Paul’s Practical Theology for the Church, pt.2: Taking Care of the Church
1 Thessalonians 5:14–15 14 We urge you, brethren, admonish the unruly, encourage the fainthearted, help the weak, be patient with everyone. 15 See that no one repays another with evil for evil, but always seek after that which is good for one another and for all people.
Paul’s counsel for the church here arises not out of random necessity, or mere convention or effectiveness for ministry; it arises out of a life spent in the service of the church, a commitment to the church and a complete sacrifice for the faith of the church. Paul saw himself in two ways with respect to the church. First, Paul saw himself as a priest who ministered and officiated in the midst of the ‘tabernacled’ people of God. That is, the people of God gathered for special purpose with special emphasis on God’s presence in the midst of a sacred and holy assembly. Paul sees the church as the newly constituted covenant people who have been called, consecrated and commissioned by God to spread His glory abroad the earth through the gospel of Jesus Christ. As a priest to his God and on behalf of the church, Paul saw his calling to the spread the gospel to the Gentiles as central, obedience to the gospel as essential and the ministry rooted in God’s grace as foundational. We can hear Paul’s heart for all these things in his letter to the Romans as Paul literally sees himself as fulfilling Isaiah’s prophecies of the Messianic age:
Romans 15:15–21 15 But I have written very boldly to you on some points so as to remind you again, because of the grace that was given me from God, 16 to be a minister of Christ Jesus to the Gentiles, ministering as a priest the gospel of God, so that my offering of the Gentiles may become acceptable, sanctified by the Holy Spirit. 17 Therefore in Christ Jesus I have found reason for boasting in things pertaining to God. 18 For I will not presume to speak of anything except what Christ has accomplished through me, resulting in the obedience of the Gentiles by word and deed, 19 in the power of signs and wonders, in the power of the Spirit; so that from Jerusalem and round about as far as Illyricum I have fully preached the gospel of Christ. 20 And thus I aspired to preach the gospel, not where Christ was already named, so that I would not build on another man’s foundation; 21 but as it is written, “They who had no news of Him shall see, And they who have not heard shall understand.”
Second, Paul saw himself as a sacrifice so that he not only officiated at the altar of God but was laid on the altar of God as it were in order to pour his life out in service to the church:
Philippians 2:14–18 14 Do all things without grumbling or disputing; 15 so that you will prove yourselves to be blameless and innocent, children of God above reproach in the midst of a crooked and perverse generation, among whom you appear as lights in the world, 16 holding fast the word of life, so that in the day of Christ I will have reason to glory because I did not run in vain nor toil in vain. 17 But even if I am being poured out as a drink offering upon the sacrifice and service of your faith, I rejoice and share my joy with you all. 18 You too, I urge you, rejoice in the same way and share your joy with me.
The basis of Paul’s exhortations to the church on practical theology is borne out of a desire for mutual joy, that we would “rejoice in the same way.” Paul’s labor, Paul’s sacrifice, preaching, teaching, praying, counseling and suffering was designed to make the church a consecrated people. A people set apart from the world, set apart for holy use, and set apart for the service of faith; the very reason Paul was commissioned as an apostle of Christ Jesus (cf. Rom. 1.5).
Taking Care Of The Church By Taking Ownership Of The Church
The primary presupposition of this entire section on practical theology and matters relating to the church is ownership of the church. People who do not take actual ownership of their church will not feel the gravity and obligation of these imperatives in the same way as those who do take ownership of the church. When that mindset is really and truly in place we will feel the sense of urgency about the church that Paul seeks to communicate here. It is not a urgency of paranoia, panic, or despair; it is in fact more of zeal to see the good of the church, the health of the church, and growth and advancement of the church in the gospel.
