How to Behave in Church

1 Thessalonians 5:12-15

November 3, 2002 | Brian Bill

I enjoy collecting bulletin bloopers.  I’ve shared some in the past and have recently come across some brand new ones:

  • Attend church and you will hear an excellent speaker and heave a healthy lunch. 
  • The church will host an evening of fine dining, superb entertainment and gracious hostility.
  • The peacemaking meeting scheduled for today has been canceled due to a conflict.

Unfortunately, many churches have more arguments than affection.  Take a look at this comic strip:

As we transition to the closing verses of 1 Thessalonians, we’ll see that Paul was committed to conflict resolution.  Actually, he gives us a protocol for preemptive peacemaking in the four verses we’ll be studying this morning.  We could call this section, “How To Get Along With People,” or, “How To Behave In Church.”

John Winthrop, the first governor of the Massachusetts Bay Colony, and leader of the party that arrived in Salem Harbor in 1630, delivered a stunning sermon to the passengers before they disembarked to found the city of Boston.  He knew that these pioneers needed to be at peace with each other if they were to accomplish their purposes: “We must delight in each other, make others’ conditions our own and rejoice together, mourn together, labor and suffer together, always having before our eyes our commission and common work, our community as members of the same body…For we must consider that we shall be like a City upon a Hill; the eyes of all people are on us.” 

May I suggest this morning that the eyes of all people are on the church today?  Are we focused on our commission and common work as we live in biblical community with one another?  Or, are we just waiting for a divisive issue of contentious dispute?  Let me be quick to say that I am thankful for the pervasive peace here.  I have never been involved in a church so committed to community and to the commission of Christ!   I can honestly say that our church reminds me of the church in Thessalonica and Paul’s feelings toward these believers express what is in my heart for each of you.  Look at 1 Thessalonians 1:2-3: “We always thank God for all of you, mentioning you in our prayers.  We continually remember before our God and Father your work produced by faith, your labor prompted by love, and your endurance inspired by hope in our Lord Jesus Christ.”

Paul emphasized the importance of encouragement after laying out the details surrounding the end times in 4:18: “Therefore encourage each other with these words” and in 5:11: “Therefore encourage one another and build each other up, just as in fact you are doing.”  Jesus is coming back, but while we wait for His appearing, let’s make sure we’re encouraging one another.

As Paul cheered on these young believers and affirmed his affection for them, I’m reminded of something William Ward once said: “Flatter me and I may not believe you.  Criticize me, and I may not like you.  Ignore me, and I may not forgive you.  Encourage me, and I will not forget you.”  The word “encouragement” is mentioned 46 times in the New Testament because God wants us to look for ways to delight in each other.  Acts 13:15 highlights the importance of building each other up: “After the reading from the Law and the Prophets, the synagogue rulers sent word to them, saying, ‘Brothers, if you have a message of encouragement for the people, please speak.’” 

Friend, God has a message of encouragement for you this morning.  I recognize that the last three weeks have been pretty hard-hitting, as we’ve focused on sexual purity, the Rapture, and the Second Coming of Christ.  Today we’re going to focus on some practical guidelines that relate to leadership and fellowship so that we can have order in the church and peace between each other.  The Thessalonians were an example to others, just like our church is, as our testimony echoes throughout this community.  If our winsome witness is to continue, certain basic responsibilities must be fulfilled in the church.

Please turn in your Bible to 1 Thessalonians 5:12-15: “Now we ask you, brothers, to respect those who work hard among you, who are over you in the Lord and who admonish you.  Hold them in the highest regard in love because of their work.  Live in peace with each other.  And we urge you, brothers, warn those who are idle, encourage the timid, help the weak, be patient with everyone.  Make sure that nobody pays back wrong for wrong, but always try to be kind to each other and to everyone else.” 

Responsibilities of Leaders 

Paul begins by addressing two key factors involved in the maturity of a church: godly leadership and graceful followership.  Notice that he is making a request of the entire church: “Now we ask you, brothers…”  This is a personal appeal, much like something a friend would ask another friend to do.  

