My church rents space to four other groups of Christians, and those groups describe themselves with a variety labels that indicate their relative age. First Baptist Church, as you can see in its name, is an established local church, older, I believe, than my church. The Orthodox group, however, calls themselves a fellowship. An established Orthodox church in a neighboring county started this group, seeking to plant a new congregation in Lancaster County. They meet twice per month for a mini-liturgy and Bible study. The Burmese Church is a group of Christians from Myanmar, connected to churches in their home country, so they see themselves as an extension of an established church. Finally, the Hispanic Church is brand new, renting space to start a church plant. Are they all churches? When does a church become a church?
In the previous post, we learned that Paul and his ministry friends traveled to the Greek city of Thessalonica, and there they started a church, as people responded to the story of good news in Jesus. But just as soon as the church got off the ground, Paul was forced to leave the city under cover of night, when anti-Christian Jews in town came after him. Paul and his friends travel the 45 miles to nearby Berea, where they continue ministry. But the Thessalonican Jews track them down and incite the Bereans against them too. Paul must flee again, and this time he decides to travel far enough to be safe from the Thessalonian Jews. He instructs his friends, Silas and Timothy, to stay in Berea and help the new Christians there, while he travels 200 miles south to Athens, and then eventually a bit west to Corinth. You can read this story in Acts 17 and 18. Finally safe and stable, Paul settles down. His ministry in Corinth will last at least 18 months, likely longer. But as Paul’s stay in Corinth gets longer and longer, he wishes he could visit the church in Thessalonica. He really seems to have a close relationship with them (based on what he will write in 1st Thessalonians), and he wants to help them grow deeper in their faith in Christ, teaching them how to live as Jesus’ disciples.
You can almost read Paul’s mind. “Are the new Christians in Thessalonica going to make it? Or will the pressures of life lead them to turn away from the faith? Those Jews in Thessalonica are intense. Are they trying to get the Christians to deny their newfound faith?” Should he try to go back to a town where he almost got killed? But that would mean he would have to leave the believers in Corinth. They, too, need to be taught. And what we know of the Corinthian Christians is that they were very rough around the edges, to put it lightly. So Paul decides that he needs to stay in Corinth, and he decides to reach out to the Thessalonians the next best way; he writes them a letter, the letter we know as 1st Thessalonians. Of all his letters that we have in the Bible, it is highly likely that 1st Thessalonians is the first letter Paul writes. Written around 51 CE, it is probably the oldest New Testament writing.
In the ancient world, letters don’t get to people in a day or two, like we’re used to. It was a process, one that was expensive and long. Writing materials are not cheap. Paul often used a scribe to write, and that person might need to be hired and paid. Then Paul would have to determine a way to actually get the letter to Thessalonica. That is likely where Timothy comes in. Often Paul’s ministry partners doubled as letter-carriers. While he was in Corinth, Silas and Timothy eventually joined him. Now Paul sends the letter with Timothy who journeys the 200+ miles back to Thessalonica, a trip that could easily take days. Once there, Timothy likely gathers the Christians and reads the letter out loud to them because not everyone in the church would be able to read.
We don’t know how long Timothy remains in Thessalonica. He eventually returns to Paul in Corinth, with news about how the young church is doing. Scholars believe that about six months after writing the first letter, Paul, still in Corinth, hears Timothy’s report and writes another letter to the believers in Thessalonica, the letter we know as 2nd Thessalonians.
Think about what we have learned so far about the Christians in Thessalonica. They are the only Christians in town, they are new Christians, and they are believing in a new religion. They are a diverse in a society that doesn’t always look kindly on diversity. They also face a challenge from the very Jews who kicked Paul out of town, and who chased him in Berea. In other words, these new Christians are on very thin spiritual ice. So how were they doing? Did Timothy have good news or bad news? How is this small group of very new Christians doing? What Paul says in 2 Thessalonians will give us the answer to these questions.
In verse 1, after identifying himself and his ministry friends, Paul gives the Thessalonian Christians a standard greeting in which he calls them a church. I find that small detail interesting. When does a church start becoming a church? If your church or mine were to start a new church, in a neighboring town, would we call it a church on day 1? Maybe. But more than likely we would call it a church plant, signifying that it was new, and not yet a fully-developed church. We might call it a Bible study, a small group, a fellowship. The Christians in Thessalonica have been Christians for less than a year. How can Paul call them a church? Surely they can’t be mature enough, established enough for that label? Or can they?
In my denomination, the EC Church, we actually have a process that a church has to go through to make the jump from being a church plant to a fully-sufficient church. Some churches remain in church plant status for years. Yet Paul calls this new group of Christians a church. In fact, he had even called them a church six months earlier in his first letter to them, and at that point they had likely only been Christians for a couple weeks or months. That tells me something I believe is important for all of us.
Paul calling the Thessalonians a church, though they were very new Christians, tells me that in Paul’s mind, these new Christians would do well to see themselves as a legitimate, fully-accepted part of the family of God. I can imagine Paul wanting them to feel included in that larger sense of identification with God’s family. Though they are new to the faith, they are part of God’s family, with all the rights and privileges of God’s sons and daughters. Those new Christians should not see themselves as second-class Christians. Instead they are a church.
Do you see yourself that way? Part of God’s family? If not, why not? What we see in Paul’s use of the word “church” is his heart for the Thessalonians to be connected. Christians are people who are connected. This is one of the reasons why I love my local ministerium, the 15-20 churches from a variety of backgrounds that work together to reach our community for Christ. We recently held a Community Thanksgiving Service, and it was a wonderful expression of unity, of connection.
What concerns me is when Christians are disconnected. Some Christians believe that they do not need a connection to a church because they can have a personal relationship with God. I would suggest that it should not be viewed as either/or, but both/and. Yes, we can have a personal relationship with God, and we should nurture that relationship, but we can and should also nurture a relationship with a group of Christians, a church. I’m not talking about a church building. I’m talking about a group of Christians that connect deeply and regularly for the purposes of church.
What are the purposes of church? Check back in to the next post, as Paul will eventually talk about that!