In order to take care of the church of God, you must care about the church of God. The exhortations that Paul gives here are to all. The whole body taking care of the body. The whole household of faith taking care of the faithful. The whole congregation exercise the one another’s of the congregation. The secret to a good church is not a good pastor, it’s a good church. The pastor could function like a well oiled machine but if the members are rusting away in apathy and indifference, the body will be hindered. Paul reminds us of the importance of each individual member of the church in his body-metaphor for the church:
1 Corinthians 12:14–26 14 For the body is not one member, but many. 15 If the foot says, “Because I am not a hand, I am not a part of the body,” it is not for this reason any the less a part of the body. 16 And if the ear says, “Because I am not an eye, I am not a part of the body,” it is not for this reason any the less a part of the body. 17 If the whole body were an eye, where would the hearing be? If the whole were hearing, where would the sense of smell be? 18 But now God has placed the members, each one of them, in the body, just as He desired. 19 If they were all one member, where would the body be? 20 But now there are many members, but one body. 21 And the eye cannot say to the hand, “I have no need of you”; or again the head to the feet, “I have no need of you.” 22 On the contrary, it is much truer that the members of the body which seem to be weaker are necessary; 23 and those members of the body which we deem less honorable, on these we bestow more abundant honor, and our less presentable members become much more presentable, 24 whereas our more presentable members have no need of it. But God has so composed the body, giving more abundant honor to that member which lacked, 25 so that there may be no division in the body, but that the members may have the same care for one another. 26 And if one member suffers, all the members suffer with it; if one member is honored, all the members rejoice with it.
The crucial focus here is in represented by the phrase, “I have no need of you” (1 Cor. 12.20, 21). Regardless of our gifts, our offices, our age, maturity, personality, class, race, sex, or personal convictions; we cannot say of anyone in the church, ‘I have no need of you.’ The following imperatives move us in the complete opposite direction. Here Paul is calling the church to be concerned for every member, for every issue, for every need, and every type of ministry that might arise in the body. The challenges of the body must be addressed by the body, especially the leaders.
Dealing With Real Challenges In The Church
The apostle James counsels the lowly brother to glory in his/her “high position” or exaltation while at the same time telling the rich person to focus on their humiliation (Jam. 1.9-10). It was the right word for the occasion. It is the same advice we should follow here. When we face various obstacles in the church, we too should emphasize that which makes a person whole, sound and wise. Paul deals with several issues here that represent actual problems and hindrances to the church’s growth. Some of the challenges are sinful some of the challenges are not some of the challenges are simply part of our human transient nature that is so often and easily beset with weakness.
The Challenge Of Disorder
Paul’s first topic is written to deal with a sinful issue that arises in every church and inevitably arose in Thessalonica, “We urge you, brethren, admonish the unruly” (παρακαλοῦμεν δὲ ὑμᾶς, ἀδελφοί, νουθετεῖτε τοὺς ἀτάκτους). The first thing to notice here is Paul’s repeated use of the imperative mood. He is not simply suggesting that the church rise to meet its problems, he is commanding the church to address these things out of a love for the church and a desire to see its good order or “discipline” (cf. Col. 2.5). But nothing will erode the discipline and health of the church more than a rebellious, sinful disorder among its members.
Specifically however, Paul was dealing with those who were living in an “unruly” fashion where they were out of step with the church and more importantly with the gospel. The term “unruly” (ἄτακτος) was a military term that was often used in the Greco Roman world to refer to soldiers who were insubordinate to their superiors and their commands (see, Weima, 1-2 Thessalonians, 392). It could also speak to the entire army being in disorderly chaos. It was also used of athletes who did not follow rules at their gymnasium (Ibid). In the context of these letters, Paul will later focus directly on the issue of work since apparently there were those who did not want to work at all (cf. 2 Th. 3.11). In terms of work, Paul not only instructed them to work, to provide for their own needs and pull their own weight as it were, he also modeled that for them:
2 Thessalonians 3:7 7 For you yourselves know how you ought to follow our example, because we did not act in an undisciplined manner among you,
But still, probably in this context (v.14) Paul’s application is more general. The root of this issue was ultimately a refusal to receive from authority. This is the way Paul puts it later, “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” (2 Th. 3.6). This shows us that, left unchecked, a person who walks this way can become the bad company that Paul refers to (cf. 1 Cor. 15.33). What is remarkable is that such a person is in the church. They try to mingle in the fellowship, they try to participate in the spiritual things when in reality there spirituality has been undermined through neglecting practical things like getting job, paying bills, paying taxes, being responsible, frugal and wise. But the problem is also an issue of pride. Because such individuals will not receive correction, guidance, advice or accountability; they become a law to themselves (cf. Tit. 2.15). This can quickly escalate into a problem of church discipline if biblical principles and the authority of Scripture is disregarded:
2 Thessalonians 3:14 14 If anyone does not obey our instruction in this letter, take special note of that person and do not associate with him, so that he will be put to shame.
