When Something Isn’t Right
Series: We Are Citylight
Positively, we speak the truth in love to another in the church so that the whole church grows to maturity. But what happens when something isn’t right? This text shows us that it’s every Christian’s responsibility to move toward one another when something isn’t right, and it shows us how.
Is it Loving to Practice Church Discipline?, Jonathan Leeman
We’re continuing our series of sermons this morning on who we are as a church and explaining a bit why we do what we do and what that means for our future. We’re on our second core value, “community,” for a second consecutive week. Last week we talked about what you could think of as the “positive” side of community: We speak the truth in love to one another so that we all grow to maturity together. But what happens when something isn’t right? In any community that lasts longer than a week, something goes wrong. How should we deal with that, Citylight Church? Just like Ephesians 4 told us that the work of speaking the truth in love is the work of the whole church, not just the elders or some other group within the church like Citygroup leaders, 1 Thessalonians 5:14 is addressed to the brothers generally: “We urge you, brothers…” If you’re a member of this church and you see something isn’t right, it’s your responsibility, not someone else’s. The responsibility every Christian has, according to this verse, is to Move toward one another when something isn’t right. The way it shows us to do that is to admonish the idle, encourage the fainthearted, help the weak, and be patient with them all.
Admonish the idle
The first group of people we’re taught how to move toward is the idle. The word there could also be translated disorderly or unruly. This is someone who knows the right thing to do, and they just aren’t doing it. In the Thessalonian context, the most immediate way people were idle was in refusing to work to supply their own needs. Today we have a hard time acknowledging that such people exist: We talk about systemic problems, mental health problems, and other reasons people aren’t working, which are legitimate in some cases; we’ll talk in just a bit about the fainthearted and weak, who aren’t idle. But this verse teaches us that idle people exist. There are some who won’t work simply because it’s hard and our flesh doesn’t like doing hard things.
Beyond the Thessalonian context, we should recognize that sometimes people continue in other forms of sin simply because they want to. Some are belligerent and harsh toward others simply because they want to be. They know they shouldn’t be, and they do it anyway. Some are sexually immoral, forsaking the church, deceptive, or engaged in any other sin simply because they want to be. They know what they ought to do, and they just refuse to do it. That’s what it means to be idle. And the easy things to do with such people are to say nothing, make excuses for them, or worst of all, affirm what they’re doing. Such responses cause us the least pain and discomfort, but they only hurt the idle person. If there is a real God who is really just and there is a real hell, the idle person is on the path toward it. I know that’s not a pleasant thought, but we are doing the idle no favors by pretending it’s not the case; we’re only doing ourselves the favor of sparing ourselves a potentially uncomfortable conversation.
On the contrary, this passage instructs us to move toward the idle to admonish them. Admonish is a kind of fancy word for “warn.” It’s often paired in the Bible with teaching, and roughly the idea is that teaching is positive formation: Here’s what’s true, here’s what you ought to do and be. Admonishment is corrective: “Hey, you’re heading in the wrong direction.” “Hey, this path leads to judgment.” It’s not beating around the bush. It’s direct, clear, and specific. “You are committing murder in your heart when you get angry like that. And God will protect that person you are belittling by judging you for it if you don’t repent.” In the Bible, that admonishment is to begin privately, and if the person remains idle, you are to take 1 or 2 others with you to ensure that the charge you’re bringing is accurate. If the idle person is a fellow member and refuses to listen to them also, you should notify one of your pastors, and if the sin is observable, serious, and unrepentant, and the person is unresponsive to a pastor also, we will notify the church of it at a member meeting. If the idle person still does not repent at that point, we will remove them from the membership of the church as an act of church discipline. That’s how the Bible prescribes that we admonish the idle, and it is every Christian’s responsibility to engage in it. Who do you need to admonish this week? Ask for help if you don’t know how to do that, but don’t prioritize your own comfort over another’s eternal good by doing nothing about it.
