II Thessalonians addresses people who act parasitically by taking from the church without making any contribution (II Thessalonians 3:6-13). Paul commands the Thessalonians to not be idle and reminds them of the example set forth by he and his fellow ministers (II Thessalonians 3:6-9). He then mentions a policy he had implemented when he was ministering in Thessalonica (II Thessalonians 3:10).
For even when we were with you, we used to give you this order: if anyone is not willing to work, then he is not to eat, either. (II Thessalonians 3:10 NASB)These are Paul’s harshest words on the subject. Bruce M. Metzger (1914-2007) paraphrases: “No loaf for the loafer (Metzger, The New Testament: Its Background Growth and Content, 221)!”
Jon A. Weatherly (b. 1958) comments:
This command should have been familiar to the idlers from the beginning, as it constituted a memorable part of Paul’s oral instruction...The content of the command is deliberately terse and parallel, probably to make it easier for the Christian converts to remember. “Will” here does not indicate the future tense but translates θέλω (thelō), indicating a willingness to do the action mentioned. So Paul’s original oral instruction specifically censured the refusal to work, not the inability to work. The sanction placed on such people is that they “shall not eat,” a phrase translating an imperative verb which might be translated “must not eat.” Clearly the church could not stop the idle from obtaining bread from other sources, so the point is that the church should not subsidize those in their fellowship who refuse to support themselves when they have the means and opportunity. All the verbs in this command are in the present tense and emphasize continuing action, so the instruction might be translated, “If anyone continually does not want to keep working, he must not keep eating.” (Weatherly, 1 & 2 Thessalonians (The College Press NIV Commentary), 296)Leon Morris (1914-2006) adds:
The saying emphasizes the will — “If anyone won’t work, refuses to work...” The concluding clause is not a statement of fact, “he shall not eat,” but an imperative, “let him not eat.” Paul is giving the clearest expression to the thought that the Christian cannot be a drone. It is obligatory for him to be a worker. (Morris, The First and Second Epistles to the Thessalonians (New International Commentary on the New Testament), 256)The command appears to have been a slogan during the author’s ministry in the area. Gene L. Green (b. 1951) speculates:
The author makes no mention of the teaching about work that they had briefly included in the first letter (I Thessalonians 4:11-12), reminding them rather of the oral instruction that, according to many Roman and Greek authors, was more potent than written communication...This instruction came in the form of an authoritative command (II Thessalonians 3:4, 6, 12; see I Thessalonians 4:11): “We gave you this command” (NRSV; parēngellomen). The verb is in the imperfect tense, which suggests that the teachers had given this command on various occasions during their rather short stay in Thessalonica. (Green, The Letters to the Thessalonians (Pillar New Testament Commentary), 349)Though unwritten, the command has both biblical and theological roots. Beverly Roberts Gaventa (b. 1948) explains:
The language employed is quite emphatic, referring to the presence of the apostles with the believers and using the language of command. Neither the Gospels nor the Pauline letters contain any such “commandment,” and it may be that the writer draws on proverbial wisdom that has developed from Genesis 3:17-19 (see also Psalm 128:2 and Proverbs 6:6-11). The Didache, an early Christian manual of instruction, reflects a similar wisdom: “[N]o Christian shall live idle in idleness. But if anyone will not do so [i.e., work], that person is making Christ into a cheap trade; watch out for such people” (12:4-5; author’s translation). (Gaventa, First and Second Thessalonians (Interpretation: A Bible Commentary for Teaching & Preaching) , 130)Theologian Jacques Ellul (1912-1994) probes:
The first point that we must make from an ideological standpoint is that work belongs in every sense to the order of necessity. If God gave it to man as a means of survival, he also made it a condition of survival. This is what Paul has in mind when he says that if a man will not work, neither should he eat (II Thessalonians 3:10). Work is no part of the order of grace, liberality, love, and freedom. Confusion must be avoided in this regard...In Christ the order of necessity is by no means abolished. There is victory over it...But death, evil, and the powers still exist. They constitute the order of necessity in which man is always set...Work has to be accepted in faith...as a sign of our creatureliness and our sinfulness. (Ellul, The Ethics of Freedom, 505-506)John Piper (b. 1946) summarizes, “Able-bodied people who choose to live in idleness and eat the fruit of another’s sweat are in rebellion against God’s design. If we can, we should earn our own living (Piper, Don’t Waste Your Life, 147).”
