The Problem of Idleness in Thessalonica (1 Thessalonians 4:9–12 and 2 Thessalonians 3:6–16)

Bible Commentary / Produced by TOW Project

First Thessalonians 4:9–12 and 2 Thessalonians 3:6–16 address work directly.[1] Scholars continue to debate precisely what led to the problem of idleness at Thessalonica. While we are most concerned to hear how Paul wants the problem solved, it will be helpful to make some suggestions as to how the problem might have arisen in the first place.

  • Many believe that some of the Thessalonians had stopped work­ing because the end times were at hand.[2] They might have felt that they were already living in God’s kingdom, and there was no need to work; or they might have felt that Jesus was coming at any minute, and thus there was no point to work. The Thes-salonian letters do speak quite a bit about misunderstandings about the end times, and it is interesting that the passages about idleness in 1 Thessalonians 4:9–12 and 2 Thessalonians 3:6–16 both come in the context of teaching on the end times. On the other hand, Paul does not make an explicit connection between idleness and eschatology.

Others have suggested a “nobler” reason for the idleness: people had given up their day jobs in order to preach the gospel. (One could see how such a move would be eased if they had the sort of eschatological fervor noted in the first view.)[3] Such would-be evangelists stand in sharp contrast to Paul, the foremost evange­list, who nonetheless works with his own hands lest he become a burden to the church. The churches in Macedonia were known for their evangelistic zeal, yet it remains unclear whether the idle in Thessalonica were necessarily using their free time for evangelistic labors.

  • A third view sees the problem as more sociological than theological.[4] Some manual laborers were unemployed (whether through laziness, persecution, or general economic malaise) and had be­come dependent on the charity of others in the church. They discovered that life as the client of a rich patron was significantly easier than life as a laborer slogging out a day’s work. The in­junction for Christians to care for one another formed a ready pretext for them to continue in this parasitic lifestyle.

It is difficult to choose between these different reconstructions. They all have something in the letters to support them, and it is not hard to see modern analogies in the modern church. Many people today undervalue everyday work because “Jesus is coming soon, and everything is going to burn up anyway.” Plenty of Christian workers justify substandard per­formance because their “real” purpose in the workplace is to evangelize their co-workers. And questions of unhelpful dependence on the charity of others arise both in the local context (e.g., pastors who are asked to give money to a man whose mother died . . . for the third time this year) and the global context (e.g., the question of whether some foreign aid does more harm than good).

We can, however, move forward even in the absence of complete certainty about what was going on to cause the problem of idleness in Thessalonica. First, we may note that the views above share a common, but false, supposition—namely, Christ’s coming into the world has radically diminished the value of everyday labor. People were using some aspect of Christ’s teaching—whether it was his second coming, or his commission to evangelize the world, or his command for radi­cal sharing in the community—to justify their idleness. Paul will have none of it. Responsible Christian living embraces work, even the hard work of a first-century manual laborer. It is equally clear that Paul is disturbed when people take advantage of the generosity of others in the church. If people can work, they should work. Finally, the idleness of Christians appears to have given the church a bad name in the pagan community.

On the relationship between the instructions about sexual purity in 1 Thes­salonians 4:3–7 and the instructions in 4:9–12, see Traugott Holtz, Der erste Brief an die Thessalonicher in Evangelisch-katholischer Kommentar zum Neuen Testament (Zürich: Benziger, 1986), 161–62; Karl P. Donfried, “The Cults of Thessalonica and the Thessalonian Correspondence,” New Testament Studies 31, no. 3 (1985): 341–42; and Earl J. Richard, First and Second Thessalonians, Sacra Pagina (Collegeville: Michael Glazier, 1995), 194, 202.

See, e.g., G. Agrell, Work, Toil and Sustenance: An Examination of the View of Work in the New Testament, Taking into Consideration Views Found in Old Testament, Intertestamental and Early Rabbinic Writings, trans. S. Westerholm and G. Agrell (Lund: Ohlssons, 1976), 122–23; John A. Bailey, “Who Wrote II Thessalonians?” New Testament Studies 25, no. 02 (1979): 137; Peter Müller, Anfänge der Paulusschule: Dargestellt am zweiten Thessalonicherbrief und am Kolosserbrief, in Abhandlungen zur Theologie des Alten und Neuen Testaments (Zürich: Theologischer, 1988), 162–67; K. Romanuik, “Les Thes-saloniciens étaient-ils des parasseux?” Ephemerides Theologicae Lovanienses 69 (1993): 142–45; and A. M. Okorie, “The Pauline Work Ethic in 1 and 2 Thes­salonians,” Deltio Biblikon Meleton 14 (1995): 63–64.

See, e.g., John Barclay, “Conflict in Thessalonica,” Catholic Biblical Quar­terly 55 (1993), 512–30; Trevor J. Burke, Family Matters: A Socio-Historical Study of Kinship Metaphors in 1 Thessalonians (London: T&T Clark, 2003), 213ff.

See, with various points of emphasis, D. E. Aune, “Trouble in Thessalonica: An Exegetical Study of 1 Thess. 4:9–12, 5:12–14 and II Thess. 6:6–15 in Light of First-Century Social Conditions,” ThM thesis (Regent College, 1989); Colin R. Nicholl, From Hope to Despair: Situating 1 & 2 Thessalonians, Society for New Testament Studies Monograph Series (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 2004), 157ff; Ben Witherington, 1 and 2 Thessalonians: A Socio-Rhetorical Commentary (Grand Rapids, Eerdmans, 2006), 43–44.