Not every issue in someone’s life, however, can be traced back to idleness. Sometimes someone is fainthearted, and they are to be encouraged, not admonished.
Encourage the fainthearted
Fainthearted is a word that comes from the words “small” and “soul.” It’s someone whose vitality is small. They lack boldness and vigor. It’s a word used in the Old Testament when the people of Israel saw a fierce enemy and became afraid. So the person who is constantly timid and afraid fits here. It can also refer to hardship stemming from oppression: It’s a word used for how Israel felt after years of slavery in Egypt. Their spirit was broken down and they felt hopeless. Finally, we can think of sadness here. The Thessalonians had seen members of their church die, and not having been instructed yet about what would happen to the dead when Christ returned, some were grieving without hope. We might also think here of those who are prone to be discouraged about their growth in godliness or who question whether they’ve been truly saved. So when you think fainthearted, think afraid, oppressed, hopeless, doubting, despondent. There isn’t some clear command of Scripture they’re refusing to obey; they aren’t idle. But they are struggling.
And once again, avoidance here is the easy option: You don’t want to say the wrong thing to someone who’s fainthearted. Mere validation is also tempting, and encouragement often begins there, but it’s more than that: It means giving them courage, like literally the word means that: Putting courage in, hence en-courage. It means not only sympathizing with hopelessness, but giving hope to the hopeless. Here the golden rule is helpful: Do unto others as you would have them do unto you. When you’ve been in similar situations, what have people said to you that has genuinely encouraged you, i.e., helped you to go forward with hope in Jesus?
If someone is afraid, there are a whole host of biblical truths we can speak, but the most common one is something like this: “I know you’re afraid, but God is with you. We don’t know how this specific situation will end, but we do know it won’t separate you from His love in Christ Jesus our Lord.” If someone is oppressed, we can encourage them that Jesus sympathizes with them, and justice will be done to them and their oppressors. If someone is grieving, we can encourage them that God will wipe away every tear from their eyes one day. If someone is discouraged at their sanctification, we can encourage them that God will finish the good work He’s begun in them. We can point out ways God is working on their character already. If someone is prone to doubt their salvation, we can encourage them that their standing with God depends on the object of their faith, not the strength of it.
And that’s just scratching the surface. So much of Scripture is written to fainthearted people, and it doesn’t admonish them. It encourages them with who God is, with what He’s done, and with what He promises to do. Who needs encouragement this week? Encourage the fainthearted, and next, help the weak.
Help the weak
Weakness is somewhat similar to faintheartedness, but think of weaknesses as things we can do something about more directly. We can help them. If someone is grieving the death of a loved one, for example, you can’t really fix that. You can’t bring that dead person back to life, and you can’t “fix” the person’s grief; trying to do so will really hurt them. So you don’t help the fainthearted; you encourage them. But simply encouraging the weak, or worse yet, admonishing them, when you could help them, is unloving. If someone is sick, you may be able to help them: You can pray for them. You can take them to the doctor. If someone is materially poor, you can help them: You can give them money, buy them groceries, help them get a job, teach them how to budget, connect them with our Mercy & Justice Team, connect them with city services. I mentioned our Mercy & Justice team there, and I just want to remind you that it exists, and it’s a team of members of our church who oversee our efforts as a church to do good to the materially poor. You can always let them know of a need by checking the “request assistance” box on the Connect Card. If it’s a fellow member of the church with more of an ongoing weakness, let one of the pastors know so we can coordinate the help and pull more resources together to do it. Practically, we are also in the process of studying the office of deacon and moving toward installing deacons who will oversee our ongoing help of the weak.
