Paul is an advocate of social welfare and charitable giving, but only for those who are genuinely in need. Paul clearly regards the early manifestations of generous provision for the unemployed Thessalonian Christians as appropriate expressions of Christian love (1 Thess. 4:9–10). Moreover, even after the expression of love on the part of some was selfishly exploited by others, he still calls for the church to continue to do good by giving to those in genuine need (2 Thess. 3:13). It would have been easy for the benefactors to become disillusioned with charitable giving in general and to shy away from it in the future.
The key factor in determining whether someone unemployed was worthy of charity or welfare was a willingness to work (2 Thess. 3:10). Some who are perfectly capable of working do not, simply because they do not want to—they do not merit financial or material assistance. On the other hand, some cannot work due to some incapacity or mitigating circumstance—they are clearly deserving of financial and material assistance. Verse 13 assumes that there are legitimate charitable cases in the Thessalonian church.
In practice, of course, it is difficult to determine who is slacking versus who is willing yet genuinely unable to work or find a job. If the close-knit members of the Thessalonian church had a hard time discerning who among them was worthy to receive financial support, imagine how much more difficult it is for a far-flung modern city, province, or nation. This reality has led to deep divisions among Christians with respect to social policy, as practiced by both the church and the state. Some prefer to err on the side of mercy, providing relatively easy access and generous, sometimes long-term, benefits to people in apparent financial hardship. Others prefer to err on the side of industriousness, requiring relatively stringent proof that the hardship is due to factors beyond the recipient’s control, and providing benefits limited in amount and duration. A particularly thorny question has been support of single mothers with small children and of all persons unemployed for long periods during economic recessions. Does such support provide care to the most vulnerable members of society, particularly children in vulnerable families? Or does it subsidize a culture of removal from working society, to the detriment of both the individual and the community? These are difficult, challenging issues. Biblical passages such as those in the Thessalonian letters should figure deeply in Christians’ social and political understanding. Our conclusions may put us in opposition with other Christians, but this is not necessarily a cause to withdraw from political and social participation. Yet we should engage politics and social discourse with respect, kindness, a healthy humility that our views are not infallible, and an awareness that the same passages may lead other believers to contrary conclusions. The Thessalonian letters reveal God’s values and insights applied to the ancient Thessalonian context. But they do not constitute an indisputable social or party program as applied in today’s very different contexts.
It is clear that Paul has in mind both that all the Thessalonian Christians should work to the degree they are able and that the church should take care of those in genuine need. He wants the finances of the benefactors in the church to be used strategically rather than frittered away idly. Indeed, if the idle get back to work, they too will be in a position to be givers rather than recipients, and the church’s capacity to spread the gospel and minister to the poor and needy within and without the church will be increased. The biblical insistence that Christians should work so as to be self-supporting wherever possible ultimately has in view the extension of the kingdom of God on the earth.
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