In the name of the Lord Jesus Christ, we command you, brothers, to keep away from every brother who is idle 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 make ourselves a model for you to follow. For even when we were with you, we gave you this rule: “If a man will not work, he shall not eat.”
We hear that some among you are idle. They are not busy; they are busybodies. Such people we command and urge in the Lord Jesus Christ to settle down and earn the bread they eat. And as for you, brothers, never tire of doing what is right.
If anyone does not obey our instruction in this letter, take special note of him. Do not associate with him, in order that he may feel ashamed. Yet do not regard him as an enemy, but warn him as a brother. (2 Thessalonians 3:6-15)
This is a rather self-explanatory passage. The challenge is to make Christians take it seriously, and to obey it. Paul had said, “warn those who are idle” in his first letter (1 Thessalonians 5:14), but apparently that did not eradicate the problem. So when he receives report that some of them remain idle (2 Thessalonians 3:11), he brings up the matter again in this second letter. This time he takes on a more urgent tone, first appealing to “the name of the Lord Jesus Christ,” and then issuing a “command” to compel the brothers to take decisive action against those who persist in idleness. Rather than earning their own food, they live on the charity of others – they are loafers and freeloaders. And not being busy with meaningful labor, they meddle in other people’s business.
It is common to assume that the problem of idleness among the Thessalonians is related to their misunderstanding or misapplication of the doctrine of the second coming. The assumption is that, in light of the second coming of Christ, some begin to think that there is no point to maintaining a regular occupation, and so have stopped working in order to wait for the event. However, Paul does not suggest such a connection, and it is unconfirmed in the text. At the most the theory should be considered a mere possibility. Interpretation does not depend on it, and in fact might be distorted by it, especially if the assumption is false. In any case, the passage is applicable to idleness for any reason.
In the name of Christ, Paul commands the Christians to take decisive action against those who are idle. His instructions are not at first directed to those who are idle, but to those who are not. So those who are faithful in productive labor are not exempt from considering this topic, or from what Paul commands them to do. It is precisely to those who are not among the idle that the apostle directs most of his statements on the subject. So no one should take what Paul says only as a matter of exegetical interest, but this is something that Christians must do, that all churches must implement as official policy, as a matter of obedience to the Lord Jesus.
The decisive action that Christians are to take against those who are idle is to “keep away” from them – that is, to literally, really, shun them. What? Should we just let them starve? Is that the Christian way? Yes, it is. Paul adds, “For even when we were with you, we gave you this rule: ‘If a man will not work, he shall not eat'” (v. 10). In the name of Christ, Paul commands all Christians to let idlers starve to death. It would be a sin to feed them. Then, the apostle proceeds to “command and urge” those who are idle to “settle down and earn the bread they eat.” Verse 14 repeats the command to those who are not idle: “If anyone does not obey our instruction in this letter, take special note of him. Do not associate with him, in order that he may feel ashamed.” Mark this person. Know him by name and by face. And then avoid any association with him. There must be a concerted effort of the entire Christian community to shun and to shame this person.
The command has obvious implications for policies on welfare and charity. Those who are able to work, but are unwilling to work, are to be shunned and shamed. They are not to receive any financial or material aid. If they do not work, they do not eat. If they starve to death, then so be it.
Of course, housewives and children do not work for money, but the principle can still apply in the sense that they must not be idle. They have their own work that contributes to their families, churches, and societies. Ministers who labor in preaching, writing, visiting, counseling, and other such tasks are not idle, but as noted earlier, they have a right to financial support, including a steady salary. Paul had a right to this kind of support, although he did not accept it, but rather worked for his own food, in order to provide an example for his converts to imitate. However, even as he refers to his example, he reasserts his right to financial support (v. 7-9).
In any case, we acknowledge that there are cases of genuine need – those who are orphaned or widowed without any source of support, those who are disabled, and those who are willing to work but cannot find work at the moment. The Bible makes provisions for such individuals.