When Paul wrote to the Thessalonian church, he was calling all believers to a ministry of corrective love, which he faithfully modeled as a minister of God. A key verse to consider regarding this one-another ministry is found in Paul’s first letter to the Thessalonians: “We urge you, brethren, admonish the unruly, encourage the fainthearted, help the weak, be patient with everyone” (1 Thes. 5:14). Here we notice that every church contains at least three kinds of people who need corrective love: the unruly, the fainthearted, and the weak.
Admonish the Unruly – The unruly are those who live undisciplined, disorderly lives. “The word was primarily a military term used of the soldier who is out of step or out of rank or the army moving in disarray. It then was used more generally of whatever is out of order.” The undisciplined lives of some in Thessalonica were primarily characterized by willful unemployment, “doing no work at all” (2 Thes. 3:11). According to Paul, this kind of person needs to be firmly corrected and instructed concerning God’s expectation of him or her as a diligent worker. Sometimes, when this person’s disorderliness spills over into the church, causing dissension, even stronger action will need to be taken, as found in the apostle’s letter to Titus: “Reject a factious man after a first and second warning, knowing that such a man is perverted and is sinning, being self-condemned” (3:10–11). Though all unruly behavior warrants confrontation, this is an example of destructive influence that threatens the unity of the church to the degree that it is necessary to quickly move to an advanced stage of church discipline.
Encourage the Fainthearted – The fainthearted need encouragement. The Greek word used here means “small-souled” or “despondent.” These kind of worrisome strugglers don’t need firm rebuke like the unruly, but invigorating words that redirect their discouraged hearts to trust in the goodness and faithfulness of God. Jesus used words like this to help His disciples fight anxiety: “But if God so clothes the grass in the field, which is alive today and tomorrow is thrown into the furnace, how much more will He clothe you? You men of little faith!” (Luke 12:28). Therefore, our words must dispense encouragement to those in need of it.
Help the Weak – The weak simply need our help. This word probably refers to those who are morally or spiritually weak. Richard Baxter writes of them, “It is a very sad thing for Christians to be weak: it exposeth us to dangers; it abateth our consolations and delight in God, and taketh off the sweetness of wisdom’s ways; it maketh us less serviceable to God and man, to bring less honour to our Master, and to do less good to all about us. We get small benefit in the use of the means of grace. We too easily play with the serpent’s baits, and are ensnared by his wiles. A seducer will easily shake us, and evil may be made to appear to us as good, truth as falsehood, sin as duty … We are dishonourable to the gospel by our very weakness, and little useful to any about us.” Weak believers don’t need admonishment or encouragement, but they do need help; that is, they need to “be firmly held.” They need “support” (KJV) or someone to “uphold” (NKJV) them. Jesus uses this word to describe the commitment that some make to material possessions: “he will hold to the one and despise the other” (Matt. 6:24, KJV). Commitment, or steadfastness, is what Paul has in mind as well when he requires church overseers to be “holding fast the faithful word” (Titus 1:9). Our churches will include morally and spiritually weak people who need us to not let them go but instead support them and “hold their feet to the fire,” in the sense of helping them grow in commitment. These brethren don’t need the kind of help that feeds their weakness; they need accountability. They need to learn how to be “steadfast, immovable, always abounding in the work of the Lord” (1 Cor. 15:58).
Be Patient with All – In addition to these three kinds of believers, “everyone” needs us to have the grace of patience. “Patient” comes from a compound word meaning “long-tempered.” Richard Baxter challenges us to carry out a personal counseling ministry for the spiritual well-being of those church members who may mistreat us: “We have to deal with distracted men who will fly in the face of their physician, but we must not, therefore, neglect their cure. He is unworthy to be a physician, who will be driven away from a phrenetic patient by foul words. Yet, alas, when sinners reproach and slander us for our love, and are more ready to spit in our faces, than to thank us for our advice, what heart-risings will there be, and how will the remnants of old Adam (pride and passion) struggle against the meekness and patience of the new man!”
It is significant that all four of the verbs in Paul’s exhortation concerning this counseling ministry—“admonish,” “encourage,” “help,” and “be patient”—are in the present tense in the Greek, implying that these kinds of people will always be in all of our churches. Biblical love, therefore, recognizes the variety of struggles and levels of maturity within God’s family and ministers with great patience, consideration, and instruction, accompanied by sensitivity from the Holy Spirit.