Question: "What does it mean that the one who is unwilling to work shall not eat (2 Thessalonians 3:10)?"
Answer: Second Thessalonians 3:10 reads, “For even when we were with you, we gave you this rule: ‘The one who is unwilling to work shall not eat.’” This verse is set in the context of 2 Thessalonians 3:6–15, which warns believers against idleness and laziness. The focus of the command is against those who refuse to work rather than those who are unable to do so.
The verses preceding the instruction to those unwilling to work relate a positive example: “You ought to follow our example. We were not idle when we were with you, nor did we eat anyone’s food without paying for it. On the contrary, we worked night and day, laboring and toiling so that we would not be a burden to any of you. We did this, not because we do not have the right to such help, but in order to offer ourselves as a model for you to imitate” (2 Thessalonians 3:7–9). Paul and his companions did not come to the people of Thessalonica to take food or money from them but to share Christ with them. They were willing to work a side job to provide for their food.
In contrast, if any Christian worker came to a church and refused to work, Paul says not to offer him food. This instruction also had application to people within their congregation. Verses 11–12 note, “We hear that some among you are idle and disruptive. They are not busy; they are busybodies. Such people we command and urge in the Lord Jesus Christ to settle down and earn the food they eat.” This is the Christian work ethic. Believers are to be known for working hard, not for a lazy attitude.
Scripture often addresses sloth or laziness as sin. For example, Proverbs 18:9 says, “One who is slack in his work is brother to one who destroys.” Proverbs 19:15 adds, “Laziness brings on deep sleep, and the shiftless go hungry”—there is a clear link between not working and not eating in this proverb. Ecclesiastes 10:18 also notes the negative consequences of laziness: “Through laziness, the rafters sag; because of idle hands, the house leaks.”
Again, the admonition that “the one who is unwilling to work shall not eat” concerns unwillingness rather than inability. There is a difference. James 1:27 describes true religion, in part, as “look[ing] after orphans and widows in their distress.” Needy children and widows, the disabled, those with special needs, the elderly, and others who cannot earn a living are deserving of much help.
As believers, it is important that we be known for our strong work ethic and helping those in true need. We should “let [our] light shine before others, that they may see [our] good deeds and glorify [our] Father in heaven” (Matthew 5:16).