Good morning! I hope you’re enjoying this breeze through some of the shorter letters of the New Testament. Today we read the second of Paul’s letters to the Thessalonian church. Whereas in the first letter Paul emphasized the goodness for believers of Christ’s return to encourage their patient endurance, today his counsel magnifies the judgment on nonbelievers at the same time. This threat accompanies more pedestrian advice about community life. Elements of both have been taken out of context and used in ways that magnify suffering.
It sounds from 2 Thessalonians 2 that some in early Christianity were suggesting that the prophetic “day of the Lord” (which morphed into the Second Coming in Jewish-Christian imagination) had come in like a lamb instead of a lion. Paul tells his readers not to believe them, because the signs that portend Christ’s return (including a “lawless man” occupying a seat in the temple of God) had not yet come true. He goes on to give greater interpretation of why this had been delayed, and how God was deceiving some with this myth to condemn them. Paul writes in a dramatically different context from our own, but this has not stopped some Christian leaders to use his same “us versus the world” perspective to pain a dire and threatened picture of western Christianity today. Like Paul here, they detail the punishments of hell (most of which come from earlier non-biblical sources) to frighten people into doing what they suggest, in the name of Christ. Such coercive “turn or burn” rhetoric is familiar from my own childhood and much of televangelism today. It compels life-denying “therapies” such as ex-gay interventions, and turns people away from a life-affirming understanding of Christianity as seeking the realm of God “on earth as in heaven”, in Jesus’ words.
The other troubling section to address in this letter comes in chapter 3, where the apostle Paul writes of a problem in the community. Some members are not working but meddling in the affairs of others, and he gives instructions on how to exclude them so that they will return to proper community participation. Evangelical interpretations of 2 Thessalonians 3 take this direction as prescriptive for present-day interactions with jobless and homeless people. This frequently isolates the church community from people who suffer poverty by asserting that a person’s poverty is her own fault. By focusing literally on Paul’s command to reject those who would not work in the Thessalonian community, evangelical readings hobble the promise and reach of Jesus’ salvation. A community that calls itself by the name of Christ cannot remain comfortable with this reading, considering Jesus’ own words: “blessed are the poor”. Happy reading!
Read 2 Thessalonians. (Note that the link here is only to 2 Thessalonians 1. For copyright reasons, you will need to click the button at the bottom of the linked page to read further chapters.)
Please join discussion of this passage at the Daily Bible Facebook group, or comment below. The passage for tomorrow is First Timothy. Thanks for reading!