As we turn the page to Second Thessalonians, we don't find a radically different church. Paul's second letter to the Thessalonians starts much as the first one did, and continues the attitude of thanksgiving for their faith and love. Not only did the enemy not steal their faith and make the efforts meaningless - he completely lost the battle as well as the war. The church became deeply rooted.
And Paul was like any proud parent -- he told others about his beloved child, in this case, an amazing young church.
As Christians, we know that "pride goes before destruction, a haughty spirit before a fall" (Proverbs 16:18). We understand that we are not to boast in our own works (1 Corinthians 1:29) and that all boasting is to be in the Lord (1 Corinthians 1:31). And yet, seemingly paradoxically we are told that we should "outdo one another in showing honor" (Romans 12:10) and we see examples throughout the epistles of Paul showing honor to a Christian or church, often as an example or encouragement for others.
So how do the two connect? What can we glean from Paul boasting about this church?
- It's ok to say positive things about others - and let them know it. Paul didn't seem to spend any energy worrying that if the church knew he was talking about them they would get, in my best Texas parlance, "the big head". Have you ever had a relationship where you felt unappreciated or constantly criticized, and yet others said "She always speaks so highly of you"? What is your thought? If you're like me, it's probably along the lines of, "Well I sure wish she'd tell me so." People need to know when they are getting it right, when they are being a blessing, when they are valued and appreciated. The more the relationship is one of authority (such as parent-child, teacher-student, pastor-congregation), the more important it is that the person in authority take the time to reinforce positive lessons with specific, verbal appreciation. This isn't just basic human nature; we see this in Paul's example throughout Scripture. We don't have to be scared to honor people who are living out Biblical truths in the real world.
- Context matters. Paul shares that he boasts "among God's churches." He doesn't try to convince the world or the Roman government of this awesome church. He boasts to those who will understand the context and be encouraged by the example. This doesn't mean that it is wrong to speak of the good a church is doing when talking to a city council considering a restrictive sign ordinance, for example -- but it does mean that we have to realize the audience and that the boasting will be most effective when the context is grasped by fellow believers.
- Biblical boasting is specific enough to take away encouragement and examples. Paul specifically boasts about their perseverance and faith in the midst of persecution. The likely result of this, on the part of the listeners, is a realization that they too could endure trials, in the same way the church at Thessalonica did. Decades after this book, Peter would write, encouraging believers to resist Satan and stand firm "because you know that your brothers throughout the world are undergoing the same kind of sufferings" (1 Peter 5:9).
- Biblical boasting doesn't take from God's glory, it elevates it. Paul would later write to Ephesians that God reveals His wisdom in the heavenly realm through the church. That's us, with all our faults. God is glorified in our weaknesses and frailties. He is also glorified in our progress. When read in context, we see Paul's constant connection back to God:
- The church is "in God our Father and the Lord Jesus Christ" (v 1)
- They receive grace and peace "from God the Father and the Lord Jesus Christ" (v 2)
- Paul's prayers "thank God for you...because your faith is growing" (v 3)
- The boasting occurs "among God's churches" (v 4)
- As we will see in the next segment (v 5), their perseverance is "evidence that God's judgment is right."
- We are part of a larger story. "God's churches" that heard of Thessalonica were part of what God was doing as well. Thessalonica, a relatively new, small, early church, needed to know they also weren't alone. By sharing the stories, each of the churches make a connection that brought them into the bigger picture of what God was doing.
- Read Christian biographies. There is something profoundly moving about reading stories of Christians gone before. I always feel like I'm extending the list of Hebrews 11. We have much to learn from people who lived in different times and places. While they certainly have their biases, as we do, and while we do not elevate their lifestyles to the commands to Scripture - we can be deeply impacted by seeing how the scarlet thread of faith extends through the centuries and across the miles. Not sure where to start? Check out Goodreads' list of Christian biographies and pick one that sounds good to you!
- Read missionary stories. Certainly missionary biographies are a great place to start, but sign up for missionary newsletters or read those your church provides. Find out what God is doing TODAY in places you've never heard of.
- Learn about the persecuted church. Sign up for newsletters from www.opendoorsusa.org and start reading. You'll be blown away by the faithfulness and endurance of believers around the world.
- Learn about the churches in your city. Pray for other churches and pay attention to what God is doing in them. When you see a Vacation Bible School sign, pray for that church. When you meet a believer who attends another church, ask what God is doing there. See yourself not just as "a member of X church" but as "part of the church in (my city)".
- Don't be afraid to talk about what you see in others. Do some Biblical boasting, especially if you are in ministry! Share what God is doing in your group, and tell them about it. Even if you're not in ministry, talk about the amazing testimony of your worship leader, or the way God uses your pastor's words in your life. Then tell that person directly. Encouragement works both ways!