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 Paul 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.
6 Now we command you, beloved,* in the name of our Lord Jesus Christ, to keep away from believers who are* living in idleness and not according to the tradition that they* received from us. 7For you yourselves know how you ought to imitate us; we were not idle when we were with you, 8and we did not eat anyones bread without paying for it; but with toil and labour we worked night and day, so that we might not burden any of you. 9This was not because we do not have that right, but in order to give you an example to imitate. 10For even when we were with you, we gave you this command: Anyone unwilling to work should not eat. 11For we hear that some of you are living in idleness, mere busybodies, not doing any work. 12Now such persons we command and exhort in the Lord Jesus Christ to do their work quietly and to earn their own living. 13Brothers and sisters,* do not be weary in doing what is right.
14 Take note of those who do not obey what we say in this letter; have nothing to do with them, so that they may be ashamed. 15Do not regard them as enemies, but warn them as believers.*
New Revised Standard Version Bible: Anglicized Edition, copyright © 1989, 1995 National Council of the Churches of Christ in the United States of America. Used by permission. All rights reserved worldwide. http://nrsvbibles.org
10 February 2011