01 March 2021

When a church holds firm. Or doesn’t.

1 Thessalonians 3.6-10.

The biggest worry for any apostle, for any ministry leader or missionary or evangelist, is their work might be for nothing.

That everybody they’ve worked with were only running high on emotion: They were excited about this new thing they were trying out, were feeding off the adrenalin and other people’s zeal, were feeling their own endorphins instead of the Holy Spirit… or were faking it because everybody else seemed to be so into it. That as soon as the apostle leaves, everything they built just collapses, because nothing else was holding things together.

Because this happens. Has happened before to a lot of apostles. No doubt happened to Paul, Silas, and Timothy.

Acts records the places Paul went, and the churches he either found there, or started there… or didn’t. It doesn’t mention the churches he started which flopped. Sometimes that’s because Luke simply didn’t have the data. But if failed churches weren’t a real thing, the apostles who 1 Thessalonians wouldn’t have this worry! If they had nothing but success everywhere, they’d presume the Holy Spirit would guarantee more of the same.

So they were worried about Thessaloniki, Macedon. They didn’t get a lot of time there before they were driven out of town. They were anxious to return, but none of ’em went back but Timothy. But when he came back, he had good news—as it comes out in the letter.

1 Thessalonians 3.6-10 KWL
6 Timothy came to us from you just now, bringing good news of you—
your faith and love, and that you always have good memories of us,
greatly desiring to see us, same as we you.
7 This is why we’re aided by you, fellow Christians,
in all our distress and and trouble; we’re aided by your faith.
8 So now we live, when you stand firm in our Master:
9 Why are we able to repay you by giving thanks to God for you,
for all the joy which we rejoice because of you before our God?
10 Night and day, begging God all the more to see you in person,
to restore whatever’s lacking in your faith.

Timothy reported the Thessalonians were still together, and were still fruitful in the way Christians ought to be. And they fondly remembered Paul and Silas, and wanted to see them too. And that empowered them.

The word in verse 7, παρεκλήθημεν/pareklíthimen, “we’re aided,” tends to be translated “we were comforted” (KJV, NASB) or “we were encouraged” (NIV) because its word-root is παράκλητος/paráklitos, “paraclete,” a word used to describe both Jesus and the Holy Spirit, and usually translated “comforter” or “advocate.” Jn 14.16 Properly it refers to a partner who comes alongside to assist us, and that’s what Jesus and the Spirit do—when we let ’em. The apostles aren’t expressing, “Aw, you’re praying for us too; that makes us feel all warm and fuzzy inside.” It’s “You’re praying for us too; that helps!

“If a church fails, God’s not in it.”

But lemme get back to that worry apostles have that their work might be for nothing. And riff on it a little.

The most common assumption, y’notice, is that if a ministry collapses once the apostle leaves, the Holy Spirit wasn’t in it. The ministry was the result of the apostles’ efforts, not God’s.

It’s not always true. But it is what we expect, isn’t it?

Psalm 127.1 KJV
Except the LORD build the house, they labour in vain that build it: except the LORD keep the city, the watchman waketh but in vain.

It’s what Gamaliel ben Simeon said when he defended the Christians to the senate:

Acts 5.34-39 KJV
34 Then stood there up one in the council, a Pharisee, named Gamaliel, a doctor of the law, had in reputation among all the people, and commanded to put the apostles forth a little space; 35 and said unto them, Ye men of Israel, take heed to yourselves what ye intend to do as touching these men. 36 For before these days rose up Theudas, boasting himself to be somebody; to whom a number of men, about four hundred, joined themselves: who was slain; and all, as many as obeyed him, were scattered, and brought to nought. 37 After this man rose up Judas of Galilee in the days of the taxing, and drew away much people after him: he also perished; and all, even as many as obeyed him, were dispersed. 38 And now I say unto you, Refrain from these men, and let them alone: for if this counsel or this work be of men, it will come to nought: 39 But if it be of God, ye cannot overthrow it; lest haply ye be found even to fight against God.

So if it’s not a God thing, it’ll collapse; if it’s a God thing, it’ll never, ever fail. You know, like the Muslims and Mormons. Oh, wait…

See, that’s how we know Gamaliel’s idea, and this way we spin Psalm 127, is bunk. False religions flourish all the time. At many points in history there were definitely more polytheists than monotheists on earth. (Arguably there still are, ’cause way too many “monotheists” worship money and power at the same time they pay lip service to God. But I digress.)