Let’s look first at the responsibilities of leaders.  While this passage certainly has application to pastors, elders, and deacons, these words are not limited to these men alone.  Rick Warren, in his book called, “Purpose Driven Church,” categorizes a church into 5 concentric circles:

  • Community (the unchurched around us)
  • Crowd (those who come on Sundays and attend outreach events)
  • Congregation (those who’ve taken the step of church membership)
  • Committed (believers who are growing and giving)
  • Core (those who are serving by leading and teaching)

Paul lists three main distinctives of core leaders:

1. Leaders are hard workers. 

This phrase means to labor to the point of sweat and exhaustion, to work until we’re weary.  This same word is used in Luke 5:5, when Peter said, “Master, we’ve worked hard all night and haven’t caught anything.”  This church is filled with leaders who give it their all!

2. Leaders oversee the flock. 

Leaders are not to boss people around, but to be servant leaders under the Lord’s authority

To “be over” refers to those who “stand before.”  Leaders are not afraid to take the lead because they understand that they have the responsibility to provide direction.  If it’s true that “everything rises or falls on leadership,” and the “speed of the leader” dictates the speed of the team, then we’re in good shape as a church.  Notice that this leadership is to be “in the Lord.”  Leaders are not to boss people around, but to be servant leaders under the Lord’s authority according to 1 Peter 5:2-3: “Be shepherds of God’s flock that is under your care, serving as overseers-not because you must, but because you are willing, as God wants you to be; not greedy for money, but eager to serve; not lording it over those entrusted to you, but being examples to the flock.”

3. Leaders admonish believers. 

This fascinating phrase literally means, “to put into the mind.”  This involves more than just teaching, the idea is that we’re to instruct in order to correct.  Admonishment often takes the form of a warning as in Acts 20:31 when Paul summed up his ministry to the Ephesian elders: “So be on your guard!  Remember that for three years I never stopped warning each of you night and day with tears.”

One of the burdens I feel is to make sure that I don’t shrink back from fully proclaiming the Word of God to you.  By nature I am an encourager and maybe even a people-pleaser.  But, as a preacher, I am committed to warn and admonish when the biblical text dictates it.  That’s one reason why I like preaching through entire books of the Bible.  We’re forced to tackle topics that we might not otherwise choose to address.  When I get up early on Sundays to prepare to preach, I often read through the first three chapters of Ezekiel.  I’m always struck by Ezekiel’s vision of God and by his mandate to proclaim God’s Word, regardless of how people respond.  Ezekiel 3:17: “Son of man, I have made you a watchman for the house of Israel; so hear the word I speak and give them warning from me.”

To admonish a brother is to be so concerned about the way he is living that we gently come alongside him and point out the way to change sinful behavior or an errant attitude.  There’s a big difference between admonishing and blasting away at a believer.  If you enjoy going off on people, then you know that there is something wrong with your spirit.  I’m grateful that our Elders take this responsibility seriously as we strive to follow our mandate to admonish, correct, and even discipline disciples who go astray.

Leaders have at least three tasks – to work hard, to lead well, and to admonish appropriately.  This passage also gives three challenges to followers.

Responsibilities of Followers

1. Love your leaders. 

Look back at verse 12: “respect those who work hard among you.”  To respect a leader literally means, “to know” him.  It’s the idea of acknowledging, or recognizing their key role in the church.  Hebrews 13:7: “Remember your leaders, who spoke the word of God to you.  Consider the outcome of their way of life and imitate their faith.”  Verse 13 challenges followers to hold leaders “in the highest regard in love.”  The phrase, “highest regard” is an adjective that means “super-abundantly” or “beyond all measure.”  You might disagree with a decision the leadership makes, or maybe not even care for the personality of one of our leaders, but we’re called to love them anyway.  It’s easy to be indifferent to someone or to be unkind.  One of the best antidotes to that is to take the time to know your leaders.  It’s hard to dislike a guy after you get to know him.

