For even when we were with you, we gave you this command: Anyone unwilling to work should not eat.St. Paul, 2 Thessalonians 3:10
Whenever the concept of any kind of social welfare is discussed, this famous maxim from the pen of St. Paul inevitably gets dropped into the conversation, usually without any context or exegesis, from someone who thinks they have the show-stopping proof-text from the Bible condemning “handouts” or anything remotely resembling “socialism.” For example, after my latest endorsement of a Universal Basic Income, someone quoted this text and claimed, “Paul disagrees with you.” The verse has been a favorite of conservative politicians as “biblical” justification for their proposals to cut this or that welfare program. But is that really what Paul had in mind when he wrote this ancient letter to the Christians living in the city of Thessalonica? Not necessarily.
Setting the Context
I’m not sure who originally coined it, but there’s a popular phrase when it comes to biblical interpretation: “A text without a context is just a pretext for a proof-text.” In other words, context matters. Similarly, as Ben Witherington reminds us, “Paul is not firing off general ethical maxims at the end of his letters but speaking into quite specific social situations, even if we cannot always deduce precisely what that situation was.” So let’s look at this famous line from Paul in a little more context.
Now we command you, beloved, in the name of our Lord Jesus Christ, to keep away from believers who are living in idleness and not according to the tradition that they received from us. For you yourselves know how you ought to imitate us; we were not idle when we were with you, and we did not eat anyone’s bread without paying for it; but with toil and labor we worked night and day, so that we might not burden any of you. This was not because we do not have that right, but in order to give you an example to imitate. For even when we were with you, we gave you this command: Anyone unwilling to work should not eat. For we hear that some of you are living in idleness, mere busybodies, not doing any work.2 Thessalonians 3:6-11
It’s clear from the overall context that “idleness” is the primary issue at hand, and this idleness is closely connected to being a “busybody.” It’s worth noting there that there has been significant debate among interpreters regarding just what kind of “idleness” and “busy-bodying” Paul was addressing here. Some certainly have suggested that Paul was addressing poor Christians who were mooching off of wealthier Christians. Others, however, doubt that the poor would actually refuse to work, and have suggested that “such a refusal was more likely from those used to being clients, a little higher up the status chain.” Others still have suggested that Paul may actually be referring to itinerant preachers who take advantage of the generosity and hospitality of the Christians. Others have posited that the ones refusing to work were those who believed that Jesus’ return was imminent and thus it was pointless to work. Finally, some have suggested that those who “refused to work” were actually the rich themselves whose wealth freed them from the necessity of actual labor. The point is, we cannot simply assume that Paul had poor freeloaders in mind.
Zeroing in on v. 10 itself, it is important that we recognize what Paul has actually addressing and what he is not addressing. Specifically, his issue is not simply with people who are not working, but with those who refuse to work. In other words, Paul is focusing on attitude more than ability. His concern is not those who, for whatever reason, are unable to contribute, but those who are unwilling to contribute – an important distinction.
Additionally, we should not lose sight of the fact that the text itself actually assumes a communal support system. There would be no reason at all for Paul to tell the community that those unwilling to work shouldn’t eat if there wasn’t already a system in place for them to eat. In other words, Paul clearly wasn’t condemning a communal support system, only the abuse of it by those who had both the ability and opportunity to work, but lacked the willingness.
Much more could be said, but it seems clear to me that even a cursory examination of the textual and historical context reveals that this oft-cited line from Paul just isn’t the clear rebuttal to social welfare that it’s often touted to be.
It gets even more interesting.
Did you know that the infamous socialist Lenin himself often used the phrase “he who does not work, neither shall he eat” to support his socialist philosophy? As a matter of fact, in his Letter to the Workers of Petrograd he stated that “in this simple, elementary, and perfectly obvious truth lies the basis of socialism, the indefeasible source of its strength, the indestructible pledge of its final victory.” And for Lenin, it was remarkably clear who those who did not work were: the bourgeoisie and the rich.
The reason for his letter was a crippling famine. “The famine,” Lenin writes,
Is not due to the fact that there is no grain in Russia, but to the fact that the bourgeoisie and the rich…are disrupting the grain monopoly and the proper distribution of grain by resorting to bribery and corruption and by deliberately supporting everything tending to destroy the power of the workers, which is endeavoring to put into effect the prime, basic and root principle of socialism: “He who does not work, neither shall he eat.”
As a matter of fact, that very phrase was written into Communist Russia’s constitution. Crazy, right?
The point is, if people on such different ends of the economic and political spectrums can appeal to the same maxim, perhaps it’s not actually the slam dunk it its portrayed to be. A truly “biblical” approach to addressing poverty must rely on much more than a context-less proof-text. From my perspective, the Bible as a whole makes a far stronger case for supporting the poor than it does for policing their employment.
 Ben Witherington III, 1 and 2 Thessalonians: A Socio-Rhetorical Commentary (Grand Rapids, MI: Wm. B. Eerdmans Publishing Co., 2006), 248.