The plan: our three-year-old church would buy one of our town’s big old houses (we were renting from an Episcopal church then), three or four couples (including us) would live on the top two floors and we’d make the ground floor our worship “sanctuary.” We wanted a church built around Christian community.
It never happened. (The Lord had better plans.) But that planned community comes to mind as I read Paul’s closing exhortations in 1 Thessalonians . . .
We ask you, brothers, to respect those who labor among you and are over you in the Lord and admonish you, and to esteem them very highly in love because of their work. Be at peace among yourselves (5:12,13).
Communities need leadership. Not the impersonal, put-in-my-time-for-my-check kind or the autocratic, professional CEO kind. “Over you in the Lord” implies leading modeled after a father managing his children or a shepherd caring for his flock. Therefore, Paul calls the church to “respect” or “acknowledge” the church’s leaders as “those who labor among you.” These men work hard at their calling. Part of their labor is to “admonish you.” The original Greek is nouthetoo. Generally it means “to instruct”, specifically “to call back to biblical behavior.” The church is “to esteem them very highly in love. Thus the relationship between the led and the leaders is to be one of “peace.”
And we urge you, brothers, admonish the idle, encourage the fainthearted, help the weak, be patient with them all (5:14).
Paul appeals to the church with four exhortations, the fourth “be patient with them all” summarizes the first three. ” . . . admonish the idle.” These are those who won’t work (because Jesus is coming soon?), so their behavior must be brought back to biblical norms (“he who won’t work shouldn’t eat”–2 Thessalonians 3:10).
Those who tend to fall by the wayside when hardship hits must be spurred on to persevere in the faith. The “fainthearted” are not inferior Christians allowed to be forgotten by the bold-faith members.
The spiritually “weak” must be given “help”. The Greek word literally means “cling to, hold fast to someone” and then “to pay attention to.” Paul uses it here in the sense of paying attention to the weak and holding fast to them in order to help them along in their faith-walk.
Our natural tendency is to ignore the idle, to leave the fainthearted behind, and overlook the weak. People like that need patient assistance. It’s easier for the strong to go on alone than to bear the burden of the hurting. But the church is a Christian community. And a community moves ahead together, albeit slowly because we’re ministering to one another on the way. Besides, one way the Lord teaches us patience (a fruit of the Spirit) is by putting us with people who require it.
See that no one repays anyone evil for evil, but always seek to do good to one another and to everyone (5:15).
Our sinful nature demands pay-back. That revenge-drive is especially strong when it’s a fellow-believer who does us wrong. (We expected better.) But the Christian community is to be a bunch of good-doers, even to evil-doers.
Christian author Robert Thomas writes . . .
“Diokete (‘seek’) is immeasurably more than halfhearted efforts. Eager expenditure of all one’s energies is none too much in seeking . . . “the good”. In place of wrong, injury or harm dictated by a vengeful spirit, Christians must diligently endeavor to produce what is intrinsically beneficial to others, whether other Christians . . . or unbelievers. The seriousness of the abuse suffered is no issue. Some Thessalonians doubtless had been victims of unjustified harsh treatment, but regardless of this, a positive Christian response is the only suitable recourse. The welfare of the offender must be the prime objective.”
Rejoice always, pray without ceasing, give thanks in all circumstances; for this is the will of God in Christ Jesus for you (5:16-18).
This exhortation-triplet is personal (I must rejoice, pray, give thanks), but also communal. If Christian community members “rejoice always”, their rejoicing in the Lord will be contagious, their ceaseless praying will motivate others to pray, and their thanksgiving regardless of circumstances will change grumbling lips to lips of gratitude. This is God’s gracious design (“will”)—little communities of Christians that reveal an alternative lifestyle.
Do not quench the Spirit. Do not despise prophecies, but test everything; hold fast what is good. Abstain from every form of evil (5:19-22).
“Quench” (sbennute) is used literally of putting out a fire. Here Paul uses it of “putting out” manifestations of the gifts of the Spirit, in particular “prophecies” which they are not to despise. Prophecies were a spontaneous utterance among the gathered community, taken as a word from the Lord, but not absolute since they had to be tested (though Paul here doesn’t explain how). What is found to be “good” (that is, the building up of the Christian community—1 Corinthians 14:3) they are to “hold fast” to. What is judged “evil” (that is, inconsistent with God’s word and with apostolic teaching and does not build up the community, they must stay away from. The correction for spiritual gifts abuse is not cessation but regulation. In the Christian community, for the upbuilding of the community, the Spirit must be free to manifest himself. For Christian community to flourish, the Spirit must impart the presence of the living Christ.
* * * * *
We often gauge the health of the church by numbers; but though numbers matter, health isn’t measured by how many bodies sit in the seats. We often gauge the church’s health by its music; but though making music to the Lord is vital, health isn’t gauged by how much like a Christian concert we can be. And often we gauge the church’s health by its preaching; devoted preaching of God’s word fuels the church’s life, but the health isn’t gauged by how like a theological classroom we can be.
Paul’s exhortations here strongly suggest that we should gauge our church’s health by its community. According to Merriam-Webster, “community” is “a unified body of individuals” and “a group of people with a common characteristic or interest within a larger society.”
Community: “a group of people with a common interest in Jesus
within a larger society”.
It’s up to all of us to make the church that community!