2. Welcome their work. 

Notice that we’re to hold leaders in the highest regard because of “their work.”  We’ve all been given different tasks according to our giftedness.  According to Ephesians 4:12, one of the key tasks of pastors and teachers is to “To prepare God’s people for works of service, so that the body of Christ may be built up.”  Without this equipping function, this church wouldn’t have all the ministries we have.  As our leaders work, lead, and admonish, let’s welcome what they do!

3. Promote peace. 

There’s nothing more debilitating than discord in the church

Up until this point, Paul has “asked” believers to love their leaders and to welcome their work but now he switches from “asking” to an imperative, or a command, that they “Live in peace with each other.”  Effective leadership and effective followership translates into harmonious relationships.  You’ve all been around churches that are filled with constant friction, tension and conflict.  It’s no fun.  There’s nothing more debilitating than discord in the church.  

Some of those situations are the fault of the pastor, other times, it’s the blame of believers, and many times it’s both.  Maybe it’s because we’ve allowed our culture’s anti-authority attitude to seep into the church and we view leaders with distrust.  Whatever the case, we’re to do whatever it takes to live in peace with each other.  That specifically means pastors and people, shepherds and sheep, teachers and the taught, deacons and the “deeked.”  I’m committed to do that, and I know you are as well.  

I love what Joseph said to his brothers when he sent them back to Israel to get his father and their families.  It’s very interesting.  He wanted to make sure that they didn’t allow discord to rip them apart when they now had the opportunity to come together again as a family.  Listen to Genesis 45:24: “…as they were leaving, he said to them, ‘Don’t quarrel on the way!’”  Those are good words for us.  Don’t quarrel on the way!  If we want to promote peace, we must be proactive about it according to Ephesians 4:3: “Make every effort to keep the unity of the Spirit through the bond of peace.”   When we promote peace, Psalm 133:1 declares: “How good and pleasant it is when brothers live together in unity!”  

Actions For All

In verse 14 we move from the duties of leaders and followers, to some actions that are expected from each of us.  Notice again that he uses the word, “brothers” to indicate that he’s speaking to the entire church family.  The health of our church depends to a large degree on the commitment not only of our leaders, but also of each one of us to certain standards of conduct.  The sheep are to be involved in helping other sheep that need assistance.  It’s not just the job of the pastors and other leaders.  We are the church.

Notice also that Paul is making an urgent call to action.  In verse 12, he asks the church family to respect their leaders.  Now, he “urges” them to do three things for three different groups of people.  In verses 12-13 we’re requested to deal in love with those we look up to; in verses 14-15, we’re challenged to respond biblically to those we may be tempted to look down on.

1. Warn the wayward. 

Look at the first part of verse 14: “warn those who are idle.”  The word “warn” is the same word translated “admonish” in verse 12.  The “idle” are not just those who are lounging around with nothing to do, though that was certainly a problem for those who had quit their jobs in order to wait for the return of Christ.  This word occurs only here in the New Testament and was used of a soldier who had stepped out of the ranks and had become disorderly.  These spiritual draft dodgers had become undisciplined and disruptive.  Our English word “slacker” probably best captures the idea of the Greek word.  

I heard about an elderly woman who attended a revival meeting where she heard the preacher speak about the evils of smoking, drinking, dancing, and carousing.  He really let them have it.  When he gave the invitation, he called for people to quit living in their sinful ways.  It just so happened that the lady went forward.  When she got up to the front, the preacher met her and asked, “Why did you come forward?  This invitation is for those who need to quit doing bad things.”  To which she replied, “I ain’t been doin’ nothin’ and I’m a quittin!”  She was ready to get back into formation and follow her Commander!

Most of us shy away from admonishing someone who is wayward.  It’s not easy to sit down with a believer and say, “I care about you but the way you’re living is out of step with what God expects from you.”  Friend, resist the urge to gossip about someone who is sinning.  Don’t participate in distant judgmentalism.  Instead, ask God for the courage to talk with him or her.  One writer defines admonishment this way: “It is the idea of coming to someone who is following a path that ultimately ends in serious consequences and instructing them about the inevitability of those consequences.”   Is there anyone you can think of right now who you may need to admonish to get back into line?

