Article 12 of the 1936 Constitution of the USSR states,
In the U.S.S.R. work is a duty and a matter of honour for every able-bodied citizen, in accordance with the principle: “He who does not work, neither shall he eat”.
This principle was earlier quoted by Lenin in his 1917 work The State and Revolution, where he labels it a socialist principle and ties it to another socialist principle: An equal amount of products for an equal amount of labour.
Hopefully, you will recognise that this socialist principle actually comes from the NT where it is found in Paul’s Second Letter to the Thessalonians (3:10). Now, it goes without saying (hopefully for Southern Cross readers!) that Lenin and co were not taking the verse in its context. For them, this was a free-floating principle to wield against the bourgeois – those who were so wealthy they did not need to work. For Paul, as we will see, it is part of his exhortation to the church regarding the idle – those who were so lazy they did not want to work. Nevertheless, even as Christians, when we read 1 Thessalonians 3:10 it can still strike us as harsh and sound more Lenin than loving; more gulag than gospel. And so, it may not actually surprise us that it was adopted by the Soviets as, on the surface at least, it doesn’t seem to tally with Jesus deep concern for the poor and down-trodden
And yet, as always, reading in context, helps us to see that this is not an autocratic diktat issued by a despot wanting to control people’s lives, but a gracious command issued out of loving concern – for each party concerned. A command yes, and a sharp one at that, but one that flows out of the gospel.
The Problem of Idleness at Thessalonica
It seems there were a group in the Thessalonian church who were essentially living off other members of the church. It seems that while they could work, for whatever reason, they chose not to. There were people in the church community who needed to literally do their work quietly and eat their own bread (v.12) i.e. not to eat anyone else’s.
This lazy group were living fundamentally un-Christian lives. Twice in appealing to them Paul does so in the name of the Lord Jesus Christ (v. 6, 12). This was not a peripheral matter of Christian discipleship, but a fundamental aspect of living under the lordship of Christ. To live an idle life was to live out of step with the tradition they had received from Paul (v.6). It was also a failure to follow Paul’s own example which he points to in verses 7 and 8. Even though he was busy preaching the gospel and encouraging them, he still managed to support himself. Out of love to them he laboured night and day so as not to burden them. So, far from being idle, the Thessalonians were to follow Paul’s example of hard work and service. Hence, idleness is a problem because it is not consistent with authentic Christianity. In fact the word translated idle in most of our English translations is perhaps more literally rendered disorderly or irresponsibly. In this instance the particular manifestation of their irresponsibility was idleness, but at root it was a failure to live a responsible Christian life. An idle life goes against the command of the Lord issued through Paul and against the example we have of true Christianity lived out through Paul.
This lazy group were also living in an unloving way and burdening the church. They did this in two ways. First, in verse 11, he speaks of those who are not busy at work but busybodies . The picture is of people with too much time on their hands – again by their own choice – who use that time to grumble or complain. Paul is concerned that the church is being weakened by these people who are spiritually draining the rest of the church by their meddling and murmuring. Secondly, they were physically draining the church. In verse 12, he commands them to eat their own bread , that is, not to eat other people’s. Paul is concerned that other generous people in the church are being burdened by the selfish, idle group. People were having to make an effort to keep these people fed and housed because, for whatever reason, they simply couldn’t be bothered to work.
Paul’s Response to their Idleness
Paul’s response to the idle in the church is very firm. If they are not prepared to work, they should not eat (2:10). In short, those generous people in the church must stop supporting them in their idle life-style. Further, he tells them to not even associate with those who refuse to repent of their idleness (2:6 cf. 2:14).
Perhaps, at this point we recoil. As Christians, aren t we supposed to be forgiving and patient? Didn’t Jesus say, Give to the one who begs from you, and do not refuse the one who would borrow from you (Matthew 5:42)? Surely Paul’s response of effectively shunning the idle is just like Stalin’s Soviet Union – shouldn’t we just go the whole hog and send them to a gulag in Siberia?
In verses 14 and 15, Paul says why he wants the church to act this way. It is so that they may feel ashamed . They are not to be regarded as an enemy of the faith, but warned as a brother . The reason for this firm attitude, then, is restorative. It is loving. It is to make the irresponsible, idle person ashamed so they might repent. To make them wake up to how they are living their life. Paul does not want them to be regarded as an enemy – someone who has betrayed the church. No, they are to be seen as a Christian. But they are to be warned and made to feel ashamed so that they would wake up and repent. To make them realise that they are not being authentically Christian – that they are burdening the church. Now, as soon as the idle person came to his senses and says, Sorry! I have been crazy. I am going to start looking for a job , immediately the Christian response is, Great! Let me help you with your resumé. Do you need a place to stay while you look for work?
2 Thessalonians 3 in the 21st Century
The Issue at Hand
It is very tempting to dismiss Paul’s concern in this chapter as of little or no relevance in our Western world, where, if anything, the opposite problem of workaholism appears to be the greater problem. And yet the reason that Paul was so concerned for this issue was the burden these people were putting on the church. They were draining the church physically as others supported their indolent lifestyles, and they were draining the church spiritually as they meddled in other people’s affairs. Had they had access to social media, it is not difficult to imagine these church members spending hours stirring up controversy on-line with endless posts and comments that did nothing to commend the gospel to anyone. In contrast, there is an artful simplicity to living the Christian life in the world – work hard, don t be a burden to others and, never tire of doing what is right (v. 13). This is not socialism, any more than it is merely the spirit of capitalism . No, it is authentic Christian living which Paul commanded the Christian churches he founded with all the authority of the Lord Jesus.
The Church’s Response
Church discipline is a neglected practice in 21st Century churches. Perhaps this is understandable. In many of our cities, a person who is directly challenged about how they are living their Christian life can simply start attending a church in the next suburb – a church where people will accept them without any change. Nevertheless, authentic Christian love means being willing to challenge people, to be willing to not even associate with them so they may feel ashamed and come to their senses and repent.
In a world where to express even mild disagreement or criticism of a person’s beliefs or lifestyle can lead to being labelled spiteful or a hater , this chapter is profoundly counter-cultural. Paul challenges us that caring for one another is more than sharing prayer points at home-group and dropping meals around when someone is sick. This chapter confronts us with the fact that true Christian love has a hard edge. But this hard edge is not harsh and unloving but deeply caring and restorative.
The command if anyone is not willing to work, let them not eat is not a Soviet principle to be used to purge the bourgeois from society, but a deeply Christian command issued out of love for the Church and concern for the restoration of the Christian who is living out of step with genuine Christian teaching and burdening the church. Do we obey it? Do we ensure others do too?
Peter Orr lectures in New Testament.