The Worthy Walk—Part IV: The Accountable Christian
The Reverend Bryn MacPhail / November 3, 2002
It was Sunday morning, and Mrs. Jones was wondering why her son hadn’t gotten up for church. So Mrs. Jones went into her son’s bedroom and insisted that he get up. Her son quickly replied that he didn’t have any intention of going to church. To this, his mother replied, ‘Bob, you are 38 years old! Now get out of bed and go to church!’.
‘I don’t like church’, Bob complained. ‘The people are demanding, they’re critical, opinionated, fickle, hypocritical, and gossipy . . . Give me one good reason why I should go.’
‘I’ll give you a reason—Bob, you’re their minister!’.
The Christian Church is not always an encouraging place to be. Not even ministers are immune from discouragement.
The Christian Church is meant to be an encouraging place but, as many of you know, this is not always the case. J.I. Packer once wrote, “the church is a hospital in which nobody is completely well, and anyone can relapse at any time”.
Henry Ward Beecher once said, “The church is not a gallery for the exhibition of eminent Christians, but a school for the education of imperfect ones.”
Charles Morrison once wrote, “(the Church) is the only society in the world where membership is based upon the single qualification that the candidate shall be unworthy of membership.”
In a place such as this, where nobody is completely well; in a place such as this, where anyone can relapse at any time, Paul’s words in verse 11 are timely and fitting: “encourage one another, and build up one another”.
Looking at verse 12, I find it interesting that Paul begins his exhortation to encourage by speaking about the relationship between ministers and their members, the relationship between shepherds and their sheep.
I think it is providential that we would find ourselves in a text like this on a day such as this. Dr. Adamson is here, as is Dr. Ervine, and of course, many of you have made a special trip here to show your appreciation for the ministry of Reverend Fish.
The apostle Paul sometimes qualifies his exhortations by saying something like, ‘Now as to this particular matter, you have no need for anyone to write to you’—meaning that Paul concedes the people are already excelling at the very thing he is about to prescribe. Friends, allow me to preface verses 12 and 13 in the same way: “Members of St. Giles Kingsway, as to the matter of appreciating your ministers, you have no need for anyone to write to you.”
Bible commentator, John MacArthur, writing about the relationship between ministers and their members, says, “this is where the health in the church begins”. Clearly, from what I can tell, the health of St. Giles Kingsway is due, in large measure to the strong affection that has been shared between the minister and the members. Today, we celebrate that health; we thank God for that health, thinking of the ministry of Gordon Fish.
While we confess that, historically, the bond between minister and member has been strong, we would nonetheless be wise to hear Paul’s exhortation, “we request of you, brethren, that you appreciate those who diligently labour among you, and have charge over you in the Lord and give you instruction, and that you esteem them highly in love because of their work”(v.12,13).
Now some might worry themselves a bit over these verses, ‘Paul, why did you have to put this instruction in? Don’t you know that every minister that reads this is going to get a swelled head?’
To be honest, I find the opposite happening here. I find these verses to be most humbling. Because notice what Paul is not saying—he is not saying ‘esteem your ministers highly because they are important people’. Paul does not say ‘esteem your ministers highly because they are more gifted than the rest’. No, Paul says “esteem (ministers) highly . . . because of their work”. It is the work, not the person, which is put on a pedestal.
Paul describes this work in Acts 20:24; the work of the minister is “to testify solemnly of the gospel of the grace of God.” So you see, Paul’s command for the Christian to esteem his/her minister is not so much about the minister, as it is a statement about the importance of the gospel.
Paul’s singular concern is with the progress of the gospel. And Paul understands that a barrier between a minister and a member is a barrier for the progress of the gospel.
Esteeming ministers may not be difficult for members of St. Giles Kingsway, but I can assure you it is a problem in a great many churches. So what word does Paul give us? “Live in peace with one another”(v.13). Notice how this exhortation goes both ways. On a most significant level, a church will not prosper if the shepherds are not fulfilling their responsibility to care for the sheep. And, by the same token, if the sheep are not fulfilling their spiritual responsibility to the shepherd, the church can never be what God intends it to be (MacArthur).
