Posted by: chuckbumgardner | February 5, 2008

On 2 Thessalonians 3:10 as a Wax Nose

The maxim in 2 Thessalonians 3:10, which Paul uses to motivate the disorderly to start working, is well-known: “If anyone will not work, neither let him eat.” I’ve been looking for applications of that verse in church history, and have been somewhat surprised to see how much it is used outside the church.  The text provides an interesting case study to demonstrate how a particular text of Scripture can be called into service to support one’s own ideas.
For instance, in the realm of governmental systems, 2 Thessalonians 3:10 is used to support socialism and communism on the one hand, and capitalism on the other. 
As to the former, Lenin (without noting that the quotation is from Scripture) states that “He who does not work, neither shall he eat” is a “socialist principle.”1 As well, 2 Thessalonians 3:10 is the only Scripture quoted (though not as such) in the 1936 Soviet Constitution, largely crafted by Joseph Stalin; Article 12 states, “In the U. S. S. R., work is a duty and a matter of honor for every able-bodied citizen, in accordance with the principle: ‘He who does not work, neither shall he eat.’”2
As to the latter, Max Weber notes that 2 Thess 3:10 was a key text in the Reformers’ theology of work, which he suggests led to the development of capitalism.3
Rodgers notes the disparity in the usage of the text in nineteenth-century America: “The Populist platform of 1892 reaffirmed [Paul’s] injunction, ‘if any will not work, neither shall he eat.’ So did the socialist John Spargo; so did the nation’s foremost proponent of laissez-faire, William Graham Sumner.”4

(And, as an aside, although it might be debated as to which system of government the Jamestown colony relates most closely, 2 Thessalonians 3:10 was almost certainly in mind (perhaps from Jamestown’s pastor Robert Hunt) as Smith spoke in no uncertain terms to the idle gentlemen of his colony in 1608: “You must obey this now for a Law, that he that will not worke shall not eate (except by sicknesse he be disabled) for the labours of thirtie or fortie honest and industrious men shall not be consumed to maintaine an hundred and fiftie idle loyterers.”)5

1 Vladimir I. Lenin, The State and Revolution (1932), in Selected Works of V. I. Lenin, Eng. ed., vol. 2, part 1 (Moscow: Foreign Languages Publishing House, 1952; reprint, Whitefish, Mont.: Kessinger, 2004), 80.

2 “1936 Constitution of the USSR,” Bucknell University, (accessed Feb 12, 2008).

3 The Protestant Ethic and the Spirit of Capitalism (1904-05; reprint, Oxford: Blackwell, 2002), 105-06.

4 Daniel T. Rodgers, The Work Ethic in Industrial America, 1850-1920 (Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 1978), 211.

5 The Generall Historie of Virginia, New-England, and the Summer Isles (1624), quoted in Captain John Smith: A Select Edition of His Writings, ed. Karen Ordahl Kupperman (Chapel Hill, N. C.: University of North Carolina Press, 1988), 187.


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