Paul’s Practical Theology for the Church, pt.3: Gospel-Centered Solutions for the Church
1 Thessalonians 5:15 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.
Dealing With Real Conflict In The Church
Every church has its challenges but not every church responds to those challenges biblically. Whether the church is confronting sin, financial duress, division, heresy, or as the context has indicated here in Thessalonians, unruly individuals in the church that sow all sorts of discord and strife in the church (v.14). All of those issues however should never surprise us as grievous as the reality of those things are. What should surprise us however, or better yet, what demands our greatest attention is how we respond to such things. Whether we are thinking about how the church collectively responds to problems within the church or individually how we respond to personal conflict between members; our response will often determine the outcome. What is not remarkable therefore is that there will be conflict in the church but whether or not we will responds according to what the gospel teaches us. That is what we want to focus on here; gospel-centered solutions for the church and her conflicts.
The Gospel Teaches Us To Identify Evil
Paul’s purpose in writing the Thessalonians on these practical issues is so that they would have practical ways to resolves those issues in the congregational life of the church. But in order to do this, the church needs to begin viewing things from the right perspective— a gospel-centered perspective. Without being motivated by the gospel, operating on the truth of the gospel, striving for unity in the gospel, growing in the grace of the gospel, and ministering to “one another” on the basis of the gospel; the church’s conflicts will persist and permeate the life-blood of the whole church like gangrene disrupting and even potentially destroying the church’s faith. This actually was a reality in Ephesus when Paul was writing to Timothy about two unruly and divisive men in the church. Paul is warning the church about the danger of such men but also generally about the danger of our words:
2 Timothy 2:14–18 14 Remind them of these things, and solemnly charge them in the presence of God not to wrangle about words, which is useless and leads to the ruin of the hearers. 15 Be diligent to present yourself approved to God as a workman who does not need to be ashamed, accurately handling the word of truth. 16 But avoid worldly and empty chatter, for it will lead to further ungodliness, 17 and their talk will spread like gangrene. Among them are Hymenaeus and Philetus, 18 men who have gone astray from the truth saying that the resurrection has already taken place, and they upset the faith of some.
This is just one expression of what can happen in a church when “evil” is not quickly and rightly identified. Remarkably, Paul here does not mince words about how sinister church conflict can get. He did not simply admonish them not to be harsh with each other or not to be cold-hearted or mean-spirited; the temptation for us is to “return evil for evil” (κακὸν ἀντὶ κακοῦ τινι ἀποδῷ). That is why Paul begins with a somber warning, “see that” (ὁρᾶτε) or better yet, “watch out” (see also, NIV, “make sure”). The word Paul uses here and in this context is a call to attention, to be alert and even “on guard” (BDAG). The use here is similar to how Paul uses in Galatians when he warns the church about biting and devouring each other, “if you bite and devour one another, take care that you are not consumed by one another (Gal. 5.15). In the same way, Paul admonishes the church here to understand that what they are meddling with when they are engaging in sinful responses and sinful reactions towards those who have offended us is nothing short of “evil.”
Evil is at work in the midst of church conflicts and the evil one is the root of it. In identifying the evil that may have been done against us by others in the church, we would do well to take into account that what lies behind that evil action or attitude is a crafty serpent, a ravenous beast, whose schemes reveal that he is the architect in our warfare:
2 Corinthians 2:5–11 5 But if any has caused sorrow, he has caused sorrow not to me, but in some degree—in order not to say too much—to all of you. 6 Sufficient for such a one is this punishment which was inflicted by the majority, 7 so that on the contrary you should rather forgive and comfort him, otherwise such a one might be overwhelmed by excessive sorrow. 8 Wherefore I urge you to reaffirm your love for him. 9 For to this end also I wrote, so that I might put you to the test, whether you are obedient in all things. 10 But one whom you forgive anything, I forgive also; for indeed what I have forgiven, if I have forgiven anything, I did it for your sakes in the presence of Christ, 11 so that no advantage would be taken of us by Satan, for we are not ignorant of his schemes.
The gospel teaches us that behind the conflicts of our strife and division that may arise between us is the “father of lies” who is lurking and lying in wait to see how bad the conflict will get before he pounces, condemns, and devours the fruit of the church and the faith of the believer (cf. 1 Pet. 5.8-9a).