It is uncertain why the Thessalonians were not working. Gordon D. Fee (b. 1934) interprets:
The “surprise” element for the later reader is the fact that Paul had had to make such a ruling, apparently in an ongoing way, when he and his companions were present with them...Although we have no hints in the text itself as to why this had been a matter of concern even from the beginning of his ministry there, there can be little question that the issue is not a recent one, one that had come up after the apostolic trio had left Thessalonica. Both Paul’s opening clause “when we were with you”) and his putting the verb in the imperfect “we used to give you this command”) indicate that something was not quite right among them from the beginning. (Fee, The First and Second Letters to the Thessalonians (New International Commentary on the New Testament), 332)Some have seen the Thessalonians’ lack of diligence as the result of perceiving the second coming as so imminent (I Corinthians 7:31) as to make work futile. Brian D. McLaren (b. 1956) and Tony Campolo (b. 1935) relay:
The Apostle Paul-who expected the imminent return of Christ–had to warn the Christians of his day to get in about their business, for apparently some were spending all their time waiting for Christ’s return instead of working and earning a living for themselves and their dependents. No freeloading, Paul declared (II Thessalonians 3:10) (McLaren and Campolo, Adventures in Missing the Point: How the Culture-Controlled Church Neutered the Gospel, 62)This theory posits that the church at Thessalonica was so convinced of the second coming that they stopped everything to wait. The opposite is often true now as contemporary churches do nothing to demonstrate that they are actively anticipating the second coming.
The belief that the Thessalonians refused to work while waiting is not the only view of the situation in Thessalonica. Craig L. Blomberg (b. 1955) explicates:
Much of Paul’s eschatological teaching in II Thessalonians makes it clear that some people are thinking that the parousia is extremely imminent or has actually passed (see especially II Thessalonians 2:2). Not working is then related to the assumption that this life or present world-order is on the verge of vanishing. But increasingly, scholars are agreeing more that a sociological problem is more likely in view here. Paul never explicitly connects the Thessalonians’ idleness with his teaching about the parousia, but there is much in the Greco-Roman practice of patronage and benefaction that could have led to the problems described here. If a significant number of the Thessalonians before converting to Christ had been clients who worked only sporadically and relied on the gifts of their wealthy patrons...then it is understandable that they might have expected well-to-do leaders in the Christian community to treat them in a similar fashion...But Paul will consistently challenge the conventional system of patronage throughout his epistles. (Blomberg, Neither Poverty nor Riches: A Biblical Theology of Possessions (New Studies in Biblical Theology), 180-181)G.K. Beale (b. 1949) sees problems with sociological considerations being the rationale behind the Thessalonians’ slothfulness:
This may have been an encouragement not to support those who refused to engage in some self-supporting livelihood, perhaps recalling the command of II Thessalonians 3:6 and anticipating the similar imperative of II Thessalonians 3:14. Some scholars exclude any connection of the problem of work with eschatalogical error and see it related only to a sociological problem in the Hellenistic world. For example, Ronald Russell locates the “idle” against the sociological background in the average Hellenistic city, where opportunities for work were often limited and there was widespread unemployment and a diverse social class of poor people. Sometimes such people were able to