Thess. 4:11; 5:14). If after repeated attempts from several individuals, he does not respond, the elders should command him by their authority in Christ to get a job (2 Thess. 3:12), warning him of the consequences if he refuses, namely that the church will not support him or pay his bills (v. 10). He will go hungry and end up homeless.

The practical difficulty, which Paul doesn’t address, is, what if he has a family? Should the church help the family with food and rent? This can be very emotional, because manipulative men will use their wife and children as pawns to elicit sympathy to get money for their needs. In spite of my many objections, for years my parents gave thousands of dollars to a deadbeat guy who used his kids to tug at my parents’ heartstrings. They countered me by saying that they didn’t want the kids to go to foster care, but eventually that is what happened. I think that our text says that in spite of the hardship on the family, we should not support an irresponsible man’s refusal to work.

If the lazy brother still does not respond, the church must be informed and withdraw normal fellowship contingent on his repentance, while continuing to admonish him (2 Thess. 3:14-15). This isn’t the final stage of church discipline, where the church excommunicates the person and treats him as an unbeliever (Matt. 18:17). Paul says not to cut off all contact (v. 15), but rather not to maintain normal friendly, “buddy-buddy” contact, as if nothing were wrong. Don’t invite such a person over for a friendly dinner, where you never mention his sin. Don’t include him in a men’s activity as if he’s part of the fellowship. He should be excluded, except for attempts to bring him to repentance. And, those in the church must be careful not to be wrongly influenced by the unruly man’s attitudes and behavior.

It’s difficult to know how to apply today Paul’s purpose (3:14), “so that he will be put to shame.” In the culture of that time, honor and shame were a big deal. The Thessalonian believers had already been shamed in their pagan society by being identified with the church. If the church rejected them, they would be doubly shamed (Gene L. Green, The Letters to the Thessalonians [Eerdmans/Apollos], p. 355). Many Middle Eastern cultures today are still honor and shame based. But in our Western world today, the concepts of honor and shame are not so strong. The ostracized person would just go find another church to hit up for money.

Carl Laney (A Guide to Church Discipline [Bethany House], p. 80) argues that if the primary objective of the disciplinary action were to shame the offender, Paul could have used another verb that more clearly intends that meaning. The verb that Paul used sometimes means to shame, but also means, “to turn or direct.” Laney argues that the purpose of the church’s breaking off normal fellowship with the unruly brother was to get him to reflect on his sin and turn from it. The goal is restoration, not embarrassment. But, if an unruly man continued in his ways after all of the above steps to help restore him, the final step would be excommunication, in which the church would treat him as an unbeliever (Matt. 18:15-18). He may not be saved.

The gospel promises that we are saved by grace through faith in Christ alone, but genuine saving faith is never alone (Eph. 2:8-10). When God saves us, He changes our hearts, which inevitably results in changed behavior in obedience to God’s word. A man who doesn’t respond to repeated attempts to correct him may not be genuinely saved.


Perhaps Paul adds v. 13, “But as for you, brethren, do not grow weary of doing good,” because dealing with an unruly, lazy man can be exhausting and frustrating. We may quit helping all needy people. But Paul tells us not to stop helping those with legitimate needs, even if we’re frustrated dealing with those who refuse to obey the Lord.

Also, it’s easy to grow weary of the difficult task of exhorting an irresponsible brother. They’re often manipulative and deceptive. They try to play off your emotions. They pit one person against another in an attempt to get their own way. If they would work as hard at getting and keeping a job as they do at trying to pry money out of soft-hearted people, they wouldn’t need the money! But we must not grow weary of doing good.

I hope that we never need to apply these principles as a church. But if we do, I hope that we’ll be faithful for the glory of the Lord, the good of the church, and the good of those who are unruly.

Application Questions

  1. Do you know anyone who fits Paul’s description of an “unruly” brother? Have you tried to talk to him? If he didn’t respond favorably, what else should you do?
  2. Is it wrong for an able-bodied believer to be on welfare or other government assistance? Why? Why not?
  3. Obviously, some jobs are more fulfilling than other jobs. What should a Christian in an unfulfilling job do? Is it okay to seek more satisfying work?
  4. If a believer who refuses to work has a family, should the church help support the family? Why? Why not?

Copyright, Steven J. Cole, 2017, All Rights Reserved.

Unless otherwise noted, all Scripture Quotations are from the New American Standard Bible, Updated Edition © The Lockman Foundation

Related Topics: Christian Life, Church Discipline

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