Have you read 2 Thessalonians? I’m sure I have and I can only quote one verse from it (I didn’t even know it was from 2 Thessalonians until I re-read the book today). The verse? “If a man work not, neither shall he eat.” Truly a favorite, especially among those who, like me, are of a particularly conservative political bent. But have we taken this favorite verse out of context, how should it be read and understood.
I have written some really good notes (you know, if I do say so myself) on the Thessalonian church here . This was the church Paul started when he was on the run from Phillipi after the incident with the Phillipian Jailer. He fled east on the Via Egnatia to Thessalonia and convinced a number of the local Jewish congregation that Jesus was the Messiah. However some of those who were not convinced charged some of the believers with attempting to replace Caesar with Jesus, with treason in other words. Once again Paul had to flee and but he sent back a letter to the believers in Thessalonia (1 Thessalonians) to encourage them in their struggles.
Subsequent to 1 Thessalonians Paul obviously received word that their was some misinterpretation of his previous letter or that the Thessalonians were letting teachers other than Paul persuade them Paul had said the “Day of the Lord” had already come and gone and that they had missed it. Paul wrote 2 Thessalonians to correct this error, assuring the faithful that they had not missed out on God’s reward.
In that context he tries to correct one more error, the tendency for some to sit around twiddling their thumbs, relying on the work of others, while waiting for the Day of the Lord to come. In 2 Thessalonians 3:6-13 Paul states flatly:
In the name of the Lord Jesus Christ, we command you, brothers and sisters, to keep away from every believer who is idle and disruptive and does not live according to the teaching you received from us. For you yourselves know how you ought to follow our example. We were not idle when we were with you, nor did we eat anyone’s food without paying for it. On the contrary, we worked night and day, laboring and toiling so that we would not be a burden to any of you. We did this, not because we do not have the right to such help, but in order to offer ourselves as a model for you to imitate. For even when we were with you, we gave you this rule: “The one who is unwilling to work shall not eat.”
We hear that some among you are idle and disruptive. They are not busy; they are busybodies. Such people we command and urge in the Lord Jesus Christ to settle down and earn the food they eat. And as for you, brothers and sisters, never tire of doing what is good.
These idle individuals, perhaps feeling themselves too holy to engage in labor, or that the “higher calling” they had received relieved them of the duty to work for their food were more than a financial drag on the rest of the believers, is a disruption, a spiritual problem as well. They are not busy and productive, they are busybodies, meddling in the affairs of others instead of living their lives, as Paul often admonished, in peace, quietly and harmoniously with other believers and the world at large.
But lets consider some other questions. What is this work that Paul talks about? Is it the work of the church or regular secular work that provides income? Is there a difference? Are those who work hard for their own living (whether they earn little or much) excused from the work of the Church? What was the full example of Paul?
Have you ever known any of these types of busybodies? Have you ever been one?
Here’s a potentially disturbing question: do these verses have anything to say about professional clergy?
And one more, do these verses have anything to do with secular society? Is it correct to apply this to society in general or was Paul talking only believers in the context of their lives with each other?