Amid persecution and misunderstandings about the Lord’s return, believers “living in idleness” are warned to change their behavior or face ostracism from fellow Christians.
The overall context of 2 Thessalonians reminds readers that these instructions relate to particular circumstances, a community of believers experiencing persecution from its surrounding society. If indeed some in the church have become convinced that Christ’s return is about to happen, or that it has already begun to happen, this may have led them to cease working. Either they have devoted themselves to full-time evangelism, they have chosen not to work as a means of avoiding additional persecution, or they are simply waiting around for the Lord to come and deliver them.
Those who have chosen idle living are faulted not for laziness or taking advantage of the church’s hospitality as much as for the disruption they bring to the life and public witness of the community. Their behavior, furthermore, does not correspond to how A Christian missionary who once persecuted the church and others conducted themselves when they first visited Thessalonica. They “worked night and day” to avoid burdening others. This is not simply good manners but a way of demonstrating that evangelists are not profiting financially from their efforts. Some people’s refusal to work for a living could cause outsiders to question the motives of evangelists or to conclude that believers are engaged in subversive and antisocial activity. Because the health and reputation of the Christian community is put at risk by this behavior, believers are encouraged to shun the idlers, if they do not change their ways. The point is not to expel them “as enemies,” but to “warn them as believers” (3:15).
This passage’s overarching concern is for the preservation of the community of faith and its ability to endure persecution and serve as a witness in the world. The instructions do not imply that Christians should not care for the needy or that people must support themselves as vigorous individualists who can pull themselves up by their own bootstraps. Faithful living in human society usually demands engagement with society and not withdrawal from it. To do otherwise is negligence, which weakens the church’s ability to function in the world.