come into relationship with a patron or benefactor who would support them in exchange for various forms of service. Russell contends that some of these poor in Thessalonica who became Christians formed client relationships with Christian benefactors in the church but then took advantage of the context of Christian love and did not feel any obligation to reciprocate with appropriate service. Since such reciprocal service was an expectation in the culture, the populace at large would have taken a dim view of the church if it allowed the new Christian converts to sponge off wealthier Christians. Consequently, Paul wanted to avoid such a bad witness...The sociological approach, however, is likely not an exhaustive explanation of the situation. Maarten J.J. Menken [b. 1948] rightly concludes that, while such a sociological view explains the reason church members were unemployed, it does not explain “their unwillingness to work”...Rather, the false teaching that the final resurrection and Christ’s parousia has come explains their desire not to work. (Beale, 1-2 Thessalonians (The IVP New Testament Commentary Series), 255-256)Ernest Best (1917-2004) speculates:
Such teaching would have been necessary in view of the Hellenistic dislike of anything other than intellectual labour for free men; Christians, taught that they were free, would have run the danger of thinking they ought to cease manual work; this is more probable than that they would think themselves too pious to work (Adolf Schlatter [1852-1938]) or too ‘spiritual’ (cf. Walter Schmithals [1923-2009], Robert Jewett [b. 1933]). The danger was probably inflamed by the apocalyptic atmosphere of the Thessalonian community and so became an acute problem for it; lacking this atmosphere Paul did not need to take up the point in other letters; the initial teaching was sufficient to control the situation. (Best, The First and Second Epistles to the Thessalonians (Black’s New Testament Commentary), 338)Victor Paul Furnish (b. 1931) summarizes:
Most interpreters regard the attention given to disruptive idleness as evidence that our author knows it to be a problem in Christian circles (cf. Wolfgang Trilling [1925-1993] 1980, 152). There is less agreement, however, about why certain believers were no longer willing to work. Some offer a theological explanation, attributing it to the (perhaps fanatical) belief that the day of the Lord had already arrived, from which it was concluded that mundane responsibilities were no longer important (e.g., Paul-Gerhard Müller [b. 1940], 2001, 294). A variation of this view holds that those who regarded the Kingdom as Paradise restored were rejecting as obsolete the decree of Genesis 3:17-19 that humanity must sustain itself through the arduous tilling of the soil (Maarten J.J. Menken [b. 1948] 137-141). In fact, however, the author himself neither specifies nor even implies that the problem of idleness has its roots in an erroneous eschatalogy...Sociological explanations of the problem, even when they are plausible, are also hard to substantiate from what is actually said...Because the author’s whole discussion of this matter is couched in such general terms, it is impossible to draw any firm conclusions about the situation that may have evoked it. Indeed, some have questioned whether the author even had a specific situation in view (e.g. Willi Marxsen [1919-1993] 1982, 100). Perhaps he has simply imagined a situation that allows him to emphasize very concretely...the vital importance of adhering to apostolic tradition. (Furnish, 1 Thessalonians, 2 Thessalonians (Abingdon New Testament Commentaries), 177)Whatever their reasons, it is likely that members of the church at Thessalonica were slacking and that their behavior necessitated the reminder. As such, the policy does not speak to unemployment in general but rather to those who have options to work and choose not to take them.
