2 Thessalonians 3 – Law and Orders (or, Beyond Lawful Good and Evil)

2 Thessalonians 3 Bible with Theo Orange Dark Chocolate

Today’s ChocolateTheo Orange 70% Dark Chocolate

Today’s Passage2 Thessalonians 3

Before we get into the chapter, I wanted to share a story that I heard on The World on NPR this past Friday. Modern-day Thessalonica is known as Thessaloniki, and you may recall it from this entry in our Sabbath study. During World War 2, the ancient Jewish cemetery of Thessaloniki was destroyed and had its gravestones broken down and used for building materials. The story is about how inhabitants of Thessaloniki honor the memory of the deceased and the history of the cemetery when its headstones are embedded in streets and buildings. It starts at 38:12 in this recording, and it may be of interest to you. Give it a listen.

That said, let’s dig into Paul’s closing words to the Thessalonian church. I’ve found that how I react to different passages in the Bible tells me things about myself, both in general and where I am in my life at that particular reading. What resonates with me, what comforts me? What makes me uncomfortable, what makes me put up my fists inside? What do I have questions about? For me, reading the Bible is often an experience in being forced to get honest with myself before God.

Take, for instance, what Paul has to say about commands. He tells the Thessalonians, “We have confidence in the Lord concerning you, that you are doing and will continue to do what we command” (4). I read that this morning and immediately thought: that ain’t gonna sit well with some folks. Anti-authoritarians will see it as Paul praising his readers for being controllable. “Who gave him the right to tell them what to do?” they’ll ask. And with a sufficiently well-argued case to back it up, an answer of “God” might satisfy the egalitarian-leading Christians among them, but anti-authoritarians of other religions–or no religion!–will likely continue pushing back.

And so it goes. When I thought back to Paul’s prior commandments to the Thessalonians, my recollection found them consistent with God’s love–beneficial commands like “Don’t let anyone deceive you” or “Keep on loving, and love more than you’ve loved before.” But not three verses later, Paul hit me with a command that I balked at: “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” (6). So now you’re gonna tell me who I can and can’t associate with, even among my fellow Christians? Eh, Paul? You want me to distance myself from everyone with an anti-authoritarian streak? You, who railed against arbitrary divisiveness in the Body when you wrote to the Corinthians, you who received forgiveness from Jesus Christ himself even as you opposed his kingship and his gospel on the road to Damascus?

I don’t think Paul’s urging us to cut ties with unruly Christians. I do think he’s encouraging us to keep our distance and be careful about how closely we associate with people who constantly live in Zoo Mode. He’s echoing principles from Proverbs, seen in verses like “He who walks with wise men will be wise, but the companion of fools will suffer harm” (Proverbs 13:20). The “unruly” people he’s talking about refuse to work for their bread, mooch off others, and stick their nose into other people’s business with all the free time they’ve got from not working. Paul talks a lot about leading a disciplined life here (vv.7, 11-12, 14), and I want that. I want discipline in my life: power under control. Much as I love the unruly dudes, I don’t want to learn their bad habits.

I’ve been thinking about the Dungeons and Dragons alignment system lately. For the uninitiated: characters in D&D are either good, morally neutral, or evil. Moreover, they are either lawful, ethically neutral, or chaotic. You combine the two aspects of a character’s alignment to get distinctions like “lawful evil,” a character who works within society’s system of rules to gain power and pursue his own selfish desires, like Jafar from Aladdin, or “chaotic good,” a character who pursues freedom for all and opposes tyrants and oppressors. It can be a useful and interesting tool for thinking about our motivations as we engage with the world.

At my request, the Dungeon Master in our game has made Christianity a presence in our gameworld, and a friend of mine who’s playing a Christian paladin offhandedly remarked to me that Christianity is a lawful good religion. I wondered, is that really so? For a long time, I’ve thought that Christianity has room for all sorts of ethical alignments within the body: lawful, neutral, and chaotic people working together for good. There’s room for freedom and forgiveness within its intellectual and moral systems, and the rules of Christianity actually demand that we break other rules. If a rule stands contrary to God’s system of truth and love, we are to break it! I’m reminded of Shadrach, Meshach and Abednego’s refusal to worship Nebuchadnezzar’s golden statue, even under penalty of death (Daniel 3), or Daniel in the lions’ den (Daniel 6). I’m reminded of Martin Luther King, Jr.’s civil disobedience for the cause of equality for all people, as beings with dignity created in the image of God. There is such a thing as a Christian rebellion. There is a call to resist.

But I have to conclude: in Thessalonica, the “chaotic” brothers weren’t striving for freedom and spreading the gospel in opposition to the oppressive Roman system. They were living according to no commitment at all, giving into sloth and indolence and undisciplined living. If you think back to Galatians, Paul knew that the Galatian church needed a message of liberty. And if you remember the previous chapter, the Thessalonian church is on the whole doing pretty well. But Paul knows that some of its constituents need a message of order.

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