“For even when we were with you, this we commanded you, that if any would not work, neither should he eat.” – 2 Thessalonians 3:10
Question. “What does the scripture mean when it says that the one who is unwilling to work should not eat?”
Let’s establish some background first.
Work is ordained by God, both an inherent good (Genesis 2:15) and a “necessary evil” (Genesis 3:19). Work keeps us out of a lot of trouble! Work is necessary to support one’s family (1 Timothy 5:8 ), and contributes to the common good of self and society (Proverbs 12:27; Ephesians 4:28; 1 Thessalonians 4:11-12). The Bible is clear; it condemns laziness and sloth (Proverbs 18:9; Proverbs 19:15; Ecclesiastes 10:18). It commends work. Part of the “welfare system” of the law allowed the poor the dignity of contributing to their own benefit by working (Leviticus 19:10; 23:22).
The immediate context of 2 Thessalonians 3:6-12 and the broader context of the letter show these interesting exhortations:
- be not deceived by false teachings of the coming of Christ (2:2-3)
- pray for deliverance from unreasonable and wicked men (3:1-2)
- patiently wait for the coming of Christ (3:5)
- withdraw from those who refuse to walk in apostolic teaching (3:6)
- follow the examples you have been given (2:15; 3:7-9)
- do not feed the shiftless busybodies; let them work (3:10)
- give up meddling and get to working (3:11-12)
The teaching of Paul was to work. He made himself an example (vs. 6-9), and expected it of others. On one hand, some resort to the “It was given for a specific church in a specific place at a specific time” argument to extract any meaning from it. On the other hand, some take this one verse out of its context to argue against any type of charity or welfare in feeding the poor and hungry. Paul warns against busybodies. Some in Thessalonica spent their time in idleness and laziness, perhaps excusing themselves with the imminent return of the Lord (2 Thessalonians 2:2-3). They avoided work and spent their time meddling in the business of others. This text is about those who choose not to work.[i] This text is not about the poor, widows, orphans, or those who are unable to help themselves. The Bible commends and commands help for others in need (Deuteronomy 15:7-11; Proverbs 31:9; Matthew 25:35-40; Acts 20:35; Galatians 2:10) and identifies such as “pure religion” (James 1:27).
“If any would not work, neither should he eat” is a valid principle for today, and should be applied in the proper circumstances.
“If any would not work, neither should he eat” is not a club with which to beat the poor, and does not absolve us from helping those in need.
“If any would not work, neither should he eat” at the least means meddlesome Christians should not be aided and abetted and encouraged on their way by the good will of the Christian community.
[i] It is possible that the Thessalonian Church maintained some communal aspects as found in the church at Jerusalem immediately after Pentecost (Cf. Acts 2:44; 4:32), but that is not necessary for understanding the passage. It could be as simple as these busybodies going from house to house with their meddling, while indulging in the meals while they were there. Normally the committed Christian would feel a special burden for their own (“As we have therefore opportunity, let us do good unto all men, especially unto them who are of the household of faith.” Galatians 6:10), but should not be burdened with those who chose the meddlesome lifestyle. The resolution of this problem was to not dole out favors to them, but rather tell them to get to work.