Church, is it a free-for-all, or is it free, for all?
Last Thursday, everybody had to swallow more than turkey and dressing. In a year that has been politically-charged on every level – even moment – it’s likely that an extended family gathering included people whose views about the chaos in the culture and the outcomes of the election ran the gambit of extremes. When a family shares a table – not on an annual holiday, but routinely – you’ve got to set some ground rules.
Paul’s visit to Thessalonica (part of the record, in Acts 17) lasted less than a month, but as he was hustled out of town (to avoid a mob-induced riot), the people who had responded to his message of faith in Jesus became an ongoing faith-family, bonded together by their newfound relationship with Jesus. To use our most familiar designation, they formed a “church.”
Though on to his next stops in his second missionary tour, Paul stayed in touch with his spiritual progeny in Thessalonica. He wrote two letters to them, using correspondence to share what they needed as they figured-out how to function in alignment with Heaven, in the midst of a culture that was out of touch with the one true God.
Was the community of faith – the church – simply a social club without structure? In concluding his second letter, Paul made some stark statements: “In the name of the Lord Jesus Christ, we command you, brothers and sisters, to keep away from every believer who is idle and disruptive and does not live according to the teaching you received from us…” (3:6).
Word had gotten back to Paul about some deadbeats in/around the Thessalonian church who were trying to shame the congregation into underwriting them, to cover for their own slothful sense of entitlement. There was no room for that, in Paul’s view: “We hear that some among you are idle and disruptive. They are not busy; they are busybodies. Such people we command and urge in the Lord Jesus Christ to settle down and earn the food they eat” (3:11-12).
When the plaque over the entry door says “Whosoever will may come!” the theology captured in the caption can be misrepresented to suggest that everyone gets to bring their own rules – or, lawlessness – with them, with no imposition of expectations established to be a “member in good standing” of the Body of Christ. Nothing could be more out-of-touch with the truth.
Is participation in the family of God free, for all? Absolutely! Is that license to make it a free-for-all, where no behaviors are egregious and no attitudes are confronted? There was no way that confusion would be allowed in a church whose founder was Paul and whose Master was Jesus.
To make sure he left no confusion on this matter, he personalized the instructions clearly before he wrapped-up this brief epistle: “And as for you, brothers and sisters, never tire of doing what is good. Take special note of anyone who does not obey our instruction in this letter. Do not associate with them, in order that they may feel ashamed. Yet do not regard them as an enemy, but warn them as you would a fellow believer” (3:13-15).
A question worth raising – in any company, in any congregation – is highlighted in Paul’s closing thoughts: What does it take to get fired around here? Why is no one on probation for disregarding the disciplines defined by the Divine?
An army without discipline is just a mob with uniforms. The church is not a make-it-up-as-you-go community center with free food and free parking. God has big plans for the people whose status as sons and daughters of the Most High God raises their potential to the heavens.
Maybe it’s time to get serious…