2Thess 3:10 has been used to support a variety of political positions from socialism to free market capitalism, including to argue for reduction in governmental nutrition, housing, and unemployment programs to support the poor. In one prominent example, a US Republican congressman cited 2Thess 3:10 to counter the expert testimony from a Jewish antihunger group, which had cited Lev 19:9-10 to argue for continued funding for a federal supplemental nutrition program. This article, however, complicates arguments about how this verse relates to welfare programs by highlighting the very different contexts 2 Thessalonians was addressing.
What is the social context of 2 Thessalonians 3:6-14?
There were few governmental social safety nets in the Roman Empire, and those few that existed (e.g., the cura annonae/bread dole) tended to benefit those living in the city of Rome or those privileged with Roman citizenship. Instead, individuals often created their own systems of mutual support and aid by organizing in communities, sponsoring everything from group meals to funerals. These groups often formed around common interests or commitments, from trade groups to organizations dedicated to a particular deity. Participation in associations was not limited only to wealthy individuals but frequently incorporated those pooling more meager resources to provide for members’ needs. By creating financial structures such as dues, rotating sponsorship of communal meals, and even fines, associations could offer benefit beyond the means of any individual member. Biblical scholars often situate early Christ-following communities, especially those with connections to the apostle Paul, within the broader popularity of these associations.
Second, the letters of Paul are occasional letters written to specific communities to address their specific concerns. Thus, while 2 Thessalonians purports to be written by Paul, 2Thess 3:10 is not a comprehensive argument about governmental obligations to the poor. Rather, 2Thess 3 taps into a trope in the Pauline corpus in which Paul asserts his financial independence from and contribution to Christ communities (see 1Cor 9) despite evidence that he actually received financial benefits from these communities (see Phil 4). This invocation of a prior teaching to make a current argument about mutual community obligations reminds us that this is a letter written to and shared in a community addressing the particular needs and concerns of that community.
What can 2 Thessalonians 3:6–14 tell us about early Christ followers and welfare?
With these two contexts (ancient associations and occasional letters) in mind, the significance of 2Thess 3:6-14 can become clearer. The admonition to exclude those who are unwilling to work from eating takes place in a local community that has already committed to mutual investment in one another. According to John Kloppenborg, this passage reveals that “this Christ assembly, like other associations, had an interest in its own solvency and so devised means to insure that its costs—meals, funerals, and other expenses—could be met by regular contribution of dues.” As with other ancient associations, 2Thess 3:6-14 seems concerned with the expectations of and benefits to the Thessalonian Christ followers, especially when some seem unwilling to contribute what is expected of them for the fragile system of mutual care to run. While we do not know the specific financial parameters for participating in the Thessalonian Christ community, 2Thess 3:10 suggests that the community was considering excluding those who did not contribute to the community for their communal meals. This passage is not about whether the poor should have the right to eat and to live, but rather describes how an ancient Christ following community organized to ensure that its members had enough to eat when they gathered and could provide mutual aid and support to one another when they were in need.