Building up our fellow Christians.

1 Thessalonians 5.12-18.

This is the last chapter of 1 Thessalonians, and we’re getting to the part where the apostles wrapped up the letter: They moved away from the specific concerns of this particular church, and gave the same general advice they’d give any Christians of any church. So of course these things apply to us as well.

1 Thessalonians 5.12-18 KWL
12 Fellow Christians, we ask you to get to know those who labor hardest among you,
who stand up for you in the Master, and correct you.
13 We ask you to be led by them, more in love than anything,
because of the work they do. Keep the peace with one another.
14 Fellow Christians, we urge you to correct the irreligious.
Share your story with those who keep messing up. Help the weak. Be patient with all.
15 Watch out lest anyone might pay back evil for evil;
instead always pursue good for one another, and everyone.
16 Always rejoice.
17 Pray without slacking.
18 Give thanks for everything,
for this is God’s will, in Christ Jesus, for you all.

In it, we see advice on how to treat Christian leaders, and how to treat the ἀτάκτους/atáktus (KJV “unruly”) and ὀλιγοψύχους/oliyopsýhus (KJV “feebleminded”) —two terms which Christians treat with a lot less charity than the apostles meant to express.

So, how to treat the good… and how to treat the sucky.

Supporting our leaders.

Too often we assume our leaders neither need, nor even want, our help. They’re the Christianity experts after all, right? They’ve been following Jesus longer. Supposedly they’re more fruitful—spiritually and supernaturally and materially. They know what they’re doing. All we might do is muck things up.

None of this is true, of course. And it’s a regular problem we find in churches: The people of the church have manufactured some unbiblical caste system where the leadership are all Brahman, the rest of us are various other ranks depending on how good we can look on Sundays, pagans are outcastes, and ex-members are untouchable. It’s pretty twisted.

In Hinduism the Brahman caste is that of society’s leaders and priests. But in Christianity we’re all priests, and anybody of good character is qualified to be a leader; you needn’t be a pastor’s kid. But immature Christians, either ignorant of how things really work, or wannabe cult leaders who like the idea of people considering them sacred, have perpetuated this false idea far too often and far too long.

It’s not at all what the apostles instructed. The Thessalonians, and every Christian everywhere, are directed to get to know them. The Greek is εἰδέναι/eidéne, “to know”; it’s not some weird out-of-the-ordinary word. Know your leaders. Befriend them. Hang out with them. Spend quality time with them. Get to know ’em as human beings, and watch how they follow Christ Jesus in their day-to-day behavior. Watch their character in action.

Those pastors who wall themselves off from other people with secretaries, assistant pastors, “armor bearers,” and other gatekeepers? Sometimes it’s because they’re legitimately busy with tons of administrative stuff… and in that case they’re not really pastors anymore. They haven’t the time. But pastors are meant to lead people, not organizations. Jesus taught and ministered to and interacted with people, and when his students tried to play gatekeeper and insist their teacher was too busy to say hi to kids, he rebuked them. Mt 19.13-15 His duty was not to be the CEO of an expanding institution; it was to be accessible to all. Like he still is.

The CEO-type pastor needs to hire an administrator to do all that work instead, same as the apostles picked deacons to run their food programs. Ac 6.1-7 These pastors need to get back to their primary priority… or, if administration is their priority, they need to step down from being pastor and let a real pastor do it, while they handle the administration themselves.

Then of course there’s the pastor who just likes to be inaccessible. Sometimes because they’re introverted; sometimes because they’re proud. Either way it’s not what the people of the church need in their leaders, and they need to stop being shy or selfish and go minister. Let the people of your church know you.

And lastly there are the pastors who don’t wanna be known because they’re hypocrites. Which is a whole other issue, which I wrote about elsewhere.

In response to our pastors properly giving of ourselves, we Christians in the church need “to be led by them, more in love than anything, because of the work they do.” One can also translate this verse “outpace them in love.” We’re to love ’em back! Share our lives with our leaders as well. Care about their well-being, because they have so much on their plates. Love more than our leaders do. And if you think that’s not doable, remember: There are more “ordinary Christians” in a church than there are leaders. Even if these ordinary members aren’t as good at loving as our leaders, we should still collectively be able to overwhelm ’em with Christ’s love.

