6 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. 7 For you yourselves know how you ought to imitate us; we were not idle when we were with you, 8 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. 9 This was not because we do not have that right, but in order to give you an example to imitate. 10 For even when we were with you, we gave you this command: Anyone unwilling to work should not eat. 11 For we hear that some of you are living in idleness, mere busybodies, not doing any work. 12 Now such persons we command and exhort in the Lord Jesus Christ to do their work quietly and to earn their own living. 13 Brothers and sisters, do not be weary in doing what is right.
No work, no food. If there were any doubt about whether the Christian life is firmly situated in the world, Paul’s statement clears it up. He is talking about work. He is talking about food. Doesn’t get much worldlier than that.
And not only is he exhorting from the assumption that Christians are temporal entities, tied to the contingencies and necessities of this age, he is also speaking from the conviction that how Christians work and eat—or do not—is, in fact, the concrete outworking of a confession of faith. Without this inherent connection between faith and life, it would be difficult to see how Paul can command and exhort believers in Thessalonica to work quietly and earn a living, not just in the name of pure creaturely necessity, but in the name of their Lord Jesus Christ (v. 12).
If we are desiring to tie Paul’s words to a particular theory of political theology, John Yoder’s term confessing church seems fitting. In the words of Stanley Hauerwas and William Willimon in Resident Aliens:
The confessing church finds its main political task to lie, not in the personal transformation of individual hearts or the modification of society, but rather in the congregation’s determination to worship Christ in all things.
Here then is Paul’s determined refusal to speak of anything, even work and food, in a way that is disconnected from the person and work of Christ and his body, the Church. As Christians, our tasks, whatever they may be and however mundane they may be, are outworkings of our confession of faith in the one who has redeemed us and now exercises lordship over us. For the Christian, there is not political or economic identity outside of and apart from our identity in Christ. We strive, rather, to worship Christ in all things because, as Paul has said elsewhere, Christ is, indeed, all in all (Colossians 3:11).
Now, this gives us an idea where Paul is coming from, but the challenges to the church of taking Paul (and our Lord Jesus) seriously have only begun. There remains the bold judgment: no work, no food. Oftentimes, Christians are either reluctant to embrace Paul’s words, seeing it as a dictum from a less enlightened age, or, conversely, they are eager to utilize Paul’s exhortation as a justification for some pre-conceived political ideology.
For the former, Paul’s command that those who don’t work should not eat betrays an unenlightened and unfeeling sentiment. What about the disabled? The feeble? The old? The systemically marginalized? From this perspective, Paul here is simply giving voice to a harshness that marks many pre-modern thinkers, or, perhaps, is an unintended carryover from his training in a Pharisaic tradition that neglected the needy (Luke 11:37-54).
This view doesn’t necessarily disqualify Paul as a mouth-piece of God; however, it may encourage us to reserve that distinction for his teachings that have to do with faith and not life. According to this view, Paul’s prescription for the life of the church is suspect due to the influence of his particular uncivilized historical context. Elsewhere Paul may speak for God but here he is simply letting his unfortunate cultural conditioning speak out.
Yet, for the latter, Paul’s dictum finds enthusiastic acceptance, and, in fact, it is his perceived unfeeling sentiment that makes his command seemingly even more desirable. Here no work, no food is taken to be the mantra of a Christianized, rugged self-determination, a version of the Lord helps those who help themselves, which can be propped up as a stalwart against all forms of public assistance, the need for which must, it is thought, be a result of laziness. No work, no food stamps. No work, no housing assistance. No work, no Medicaid.
Even though Paul is speaking to a church who, as in Acts 2, likely held much of everything in common and sold their possession so as to be able to give to all as they had need, his words become captive to a curious form of political conservativism. According to this view, Paul must be speaking against progressive policies that engrain entitlement by rewarding those who are unwilling to work.
So, in the end, how should the church rightly understand Paul’s words today and take them to heart? Well, there is no doubt that some contextual adaption is needed to understand how Paul’s commands to the Thessalonians speak to us. Many things have changed from Paul’s original context. Faced with persecution, empowered by special outpourings of the Spirit, the early Christians in Thessalonica probably did live a more communal existence like the Christians in Acts.
This is a far cry from where most Western Christians find themselves today. For many, a vast majority of their goods and possessions are not held in common, and the fruits of their labor are not distributed to all as any have need. While production may be still a communal effort, our consumption is often highly individualized.
Yet, our individualized modern existence should not overshadow the reality of a communal existence and a common holding of goods that is still an ongoing reality and blessing for the church. It should not be understated that it is still common practice for Christians to pool resources for the benefit of the whole church, both local and universal, and even for those outside of the church. Christians, whether episcopal or congregational in polity, still hold much property and services in common.
In the life of the church across the world, benefits are enjoyed which are indeed the product of communal effort and sacrifice. In fact, the future of the church on earth may necessitate at some point a more communal existence for the sake of survival, if not faithfulness.
And so, when speaking to the blessed reality of work and the fruits of the work—or, in this case, the lack thereof—Paul’s words of exhortation should be allowed to ring clear and true: everyone who is able is to do their part! Just as neglecting the needy is not befitting of those who have been redeemed in Christ and confess Him to be Lord, so too is idleness not befitting of those whose abilities have been redeemed in Christ and confess Him to be Lord. Work is necessary in this age both for creaturely existence as well as for our redeemed calling as Christians to live for others.
We should let Paul’s words of exhortation hit us full-on: be imitators of the apostles, who themselves were imitators of Christ, who have come before us and embrace toil and labor and ability, not only as beneficial to their own temporal existence, but as a public witness to the glorious redemption in and lordship of Jesus Christ which shows itself in all aspects of our life, in our outpouring of love on our neighbor as well as in our work which makes such outpourings possible.
It is finally here that Paul’s saying no work, no food is shown to be not at all a narrowly focused command about something disconnected from faith but an example of how a broad and confessional understanding of faith and life must speak to and exhort whatever is put before it, whether spiritual or temporal. Jesus Christ has redeemed all of us, and is indeed Lord over all of us. So let us, all of us, worship him in all things, with all that we have, and with all that we are able to do.
 Stanley Hauerwas and William Willimon, Resident Aliens (Nashville: Abingdon Press, 1989), 45.
Rev. Dr. Jacob Bobby is pastor at First Trinity Lutheran Church in Bloomfield NE. He graduated from Concordia Seminary, St. Louis in 2009. He received his PhD in Political Science from the University of South Dakota in 2015, with a focus on American Political Institutions and Political Communication.