The Gospel Teaches Us To Reject Evil
The first thing to note here is that “evil” is not only a reality in terms of our response, it is typically the natural response for fallen sinners. Even redeemed sinners can easily succumb to the impulses that may arise in our hearts especially when that impulse is borne out of having been wronged and offended by others. Not to repay (ἀποδίδωμι) one another with evil is as much a call to mortify our sin as it is a call to simply abstain from it since simply abstaining from it is not necessarily killing it (cf. Col. 3.5)! However if we do not have a right view of sin and its destructive potential we will not take mortification of sin serious. James is gives us a perfect example of the destructive hurricane-like damage that sin can have when allowed to dominate our lives, hearts, words, actions, and congregations:
James 3:1–12 1 Let not many of you become teachers, my brethren, knowing that as such we will incur a stricter judgment. 2 For we all stumble in many ways. If anyone does not stumble in what he says, he is a perfect man, able to bridle the whole body as well. 3 Now if we put the bits into the horses’ mouths so that they will obey us, we direct their entire body as well. 4 Look at the ships also, though they are so great and are driven by strong winds, are still directed by a very small rudder wherever the inclination of the pilot desires. 5 So also the tongue is a small part of the body, and yet it boasts of great things. See how great a forest is set aflame by such a small fire! 6 And the tongue is a fire, the very world of iniquity; the tongue is set among our members as that which defiles the entire body, and sets on fire the course of our life, and is set on fire by hell. 7 For every species of beasts and birds, of reptiles and creatures of the sea, is tamed and has been tamed by the human race. 8 But no one can tame the tongue; it is a restless evil and full of deadly poison. 9 With it we bless our Lord and Father, and with it we curse men, who have been made in the likeness of God; 10 from the same mouth come both blessing and cursing. My brethren, these things ought not to be this way. 11 Does a fountain send out from the same opening both fresh and bitter water? 12 Can a fig tree, my brethren, produce olives, or a vine produce figs? Nor can salt water produce fresh.
Much of what is intended in this text in Thessalonians is connected to the tongue and so this passage from James is crucial to see how with such a small member of our physical bodies, the spiritual body of Christ can be so radically affected through something like the impulse to sin by seeking revenge or returning “evil for evil” (κακὸν ἀντὶ κακοῦ). Jeffrey Weima reminds us of how powerful the impulse to defend ourselves at all cost is:
“The human desire for vengeance is so strong and destructive that it is not surprising that both biblical and nonbiblical sources speak against retaliatory behavior. Even the harsh-sounding OT principle of retribution—the lex talionis, “an eye for an eye and a tooth for a tooth” (see Exod. 31:13–15; Lev. 24:19–21; Deut. 19:21)—is actually intended to restrict vengeance to an exact equivalent of that which was wronged.” (Weima, 1-2 Thessalonains, 397).
As fallen men and women, our tendency is vengeance that is not rooted in justice but often in malice and, because of this, God set in place a law to protect His people when executing justice for crimes in the nation. That law was good and right and kept people from going beyond the bound of retribution and into revenge and vigilantism. This law ran its course however. It had its purpose and functioned well to keep a stubborn nation in check but that principle (rooted in positive law) was surpassed by a much higher principle in Christ one that conformed much more with the true nature of the kingdom of God than the typological kingdom had to offer in the earthly theocracy. This is how we make sense of Jesus’ rejection of the theocratic principle of an ‘eye for an eye’; in the new covenant, even that extent of restraint is not representative of the ethics of the kingdom of God and His people (cf. Mt. 5.38-48; 1 Pet. 3.9; Rom. 12.17-20).
In the new covenant economy, every inclination to lash out vengefully should be put in check by seeking good not vengeance. We are even called to adopt being maligned rather than to take vengeance into our own hands. For example, when the problem of lawsuits in the church arose in the Corinthian church, Paul addressed this in no uncertain terms:
1 Corinthians 6:7–8 7 Actually, then, it is already a defeat for you, that you have lawsuits with one another. Why not rather be wronged? Why not rather be defrauded? 8 On the contrary, you yourselves wrong and defraud. You do this even to your brethren.
Of course here Paul is leaning of Jesus’ teaching regarding the issue of avenging yourself. Everything comes from Him, everything is rooted in Him. Jesus laid the foundation for the apostles teaching on virtually everything explicitly or implicitly Jesus if the focal point of NT theology:
Matthew 5:38–42 38 “You have heard that it was said, ‘An eye for an eye, and a tooth for a tooth.’ 39 “But I say to you, do not resist an evil person; but whoever slaps you on your right cheek, turn the other to him also. 40 “If anyone wants to sue you and take your shirt, let him have your coat also. 41 “Whoever forces you to go one mile, go with him two. 42 “Give to him who asks of you, and do not turn away from him who wants to borrow from you.