So we’re to minister to our ministers. We’re to lead them—not in the very same way they lead us, with the teaching and the preaching and the organization and so forth, but we’re to love more than they do. Usually we interact with the folks outside the church more often than our leaders, so we have more opportunity to love outsiders than they. We usually know where the church’s needs are, far better than our leaders. So while they focus on prayer and teaching, like the first apostles, Ac 6.4 we can focus on meeting their needs, being their moral support. And alongside them, we can help out the weaker Christians in our churches.

Supporting the weak Christians.

Τακτός/taktós isn’t a word found in our bibles; it means orderly and fixed, like troops who have their gear together for battle, who know what to do with crisis hits. It’s where we get our English word “tactics.”

And of course ἄτακτος/átaktos means just the reverse: Not orderly and fixed. When crisis hits, they fall apart. That’s the word the apostles used to describe weak Christians, because that’s precisely how they are: They don’t have their gear together. They follow Jesus based on how they feel like following him on any given day. Which means they’re really following their emotions instead of Jesus.

Of course, preachers and interpreters have historically assumed átaktos has to do with moral deficiency. These Christians are irreligious, not because they never disciplined themselves and straightened up, but because they don’t really wanna follow Jesus. They’d rather sin. They’d rather be pagan. They’re sinners and hypocrites, and don’t follow instruction because they’re evil, not because they’re immature.

Okay. First let’s set aside our lousy attitudes about people who aren’t as Christian as we’d like them to be. It’s of no help.

Yes, a lot of ’em suck because they really don’t wanna grow as Christians; they’re perfectly happy with the trappings, and don’t want to make any more of an effort than they have to. But I’ve found an awful lot of them simply don’t know Jesus expects more of us. They think—because they were taught—once Jesus saves us, we’re good; we’re going to heaven, and all we gotta do is trust Jesus to take care of our admission. And since we’re saved by grace not works, there are no works.

Hence there’s no shortage of irreligious Christians in Christianity. What do we do with ’em? Build ’em up.

Same as the leaders, but of course in a much different way, since we’re dealing with dysfunctional Christians, not functional ones.

CORRECT THE IRRELIGIOUS. Lots of bibles make this a separate command—and because we’re not benevolent by nature, we set ’em straight harshly. They translate νουθετεῖτε/nutheteíte, “put in [the right frame of] mind!” as “put in their place!”—in other words, smack ’em down, threaten ’em with dire consequences, “warn them that are unruly,” as the KJV puts it. (And mis-defining “unruly” as “disruptive,” rather than its 1600s sense of “undisciplined.”) It becomes about spanking naughty children, not correcting sheep who are wandering the wrong way.

We gotta read this instruction in the context of all the other instructions in this passage. We’re to help them follow Jesus. Not spank ’em; point them in the right direction. You know, like our leaders do for us—assuming they’re not dysfunctional legalists. Like Christ Jesus does.

SHARE YOUR STORY WITH THOSE WHO KEEP MESSING UP. Most bibles render this “encourage” or “comfort,” but παραμυθεῖσθε/paramytheísthe means “speak a story with.” The apostles got specific as to how we encourage or comfort others: Tell ’em how we were once screwups too. And just as importantly, how God has worked on us since.

Immature Christians need testimonies. They don’t hear a lot of humble ones! Too many Christian brag about the great things they did, instead of the absolutely dumb things we did. They need to hear we were once like they were. They need to know there’s some hope for them. Because there certainly is.

And yeah, sometimes they’ve been Christian for years but haven’t grown any; they’re not gonna see our stories as encouragement, but as fodder for gossip. (“Didja hear what Leslie did back when he was a new Christian? What a psycho.”) Use your head and figure out whether they’re that kind of Christian before you confess anything embarrassing with them. Me, I’m not embarrassed by old misbehaviors that I’ve since repented of, but you might be, so heads up.

As for “those who keep messing up,” it’s how I translated ὀλιγοψύχους/oliyopsýhus, “little-souls.” The KJV made this “feebleminded,” and the NIV went with “disheartened,” and both of ’em get it wrong. Little-souls means they’re immature. They’re either young people, or young in Christ; they lack experience. Yeah, they might be struggling with faith, conviction, or courage, but that’s because it’s what newbies do. We help ’em grow past that by sharing our experiences, and by urging them to seek such experiences for themselves. And certainly not by rebuking them for being young.

HELP THE WEAK. Too often people give up on us when we fail. It’s how our social-Darwinist world works: The strong survive and the weak only drag us down; if you fail, you’re one of the weak, and we should cast you away lest you destroy us all.

