I mentioned in a thread at dotCommonweal the advantages of reading a NT book straight through, at a single sitting, in order to appreciate it as a literary whole, something not possible when we read or hear them only in snippets. The practice also lends itself to another purpose. I used to assign my students a reading of the First Epistle to the Thessalonians and urged them to read it as if they knew nothing about the author or authors or about those to whom it was addressed nor anything about subsequent history. I wanted them to tell me what they could learn about the authors and the community. It was a way of getting them to recognize and to understand what this little letter tells about the genesis of the Christian Church. (I once used the idea at an ecumenical weekend retreat where I had them read and discuss successively 1 Thessalonians, Ephesians, and 1 Timothy. The conversations were very illuminating.)
Below are some notes that I drew up on 1 Thessalonians and its implicit ecclesiology.
The Genesis of the Church
There are two ways in which to take the term “the genesis of the Church.” The first is to use it of the birth or the initial emergence in human history of the community of men and women who called and call themselves the “Church” of Jesus Christ. The second is to refer to the process by which day after day this same social body continues to reproduce itself as a distinct human community in the world.
The first of these meanings refers us back to ancient history, to the particular situation in which the Church emerged, to the particular historical events out of which it arose, and to the characteristics that set that community apart from all others of the time. The second meaning involves us in reflections that are more sociological in character, in the sense that it requires reflection on the processes by which human communities sustain themselves in existence.
The two approaches, of course, must overlap, since the initial emergence represents an instance of the constitution of a distinct social group which social theory can greatly illumine and since the claim which the contemporary Church makes to be in essential continuity with the first generation of the Church can neither be tested nor verified without some knowledge of what it was that defined and distinguished the Church as it first appeared in history.
Around the year A.D. 50, a group of people in Thessalonica, a port city in northern Greece, received a short letter. This letter is the earliest historical evidence of any kind for the existence of the Christian Church. Let us suppose for a moment that we know nothing else about Christianity or the Church apart from what we can learn about them from this short letter.
The letter is addressed to “the assembly of the Thessalonians in God the Father and the Lord Jesus Christ” (1:1). The word “assembly” translates the Greek word “ekklesia,” which was in common use in Greek society to refer to “an assembly of citizens summoned by the crier,” but had also been used in the Greek translation of the Hebrew Scriptures to refer to assemblies of the people of Israel. Because the term is so generic, it needs to be specified, and here the specification is found in the words “of the Thessalonians [who are] in God the Father and the Lord Jesus Christ.” Note that the recipients are addressed as a group, an assembly, rather than simply as individuals. The letter nowhere mentions any members of this assembly by name.
That a group of Thessalonians might assemble “in God the Father” might not constitute anything distinctive since the paternity of the deity was not uncommon at the time. That it assembles also in “the Lord Jesus Christ” attracts attention, not so much for the word kyrios (Lord) but for the other two names given. Christos might be fairly easily derived from the Greek verb that means “to rub with oil, to anoint”; the other name “Iesous” would be quite unfamiliar, although some might say that it sounds Jewish.
The assembly constitutes a separate group in Thessalonica, distinct from their “compatriots,” who have caused them some unspecified suffering (2:14), from “the Jews,” who are described very harshly (2:14-15), from “the Gentiles,” who are in need of salvation (2:16) and who “do not know God” (4:5), and, more generically, from “those who are outside” (4:12) and from “the rest,” that is, others who are said to have no hope (4:13) and to be asleep (5:6).
The members of the assembly are described as having “turned to God from idols to serve the living and true God and to await his Son from heaven, whom he raised from the dead, Jesus, who delivers us from the wrath to come” (1:9-10). This would indicate that the members of the group had formerly been Gentiles rather than Jews.
The most frequent designation of relations within the assembly is found in the term “brothers,” which appears nineteen times. They are also described as “believers” (2:10). Both as “brothers” and as “believers,” they are in some relationship with others in Macedonia and in Achaia, the two provinces of Greece (1:7; 4:10). Mention is also made of “the assemblies of God that are in Judea in Christ Jesus” (2:14).
The authors of the letter are Paul, Silvanus, and Timothy, but, from certain indications in the text (2:18; 3:5; 5:27), Paul was probably the chief author. In 2:7, they refer to themselves as “apostles of Christ,” “apostles” meaning “envoys,” “legates,” or “messengers.”
As for the relationship between the authors and the recipients of the letter, the authors had come to them from the Greek city of Philippi, where they had undergone some suffering and insult (2:2). At Thessalonica they had proclaimed what they call “the good news” which God had entrusted to them (2:4, 9). The authors go to some pains to insist that their preaching was not motivated by delusion, impurity, deception, or greed (2:3-5). They praise the Thessalonian assembly for having, despite “great affliction” (1:6), received their message, not as “a human word but, as it truly is, the word of God” (2:13). Along with the regular references to the Thessalonians as their “brothers,” the authors use parental metaphors to describe their relationship to the assembly: they acted “as a nursing mother cares for her children” (2:7) and “as a father treats his children” (2:11). Throughout the letter, affectionate terms abound to describe relations between authors and recipients. Nevertheless, the writers implicitly claim, and expect the recipients of their letter to acknowledge, a certain authority over the assembly in Thessalonica.
