A Commentary by John Stott
2 Thessalonians 3:4-15. 3). The word must be obeyed in the church (continued).
Fifthly, Paul adds a further direction on how the church should treat those individuals who persist in disobedience: *If anyone does not (RSV, ‘refuses to’) obey our instruction in this letter, take special note of him* (14a). Perhaps the ringleader of the recalcitrant group is in mind. *Do not associate with him, in order that he may feel ashamed* (14b). At the same time. *do not regard him as an enemy, but warn him as a brother* (15), or ‘admonish him as one of the family’ (REB).
This verse contains some of the most important teaching in the New Testament on the subject of church discipline. How should the local Christian community handle a situation in which one or more of its members are guilty of serious misbehaviour? To be sure many churches nowadays would do nothing. The administration of discipline has fallen into disuse, and the thought of reviving it is viewed with distaste. Our Lord and his apostles were of a different opinion, however, and 2 Thessalonians 3:14 lays down five practical guidelines on when, why and how discipline should be exercised.
1. The *need* for discipline does not arise from some trivial offence which can be dealt with discreetly in private, but from a public, deliberate and persistent disobedience to plain apostolic instruction. In the case of the *ataktoi* Paul had repeatedly communicated the apostles’ teaching by word of mouth, personal example and letter. The Christian standard in this matter was not in doubt. But the culprits were showing a spirit of defiance. It was those who obstinately refused to obey (14) who, Paul said, must now be disciplined.
2. The *nature* of the discipline which Paul demanded was a measure of social ostracism. The idlers had already received a general admonition (1 Thess.5:14). But now, because they had disregarded it, the loyal church members were to keep aloof from them (6). Then, if anyone continued in disobedience, they were to ‘take special note of him’, which implies ‘some form of public censure’, and not to ‘associate with him’ (14). This verb is *synanameignymi*, to ‘mingle or associate with’ (BAGD). Paul will use it again later when telling the Corinthians not to have fellowship or even eat with Christian brothers who are openly guilty of such offences as immorality, dishonesty, idolatry and drunkenness (1 Cor.5:9, 11). But the verb may imply differing degrees of ostracism, ranging from the total separation involved in excommunication (as at Corinth) to the more moderate avoidance of free and familiar fellowship (as at Thessalonica). ‘Let there be no intimate association with him’ is Paul’s meaning here, rather than RSV’s harsher expression ‘have nothing to do with him’. For this injunction of the apostle’s is qualified by the further one to continue regarding and treating him as a Christian brother (15).
3. The *responsibility* for administering discipline to a persistent offender belongs to the congregation. Paul does not address his instruction to the elders of the Thessalonian church who are ‘over’ them ‘in the Lord’, even though they have a special responsibility of admonition (1 Thess.5:12). Leaders may need to take the initiative, but then a corporate decision and corporate action should be taken by the whole church membership. Without this, rival factions are bound to develop.
4. The *spirit* in which discipline is to be administered must be friendly, not hostile. It is to be done ‘gently’ (Gal.6:1). ‘Do not regard him as an enemy’ (15a), for that would be equivalent to treating him like ‘a pagan or tax collector’ (Mt.18:17), that is, excommunicating him. Instead, ‘warn him as a brother’ (15b), continuing to give him fraternal admonition (the verb is *noutheteo*, as in 1 THess.5:12 and 14).
5. The *purpose* of this discipline is positive and constructive. It is not to humiliate delinquents, still less destroy them. It is rather to make them ‘feel ashamed’ (14b), that is, to shame them into repentance for the past and amendment of life in the future. Paul’s intention is not that he be excluded from the community, but reinstated in it (Cf. Gal.6:1). Jesus had made this plain by saying that if an offender listens to reproof, ‘you have won your brother over’ (Mt.18:15).
Tomorrow: 4). Reflections on the authority of the apostles.
The John Stott Bible Study is taken from The Message of 1 & 2 Thessalonians. The Bible Speaks Today John Stott. Used by permission of Inter-Varsity Press UK, Nottingham. All rights reserved.