F.F. Bruce (1910-1990) distinguishes:
It is refusal to work that is reprobated here...Comparable sayings are quoted from Jewish and early Christian literature. Rabbi Abbahu is cited as saying, “If I do not work, I do not eat” (Genesis Rabbah 2.2 on Genesis 1:2). In a non-Pauline area of the early Christian world the Didache instructs its readers how to deal with visitors who come to them in the Lord’s name: “If he who comes is a traveler, help him as much as you can, but he shall not stay with you more than two days or, if necessary, three. If he wishes to settle down with you and has a craft, let him work for his bread...But if he has no craft, make such provision for him as your intelligence approves, so that no one shall live with you in idleness as a Christian. If he refuses...so to do, he is making merchandise of Christ...beware of such people” (12:2-5). (Bruce, 1 & 2 Thessalonians (Word Biblical Commentary, Vol. 45), 200-201)Robert H. Gundry (b. 1932) concurs:
The command that the person isn’t to eat who doesn’t work because he doesn’t want to work—this command means that his fellow Christians shouldn’t feed him. Hunger may teach him to work for his own food. His fault lies in a lack of desire, not in the job market. (Gundry, Commentary on First and Second Thessalonians)Also in agreement, Grant R. Osborne (b. 1942) advises:
Be careful not to use this verse on those who are willing but unable to work. It is easy to glibly dismiss the difficult conditions of those with disabilities, lack of job training, or lack of job availability. Paul’s harsh words are for people who are unwilling to work when they have both the ability and the opportunity. This phrase should not...be used to hammer the poor. (Osborne, 1 & 2 Thessalonians (Life Application Bible Commentary),146)Victor Paul Furnish (b. 1931) notes that this guideline was presented in such a way as to make it foundational to the functioning of the community:
He conveys this as a rule of fundamental importance (note the emphatic “this” and the imperfect tense [=continuing past action]): “This is what we were commanding you: ‘If someone is not willing to work, let him not eat” (II Thessalonians 3:10b, author’s translation). Formally, this command is typical of regulations that stipulate how particular situations should be dealt with in the life of a particular community...Moreover, its linking of eating to work reflects the view, expressed in many ancient sources, that providing for one’s own livelihood is a responsibility that must not be shirked, and that there will be serious consequences when it is (e.g. Proverbs 6:6-11; cf. Proverbs 10:4. 12:11; Pseudo-Phoculides, Sent 153-54; Dio Chrystostom Or. 7 [discussed by Hock, 1980, 44-45]). (Furnish, 1 Thessalonians, 2 Thessalonians (Abingdon New Testament Commentaries), 176)With this in mind, many communities have institutionalized this rule, including the first permanent English settlement in America, Jamestown. Robert Jewett (b. 1933) notes that North America is not the only continent to create rules based upon this Scripture:
The only quotation from the Bible in the constitution of the former Union of Soviet Socialist Republics is the famous line about not being fed without working. It is curious that it played a larger role in a communist state than it has in mainline churches around the world, where it is occasionally cited as a warning against laziness but it is never included in the founding instruction of church members as indicated by II Thessalonians 3:10. Could this and other passages in the Pauline letters disclose a tradition of voluntary communalism that has been buried by our dominant interpretive tradition? (Jewett, Paul the Apostle to America: Cultural Trends and Pauline Scholarship, 73)This mandate often sounds harsh to modern readers as, in some ways, society appears to be moving away from this principal. Kenneth Minogue (b. 1930) chronicles:
I take my bearing from what Bernard Williams [1929-2003] wrote when the Social Justice Commission (of which he was a member) published its report in October 1994..Inequalities, he argued, must be eliminated as much as possible, and ‘everyone is entitled, as a right of citizenship, to be able to meet their basic needs of income, shelter and other necessities’. We are clearly some distance from St. Paul’s ‘if any would not work, neither should he eat’. (David Boucher [b. 1951] and Paul Kelly [b.1962], “Social justice in theory and practice”, Perspectives on Social Justice: From [David] Hume [1711-1776] to [Michael] Walzer [b. 1935], 263)Still, beneath II Thessalonians’ argument is the premise that work is inherently good for humanity. Henry Cloud (b. 1956) speculates that work’s responsibility is actually empowering:
People who don’t obey this law of cause and effect, who don’t own their behavior and the consequences for it, feel enormously powerless. They become dependent on others who encourage their irresponsibility to maintain their dependency. They have no confidence in their ability to cause an effect. This is why Paul says in II Thessalonians 3:10, “If a man will not work, he shall not eat..” He knows that there is dignity and joy in good behavior. (Cloud, Changes That Heal: The Four Shifts That Make Everything Better...And That Everyone Can Do, 101)D. James Kennedy (1930-2007) sees compassion in the rule given to the Thessalonian church:
Most people feel a twinge of guilt when they hear those words, as if they were without compassion. But this is the most compassionate statement on the subject of economics that has ever been uttered. Were that dictum not followed to a large degree, famine and starvation would plague the world. So let it be proclaimed to a deaf culture committed to a form of socialism that scholar Rousas Rushdoony [1916-2001] calls “the politics of guilt and pity”; if one will not work, nether let him eat. (Kennedy, How Would Jesus Vote?: A Christian Perspective on the Issues, 103-104)What are the benefits of working? Do you view work as a blessing or a curse? Why were the Thessalonians idlers? What is the connection between working and eating? How does this passage speak to modern welfare programs? Should II Thessalonians 3:10 be a foundational principal for governments? When have you seen someone take advantage of charity? How should Christians assist the unemployed? At what point does one move from helping to enabling? Does Paul add stipulations to Jesus’ mandate in the Sermon on the Mount (Matthew 5:42)?