What was the “good news” which the authors had proclaimed in Thessalonica? It is described as “the good news of God” (2:9) and as “the good news of Christ” (3:2), with the “of” perhaps meaning either “from” or “about”, or perhaps both. “The living and true God” (1:9) is called “Father” several times (1:1, 3; 3:11, 13). Jesus is closely associated with God throughout the letter. Once he is called “his Son” (1:10). Two titles are often used of Jesus: “Lord” and “Christ,” and these sometimes are used alone to refer to Jesus. Of Jesus we learn only that he was killed by the Jews (2:15), that he “died for us, so that whether we are awake or asleep we may live together with him” (5:10), that he “died and rose” (4:14), that God “raised him from the dead” (1:10), and that he is to come again (1:10; 2:19; 3:13; 4:14-17; 5:2, 23) with all his holy ones (3:13; 4:14-17), to deliver us from the coming wrath (1:10) and to bring us salvation (5:9). The preaching of the authors had also included “instructions” on “how you should conduct yourselves to please God” (4:1-2), that is, their message had included a moral dimension.
After preaching in Thessalonica, the authors appear to have moved on to other Greek cities. Paul particularly had wished to return to Thessalonica, but Satan had prevented it (2:18). And so he had remained in Athens and sent Timothy, “our brother and co-worker of God in the good news of Christ” (3:2), to strengthen and encourage them (3:2), and to “learn about your faith, for fear that somehow the tempter had put you to the test and our toil had come to nothing” (3:5). This fear was apparently prompted by the fact that since his departure, some kind of trouble and suffering had come upon the assembly at Thessalonica (2:14), an affliction which the preachers had told them they must expect (3:3-4). Timothy had now returned, “bringing to us the good news of your faith and love” (3:6), but perhaps also indicating some problems or questions, for Paul speaks of having to “remedy the deficiencies of your faith” (3:10), a task he takes up in the last two chapters.
Three major problems are addressed. The first concerns sexual morality, an area in which the assembly must distinguish itself from the “lustful passion” of “the Gentiles who do not know God” (4:3-8). The second concerns “love for the brothers” which they are urged to practice particularly in their everyday relations and by working with their own hands, “so that you may conduct yourselves properly toward outsiders and not depend on anyone” (4:9-12).
The third area of concern was about “the coming of the Lord.” Some of the members of the Thessalonian assembly had died since the authors had left the city, and the question had arisen as to their fate when the Lord returned. The authors give assurances that the dead also will appear with Christ when he returns and that thus there will be a reunion of them with the authors and with those who will still be alive when the Lord returns (4:13-18).
Related to this theme are instructions about vigilance, alertness, while they await the return of Christ which will occur as unexpectedly as “a thief at night.” This “day of the Lord” requires that the Thessalonian brothers live “as children of the light and children of the day.” “Let us not sleep as the others do, but let us stay alert and sober” (5:1-12).
The letter concludes with some specific exhortations, beginning with an appeal “to respect those who are laboring among you and who are over you in the Lord and who admonish you, and to show esteem for them with special love on account of their work” (5:12-13). This is the only indication in the letter of any sort of differentiations within the assembly.
Among the final exhortations are that the Thessalonian brothers not “quench the Spirit,” not “despise prophetic utterances,” but “test everything and retain what is good” (5:19-21), a reference to some sort of extraordinary gifts exercised in the assembly.
Analyzing this short letter in this way gives us a fresh insight into what was happening with the emergence of what we call the Christian Church. We catch sight of it here, for the first time, about twenty years after the end of the life of Jesus of Nazareth. Already there are people who are travelling around the Roman Empire speaking about him, his death and resurrection, and his future, even imminent, return. Already there are assemblies of people who have come to believe in this message, to live a life in accordance with it, and to hope for what it promises. It is this faith, love, and hope which mark these assemblies out from all other groups and constitute their common life as “brothers.” The assemblies are in a sense the “children” generated by that preaching, and those who preached to them are like mothers who nurse them and like fathers who instruct them. There is at least the beginning of some sort of differentiation of authority within the local assembly.
There is, of course, a great deal more which we could wish to know about this assembly of Christian believers in Thessalonica in the year 51. But already we can catch the essentials: this assembly is a group of people who have heard the good news about God and about the Lord Jesus Christ and who are trying to live lives in accordance with it. No other group of people at the time assembled because of those commitments. Their belief in a single “living and true God” distinguished them from the pagan world. Their belief in Jesus as “Lord” and “Messiah” and “Son” distinguished them from Jews. Something new had appeared in human society and history. It was the genesis of the Church.
A similar analysis could be undertaken of all the other books in the collection we call the New Testament. These books will often reveal considerable variety in the way in which the distinguishing faith of Christians was understood and articulated and in the way in which their assemblies were structured. But in them all will be found one great distinguishing characteristic: that this social group–this “assembling”–exists as a response to the message of and about Jesus of Nazareth. That common reference is what distinguishes each and all of the assemblies from every other social group of the time. Their very existence as historical entities derives from that fact. And that is why, simply as historians, we are led to consider how it was that Jesus of Nazareth gave rise to the Christian Church.