6 Now we command you, brothers, in the name of our Lord Jesus Christ, that you keep away from any brother who is walking in idleness and not in accord with the tradition that you received from us. 7 For you yourselves know how you ought to imitate us, because we were not idle when we were with you, 8 nor did we eat anyone’s bread without paying for it, but with toil and labor we worked night and day, that we might not be a burden to any of you. 9 It was not because we do not have that right, but to give you in ourselves an example to imitate. 10 For even when we were with you, we would give you this command: If anyone is not willing to work, let him not eat. 11 For we hear that some among you walk in idleness, not busy at work, but busybodies. 12 Now such persons we command and encourage in the Lord Jesus Christ to do their work quietly and to earn their own living. – 2 Thessalonians 3:6-12 ESV
The body of Christ is an organism, not just an organization. While it’s made up of individuals, they are expected to exist together in a state of mutual love and submission, displaying selfless acts of compassion and a shared concern for the well-being of one another. Paul used the metaphor of the human body as a way of describing the symbiotic relationship between believers.
We are many parts of one body, and we all belong to each other. – Romans 12:5 NLT
The human body has many parts, but the many parts make up one whole body. So it is with the body of Christ. – 1 Corinthians 12:12 NLT
So God has put the body together such that extra honor and care are given to those parts that have less dignity. This makes for harmony among the members, so that all the members care for each other. If one part suffers, all the parts suffer with it, and if one part is honored, all the parts are glad.
All of you together are Christ’s body, and each of you is a part of it. – 1 Corinthians 12:24-27 NLT
Paul viewed the body of Christ as a living organism in which the interdependence between its various members was essential to the overall spiritual health of the whole. And he expressed his desire that they act as a cohesive, mutually caring community in his first letter.
Be at peace among yourselves. And we urge you, brothers, admonish the idle, encourage the fainthearted, help the weak, be patient with them all. – 1 Thessalonians 5:13-14 ESV
Paul was well aware of the fact that, inevitably, the body of Christ would be made up of all kinds of people who exhibited every conceivable level of spiritual maturity. In the verses above, he mentions the idle, the fainthearted, and the weak. And he spoke of the weak on more than one occasion, revealing his awareness that the spiritual immature would always be a part of any local body of believers.
As for the one who is weak in faith, welcome him, but not to quarrel over opinions. – Romans 14:1 ESV
We who are strong have an obligation to bear with the failings of the weak, and not to please ourselves. Let each of us please his neighbor for his good, to build him up. – Romans 15:1-2 ESV
But in this second letter to the Thessalonians, Paul is addressing something quite different than spiritual immaturity. He specifically calls out those who are “walking in idleness.” Paul uses two Greek words to describe these individuals. The first is peripateō, and it can be translated “to walk,” but can also mean “to conduct one’s self” or “to pass one’s life.” These people were conducting their daily lives in a way that Paul deemed unacceptable. That’s where the second Greek word comes in: ataktōs. It describes a soldier marching out of step with his peers. They were “deviating from the prescribed order or rule” (Outline of Biblical Usage). These individuals weren’t just marching to the beat of their own drum, they were stubbornly refusing to line up with the teaching of Paul and the other apostles. Their actions were blatantly disorderly and disruptive to the local body of Christ. These were not weak or immature believers in need of instruction and encouragement. They were men and women whose undisciplined conduct and stubborn resistance to discipline were damaging the entire faith community. They were like rogue cancer cells in the body of Christ and Paul recommended radical steps to prevent their further contamination.
Based on Paul’s admonitions, we can piece together a picture of what these people were guilty of doing. Their disorderly conduct included a refusal to work. We’re not told why they held this view, but it could be that they had been impacted by false teaching that had led them to believe that Jesus was coming back any day. In light of that expectation, it’s likely that they viewed work as unnecessary and a waste of time. But their undisciplined lifestyles were wreaking havoc on the local body of Christ. Rather than work, they expected the church to support them. And Paul reminds the faithful that he and the apostles didn’t model that kind of lifestyle.
…we were not idle when we were with you, nor did we eat anyone’s bread without paying for it, but with toil and labor we worked night and day, that we might not be a burden to any of you. – 2 Thessalonians 3:7-8 ESV
These people were out of line, having broken ranks with the faith community and having placed an undue burden on the church. So, Paul gives a bold and unapologetic opinion regarding these people.
If anyone is not willing to work, let him not eat. – 2 Thessalonians 3:10 ESV
And this was not the first time Paul had addressed this problem in the church. He had warned Timothy:
But if anyone does not provide for his relatives, and especially for members of his household, he has denied the faith and is worse than an unbeliever. – 1 Timothy 5:8 ESV
And he had expressed similar advice to Titus.
And let our people learn to devote themselves to good works, so as to help cases of urgent need, and not be unfruitful. – Titus 3:14 ESV
Paul and his ministry partners had demonstrated through their own lives what he was demanding of the Thessalonians. There was no place for disorderly conduct within the body of Christ. Laziness and idleness have no place in the church. The faith community, while an interdependent organism, is not intended to be a place where non-contributors thrive. Each believer has been gifted by the Spirit and is expected to play their God-ordained part in contributing to the overall well-being of the body. Yet, Paul states, “we hear that some of you are living idle lives, refusing to work and meddling in other people’s business” (2 Thessalonians 3:11 NLT). This was unacceptable, and Paul addresses these individuals directly and bluntly:
Now such persons we command and encourage in the Lord Jesus Christ to do their work quietly and to earn their own living. – 2 Thessalonians 3:12 ESV
Paul labels these people as busybodies (periergazomai), a term used to describe those who occupy themselves with trivial and useless matters that don’t concern themselves. Rather than working, they had all kinds of time to worry about the affairs of others. So, Paul tells them to work quietly, a “description of the life of one who stays at home doing his own work and does not officiously meddle with the affairs of others” (Outline of Biblical Usage).
It was well into the 12th-Century that Chaucer labeled “idle hands the devil’s tools.” But Paul knew that to be true as early as the 1st-Century. And he warned the believers in Thessalonica to be wary of the idleness in their midst. It was dangerous and potentially deadly, because it emanated from an attitude of disobedience and disorderliness. So, it was sin. And, like cancer, sin spreads. Left untreated, in time it infects and impacts the entire body. That’s why Paul is so emphatic, providing the Thessalonians not just with advice, but with a command.
…we command you…that you keep away from any brother who is walking in idleness. – 2 Thessalonians 3:6 ESV
In a sense, Paul is telling them to avoid these people like the plague. They weren’t the spiritually weak in need of strengthening. They were the rebellious in need of spiritual discipline. They were members of the body of Christ who were refusing to play their part in contributing to the overall health of the church. Like unwanted parasites, they were sucking the life out of the faith community by taking but never giving. They had given love of self precedence over Christ’s command to love others. And Paul, knowing the danger behind that mindset, warned that it was not to be tolerated.
English Standard Version (ESV) The Holy Bible, English Standard Version. ESV® Permanent Text Edition® (2016). Copyright © 2001 by Crossway Bibles, a publishing ministry of Good News Publishers.
New Living Translation (NLT) Holy Bible, New Living Translation, copyright © 1996, 2004, 2015 by Tyndale House Foundation. Used by permission of Tyndale House Publishers Inc., Carol Stream, Illinois 60188. All rights reserved.
1 Everett Ferguson, Backgrounds of Early Christianity (2d ed.; Grand Rapids: Eerdmans, 1993) 64. All abbreviations of ancient literature in this essay are those used in the Oxford Classical Dictionary, 3d ed. (OCD).