1. Writing Letters
Over the years people have discovered different ways to communicate with one another. Obviously, speech has always been the simplest method, but as literacy rates have increased, the cost of writing materials reduced, and methods of transport become easier, letter writing has become a dominant means of communication too. And letters have been typically used to request certain action, to communicate information, to confirm (in writing) action taken, or to simply catch up or keep in contact with one another.
Now, of course, these days with the advent of the mobile telephone, and with emails, texting, and social media—and with the push to preserve trees—letter writing as we’ve known it is now on the decline. And we have far more alternatives by which we can communicate with one another. But that doesn’t necessarily mean that we communicate well. Because, side-by-side with the useful communication is all the junk that we get in our mail boxes today.
2. Biblical Letters
However, whilst communicating over distances, for us, today, is quite simple, in biblical times it was not so easy. Writing materials were not cheap, and as a consequence written communication was not as common as today. So, if a letter was written it was usually about something important. And when a letter was written, the cost of materials meant that there was a need to use every inch of the paper. Consequently letters were often written without spaces between the words and without punctuation.
And, for someone like the Apostle Paul, letters were used to communicate the Christian gospel over long distances, and often when he was confined to prison. They were usually written to churches or individuals after there had been some other communication—or visit by a fellow worker had taken place—which had told him of problems within a church, to which Paul felt that he needed to respond.
Having said that, however, Paul’s letters were much revered. So much so, that it wasn’t long before his letters were collected, stitched together and circulated around the churches.
And as I thought about that, and as I read his first letter to the church at Thessalonica, I couldn’t help thinking: If our church had been around in Paul’s day—or rather, if Paul was around today—what would he have written to us?
B. 1 THESSALONIANS
So, using Paul’s first letter to the Thessalonians as a kind of template—as a typical kind a letter that he wrote—I have come up with the sort of letter that he would have written.
And, first of all, Paul would have introduced himself. He would have said who he was, who he was writing to, and he would have provided some sort of greeting.
Because in the letter to the Thessalonians he stated that the letter was not just from Paul, but from Paul, Timothy and Silvanus. He spelt out that the letter was to the church at Thessalonica. And he provided a greeting “Grace and peace to you.”
The second thing he would have done, would be to provide some words encouragement. Because no matter what negative things he would have heard about the church, and no matter what he knew needed to be done, there were always things he could find to give thanks about.
And for the church at Thessalonica, he talked about how proud and thankful he was for the church. About how they had turned from the worship of idols, and had become imitators of Paul, and other leaders. He talked about their faith being reported in the regions around, and that they were constantly praying for them.
Paul knew that his time with them had been ever so brief. In fact he’d been run out of town by Jews from the local synagogue. He knew that he hadn’t had the opportunity to be with them long enough to give them a solid basis for their faith. But despite that there were certain things they had and continued to do right. As a consequence he used the opportunity to encourage them—despite their faults—in the things they were doing right.
3. Facing Up to Problems
The third thing Paul would have done would have been to bring to light the things that needed fixing. He wouldn’t beat around the bush. Rather, he would openly raise the matters that need attention. And he would use the opportunity to teach the members of the church in the hope that they would deal with the problems and go on with their faith.
And in Thessalonica they had a lot of problems that needed fixing. Paul was being slandered; people were saying that he’d left them in the lurch. As a consequence Paul’s ministry and motives had been questioned. Recent converts from paganism were being persecuted (2:14). Consequently there was pressure to revert to easy-going pagan standards (4:13-18). Some seemed to have become content on living off their fellows, instead of earning their own living (4:11-12). There were tensions between some of the leaders and the rest of the congregation (5:12-13). And some were having problems with understanding the gospel—in particular the work of the Holy Spirit (5:19-20), and the Second Coming (4:13-18 & 5:1-11)—and consequently were living with mistaken beliefs.
4. Plan of Attack
And then fourthly, before concluding his message with a blessing, Paul would offer a plan of attack.
And in the case of the Thessalonians, he charged the people to correct their wrongful actions, and to make sure everyone knew the content of his letter. Then and only then did he conclude with the grace.
Now the purpose behind Paul’s letters is clear. He wanted to teach. And in particular he wanted to teach about the Christian Gospel and what it meant to live the Christian life. Paul’s intention was never to rub the people’s noses in their mistakes and say what dreadful people they were. But he was not afraid to deal with the issues that needed addressing either.
