A church that works properly is characterized by loving fellowship.
Paul is addressing individuals. No doubt those who read his letter would think of certain slackers and freeloaders. Names and faces would come to mind. But Paul is not just writing just to those derelicts. He is writing to the church. He is speaking to individuals in community.
Sometimes we can think that the health and effectiveness of the church rests exclusively on the shoulders of the leaders. It is true that Christ has charged the leaders with great responsibility and that they will have to give account for the souls of those entrusted to them (Heb. 13:17). James says that those who teach will be judged with greater strictness. (That passage gives me pause every time I read it.)
But the health of a church rests in the proper functioning of the community of believers. Paul tells the Ephesians that they are to be speaking the truth in love to one another, and that each part is to be in proper working order and working, so that the body may grow and build itself up in love.
The community is to be alive with exercise of all those “one another” passages in Scripture. Teaching is not the domain only of the leaders. We are to be teaching one another (e.g., Col. 3:16). We are to be engaged in rebuking one another, confessing sin to one another, pursuing wandering brethren.
I received a terse note from a couple in my congregation that they had decided to leave the church. This was the first I heard of it. They had not spoken with me. The note assured me it had nothing to do with me or my preaching or the church. I called to ask to meet with them. They refused. I asked them on the phone their reasons for leaving. They said it was because of “personal reasons.” End of discussion.
That’s not Christ’s view of His church. Reasons may be personal but they can never be private. They are public to the leaders and to the church family. The local church is not like a fitness club that we join by dues that has a bunch of other members we see now and then. Where are not to change churches because we like the equipment, or the layout, or the programs, or the type of people better somewhere else. We join a local church by vows. We commit ourselves to the work, and to one another for the sake of Christ. We are to strive with one another, through thick and thin, as part of a family, and are accountable to one another.
That also means that we are to pursue one another in love, as an exercise of Christ-centered, Christ-serving community. Those who know, need to go. We need to pull alongside the disgruntled or hurting brother to do what Christ would do for them. We need to bring Christ to them and them to Christ.
Paul appeals to the community of believers. The issues of the one are the problem of the many. Paul addresses the community to tell them to take special note of those who are idle, not to associate with them, and to warn them. What exactly is Paul saying? Is he encouraging Amish shunning? Paul is highlighting loving fellowship in the bond of the Spirit.
We find five things involved in loving fellowship.
We ask you, brothers, to respect those who labor among you and are over you in the Lord and admonish you, and to esteem them very highly in love because of their work. Be at peace among yourselves. And we urge you, brothers, admonish the idle, encourage the fainthearted, help the weak, be patient with them all (1 Thess. 5:12–14).
A church works properly through loving fellowship, a Christian community that knows and cares for one another under the lordship of Jesus Christ. It starts with a heart for Christ and an expressed love for our brethren.
If I could give another plug for Herr’s (complete with website this time), it is fascinating to see the behind-the-scenes operation by which snack foods are produced. To see the chips sprayed with the various flavors. To see what goes into the snack size bags as opposed to the family size. It’s also interesting to know that the Herr family are devout Christians and to see how they bring their Christian principles to bear in how they run their business and treat their workers and customers.
The product at the Herr Factory is snacks. What is the product of a church that functions properly, according to Christ’s design?
The product is mature disciples of Jesus Christ. The church is a disciple-making factory, a community where the Spirit of God is at work producing people who love and serve Jesus, who are growing in the grace and knowledge of their Lord and Savior.
What is that called? It’s called sanctification. Paul has described the product in his letters to the Thessalonians. Let me give you two examples:
Now may the God of peace himself sanctify you completely, and may your whole spirit and soul and body be kept blameless at the coming of our Lord Jesus Christ (1 Thess. 5:23).
But we ought always to give thanks to God for you, brothers beloved by the Lord, because God chose you as the first fruits to be saved, through sanctification by the Spirit and belief in the truth. To this he called you through our gospel, so that you may obtain the glory of our Lord Jesus Christ (2 Thess. 2:13-14).
The gospel includes sanctification. Sanctification happens when faithful leadership and loving fellowship are both working properly.