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The Problem with the Church Is People

The Problem with the Church Is People

William H. Smith
August 10, 2014

The text for our Homily this morning is 1 Thessalonians 5:14.

Let me tell you first a little about this letter. Thessalonica was a seaport city of more than 100,000 on the north east coast of Greece. St. Paul visited it on the second of three missionary trips. From the beginning there was opposition to the Gospel. It was so intense that Paul was able to stay there a few months at most. Paul left behind a new church which experienced persecution from the beginning. From Thessalonica Paul moved on to Berea and then Corinth. From Corinth he wrote the church in Thessalonica twice. 1 Thessalonians was the first or second letter Paul wrote that is in our New Testament and was written around 50 AD.

I’ll read my text first from the King James Version which is the Bible in the pews. Then I’ll read it from a more recent version, the English Standard Version.

Now we exhort you, brethren, warn them that are unruly, comfort the feelbleminded, support the weak, be patient toward all men. (KJV)

And we urge you, brothers, admonish the idle, encourage the fainthearted, help the weak, be patient with them all. (ESV)

The church is a wonderful institution - the household of God, the body of Christ, the temple of the Holy Spirit. It’s wonderful so long as we focus on the church’s relationship to God.

But then there are the people. See if this poem rings true:

To dwell above
with those we love
Ah, that will be glory!

To dwell below
with those we know,
Now that’s a different story!*

July 30 marked 42 years of ordained ministry for me. Over these 42 years I have often remarked, “The church would be a wonderful thing if it weren’t for people.” The only alteration I would now make is to put myself at the top of the list of those who make the church less than wonderful.

Some, no probably most, of God’s people have problems at least some of the time. Big problems, persistent problems. Paul tells us who they are and what our obligation toward them is.

The commands of verse 14 - and they are that, commands - are directed not to bishops or priests but to the congregation itself. These responsibilities belong to us all.

1. Admonish the idle.

The word “idle” means more generally “unruly” or “undisciplined.” It’s a military term that means to be “out of step.” or “in disarray.” The picture is of an army that is marching. But, there are always stragglers. One reason Stonewall Jackson’s corps was called “the foot cavalry” was because he and his officers rode up and down the line of march pressing the stragglers back into the ranks. They kept the troops together and moving.

A congregation is also an army, an army commanded by Christ. Just as it is essential for army that its troops keep in step and move forward together to accomplish the army’s mission, so it is is important for church members to march together under Christ to fulfill the church’s mission of making disciples of the nations.

The problem with unruly or out of step church members in Thessalonica was that some of the members had become literally idle. They had quit working. The reason they stopped working may have been that they were anticipating that the Second Coming of our Lord would happen soon, so they reasoned, “If the Lord is coming any day now, why continue working?” As time passed, and the Lord did not come, their idleness became a problem for the church. The church has a responsibility to care for its needy members, so these members of the congregation were probably living off the congregation’s benevolence. Otherwise they would have gone hungry.

Paul hints at this problem 1 Thessalonians 3: “...we urge you, brothers..to live quietly, to manage your own affairs, and to work with your hands, as we instructed you” (10, 11). When, Paul wrote 2 Thessalonians, probably a few months later, the problem had not improved so Paul addressed it much more directly:

6 Now we command you, brothers, in the name of our Lord Jesus Christ, that you keep away from any brother who is walking in idleness and not in accord with the tradition that you received from us. 7 For you yourselves know how you ought to imitate us, because we were not idle when we were with you, 8 nor did we eat anyone's bread without paying for it, but with toil and labor we worked night and day, that we might not be a burden to any of you. 9 It was not because we do not have that right, but to give you in ourselves an example to imitate. 10 For even when we were with you, we would give you this command:If anyone is not willing to work, let him not eat. 11 For we hear that some among you walk in idleness, not busy at work, but busybodies. 12 Now such persons we command and encourage in the Lord Jesus Christ to do their work quietly and to earn their own living.

Idleness is just one way we can be unruly. Anytime we get out of step with the ways that Christ clearly calls his people to live, anytime we fall out of the ranks of the church as it fulfills the mission Christ has given it, we are unruly, undisciplined. It may be that are no longer faithful in church attendance. Or we are failing to bring up our children in the nurture and admonition of the Lord. Or we slip into shady business practices. Or any other significant and persistent departure from the clear duties and responsibilities Christian living.