2. Encourage the worried. 

If the wayward are the “won’t do’s” of the church, the worried are the “want to’s.”  Instead of living on the edge, the worried are huddled in the middle.  The word “timid” is a very interesting term that literally means, “the small-souled.”  People like this are downcast, despondent, and discouraged and wish they could get back into the game.  Our responsibility with the worried is to “encourage” them by coming up close in order to pour “courage” back into them.  They need gentle touches, encouraging words, a smile and a shoulder to lean on.

I’ve always been moved by how Jesus dealt with the worried in Matthew 12:20: “A bruised reed he will not break, and a smoldering wick he will not snuff out.”  Jesus handles the bruised with gentleness and looks for ways to fan into flame the fire that once burned bright.  Isaiah 35:3-4 provides us with a great description of how we can encourage the worried: “ Strengthen the feeble hands, steady the knees that give way; say to those with fearful hearts, ‘Be strong, do not fear; your God will come…”

Can you think of anyone with a fearful heart?  What can you do this week to encourage him or her?

3. Help the weak. 

The entire church is also told to help the weak.   If the wayward are the “won’t do’s” and the worried are the “want to’s,” then the weak are the “can’t do’s.”  

The word “help” means to prop something up that’s about to collapse.  The picture is one of keeping yourself face-to-face with someone, and holding him or her up.  It’s the idea of a “buddy system,” where every weaker believer is held up by a stronger one.  Titus 2:3-4 challenges older women to “train the younger women to love their husbands and children.”  

Wouldn’t it be great if each of us were matched up with someone who could hold us up when we’re weak?  Much of that takes place each week in our small group ministry, as individuals support one another.  If you’re not in a group, I encourage you to take that step.  Do you have a spiritual buddy?  Is there someone you know who is prone to falling and could use some support?  Why not determine to get with that person this week?  

As I think about these three groups of people it strikes me that it’s imperative that the right medicine is given to each person.  It would be devastating if we had people running around admonishing the weak or encouraging the idle.  Here’s the principle.  Each person needs to be treated differently, according to what they need at the time.  Don’t hold back on warning the wayward, but let’s make sure we’re also encouraging the worried and holding up the weak.  The Message translation sums it up best: “Our counsel is that you warn the freeloaders to get a move on.  Gently encourage the stragglers, and reach out for the exhausted, pulling them to their feet.”

Attitudes For All

Don’t you just love how practical the Bible is?  After challenging us to be involved in trying to help the wayward, the worried, and the weak, Paul recognizes that we will need some attitude adjustments in order to stay involved with people who drain us, who bug us, and make us mad.  We’re called to have three all-encompassing attitudes in the last part of verse 14 and verse 15: “Be patient with everyone.  Make sure that nobody pays back wrong for wrong, but always try to be kind to each other and to everyone else.”

1. Practice patience. 

When we spend time discipling someone or trying to help an individual, one of the first things we realize is that people don’t change as fast as we want them to.  Nevertheless, we’re to practice patience with “everyone.”  When people are slow to respond we tend to get discouraged.  When they refuse our help, we can get disgusted.  The word “patience” means long-tempered.  We know we’re practicing patience when our fuse is long and our irritability is slow.

A little boy was once asked who made him.  He thought for a while and very astutely answered, “To tell you the truth, I ain’t done yet!”  That’s a good reminder, isn’t it?  We’re all in process.  We all mess up.  Philippians 1:6: “Being confident of this, that he who began a good work in you will carry it on to completion until the day of Christ Jesus.”  You be patient with me and I’ll be patient with you.  And let’s all be patient with one another because we ain’t done yet.  Let’s give each other a chance to grow up and enough space to mature.  

