When involved in street evangelism and door-to-door in a majority-Christian society, it is inevitable to meet hurting Christians. These Christians may have attended a church that encountered difficulties. Perhaps they were personally hurt. In some cases, these churches have pastors that no longer preach the Word of God. Yet true believers remain faithful to these churches for a variety of reasons. How can the believer offer encouragement to these hurting Christians? Does the New Testament provide a context and guidance for this type of ministry?
The New Testament provides clues on a number of levels. It addresses the variety of churches found in every portion of church history. Each New Testament author warned his readers to beware of inevitable false teachers. Further the New Testament described levels of belief that will be found within and outside of the church. As these three strands coalesce, conclusions can be distilled and recommendations made.
Paul enumerated three varieties of hurting Christians in his correspondence to the Thessalonian believers:
“Now we exhort you, brethren, warn those who are unruly, comfort the fainthearted, uphold the weak, be patient with all.” 1 Thess 5:14.
Hurting Christians were considered in three categories: the unruly, the fainthearted, and the weak. Unruly appears to describe Christians who push the boundaries of submission to Christ. They may be deemed compromising or antinomian. Fainthearted seems to specify a Christian beat-down either by life circumstances, by sin, or by a lack of solid teaching. The weak may refer to young or immature Christians who lack an understanding of every good thing they have in Christ. These three types of Christians are regularly encountered in initiative evangelism situations.
As far as false teachers within local churches and denominational structures, Paul warned the Ephesian elders:
“For I know this, that after my departure savage wolves will come in among you, not sparing the flock. Also from among yourselves men will rise up, speaking perverse things, to draw away the disciples after themselves.” Acts 20:29-30.
Paul knew from experience and from Scripture that false teachers were salivating all around him to take over and disrupt the churches that he himself had planted. Paul seemed to be recalling the words of Moses to the Levites in Deut 31:27. Moses remembered the many rebellions of the people of God during his life, and knew that it would be worse once he died. As with Moses, so with Paul.
Jesus warned of false teachers as He lowered the looking glass to His eyes in the Olivet Discourse. His warnings paralleled those of Moses and Paul:
“And Jesus answered and said to them: ‘Take heed that no one deceives you. For many will come in My name, saying, “I am the Christ,” and will deceive many.’” Matt 24:4-5.
“Then many false prophets will rise up and deceive many.” Matt 24:11.
“Then if anyone says to you, ‘Look, here is the Christ!’ or ‘There!’ do not believe it. For false christs and false prophets will rise and show great signs and wonders to deceive, if possible, even the elect. See, I have told you beforehand. Therefore if they say to you, ‘Look, He is in the desert!’ do not go out; or ‘Look, He is in the inner rooms!’ do not believe it.” Matt 24:23-26.
Therefore, in the Olivet Discourse Jesus picked up on the theme of false teachers. As it happens, this discourse was given in the final week of His earthly ministry. Then, in His heavenly ministry, Jesus again picked up on the theme of false teachers as He revealed Himself to the elder Apostle John.
In Revelation 2-3 Jesus gave seven letters to seven churches that coexisted in the district of Asia Minor in the late First Century. While each of these seven churches existed at the same time, their locations were used to differentiate them from one another. In so doing, Jesus appeared to describe seven common church situations that have and do coexist in every century of the church. Considering them as chiastic in structure provides some fruitful application:
In the three innermost churches (#3, #4, and #5) doctrinal downgrade can be easily discerned. The words of Jesus (1) distinguish the main doctrinal body within the church, and (2) describe a marginal group within the church. In so doing, Jesus separated out hurting Christians within the church:
- #3 Pergamum: “And you hold fast to My name … There are those who hold to the doctrine of Balaam … You also have those who hold to the doctrine of the Nicolaitans…” Rev 2:14, 15.
- #4 Thyatira: “You allow the woman Jezebel, who calls herself a prophetess, to teach … To the rest in Thyatira…” Rev 2:20, 24.
- #5 Sardis: “You have a name that you are alive, but you are dead …You have a few names even in Sardis who have not defiled their garments,” Rev 3:1, 4.
The doctrinal drift in Pergamum begins with the few. “There are those,” said Jesus, “who hold to the doctrine of Balaam.” And “those,” He continued, “who hold to the doctrine of the Nicolaitans.” In Thyatira, the teachings of Balaam became prominent in the church through the recognized teaching of Jezebel. Jesus addressed the doctrinally sound of Thyatira as “to the rest.” Then, in the Sardis phase, the doctrinal drift was so severe that Jesus pronounced the church dead. “You are dead,” said Jesus. And yet even so, Jesus still addressed “a few names” in Sardis who held to the faith.
As ministers of the gospel, we will encounter those who attend good churches, but hold to the two types of teaching, the Balaamites and the Nicolaitans. We also encounter the faith of “to the rest” who attend churches that correspond to Thyatira. Lastly, we will share the gospel with those who are holding fast to their faith within churches like Sardis.
To this variety of Christians within churches we can add those who have heard the witness as described in the Parable of the Sower. There are those who have received the Word of God in good soil. We encounter healthy, mature, growing Christians as we evangelize. There are those who received the word in weed-infested soil. These are those who have already heard the gospel and received it. Yet they struggle to bear fruit because temptations entangle their lives. Others, in the rocky soil, have already heard and responded to the Word. However, their faith was scandalized by persecution because of the Word. These persons we also encounter. As we speak with them, they recall their prior commitment to Christ. They may even mock the Christian who has not succumbed to persecution as they have. Lastly, we will encounter those on the wide road of a hard heart. These are spiritually dead, never having a glimmer of a hearing of faith. The weed-infested and the rocky soil provide examples of persons who have had a negative experience with the gospel—because of their sin and the condition of their heart. These have prior baggage when we seek to share the good news of Jesus with them.
What are some principles that may be helpful in lovingly ministering to these divergent types of persons already exposed to the gospel of Christ?
First, these varieties remind us of our own weaknesses. Our carnal nature may easily draw us to the faith of a Balaamite or a Nicolaitan were it not for the grace of God.
Second, it is an important to understand that as we evangelize we will encounter these varieties of persons with various types of exposure to the gospel. They are all foretold in the New Testament. Therefore, it is important not to restrictively categorize persons as only saved or lost. While their eternal destinies will be decided in these two categories, their temporal experience with the gospel has greater variety.
Third, when dealing with persons of different church backgrounds, perhaps Paul’s admonition in Romans 14 rings true. “Who are you to judge another’s servant? To his own master he stands or falls. Indeed, he will be made to stand, for God is able to make him stand.” Rom 14:4. The witness needs to keep in mind to encourage the weak and comfort the fainthearted and not to attack the church which he attends.
Therefore, the three commands of Paul in 1 Thess 5:14 provide helpful guidelines:
- “Warn the unruly”
- “Comfort the fainthearted” and
- “Uphold the weak.”
We are called to warn, comfort, and uphold. There are a variety of responses depending on the spiritual need of each heart. Likewise, it has been said that Jesus never shared the gospel the same way with any two persons. Similarly, the believer will encounter a wide variety of hurting Christians. It is important that his words “give grace to those who hear.” Col 4:6. While a memorized gospel plan is essential in the toolbox of any Christian, he must be ready to expand beyond a memorized plan. To properly deal with hurting Christians, the witness needs discernment, love, humility, and flexibility.