In 1 Thessalonians 5, the apostle Paul concludes his letter to the “Model Church” with a few encouraging words on how to function properly as a New Testament church. If we are not careful, we can deceive ourselves into thinking that all the churches in the New Testament Church were perfect and the church we attend is not. However, the image we often have of the perfect New Testament church was not the reality.
Jesus uses the image of a shepherd and sheep in John 10 to show both who He is as our Lord and who we are as His sheep. In fact, he acknowledged to his audience that day that He had sheep that were not of their first-century Jewish fold, and that we would all be united in one flock someday (see John 10:16). I want to employ this same imagery in the writing of this blog.
In every church there are strong, faithful followers who pursue God’s will for the church to be united, healthy, and growing. However, in every church there are also weaker, unfocused, and sometimes rebellious believers who hinder and frustrate the church. Here is what Paul wrote, “12 Now we ask you, brothers and sisters, to acknowledge those who work hard among you, who care for you in the Lord and who admonish you. 13 Hold them in the highest regard in love because of their work. Live in peace with each other. 14 And we urge you, brothers and sisters, warn those who are idle and disruptive, encourage the disheartened, help the weak, be patient with everyone. 15 Make sure that nobody pays back wrong for wrong, but always strive to do what is good for each other and for everyone else”(1 Thessalonians 5:12-15.)
In 1 Thessalonians 5:14-14, Paul gives explicit instructions and warnings about a Christians’ proper reaction to five specific sheep in our flock that can cause problems within the fold. Take these to heart, as this passage addresses the responsibilities of every church member (and almost every main verb directing the people was written in the second-person plural – the Greek equivalent of y’all).
- Dealing with the Wayward Sheep – “Admonish the Unruly” (1 Thess. 5:14a)
Have you ever heard the terms set someone straight and attitude adjustment? Would it surprise you to know that this is not just a southern expression, but the advice is actually commanded in the Bible? The English word “unruly” here comes from a Greek compound word (ἄτακτος) meaning not (á) arranged, drawn up or in line (tássō). In a literal sense, it is referring to believers who were out of line and disorderly in their roles in the church. Based on the context of 1 Thessalonians, these wayward sheep may have been unrepentant in their failure to serve the church with their spiritual gifts (1 Cor. 12:7; 14:12-13), support the church’s financial well-being (1 Cor. 16:2; 2 Cor. 8:7; 9:6-12), or support the church’s leadership (1 Thess. 5:12-13; 1 Tim. 5:17; Heb. 13:7, 17). The context also implies that they held rebellious attitudes about their disorderly conduct. So how do we address these people biblically, when their out-of-bounds behavior disrupts church unity and hurts the church’s reputation with outsiders?
Paul’s directions for handling these unruly ones comes from another compound word: nouthetéō, meaning “to place” (títhēmi) the “mind” (nous). More literally, for the health of the church we are to set the minds of those who are out of line. For the unruly, we are to set straight, to give an attitude adjustment. Paul warns us strongly here to not sit and tolerate the out-of-line behavior but to address it and set it straight for the good of those individuals as well as the church.
- Dealing with the Worried Sheep – “Encourage the fainthearted” (1 Thess. 5:15b)
Encourage is our English equivalent of Paul’s word, paramythéomai, derived from pará, meaning “from close-beside” and mytheomai, “soothing speaking”. This connotes close, encouraging, and personal interactions in these faint-hearted believers. Faint-hearted is the popular choice of Paul’s Greek word used here oligópsyxos, derived from olígos, “little in quantity” and psyxē, “soul”). Together, this word references those with an undeveloped soul, lacking in personhood (without a healthy identity and developed individuality).
As Christians our identity and confidence to follow Christ, to fulfill our callings, to serve the church, to reach the lost must stem from our identity being rooted in Christ. Paul commissions strong, confident Christians to come alongside these worried sheep – these faint-hearted brothers who doubt and worry – think Piglet from Winnie the Pooh, always throwing up his hands in worry and shuddering, “Ohhh, d-d-d-d-d-dear!” We are not to become frustrated by those who fear and do not have the faith to follow Christ, but rather we are to encourage them in a gentle and brotherly manner.
- Dealing with the Weak Sheep – “Help the weak” (1 Thess. 5:14c)
Asthenḗs is Paul’s word for “the weak,” and is an adjective derived from a (“without”) and sthenos (“vigor, strength”). These weak sheep are likely those of our flocks who are fragile in faith or troubled by doubts. These may not be strong enough in their faith to enjoy their freedom in Christ, and they may be physically sick. This is the same word used to describe the weak or sick in James 5:16, “Is anyone among you asthenḗs (literally, without strength)? Then he must call on the elders of the church and they are to pray over him.” As we will see in again in Paul’s next instruction regarding the weak, James also writes that those who are strong should uplift the weak.
Paul exhorts those who are strong to help (antéxomai) the weak. (from antí, “corresponding to” and éxō, “have”). In simple terms, those of us who are strong should pour out as much as is necessary to help the weak in our churches. We are to help them without growing weary with as much strength to uphold them as they have weakness to weigh them down. This is how the church is to react. When one part of the body hurts – physically or spiritually, we all hurt right alongside them (1 Cor. 12:25-26).
- Dealing with the Wearisome Sheep – “Be patient with everyone” (1 Thess. 5:14d)
Do you remember the toy from a few decades ago called Stretch Armstrong? This body-builder looking goo-filled rubber action figure could be stretched to many times his usual body size and quickly return to normal. Many struggles in the church are contributable to its members. The complacency of the unruly, the wavering faith of the worriers, the emotional and spiritual neediness of the spiritually weak – tax the time, energy, and financial reserves of a church body. Now, what does this have to do with a stretchy children’s toy from the ‘70s?
The Greek word Paul uses here for “be patient” is makrothyméō, which more literally translated to “extending a long time or way”. We are to stretch ourselves a long way and a long time for the wearisome sheep, those brothers and sisters whose struggling faith irritates the church body. We are to clearly be patient with them.
- Dealing with the Wicked Sheep – “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” (1 Thess. 5:15).
This last of the exhortations monitoring interpersonal relationships in the church is the longest of the five. This verse is easily translated as “be sure that no one gives evil for evil but pursue good to all an in all.” This exhortation is not so much about watching our own actions, but watching our reactions – we do not look out for wicked sheep (evildoers) necessarily, but against those who would return evil for evil. John MacArthur notes that for Christians, the severest, most painful disappointments come not from the wickedness of the unbelieving world but from other sheep within our churches.
What are we to do, then, when evil occurs in our body? Trusting the spirit, we pursue good to all, and try to see the good in all, and we trust God with justification and vengeance. Revenge has no place amongst God’s people, as He alone is qualified to properly deal it out (see Lev. 19:18; Deut. 32. 35; Ps. 94:1; Prov. 20:22; Nah. 1:2; Rom. 12:19; Heb. 10:30; Rev. 14:9-10, 14-20). To restore unity with the body (which is one thing Jesus prayed specifically for all believers in John 17:20-23) and to preserve a church’s effectiveness and witness in its community, a church must avoid vengeance and spread goodness to all in spite of evil.
So, if we are to sum up how we should act as it relates to the other members of the church, it would be something like this: Straighten some out lovingly, encourage other, help those who need it, be patient with the ones who get on your nerves, and do not ever repay evil for evil. In doing so, we can help build a model church right here and right now.