How patient should you be with people?  Probably more patient than you’ve been.  How patient?  As patient as God is with you.  That’s pretty patient. 

2. Refuse to retaliate. 

Look at the first part of verse 15: “Make sure that nobody pays back wrong for wrong…” Paul is reiterating the teaching of Jesus about non-retaliation.  No matter what is done to us, the follower of Jesus has no excuse to get revenge.  Matthew 5:38-39: “You have heard that it was said, ‘Eye for eye, and tooth for tooth.’  But I tell you, do not resist an evil person.  If someone strikes you on the right cheek, turn to him the other also.”

Let’s bring this revolutionary teaching closer to home.  There are people in this church who are going to hurt you, and some probably already have.  What do you do when that happens?  Matthew 18:15-17 says that you are to go and meet with that person and seek reconciliation.  Whatever you do, refuse to retaliate.  It will only eat you up and you usually get back what you give.

There was a group of American soldiers living in a rented house in South Korea after the war.  They had a houseboy working for them and they would play terrible practical jokes on him.  They would put a bucket of water on the top of a door, so that he would get drenched when he opened it.  They’d dump dirt on the floor so he’d have to clean it up.  They’d grease the knobs on the stove so he couldn’t turn it off.  This went on for a long time and the boy just smiled and took whatever came his way.  Eventually, one day the GI’s felt bad and they apologized to him.  He wanted to make sure they were serious so he asked, “No more water on top of the door?”  They said, “No, no more.”  He said, “No more grease on the knobs?”  “No, no more grease.”  “No more dirt on floor?”  “No, no more,” they replied.  With a big happy grin on his face the boy replied, “OK, then no more spit in soup!”

6. Cultivate Kindness. 

We’re to practice patience and refuse to retaliate, but we’re to do more than just not seek revenge: “But always try to be kind to each other and to everyone else.” Putting on what is good is basic to our ability to overcome what is evil.  

The word “always” is emphatic.  Our tendency is to look for loopholes, or a justification for why we shouldn’t be kind to someone.  The word, “try” means to “chase after, or pursue.”  Romans 14:19: “Let us therefore make every effort to do what leads to peace and to mutual edification.”  We’re to cultivate kindness with each other and we’re to be kind to people outside the church.  In other words, we should say, “In spite of what you’ve done to me, I’m going to do everything I can to do what is good for you.”  

Action Steps

Let me wrap up by suggesting a few action steps.

1. For Leaders.  

  • If you are a leader in any of our ministries, is there something you can be doing to work harder?  
  • Are you providing diligent oversight and courageous leadership?  
  • Determine this week to admonish someone in love when you sense the Spirit nudging you.

2. For Followers.  

  • How about picking out an Elder or a Deacon that you don’t know very well and have him and his wife over for dinner?   
  • Maybe you could send a note to a leader.  
  • When you hear someone speaking bad about a leader, determine to stop the conversation right there by saying something positive instead.

3. Our Actions.

  • Think of one person who is spiritually AWOL and make a point of speaking truth into his or her life.
  • Find one person this week that is worried and pour some courage into him or her.
  • Is there anyone you know who is weak?  Get close to this person and look for a way to hold them up.

4. Our Attitudes.

  • Ask God to give you patience with that one individual in your life who is driving you crazy.
  • Instead of retaliating against that person who has hurt you, try praying for him or her instead.
  • Do one act of kindness this week for someone that you can’t stand.  You may be surprised by what happens.

One of my favorite bulletin bloopers is this one: “Remember in prayer the many who are sick of our church and community.”  Wouldn’t it be great if we could read a bulletin keeper that would read something like this?

“Remember in prayer the many who are sold on their church because of the hard working leaders who are taking care of the flock.  Remember also to love your leaders, to welcome their work and to promote peace.  This church has many openings for people who are willing to warn the wayward, encourage the worried, and help the weak.  We’re taking applications for those who are committed to practice patience, who refuse to retaliate, and who cultivate kindness.”  Any takers?

Do you have any thoughts or questions about this post?