“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”
II Thessalonians, 3:14-15
Paul’s instructions at the end of the Thessalonians epistles stands out as strange in light of today’s modern church experience. Most of us have never been in a church where this was even taught, let alone practiced. In today’s permissive culture where each is free to determine how they will live such language seems archaic. But that’s because in the modern church we have lost the important place church discipline should have in the life of the church.
To put these words in context, Paul was dealing with some in the church at Thessalonica who refused to work, but rather were begging others for food and sustenance. In a word, they had become busybodies. Paul reminded them of his own example when he was there; how he worked with his own hands to supply for his own needs. He certainly had a right to such support but chose instead (in order to be an example) to support himself and those who had come with him (3:7-9). What an incredible example these saints had in the apostle Paul. He certainly understood the importance of being an example that others may follow.
Paul commanded those who were living disorderly to work quietly with their own hands so as to support themselves. There was no place for saints to live idle, lazy lives, expecting others to supply their needs (3:12). Notice that Paul doesn’t merely give this instruction as suggestions but as apostolic commands that must be followed. Whether Paul himself knew that his words would eventually be recorded in Holy Scripture is hard to say. But the fact that they have been recorded for us so that they are now part of God’s Word Written means that these instructions are not suggestions but commands from the Lord Himself.
Paul was well aware that there would be those who would not receive his instruction, so he taught the church how to deal with those individuals. They were to be disciplined by being shunned by the other church members. Scholars are quick to point out (I believe properly) that this was a form of church discipline less severe than full disfellowship and removal (Matthew 18:17, I Corinthians 5:13). In the case of those who refused to receive Paul’s teaching, fellowship with other church members was to be withdrawn so that the person might be shamed into changing his or her mind (3:13-15). They were to do this without regarding the person as an enemy but as a wayward brother or sister.
Does God expect the modern church to engage in this practice? God absolutely does, although it rarely happens. In an article at Bible.org titled ‘Church Discipline’ the author says:
“Though church discipline is a very difficult area of doctrine and one hard to practice, it nevertheless rests upon the divine authority of Scripture and is vital to the purity, power, progress, and purpose of the church. The responsibility and necessity for discipline is not an option for the church if it obeys the Word of God, but a church must be equally concerned that Scripture is carefully followed in the practice of church discipline.”
Notice the author’s words; “it is vital to the purity, power, progress, and purpose of the church.” This is not an area the local church can afford to ignore. It should be practiced as vigorously as we practice church membership. Indeed, if we believe in church membership, so also we should believe in the necessity of church discipline. One leads naturally to the other. That’s because when people join a church, they publicly commit themselves to uphold the highest standards of Christian living. They also are acknowledging that if they drift from these standards, they may be subject to church discipline.
Apart from the specific context in which this instruction was given, the need for it in the modern church should be apparent. We live in a privatized culture today where few consider the effect their behavior has on others. Paul reminds the saints at Thessalonica that they must be accountable to the others if they are to live the Christian life properly. It is part and parcel of living in the body of Christ. Indeed, each of God’s people should desire to live lives of transparency and accountability. In response to Cain’s question regarding the death of Abel, “Am I my brother’s keeper?”, the answer is a definitive “Yes” (Genesis 4:9).