Just one person who is walking like this can undermine an entire church (cf. 2 Cor. 2.5-11); effecting its fellowship, purity, effectiveness, reputation and integrity. Sometimes, churches can become dumping grounds for such disorderly behavior. Some churches seem to attract ‘slackers’ who will not work, will not lead, will not listen, will not be taught, will not comply with the culture and community life of the church. These kind of people have to be confronted and “admonished” in the Lord. But if such rebellious indifference towards authority persists in a person’s life, God’s wisdom gives us this dire warning, “A man who hardens his neck after much reproof Will suddenly be broken beyond remedy” (Prov. 29.1).
The Challenge Of Discouragement
While walking in such an “unruly” way must by necessity imply sinful attitudes and actions on the part of the person who walks disorderly, this next challenge does not necessarily arise out any sin but mostly likely out of our own weakness, frailty and susceptibility to our circumstances and trials. The term “fainthearted” (ὀλιγόψυχος) is only used here in the NT and is essentially synonymous with discouragement.
The term is a compound word from two words, “small” (ὀλίγος) and “soul” (ψυχος). Paul uses a word that literally means, ‘small-soul.’ What a description but, is that not what trials do? They seem to crush us down to the ground and snuff out the life of God in our hearts, the fire of God in our souls, the joy of God in our lives, the glory of God in our minds, and the love of God in our affections. But as Paul teaches us such soul-crushing moments of despair are meant to fill us with God not deplete God in our lives. That is how we can encourage one another in the grace of God. When we are confronted with discouragement we should confront one another with redemptive privileges, spiritual blessings, and all of God’s promises in Christ (cf. 2 Cor. 1.20; 2 Pet. 1.4).
A recent article in the news came out dealing with the subject of happiness. The article focused on how many “perfect days” people experience every year. The factors were somewhat subjective but they had many factors that everyone deals with including ideal family time, time with friends, entertainment, and many “mood boosting” activities that can help increase happiness like petting a dog, eating good, and shopping for one’s self. The study concluded that all things considered, people on average have only 15 perfect days a year were most of these factors are present in our lives. The reality that this illustrates is that happiness is not automatic. Stress is hard to avoid. Trials are difficult to overcome. Life is complicated, filled with sorrow and with sin and misery all around us discouragement is a constant challenge we will all face. There is discouragement as parent, non-parent, children bring discouragement, not having children bring discouragement, ministry brings discouragement, loneliness, depression, disappointments, regret, and self-loathing can all induce a serious, spiritually debilitating bout with discouragement.
The Challenge Of Debilitation
Although each one of this subjects are really issues of their own, we could say there is somewhat of an intensification here so that if the necessary encouragement for the downcast is not ministered to the fainthearted the next step in the spiritual digression can be spiritual weakness. So then, Paul says, “help the weak” (ἀντέχεσθε τῶν ἀσθενῶν). The assumption here however is that the weakness in view here is spiritual and not physical. Another matter dealing with the vocabulary is the term rendered here, “help” (ἀντέχω) which is not as intense as the original suggests. The term (ἀντέχω) should be rendered “to cling to” or “hold fast to” someone or something. The KJV comes the closest with the translation, “uphold the weak.” Paul is calling here for our personal, intimate, gracious and sacrificial devotion to those who are truly “weak” among us. In fact the term “to help” also should be understood in term of the interest that we have for the weak or the attention and time that is allocated to their care. The term stresses the church’s commitment, and here because of the imperative, the obligation for such commitment to the weak members of the body. It is the same word Jesus uses to stress one’s commitment to a single master in His metaphor for discipleship and one’s allegiance to the gospel (e.g. we will be devoted either to Christ or money, Mt. 6.24).