As Christians, we should not engage in snooping on one another, or acting as busybodies, but we should notice when someone, who was in step with Christ, falls out of step. That means we care about the fellowship of the church and the spiritual welfare of our fellow Christians.

What are members of the church to do about those who live unruly lives? Paul says that others should “admonish them.” The word “admonish” means to confront another person with words. These are not demeaning, angry, or self-righteous words. But they are straightforward words. When we admonish we point out what the person is doing wrong, we call them to repentance, and, if necessary, we warn them of the consequences of leading an unruly life. It is not harsh scolding but tough and loving admonition. Paul gives us a clear example of admonishment in the verses we read a moment ago from 2 Thessalonians.

There are unruly Christians. Sometimes we are those unruly ones. When that is the case, we should receive the admonitions given us by brothers and sisters in Christ. Sometimes we notice the unruliness of other Christians. Then we should be willing to offer a word of admonition spoken with Christian love.

2. Encourage the fainthearted.

Sometimes at my age, I prefer the King James Version, “Comfort the feebleminded.” However, “feebleminded” did not mean then, what it means now. Paul is talking, rather, about the “small-souled” people, who are those Christians who are fearful and discouraged who are becoming fainthearted in the Christian life.

There are at least two reasons some Christians in Thessalonica were becoming disheartened.

One is that from the very beginning they had experienced persecution. Sometimes we as Christians, who are becoming, if we are not already, a minority sub-group in the United States, feel we are persecuted, but we have not experienced much persecution of the sort that leads to real suffering, even death. Christians who have been killed or driven out of Mosul know persecution. Miriam Ibrahim, who was imprisoned in Sudan under the sentence of lashing and hanging, knew persecution. Christians in the Islamic countries and in places like North Korea experience persecution. If you can become discouraged by the opposition to Christianity in North America, you can understand how Christians in Thessalonica and in many places in the world today, where they are driven out, imprisoned, lose jobs and property, and threatened with death can become fearful and discouraged.

Another possible cause of people in the church in Thessalonica becoming disheartened was a misunderstanding or lack of knowledge about the Second Coming of the Christ and what would become of their Christian loved ones who had died. They knew that at the coming of Christ the Lord’s people would experience the fullness of their salvation. But, since they first learned of that hope, the Lord had not come and some members of the congregation had died. What would happen to those who had died? Did their dying mean they would miss out on the things promised to the Lord’s people? They did not understand that at the coming of the Lord all of his people who have died will be raised, and then all them, whether still alive or raised from the dead, will be together and with the Lord forever.

We know that there are many things that can lead to Christians being discouraged and tempted to give up. A temperamental tendency toward to depression, prolonged loneliness, loss of a spouse, disappointment in love, job loss, an ongoing struggle with temptation - all sorts of things can leave Christians disheartened.

Disheartened Christians should be encouraged. They should not be disdained because they are discouraged; that will only make matters worse. Empty cliches, even ones that sound spiritual will not help. What they need is for fellow Christians to come along side with empathetic presence. Sometimes the most important thing at first is not to say something but to be there. But then there comes a time for reminders of God’s faithfulness, affirmations of God’s promises, understanding sharing of how God has seen you through in tough times.

Paul wants us to encourage one another in ways that get us back to living for Christ and serving God’s people. Imagine going on a climb up a steep hill when you come across someone who feels he has come to the end of his rope. He is very tired, very discouraged, and has sat down on the side of the trail, thinking he will not, he cannot, go on. Encouragement does not mean telling the person that you understand and that you agree that he should just stay put till someone comes along later who can help him to back to the bottom of the hill. No, encouragement means that you stop, perhaps sit down beside the person for awhile, offer some comforting and strengthening words, and then say, “Come on. Let’s climb this hill together. You can lean on me if you need to. The Lord will help us, and we can help one another.”

There are disheartened Christians. If we are disheartened, Paul wants us to be open to receive encouragement. If we come across fellow Christians who are disheartened, Paul want us to encourage them.