Paul had a concern that the people needed to understand what the gospel was about. And that meant that they needed to address the misunderstandings, the false teaching, the laziness, or whatever it was that was stopping them from being true followers of Christ. And, he knew, that that wasn’t going to be fixed, if he pussyfooted around their faults and failings. Indeed, it would only begin to be fixed if he brought all the negative things that he’d heard about out into the open.
And that of course brings us back to the original question: If this church had been around in Paul’s day—or better still, if Paul was around today—what would Paul have written to us?
Well, the beginning of the letter would have been innocuous enough—a simple introduction from Paul, addressed to this church, with some sort of greeting.
The second section would also be easy to accept. There would be words of encouragement. Words of thanks, perhaps indicating the faithfulness of people over time, stretching back to when this church was first established, to date. Thankfulness for those who continue to meet together, despite the fact that the church, today, has largely lost its flavour. And a gratefulness for the continuing Christian presence in one of the far-flung reaches of the world.
3. Facing Up to Problems
But then we come to the third section: Paul dealing with the negatives that plague our local churches. Well, what would he say?
Well, there is no point in us denying that there are any problems. Because that just isn’t so. All churches have problems. All churches have much they can do to improve. And Paul would know that.
Indeed it is interesting to note that there are only two of Paul’s letters in which he did not address any local problems. And they were the letter to the Romans, which is a letter introducing himself to a church he did not know, prior to a visit to Rome. And the letter to the Ephesians, which is not a letter specifically addressed to the church at Ephesus, but rather a circular of basic Christian doctrine, copies of which were addressed to other churches too.
So a church without problems… Well, you’d be hard pressed to find one that exists.
So, what would Paul write to us? Well, I think he would challenge us with the problem of apathy—a lack of feeling and passion—for the promotion and spread of the gospel. The problem of being too comfortable with the church as it is today.
There’s a casualness today about the church which is very unhealthy. And whereas we can look back on the problems of the New Testament churches and look at amazement at the things they got up to. At least, for the most part, people were passionate about what they believed, even when they got it wrong. And that’s a passion, an excitement, and an urgency that is largely missing today.
People find other things to do. They explain away the things they don’t like about the Christian faith. They adhere themselves solidly to their traditions and practices, which are not always biblically based. They find reasons not to do the things that God asks. And that includes joining in the regular worship of the one true God and taking a full part in the life of the church.
Now that, I think, is primarily what Paul would have written about.
4. Plan of Attack
Which brings us to the fourth part of Paul’s letter: the plan of attack. Because identifying any problem is one thing. Doing something about it is another issue altogether.
But how do you combat the problem of apathy?
Well we need to remember that Paul’s letters are to “churches.” In other words “the people who meet together.” The church isn’t the people who at some time in the past came to church, or even people who have some sort of connection with a particular denomination. The Greek word that we translate as “church” means the people who actually come together. And the Latin term we translate as “congregation” means the people who actually “congregate” together.
As a consequence, the apathy that Paul would be writing about in his letter, would be the lack of excitement within the current congregation itself. Consequently, he would be suggesting a plan of attack which exhorts every member to have a biblical base for their beliefs and practices, to be active in their faith, and for all to use their gifts to participate in the life of God’s church.
And having said that, Paul would then close his letter, ordering that his letter be read to every member of the church. And only then would he finish with a blessing.
And if the Apostle Paul were to have written a letter to this church, this is something like what, I believe, he would have written.
Now, as I said at the beginning, over the years people have found different ways to communicate with one another. And letter writing, historically, has been one of the most effective ways of communicating, particularly over long distances. And the Apostle Paul is an example of someone who used that method to great advantage.
But we need to remember that even though most of his letters are dealing with problems in the church—and every church has problems—the purpose of confronting the people was not to rub their noses in it, but rather to bring to the open the issues that need to be addressed. He wanted people to get back on track, and to grow in the Christian faith.
And, without doubt, apathy, or lack of passion for the faith is probably the number one issue which faces the church—not just here, but in the western church as a whole. But it’s no good just recognising the problem, we also have to do something to try to address it.
Because the point of Paul’s letters was to grow healthy vibrant churches. And he was criticised at the time for his bluntness in his letter writing. But then he knew what was at stake if he just left things drift. And what was at stake was: the corruption of the Christian faith, irregular patterns of worship, declining congregations, and few if any believers.
And that is a situation that we know only too well in this country. Which is why it is an issue we would do well to try to address.
Posted 9th May 2019
© 2019, Brian A Curtis