As a little boy sitting on a church pew, with legs too short to touch the floor, and an attention span that was even shorter, my mother quietly taught me the words and the hand gestures to a familiar little poem that generations of church-going children have committed to memory.
Here’s the church.
Here’s the steeple.
Open the doors.
See all the people.
Close the doors.
Hear them pray.
Open the doors.
They’ve all gone away.
A simple children’s poem which reminds us that it is people—average, ordinary people—who make up the Church. People are wonderfully unpredictable, and because of the diversity of opinions, personalities, and perspectives within the Body, Jesus and the apostles took great care to emphasize the necessity of perfect love among the people of God.
When Paul was establishing the dynamic church at Thessalonica, he gave the new believers some practical instructions about their relationships with one another. He seemed particularly interested in how mature Christians should respond to those in the church who struggle or fail spiritually.
First, mature believers are to “warn them that are unruly” (5:14a). The unruly are those who have fallen out of rank in the church and drifted to the sidelines. At one time these very people may have been heavily involved in the life of the church, but because of offense or distraction, they have become disconnected from the Body.
Paul tells the Thessalonians to warn such people of the consequences of continuing down the path of self-isolation. Paul was not deputizing anyone to feed his ego or develop a sense of superiority as the local church sheriff, but rather, he was calling mature Christians to be on the lookout for those who may be drifting away and to lovingly warn them with the purpose of drawing them back into the fellowship of the church and a right relationship with God.
Secondly, we are called to “comfort the feeble minded” (5:14b). The feeble-minded may be better understood as the faint-hearted. These are believers who lack courage and confidence in their walk with God.
Faint-hearted believers may be fearful to challenge the status-quo of a sinful culture and to be clearly identified as a follower of Jesus Christ. Others hesitate when they should boldly step out by faith and take some risk for the cause of Christ. Still others are faint-hearted and discouraged because of setbacks, disappointments, and the general cares of life. Our faint-hearted brothers and sisters need those who are bold in the faith to come alongside them and speak words of encouragement that renew their focus on the power of God and inspire confidence to rise above their fear and to live with courageous faith.
Then, we are to “support the weak” (5:14c). Now, no one has to be a weak Christian! God’s saving and sanctifying grace is sufficient to take the weakest believer and enable him to be firmly rooted and solidly grounded in the faith; however, there will always be those among us who are not in a place of spiritual stability and maturity.
Some are “tossed to and fro with every wind of doctrine” (Ephesians 4:14), because they lack a solid understanding of Biblical truth and sound theology. Others have a faith so weak that the slightest hardship in life sends them into a tailspin. Some are tragically weak in their resolve against temptation.
Paul calls those who are spiritually mature to help strengthen those who are weak. Interestingly, the literal meaning of this phrase “support the weak” carries the idea of “clinging to the weak.” The spiritually mature believer ought never to give up on those who may struggle to find spiritual stability, but rather, the call from a loving God is to cling to them, rescue them, love them, admonish them, lift them up, and help lead them to a place of spiritual stability.
Finally, comes the instruction to “be patient toward all men” (5:14d) and to “see that none render evil for evil unto any man” (5:15a). This is a call to patience and forgiveness within the fellowship of the church.
It is frustrating when someone is perpetually unruly, fainthearted, and spiritually weak. The unruly may ignore wise words of warning, the discouraged may refuse to be encouraged, and the spiritually weak may never seem to grow stronger. These same people may react to the redemptive efforts of mature believers with hurtful words and inconsiderate actions, but we are called to a ministry of patience and forgiveness.
The gold standard of patience and forgiveness that we should show towards the spiritually weak among us is the patience and forgiveness that God has shown to us. The Lord is “merciful and gracious, longsuffering, and abundant in goodness and truth,” (Exodus 34:6), and we are called to follow His example.
Dr. Howard Hendricks told the story of a young man who strayed from the Lord but was finally brought back by the help of a friend who really loved him. When there was full repentance and restoration, Dr. Hendricks asked this Christian how it felt to be away from the Lord. The young man said it seemed like he was out at sea, in deep water, and all his friends were on the shore pointing at him and condemning his perilous position. “But,” he said, “there was one Christian brother who actually swam out to get me and would not let me go. I fought him, but he pushed aside my fighting, grasped me, put a life jacket around me, and took me to shore. By the grace of God, he was the reason I was restored. He would not let me go.”
Paul wrote to the church at Galatia, “Brethren, if a man be overtaken in a fault, ye which are spiritual, restore such an one in the spirit of meekness; considering thyself, lest thou also be tempted. Bear ye one another’s burdens, and so fulfil the law of Christ.” (Galatians 6:1-2)
God help us to take seriously our responsibility to warn the unruly, encourage the fainthearted, support the weak, and to be patient and forgiving, and in so doing, may we help to rescue struggling souls and build up the Church for His glory and honor!