Fight Valiantly! Shame on You
Posted by Lee Gatiss, 21 Mar 2019
Lee Gatiss considers deception, disobedience, and dishonour in the next instalment of our Lent series on contending for the faith. Watch the video podcast of this episode on our YouTube channel.
In 2 Thessalonians 2:1-3, Paul warns the Christians in Thessalonica not to be deceived by false teachers, particularly in the area of eschatology. Earlier in the letter, he outlines what will happen on judgment day and how those who do not know God or obey the gospel will “suffer the punishment of eternal destruction” (2 Thessalonians 1:9). Puzzling about “the last things” was clearly a controversial topic in the city (see 1 Thessalonians 4:13-5:11). So Paul warns them:
“Now concerning the coming of our Lord Jesus Christ and our being gathered together to him, we ask you, brothers, not to be quickly shaken in mind or alarmed, either by a spirit or a spoken word, or a letter seeming to be from us, to the effect that the day of the Lord has come. Let no one deceive you in any way” (2 Thessalonians 2:1-3).
They must be on their guard against those who would mislead or trick them about the future. He teaches them what will really happen, so they are not uninformed, and then adds, “So then, brothers, stand firm and hold to the traditions that you were taught by us” (2 Thessalonians 2:15). The truth had been handed down to them, and written down for them. So contending for the truth against error means sticking with what Paul has said. This is the way to avoid being shaken or alarmed by fake views, and to be comforted by the gospel in a time of confusion. Paul’s hope is that Christians will be established and steadfast (see 2 Thessalonians 2:16-3:5).
There were also some Christians in the city who were “walking in idleness” (2 Thessalonians 3:6), perhaps driven by a false understanding of our eternal security. In response, the church is encouraged not to be led astray in that way, however tempting it might feel, but to plough on in the right direction:
“As for you, brothers, do not grow weary in doing good. If anyone does not obey what we say in this letter, take note of that person, and have nothing to do with him, that he may be ashamed. Do not regard him as an enemy, but warn him as a brother” (2 Thessalonians 3:13-15).
Paul, Timothy, and Silvanus anticipate that some people in Thessalonica will not obey their instructions in this letter. If there is such a disobedient person, the command is “have nothing to do with him.” The verb used here normally involves spacial proximity and/or joint activity and involvement together. So the Thessalonian Christians are not to be seen together with, or be regarded as close friends of, those who disobey Paul’s teaching.
As Charles Wanamaker says, this “undoubtedly meant for the exclusion to include any form of participation in the common meals of the community where the Lord’s Supper took place.” This would be appropriate given that the idlers were essentially scrounging bread from others (2 Thessalonians 3:10) but it was also probably wider than this.
The intent of this command is a loving one. Paul says, “have nothing to do with [those who disobey my teaching], that he may be ashamed.” In a culture where dishonour and shame could be powerful motivators, disassociating from the disobedient brother or sister is intended to provoke and embarrass them, leading them to reassess their behaviour and repent of it.
Yet, at the same time, these people are not to be considered enemies of the faith, as such, but as errant siblings in need of some urgent prodding to do the right thing. Love is shown through admonitions and warnings, not by unconditional affirmation of their errors; and opposition to their errors does not imply hatred or hostility towards them as people.
Elsewhere, as we see, some people are to be considered a serious threat to the church community and the integrity of the gospel, and entirely shunned or removed after several failed attempts at correction; as Jesus said, “let him be to you as a Gentile and a tax collector” (Matthew 18:17). But Paul is not always this binary in his initial approach to those who go astray; there is room in some circumstances for more brotherly correction, a loving disciplinary exclusion before any final, irrevocable excommunication.
Even if someone were to be labelled as “an enemy”, we would not want to forget what Jesus said: “Love your enemies and pray for those who persecute you” (Matthew 5:44). However, given what 2 Thessalonians says here, on some issues we can acknowledge that someone is a Christian while also maintaining that they are disobedient to the word of God and ought to repent; and that until they do, we will not be seen to be involved with them. This is not so as to make ourselves better and more superior (which we are not) but for the sake of the other person who needs to realise the seriousness of what they are doing, and repent.
Questions for Reflection
1. How does shame work to motivate people in our society today?
2. When does a mistaken brother of sister become an actual enemy of the gospel?
3. How can we withdraw from people who profess to be Christians while disobeying Paul’s teaching, without it seeming to be unloving?
Lee Gatiss is Director of Church Society and the editor of Gospel Flourishing in a Time of Confusion, the latest book from Church Society.
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