But Christianity is just the opposite: We will fail. Everybody sins. Yet God gives us his grace anyway. Christians need to demonstrate this grace, and be there for people whenever the world casts them away. We must never shun the weak, the lapsed, the sinners, the failed—like so many “righteous” churches do, ’cause they only care to be filled with “good” people.

BE PATIENT WITH ALL. Or “be longsuffering.” In general we’re to have the sort of fruitful patience which tolerates people for the long haul. Not just till they grow out of their bad habits (assuming they ever will); not just till we can finally get the church board to disfellowship them. We have to put up with them as long as God puts up with them. And he can be patient for generations. As can we, when we tap into his patience.

ALWAYS PURSUE GOOD FOR ONE ANOTHER. Humans like karma. Although often karma’s not enough, and we prefer satisfaction: When someone hurts us in a small way, we wanna hurt them back in a big way. But if we can’t get that evil wish fulfilled, karma (eye for eye, tooth for tooth, life for life, and all that Dt 19.21) will do. Karma is fair. Karma is “justice,” as we popularly (and wrongly) define it.

So we have to watch out lest immature Christians fall back into karma. Jesus wants us to be gracious, not karmic. Mt 5.38-48 We’re to be unjust—in their favor. We’re to forgive those who don’t deserve it, love the outcasts, reform the sinners just as Christ reformed us.

Problem is, Christians try to slip these folks karma instead of grace. We tell them all is forgiven, but we make ’em jump through a significant number of hoops, as “rehabilitation,” as “penance,” before we’ll let them back into our folds. Or we don’t forgive them at all, and drive them out. These are likewise forms of revenge. It’s just the subtle drip-drip-drip of erosion rather than the harsh bang of dynamite. It’s not meant to rehabilitate anyone; it’s meant to keep them at arm’s length, or drive them away, preferably to hell.

We have to pursue good. It can’t just be a passive, benign good; it can’t just be positive feelings or well wishes. It has to be an active good. It has to demonstrate love. Gonna be particularly hard to perform for an evildoer, but it’s how Jesus behaves, and how we who follow Jesus must imitate him, and overcome evil with good. Ro 12.21

ALWAYS REJOICE. Contrary to popular belief, we can take control of our emotions. Joy is one of them. It’s not just contentment; it’s not just optimism. Those things help lead to joy, and we should practice them because they get us there.

Those demented Christians who tell us we shouldn’t be happy, because other people are suffering? Or not to tempt fate; things could get worse? Or that holiness means we have to be solemn; we’re not allowed to have fun? Or who try to redefine joy so they can claim their unhappy state is joyful? They’re fools. Ignore or rebuke them as necessary. God calls his people to be joyful. Not because we put blinders on about the world around us; in spite of the world around us, for we know God’s creating a better one.

PRAY WITHOUT SLACKING. Usually “pray without ceasing,” resulting in all sorts of prayer groups which attempt nonstop, 24-hour prayer. Doesn’t mean that. It only means to keep praying: Don’t limit yourself to once a day, once a week, once a year, or once a lifetime—you said the sinner’s prayer and now you’re done. Keep talking with God. Keep sharing your fears and requests with him. Keep listening to what he has to tell us. Keep it up.

GIVE THANKS FOR EVERYTHING. One of the ways we cultivate God’s mindset is to remember every good, complete thing comes from him. Jm 1.17 Every good thing—not just the blatantly religious things, but the fresh air we breathe, the good food we eat, pleasant weather, health, beneficial relationships, beautiful things. We must neither take him, nor his gifts, for granted. So remember to thank God, our provider, for everything he’s provided.

None of this is just good apostolic advice. This is God’s expectation for how his kingdom functions. All of us oughta be this way. Not just the leadership; not the elders and longtime Christians; newbies too. All of us. It sets the tone for the kingdom.

Christians who don’t behave this way, indicate we’ve really no interest in being a part of God’s kingdom. We don’t care to please God. We don’t want peace and relationship with one another, nor him. We only want to escape hell, and maybe get a few heavenly bonuses and benefits and material possessions. But Jesus?—we honestly don’t care whether we ever see Jesus in New Jerusalem, for we’ll be too busy decorating our heavenly mansions.

If that’s our attitude, I have my doubts as to whether such people will ever get to enter New Jerusalem. Life now is preparation for eternal life later. Let’s start practicing.