I recently saw online someone using I Thessalonians 3:10 – well, really just the second half of the verse - in an attempt to argue that Obama removing the work requirement from welfare is unbiblical.
For starters, Obama did not remove the work requirement. At the request of the governors of certain states, he granted waivers in how they could distribute their federal welfare dollars, provided that their distribution increases the total number of people they put back to work. Several of those governors are Republican, incidentally, although that I’m aware of, none have sought to clarify what Obama actually granted in regards to welfare.
I am concerned, however, at this use of the verse.
For those not familiar, 1 Thess. 3:10 says, in total, “For even when we were with you, we gave you this rule: “The one who is unwilling to work shall not eat.”” The portion that was quoted was the second half, “The one who is unwilling to work shall not eat.” Had the entire verse been quoted, I’m certain there would have been more questions as to context. It’s quite clear that the writer (Paul) is directing this to a specific audience, and that he is reiterating something he’d told them before. Who was he speaking of? Well, here’s the whole passage:
Now we command you, brethren, in the name of our Lord Jesus Christ, that you keep away from every brother who leads an unruly life and not according to the tradition which you received from us. For you yourselves know how you ought to follow our example, because we did not act in an undisciplined manner among you, nor did we eat anyone’s bread without paying for it, but with labor and hardship we kept working night and day so that we would not be a burden to any of you; not because we do not have the right to this, but in order to offer ourselves as a model for you, so that you would follow our example. For even when we were with you, we used to give you this order: if anyone is not willing to work, then he is not to eat, either. For we hear that some among you are leading an undisciplined life, doing no work at all, but acting like busybodies. Now such persons we command and exhort in the Lord Jesus Christ to work in quiet fashion and eat their own bread. But as for you, brethren, do not grow weary of doing good.
With this as context, it seems clear that we are not talking about the merely unemployed, but of the idle and indolent, and specifically the idle and indolent among the believers. In addition to their idleness, they are “busybodies,” which means exactly what you think it does – they are meddlers, gossips and people who like nothing more than to get in the way. It’s a specific class of people (idle busybodies), called out from the middle of a specific class of people (the “brothers”). (Here, by the way, “brothers” is the Greek work “adelphos,” typically used to refer to either a relation by blood or a member of one’s own religious community)
So, what is our responsibility to the greater mass of the poor? Well, lets start with Proverbs:
"A generous man will himself be blessed, for he shares his food with the poor."
“He who despises his neighbor sins, but blessed is he who is kind to the needy."
“He who gives to the poor will lack nothing, but he who closes his eyes to them receives many curses."
And the consequences for failing to do so:
"If a man shuts his ears to the cry of the poor, he too will cry out and not be answered."
And then Jesus:
"Jesus answered, If you want to be perfect, go, sell your possessions and give to the poor, and you will have treasure in heaven. Then come, follow me.'"
"Then Jesus said to his host, ‘When you give a luncheon or dinner, do not invite your friends, your brothers or sisters, your relatives, or your rich neighbors; if you do, they may invite you back and so you will be repaid. But when you give a banquet, invite the poor, the crippled, the lame, the blind, and you will be blessed. Although they cannot repay you, you will be repaid at the resurrection of the righteous.’"
Okay. Seems pretty clear. We give to the poor and the hungry, we Christians. And look at that last passage – when you help the poor, it with the specific idea that we will not be repaid, at least not in this life. After all, anyone who has heard and answered Christ’s call has received a gift that they did not earn, that was made available to them when they did not want it.
There are arguments to be made that it should not then be the business of government to give to the poor, but rather that this is the church’s responsibility. There’s a lot of meat to that discussion, and it’s one worth having*. During that discussion, though, we cannot neglect our duty first and foremost to Christ, and secondly to our fellow man.
This is not an attempt to sway anyone one way or another in the coming election - each person should be free to vote their conscience, and it would be hubristic of me to think I could change that.
* My conversation on this subject begins with, “What are you doing for the poor, and what more can you do?” and moves on from there. Actions first.