3. Help the weak.

The weak are those who struggle with moral weaknesses. In the New Testament era, most of the converts were Gentiles who had not been brought up with moral code of the Jews that was based on the Ten Commandments. The Greek-Roman culture tolerated, even approved of, many things the Jewish people knew were wrong in God’s sight. Some of the cities where churches were established were notoriously wicked places. This was the kind of world we are coming to live in, where traditional morality is not the norm. When people became Christians, they did immediately have an understanding of Christian standards. Not having an understanding Christian morality, they did not live by the Christian understanding of right and wrong.

In addition to moral weakness based on a lack of understanding, there is moral weakness associated with besetting sins. Besetting sins are sins to which we are particularly vulnerable. Christians can experience strong temptations that seem to overwhelm their defenses. There are patterns of sinful behavior that are hard to get rid of. There are sins which we hate but which we nevertheless commit repeatedly. There are sins whose power we think is broken, only to find ourselves falling back into them when circumstances and temptations line up.

It is clear that some of the Thessalonian Christians did not yet conform their behavior to Biblical sexual morality. In chapter 4, Paul reminds them of what he had taught them when he was with them:

3 For this is the will of God, your sanctification:that you abstain from sexual immorality; 4 that each one of you know how to control his own body in holiness and honor, 5 not in the passion of lust like the Gentiles who do not know God; 6 that no one transgress and wrong his brother in this matter, because the Lord is an avenger in all these things, as we told you beforehand and solemnly warned you. 7 For God has not called us for impurity, but in holiness.

They needed to understand and live by God’s sexual standards.

Sexual sins are not the only sins, though they are for many the most powerful. There are not only sins of the body but sins of the mind and heart. Not only lust but arrogance, envy, malice, jealousy, covetousness which Paul says is idolatry, and many other sins that are strong.

Paul says we must help the weak. Helping does not mean redefining sin or reinterpreting morality. It does not mean ignoring sin, pretending it doesn’t exist. It surely on the other hand it does not mean gossiping about others’ sins, or self-righteously condemning others for their sins, or rejecting those who struggle with sins.

Helping means standing by and with those who struggle. It means going and finding them when they fall. It means using your strength to support them in their weakness. It means praying for them and with them. It means using God’s Eord to instruct and build them up. It means encouraging them to walk the pathway of holiness and righteousness with you.

Suppose someone falls into quicksand. What do you do to help them? You don’t jump into the quicksand with them. But you don’t ignore them or walk on as though their emergency did not exist. Well you might think, “I need to help them but I sure don’t want to get dirty doing it.” So you get ten foot pole, and you reach it out to them, and say, “Grab hold, if you can, and pull yourself out while I hold onto this pole.” What it means to help is to get as close to them as you can and reach out your hand for them to take hold of. You pull them out using your strength. When you have pulled them near you wrap your arms around them and get them out of the muck. That’s what it means to help a weak Christian.

There are weak Christians. When we are weak we need to accept the help of others who are stronger. When others are weak, we need to do all we can to help them.

4. Be patient with them all.

Paul has spoken about the unruly, the disheartened, and the weak.

Now he writes about everyone. And he says we must be patient with everyone. To be patient with others means to be forbearing toward them, to put up with them, to hang in there with them. It means not to get irritable, not to get angry, not to quit on each other.

We need to have patience with the unruly, the disheartened. and the weak. We may get an unruly person back in step and before long may look around and see he has fallen out of the ranks again. We can encourage a disheartened person and find that person has lost heart again. We may help a weak person out of a moral fall only to find that he has fallen again. It takes patience to deal with problems and the people who have them.

But it takes patience not only to deal with people who have these specific problems but to deal with all Christians. Why? Because we are all at best works of grace in progress. We offend one another by our sinful attitudes, words, and actions, often without even being aware we have done anything wrong. We irritate one another by our foibles and idiosyncrasies. All our interactions are of sinners with other sinners.

How can we be patient with one another? One way is to remember how much we need patience. We offend and irritate others and more often than we know. Another is to remember how often others have been patient to us. Most important is to remember how patient God is with us. If God were not patient with us, we would constantly be under his displeasure. If he gave up on us when we deserve it, he would have written us off long age. We needed his forbearance and mercy when we were still under his wrath. If f God has been patient with us, how can we refuse to be patient with one another?

What do we as believers in and followers of Christ owe one another?
Admonish the unruly.
Encourage the disheartened.
Help the weak.
Be patient with everyone.


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