The next issue Paul addresses in this text has to do with the responsibilities members have to one another, “we urge you, brethren, admonish the unruly, encourage the fainthearted, help the weak, be patient with all men. See that no one repays another with evil for evil, but always seek after that which is good for one another and for all men”(v.14,15).
Again, this is an issue regarding the progress of the gospel. In the same way that a barrier between minister and member can prevent the advancement of the gospel, barriers between members can also stifle the gospel’s progress.
In these verses, Paul sites 3 types of people who need assistance here: the wayward, the worried, and the weak. We come across these types of people in the church all of the time. Sometimes we are these people. Sometimes we are lethargic, anxious, and spiritually fragile. What is called for here? What is called for here is accountability.
Paul begins this section by reminding us of our accountability to our ministers, and he concludes this section by reminding us of our accountability to one another. When the progress of the gospel is at stake, the stumbling of one Christian in the church is the business of every Christian in that church. And so Paul gives us some helpful advice, beginning with the wayward Christian: “we urge you, brethren, admonish the unruly”.
The Greek word, translated here as “unruly” can also be translated as “undisciplined” or “idle”. The word was a common military term, referring to a soldier who does not keep in rank (Morris, 1 and 2Thessalonians, 105). Just as it is not acceptable for a soldier to fall out of rank, it is not acceptable for a Christian to become idle in regard to their service to the church. And Paul’s instruction is to call the wayward Christian back—“admonish” them, he says.
Surely, Paul’s intention here is not to be unduly harsh, but to preserve a measure of accountability that is necessary if the gospel is to succeed. Too often in the church, wayward Christians are left alone—to their own peril, and to the peril of the church. Nobody wins in this equation. The wayward Christian suffers because they are not being spiritually nourished, and the church suffers because it lacks the nourishment that the wayward Christian would normally provide. Paul tells us to call them back, admonish them for the sake of the gospel.
The second group is “the fainthearted”, or the worried Christians. These individuals show up for service on Sunday, and may even be deeply committed to the church in various ways, but the problem is that these Christians are motivated primarily by fear. These are the people in the church who do not have the courage to try what is untested. The worried Christian avoids taking risks, and often articulates their fears with those famous words, “We’ve never done it that way before.”
Now, do you know what we are to do with these people? There is no call from Paul to admonish here. There is no permission given to have the worried Christians expelled from every committee. No, just the opposite is called for—Paul says “encourage” them. The Greek word here actually means ‘to come along side’. Wayward Christians may need to hear a strong word, but worried Christians require encouragement—they require someone to come alongside them, someone who will comfort and reassure them of the will of God.
The third group, Paul describes as “the weak” Christians. These are individuals who have fragile faith; they are weak in the sense that they tend to fall back into their old sinful ways. What are we to do with them? Do we simply tell them to ‘smarten up’? No, Paul says, “help” them. The Greek word means ‘to hold firmly’ or ‘to hold up’. How do you do that? Again, you come alongside.
Friends, do you esteem the gospel of Jesus Christ? Do you desire that the church be effective in advancing the gospel? Then, we must heed Paul’s words. The church is strengthened when the sheep take care of one another—when they care enough about the gospel to admonish the wayward sheep; when they care enough to encourage the worried sheep; when they care enough to go to the weak sheep and hold them up.
There is a word for this: Accountability. For the church to succeed, we need to be held accountable by godly leaders; we need to be held accountable by one another.
Well-known, 19th century evangelist, Peter Cartwright, understood the importance of accountability in the church. Cartwright was known for his bold, uncompromising, sermons and so when it was learned that President Andrew Jackson was going to be in the congregation one morning, the elders felt it necessary to inform Reverend Cartwright and to ask him to tone down his sermon. Believing that their minister would not say anything to embarrass the President, the elders retired to the back of the sanctuary.
When Cartwright got up to speak, the first words out of his mouth were, ‘I understand that President Jackson is here this morning. I have been requested to be guarded in my remarks . . . Andrew Jackson will go to hell if does not repent!’
After the service, President Jackson approached Cartwright at the door, grabbed hold of him, and said, ‘Sir, if I had a regiment of men like you, I could whip the world!’
If the Christian Church is to effect any change in our society, it is going to require men and women who will hold one another accountable, for the gospel’s sake. Amen.