The same spirit of this teaching is echoed by Paul again of himself so that when he was the victim of slander, his gospel-centered response was to reconcile:
1 Corinthians 4:11–13 11 To this present hour we are both hungry and thirsty, and are poorly clothed, and are roughly treated, and are homeless; 12 and we toil, working with our own hands; when we are reviled, we bless; when we are persecuted, we endure; 13 when we are slandered, we try to conciliate; we have become as the scum of the world, the dregs of all things, even until now.
The gospel-centered perspective is the Christ-centered perspective. Probably the most definitive word on this was issued by Peter who learned directly from Jesus’ example and saw it intimately and personally.
1 Peter 2:21–23 21 For you have been called for this purpose, since Christ also suffered for you, leaving you an example for you to follow in His steps, 22 who committed no sin, nor was any deceit found in His mouth; 23 and while being reviled, He did not revile in return; while suffering, He uttered no threats, but kept entrusting Himself to Him who judges righteously;
The Gospel Teaches Us To Overcome Evil With Good
Beyond the mere abstaining from evil however, the gospel teaches us that the way forward is to not only refrain from doing evil but further than that now, we overcome evil with good, “always seek after that which is good for one another and for all people” (πάντοτε τὸ ἀγαθὸν διώκετε [καὶ] εἰς ἀλλήλους καὶ εἰς πάντας). This call for goodness, benevolence, Christian charity and grace is basic Christianity and yet as elementary as the command is we often struggle the most with such simple virtues as this. But this is really where the victory is found. The way to deal with real conflict is not try and reconcile things after conflict arises, but actively and intentionally build your immunity to conflict through the regular, habitual, sincere dispensation of good. In order to do this two things need to be in view.
First, we are called to single out the church to be the recipients of our greatest affections, “always seek after that which is good for one another” (πάντοτε τὸ ἀγαθὸν διώκετε [καὶ] εἰς ἀλλήλους). Before we generalize the principle we need to particularize the principle. Before we make this a moral maxim that applied to everyone indiscriminately, we need to specialize the principle to apply directly and exclusively to the church in a particular way that distinguishes it from the general benevolence that we find in society. If we do not partition this imperative in this way, we run the risk of ending up with nothing more than moralism and superficial spirituality that any pagan in society is capable of. First and foremost, this benevolence is a gospel centered, Christ-centered, biblically based benevolence and love which the world knows nothing about because at the centered of this kind of goodness lies the unity of faith and the bond of the Spirit that only can be realized in the saving work of the cross (cf. Eph. 4.1-3; Col. 3.13-15). It is a goodness therefore that is based on mutual faith, mutual love, mutual salvation:
2 Corinthians 13:11 11 Finally, brethren, rejoice, be made complete, be comforted, be like-minded, live in peace; and the God of love and peace will be with you.
Notice also the habitual nature of this virtue (πάντοτε). These are not simply one-time acts of kindness that Paul’s calling for; it’s a permanent disposition with continuous good works. Because we are being directed toward a virtue that will define our character, there ought to be a enduring constancy in our pursuit of good.
Second, we cannot simply have this virtue among ourselves, but the nature of true character and virtue is that it is universal to a large extent. We are called to pursue what is good “for all people” (εἰς πάντας) not just believers in the church. This brings up a larger issue dealing with the often neglected seriously underestimated power, influence, importance and force of common grace which is rooted in God’s covenantal dealings with man especially in terms of what He ratified with Noah after the Flood; namely that God would keep the world from descending into utter depravity and even more so, that the world even in its fallen condition would come to experience a universal sense of justice, goodness, righteousness and moral consciousness (no matter how suppressed, cf. Rom. 1.18) so as to preserve the world from one season to the next until the seasons of redemptive history should be consummated and the world that now is expires (Gen. 9.1-7; also Gen. 4.15). This is why Paul can talk in this way:
2 Corinthians 8:21 21 for we have regard for what is honorable, not only in the sight of the Lord, but also in the sight of men.
We see vestiges of that honor all around us. The reason why we have law enforcement, disaster relief, EMT personnel, 911, and legal systems that to varying degrees reflect the light of God’s law, and the light of conscience as is fitting for the image-bearing race of man created by God and that reveals the finger print of God on His creatures is because of God’s common grace covenant. But this is also why our gestures of goodness, kindness and love for our neighbor are not in vain— they see the good in it even if they do not appreciate it out of a redeemed heart (cf. 1 Pet. 2.12). Still, with this incentive and with this understanding of the grace of God is the incentive for believers to show their neighbors universal goodness which may be what God uses to draw people to repentance:
Matthew 5:14–16 14 “You are the light of the world. A city set on a hill cannot be hidden; 15 nor does anyone light a lamp and put it under a basket, but on the lampstand, and it gives light to all who are in the house. 16 “Let your light shine before men in such a way that they may see your good works, and glorify your Father who is in heaven.