So there are bodily weaknesses like sicknesses or other disabilities, there are material weaknesses like poverty. There are mental weaknesses like mental illness, and often as with bodily illness, you may not know how to help someone who is mentally ill, but you can help them not feel ashamed of it and connect them with someone who may be able to provide more help. We as a church have mental health professionals we work with and use some of the money you all give to help offset the costs where that is necessary. There are also mental weaknesses of understanding. Sometimes you may assume someone is idle when they honestly just don’t know the thing they’re doing is forbidden in Scripture. They need help, not admonishment. There are systemic weaknesses, where someone may be the victim of systemic injustice, and you can help them by advocating for systemic change, typically beginning at the local level. There are social weaknesses; some people just don’t know how to interact socially, how to develop or maintain healthy friendships. You can help them by just choosing to be a friend to them, even though you know it’s going to be prickly and difficult at times.
Again, that’s just a sampling, but the temptation with weaknesses is once again avoidance. We tend to fear weakness ourselves, so when we see weak people, we stay away from them. We worry about what it will cost us to love them, or we can’t figure out how to help, and resort to avoidance instead. But love compels us to help the weak. The word for help there comes from a word meaning “hold on.” That’s something we can always do with the weak. Hold on to them. Check in with them. Include them. You may not know how to help yet, but hold on to them long enough, and opportunities will arise. Who needs you to hold on to them this week? Who could you help? Help the weak, and, finally, be patient with them all.
Be patient with them all
Neither admonishment, encouragement, nor help are meant to be quick fixes. We’re all in the middle of our sanctification, and the good work God has begun in us will not be completed until the day of Christ Jesus. The whole paradigm for admonishing the idle, encouraging the fainthearted, and helping the weak is a family paradigm. Remember Paul addressed the Thessalonians as brothers. In 2 Thessalonians 3:15 Paul even tells the Thessalonians that when they admonish one another, they should not do so as enemies, but as brothers. The church is a family, and a healthy family is committed; brothers aren’t brothers one week and then not brothers the next. It’s not a club you bounce in and out of. And in a healthy family, there is affection. So there should be a sense whether we’re admonishing the idle, encouraging the fainthearted, or helping the weak, that we are in this for the long haul. It’s one of the reasons we practice church membership: It gives us a way to publicly commit to the church, so others know: “I’m committed to this family. You can admonish, encourage, and help me without worrying if I’m going to be gone next week if you mess it up. And I can admonish, encourage, and help you without you needing to worry whether this means I hate you and want you gone next week. I don’t. I love you.” An accountable commitment empowers patience because it says: “I’m not going anywhere.” And it’s in that context that we admonish, encourage, and help.
That’s one of the reasons we exist as a church. It’s one of the things we mean when we say we value community. It’s one of the key ways we make disciples. We admonish the idle, encourage the fainthearted, and help the weak in the context of patient, family relationships. And Citygroups, smaller groups of 5-20 that meet in members’ homes throughout the city during the week, are a structure we’ve put in place to help you members get started doing these things and where people who are considering whether to join our family can get a taste of what that looks like. Our Citygroups are on a break right now, but will start up again on Sunday, September 12. At that time, to help us grow in this kind of ministry and in what we talked about last week, speaking the truth in love, I’ve asked our Citygroups to discuss a book by Ed Welch called Caring for One Another: Eight Ways to Cultivate Meaningful Relationships. When groups meet this fall, they will read a chapter of the book together each week and discuss the questions provided with it; so there is no need to read ahead. So, if you want to participate in a Citygroup this fall, we want to give you a copy of this book, and we have 100 of them here today to give away. If you’re already part of a Citygroup and plan to jump back in on September 12, just grab one and take it with you. If you aren’t yet part of a Citygroup, please indicate your desire to join one by checking the “Citygroup” box on your Connect Card and dropping it in the Orange Box in the back. Once you do so, you can grab one of the books to take with you.