In the Sermon on the Mount, Jesus instructs, “Give to him who asks of you, and do not turn away from him who wants to borrow from you (Matthew 5:42 NASB).” Interpreters often focus on either II Thessalonians 3:10 or Matthew 5:42 and ignore the verse that does not suit their purposes. For instance, social activist Shane Claiborne (b. 1975) never addresses II Thessalonians 3:10 in either of his first two books on being an “ordinary radical”, The Irresistible Revolution (2006) or Jesus For President (2008). In contrast, ultraconservatives seldom mention Matthew 5:42 when lauding the benefits of enforcing II Thessalonians 3:10.
Feeding the needy is a critical issue at the heart of Christianity. Michael W. Holmes (b. 1950) records:
Human beings, Jesus reminds us, do not live by bread alone (Matthew 4:4; cf. Deuteronomy 8:3), but neither do they live without bread. Work is the means by which humans acquire “bread,” that is, the necessities for life (food, clothing, shelter). In the biblical tradition, people who are able to work do so in order to provide for themselves and their families. They also work in order to provide for those who, for whatever reasons, are unable to work (Acts 20:35; Ephesians 4:28). Indeed, “in the Bible and in the first centuries of Christian tradition, meeting one’s needs and the needs of one’s community (especially its underprivileged members) was clearly the most important purpose of work.” (Holmes, 1 and 2 Thessalonians (The NIV Application Commentary), 283)Knowing when and how to help feed someone’s needs is not always clear cut. Gary W. Demarest (b. 1926) acknowledges:
Wherever the gospel of Christ has truly taken hold of the lives of people, difficult questions arise with regard to the poor and needy. The initial impetus of the Bible, New and Old Testaments alike, is the responsibility of the better-off to help and care for those in need. But having said that, the questions must still be raised as to why they are in need. Sometimes it is a matter of tough luck, sometimes a matter of circumstances, sometimes a matter of physical or mental limitations, sometimes a matter of geography and/or politics. The reasons are many and complex...Here, the only people to whom the proverb was applicable were those who were quite capable of working and for whom work was available, but who persisted in their refusal to work. (Demarest, 1,2 Thessalonians, 1,2 Timothy, and Titus (The Preacher’s Commentary, Vol. 32), 143)R.A. Torrey (1856-1928) answers:
Matthew 5:42 undoubtedly teaches that the disciple of Jesus Christ should give to everyone that asks of him, but it does not teach that he should necessarily give money. When Peter and John were appealed to in Acts 3:2-4 by the lame man at the Gate Beautiful they gave to him, but they did not give him money–they gave him something better. Paul distinctly says in II Thessalonians 3:10: “If any man will not work, neither let him eat.” This does not mean that if a man is a tramp we should not give him when he asks, but it does mean that we should use discrimination in what we give him. (Torrey, Practical And Perplexing Questions Answered, 64)Using discernment instead of creating a blanket rule regarding giving to the needy is wise counsel.
What do love and justice require with respect to the distribution of wealth and income? Under what circumstances should we give money to those in need?
“Work is not man’s punishment! It is his reward and his strength, his glory and his pleasure.” - George Sand (1804-1876)