And I would venture to say a number of churches and ministries do just fine without any help from God either. If the people of a church have a vested interest in keeping their organization together, despite not really following Jesus at all, they will. And do.

The only growth that’s a sign of God’s activity, is fruit of the Spirit. Yeah, miracles get attention, but if miracles lack the Spirit’s fruit, you don’t know whether they’re legitimately done in the Spirit’s power. Jesus told us to look for fruit. So do!

Everything else—the number of people in the church, the buildings, the number of services and ministries, the money—are false signs. Stuff which impresses our culture, but is no guarantee whatsoever of God’s endorsement, no matter what the prosperity gospel folks claim. God could provide it, but so could any millionaire or political party.

So a church which continues without its founding apostles to steer it, does not mean it automatically belongs to the Holy Spirit. It does not mean the Spirit began the good work; it does not mean he’s faithful to complete it; Pp 1.6 it does not mean he’s involved at all. He might be; hope he is! But unless we see his fruit, we’ve no proof he is.

And if a church folds up, this also doesn’t mean the Spirit’s not a part of it. Because it might be his idea for this particular church to dissolve. When a church splits and collapses, it’s not always because evil, selfish, greedy people took it over and ruined it—although yeah, that’s often a big factor. Often it’s because the Holy Spirit exposed all the hypocrites in the leadership, and they had to go—and all the hypocrites who were following those leaders instead of Jesus, left with them. And good riddance; they need to repent. The rest of the church, instead of trying to sort things out themselves and potentially leading themselves astray, need to go to other, properly-led churches, and get the dysfunction trained out of them.

It might also mean, as was the case when persecution scattered the Jerusalem church, Ac 8.3-4 that the people of that church need to leave—and start new ministries, support other ministries, lead other Christians for once, and spread God’s kingdom. Too often we get too comfortable where we are, or we’re in a church that’s so large they don’t need the help, and we need to go someplace we’re not comfortable. Sometimes the Spirit needs to shake us out of there. Sometimes he does this by shaking everyone out of there.

How do you know what the Spirit’s up to? Well if he doesn’t tell you directly, or indirectly through his prophets, again: Fruit. Is the church shakeup, or church collapse, causing Christians to spread out and spread the kingdom with them? Is this actually a case of church mitosis? Then good.

To restore whatever’s lacking.

When Paul and Silas were driven out of Thessaloniki, Ac 17.10 they may not have felt they finished their job. They may not have trained the Thessalonians to their satisfaction. They hoped they did enough… and were gratified to find God had preserved his church despite their incomplete discipleship. After all, it’s like getting hauled off to prison as your kids get hauled off to foster care: Will the kids survive and thrive? Some kids yes; they get the right foster parents, and are bright enough to make healthy choices and take care of themselves. Other kids, not so much.

Of course, we Christians aren’t really supposed to depend on apostles. We’re to depend on Christ. Our rabbi is Jesus, not Paul. If the apostles trained the Thessalonians correctly—and it looks like they did—they’d have taught them so. A direct dependence on Jesus is why the Thessalonians didn’t lapse into heresy, despair, or apostasy. Their lack of Paul and Silas forced them to trust in Jesus, and Jesus kept them in the truth. For that matter, Jesus might’ve allowed Paul and Silas to be driven out of town for just this purpose: To keep the Thessalonians from getting too dependent on his apostles.

In any case, a church which goes on without its founding apostles, which keeps producing good fruit even though they still need to develop their theology: That’s the sign Jesus, not the apostles, is the backbone of a church. Paul and Silas had worried, but their worries were groundless. And in their joy and relief, they admitted as much: They were wrong, and God had shown them he had the Thessalonians in his hands.

And that’s what makes these apostles’ letters inspired by God. It’s not just because these guys are really wise Christians, and we can learn from their experience. It’s also because they made mistakes—the very same mistakes we Christians still make in trying to follow Jesus, and fumbling. But God showed ’em better, and they shared what God showed them. They learned better from the Holy Spirit. That’s what fills their letters.