Beyond this practical step we’re taking though, let’s talk about patience a bit, because patience is a challenge. It is a challenge for our church for a few reasons, some specific to us, some more general. Specific to us, we have a pretty transient church; every year 10-15 of our members move, and 20-30 new people join. So there’s often a fear that anyone you know could be gone in a year or less anyway, and you’re always having to get to know new people. Membership doesn’t make that go away either, but it should inject greater stability than would be there without it. We don’t commit to never move, but we do commit to bear with one another in love, meaning we won’t just leave at the first sight of admonishment, or give up on people who are fainthearted or weak. And you certainly can consider not moving in order to continue doing these things with people with whom you have longer-standing relationships.
It’s also a challenge for us right now because over the past year and a half, we’ve begun to administer church discipline more faithfully. So now you’ve been to a member meeting where you’ve heard of a friend being removed from the church, and when someone comes to admonish you, you wonder, “oh no, am I about to be kicked out of this church?” The short answer is almost always no. Removal is the final step of admonishment in the case of those who remain idle after repeated attempts to admonish them privately over a long period of time. And even removal is done in a spirit of patience, hoping that it wakes the idle up and leads them to repentance. We must not treat one another as though we’re constantly on the precipice of removal. Even in admonishment, we are patient with one another, and assume that we’re going to be in this together until you move or the Lord calls you home.
Getting a bit more general, though, this is a struggle because we really do just struggle to be patient in general. There are particular dispositions that are prone to run right to admonishment. Admonishment is attractive to those who like clarity and finality, because it is clear, and it does bring someone to a decisive point: Will you repent or not? Weakness and faintheartedness are much messier and typically longer lasting. And when all you have is a hammer, everything is a nail. You can’t fix faintheartedness, and you may not know how to or be able to fix many weaknesses. So someone is fainthearted? It must be sin; admonish. Someone is weak? It must be sin; admonish. And all it does is make the fainthearted faint, and the weak weaker.
And these are not static categories. We all have elements of the three at different times in our lives, though some major on one more than others. The key is to move toward people, not avoid. When something isn’t right in a fellow church member’s life, do something, not nothing. And be patient. Practically, the way I do this, is when I see something isn’t right, I use these three approaches in reverse. I want to believe the best, so first I assume, “Maybe there’s a weakness here I could help with. Let me try to find out.” Then I think, “Ok, maybe the person is just going through a hard time right now. How could I encourage them?” Then if there is clear disobedience to the commands of Scripture despite the help and encouragement I’m offering, I’ll tentatively conclude that they’re idle and move toward admonishment.
And yet I too am still prone to avoid or get impatient. How can we really move toward one another with love and patience as brothers? We must look to our older brother, who moved toward us with love and patience. When we were idle, fainthearted, and weak, Jesus Christ had every right to avoid us. Instead, He took on human flesh and moved toward us. He admonished the idle: When the woman at the well told him she didn’t have a husband, He told her she was right: She had 5, and the one she had now was not her husband. Direct, decisive, clear. He encouraged the fainthearted; it was said of Him that a bruised reed He would not break, and a smoldering wick He would not quench. And He helped us with our ultimate weakness, the weakness no other brother could help: Romans 5 tells us that at the right time, while we were still weak, Christ died for the ungodly and rose again, so that we could be forgiven of our idleness, and so all the promises of God to encourage us would be yes and Amen in Him.
And since then, He has been patient with us. If you are here today, God has seen your idleness, but has not yet rendered a final sentence of condemnation on you. He’s instead giving you an opportunity to turn right now from them and be forgiven. And He continues in His patience to all those who are in Christ, day by day, from one degree of glory to another, finishing the good work He began in us. If you are in Christ, you aren’t on the precipice of losing God’s favor. It’s not one more sin and you’re out. Nothing in all of creation will be able to separate you from His love in Christ Jesus our Lord. So move toward one another when something isn’t right. If you haven’t seen a fellow member in church for a few weeks, ask them why. If someone seems cold and distant, ask them why. If someone is indulging in sin, warn them. If someone is afraid, encourage them. If someone is hurting, comfort them. If someone is weak, help them. But don’t avoid. Move toward.