Now that we understand what our obligation is, to be lovingly devoted to one another and provide whatever aid may be needed; how then do we interpret the term “weak” (ἀσθενής)? The word can absolutely speak of physical weakness due to either injury, disease or some other debilitating physical condition (cf. 1 Cor. 11.30). The word can also be more abstract. For example, it can speak of a person’s limited spiritual capacity though not necessarily sinful in nature (cf. Mt. 26.41). The word can also speak of weakness of conscience as with the weaker brethren who could not eat meat but need to be dealt with carefully and graciously so as not to strengthen their conscience toward things that currently violate that conscience (cf. Rom. 14.1-23).
Spiritually, the word can have both a moral dimension and amoral dimension. The word was used to refer to our state of total depravity while we were at enmity with God before being redeemed (Rom. 5.6). But Paul also says, that there is a weakness that we can take upon ourselves in a non-sinful application so that he says, “to the weak I became weak that I may win the weak” (1 Cor. 9.22). This last passage may actually be the closest to our text in Thessalonians (although in Corinth probably a more specific socio-economic weakness is probably intended). If we consider the context in Thessalonians, the weakness in view may suggest that Paul is thinking of those who are growing spiritually weak in light of the day of the Lord. Both in their ability to understand the truths of the eschaton and in their ability to apply it to their lives and live their lives joyfully, righteously, and with hope in the face of the coming judgment. So Jeffrey Weima rightly comments:
“This would mean that “the weak” refers to those in the Thessalonian church who are excessively anxious about their status at the eschatological judgment connected with Christ’s return. [this] is the interpretation that best fits the context.” (Weima, 1-2 Thessalonians, 395)
Ultimately this is a weakness of faith manifested in a weakness to trust in God’s promises, live in light of God’s salvation and to apply the peace of God so as not to be easily overcome with anxiety, worry and distress. Their label as “weak” (whatever the precise reference is: spiritual, physical or social e.g. economic, class, status as with the poor) also suggests that this is a persistent issue in their lives. The “weak” are “weak” because unlike many of those around them, they cannot just “get over it.” They get stuck easily, need ministry regularly, are often discouraged, distraught, and dependent on others for special attention and spiritual aid.
The Challenge Of Discipleship
As we think about solutions to these problems, particularly with discouragement and weakness; but also dealing with the unruly, patience is critical to meet the challenge of true discipleship, “be patient with everyone” (μακροθυμεῖτε πρὸς πάντας). Of course this is an admonition to the whole church, to be patient with each other but especially to the elders who have “charge” over the sheep (v.12) not just to instruct them but to care for their souls. Patience is crucial because it is often patience in pastoral ministry that is tried the most. To shepherd people without patience is to Lord it over the people (cf. Mk. 10.42-45; 2 Cor. 1.24; 1 Pet. 5.2-3). But patience is necessary if we are seeking the good of one another and not simply the expectations of our own ambitions our own desires, and our own designs. Sanctification is on God’s timeline not ours.
Patience therefore is necessary to see the word of God have its way with the church. Patience to see God’s Spirit change people. Patience to see Christ formed in people. Patience to see the maturity process take place. Patience to see if counseling will be effective, if the ministry of the word is going to be received and applied, if repentance is going to take place, if hearts will be convicted, if homes will be set in order, if marriages to be strengthened, if children are to be trained, zeal to be caught, and fruit to be borne in the body.
All of this takes patience because the work of God takes time, and operates over years, and demands that the roots of grace grow deep in the soil of our hearts if we are going to have quality lasting fruit that pleases him. As a church, this text is no different than what Paul told the Colossians where Paul offered similar advice, advice that helps us truly understand how to face the great challenge of taking ownership of the church and taking care of the church:
Colossians 3:12–17 12 So, as those who have been chosen of God, holy and beloved, put on a heart of compassion, kindness, humility, gentleness and patience; 13 bearing with one another, and forgiving each other, whoever has a complaint against anyone; just as the Lord forgave you, so also should you. 14 Beyond all these things put on love, which is the perfect bond of unity. 15 Let the peace of Christ rule in your hearts, to which indeed you were called in one body; and be thankful. 16 Let the word of Christ richly dwell within you, with all wisdom teaching and admonishing one another with psalms and hymns and spiritual songs, singing with thankfulness in your hearts to God. 17 Whatever you do in word or deed, do all in the name of the Lord Jesus, giving thanks through Him to God the Father.