Over the years I’ve read many articles and books, and have heard a good number of talks, about doing church. Many of them have been very good and helpful. But they all tend to focus on the local church, on what happens in my church where I am. I imagine your experience is not so far away from mine; when we hear from God’s word we focus on what it means to us, here.
But if we’re not careful, then we can get the impression that the work of doing church is only what we do locally. We might get involved – perhaps with a heavy heart – in stuff beyond the parish, but in doing so we are leaving the real work of the gospel behind. It’s a duty, not a joy. However, I think the New Testament tells us that we should be concerned with what happens outside our local church. I believe there are lots of passages which indicate this. One of them is 1 Thessalonians 4:1–12.
We’re going to focus here on 1 Thessalonians 4:9–12, but in the first part of the passage notice two things. First a concern with holiness. We can see clearly that Paul is concerned that they should be sanctified (set apart for God, holy), and act in a way which is holy and honourable.
Again, they are reminded in verse 7 that they are to live a holy life, as those called by God. This call to holiness is, however, in the context of corporate life. They are exhorted as brothers (verse 1) to live in a way which pleases God, and they are not to wrong their brother (verse 5).
All well and good, and we’re familiar with the language of holiness, and Paul addressing people as brothers. In fact, perhaps we’re so overfamiliar with the language of brothers (and sisters), that often we don’t even notice it.
Brothers and sisters
Paul addresses the Thessalonians as brothers because that is what he wants them to be. Many of us have benefitted from strong sibling relationships, and we might begin to grasp what Paul is talking about here, but the phrase ‘blood is thicker than water’ meant even more in the first century than it does now. Sibling relationships were strong, implying responsibility, particularly a responsibility to protect the group or certain members of it. They emphasised group identity, and a concern about group goals.
This group identity tended to mark out the group from other groups. When Paul addresses his readers as brothers, he is tapping into a strong set of cultural expectations.
Perhaps we can summarise 1 Thessalonians 4:1–8 like this: shared identity should result in shared behaviour. Because of Christ, they are God’s holy people, and so need to act in a certain way. Because of Christ, they are brothers and sisters, and so they need to look out for each other.
With this in mind, look on to 1 Thessalonians 4:9–12. Here, the language of brotherhood and brotherly love is used in relation to other churches – ‘all the brothers throughout Macedonia’. We are told in verses 9 and 10 that they love the brothers throughout the region, before Paul urges them to do so more and more. It is worth reflecting on how they show their love for their brothers throughout Macedonia.
In 1 Thessalonians 4:11–12 Paul moves from love for the brothers in Macedonia to living a life that will win respect from the surrounding community. We may seem here to have left the wider context of Macedonia behind. However, given the fact that the reputation of the Thessalonians for faith reverberated through Macedonia and Achaia (1 Thessalonians 1:7–10), so too would any reputation they might have or gain for being unwilling to work, which is probably the implication here.
What we see here is that brotherly love implies an on-going responsibility at the level of how a church behaves. This isn’t just about welcoming other Christians when they come, or supporting others financially, or praying for others, important as those activities are. This is about how our fundamental conduct as local churches impacts other local churches.
Paul clearly believed that how the Thessalonian Christians conducted themselves would have an impact on their brothers in Macedonia, Achaia and beyond. Remember also that the word ‘brother’ evokes a pattern of strong relationships. This would be an encouragement to the Thessalonians to recognise their solidarity with and mutual responsibility for their brothers, near or far.
Application for us
And I don’t think it is just an encouragement for them, but also an encouragement for us. More than that, actually. I think we can take these words as an imperative: when we act locally, we need to take account of how our actions will affect our brothers and sisters in Christ elsewhere.
We don’t choose to be connected, to be interdependent with other churches; we are interdependent, because we are brothers and sisters, with all the responsibilities that that implies.
So think about your church, and other gospel churches nearby. How can you better express your solidarity with one another as brothers and sisters? How can you take account of how what you do will impact their gospel witness, and vice versa? And when those wider church opportunities come, use them to strengthen the bonds of brotherhood as God’s holy people.