Posted by: chuckbumgardner | January 28, 2008

“Warn Him as a Brother” in 2 Thessalonians 3:15

I’ve been wrestling through a knotty problem in my thesis passage, 2 Thessalonians 3:6-16.  In this Pauline disciplinary passage, the obedient congregation is instructed to disassociate from any who continue to live in a disorderly manner (3:14).  If the passage stopped at 3:14, few would deny that this means that the congregation was to take the step of church discipline which consists of removal from membership in the congregation.
However, the passage goes on: “And do not regard him as an enemy, but warn him as a brother.”  Because the “brother” terminology is used here, most who comment on this passage reason this way: 1) the congregation is to disassociate in some fashion from the disorderly; 2) the congregation is still to understand the disorderly to be brothers; 3) ergo, the disassociation must not be expulsion from the church.  Usually it is concluded that there is some sort of ostracization of the offender, while he is allowed to remain a member of the church.  Perhaps he is barred from the Lord’s Supper, or perhaps the rest of the congregation treats him with a certain coldness.
However, except for the “brother” terminology, there is every indication that anyone who continues to live in a disorderly manner (i.e., “does not obey what we say in this letter”) ought to be disciplined out of the church.  A number of lines of evidence support this conclusion: 1) The NT does not know of a situation where a professed believer is allowed to remain in the church indefinitely on sort of a probationary level. 2) The word describing the action Paul wanted the Thessalonians to take toward the offender (sunanamignumi, 3:14) is precisely the same word used to describe how he wanted the Corinthians to deal with the incestuous man (1 Cor 5:9, 11), and it is abundantly clear in 1 Cor 5 that the incestuous man was to be removed altogether from the church. 3) The offense of the disorderly was not living according to the apostolic tradition which had been handed down by Paul (3:6); the gospel / apostolic tradition is the standard for Christian living, and stubborn disregard of it is clearly grounds for expulsion. 4) If we understand Matt 18:15-18 to be a model for Paul’s disciplinary procedure, the stage the Thessalonian offenders were at clearly called for dismissal from the church: Paul had preached against the disorderly behavior while at Thessalonica (cf. 2 Thess 3:10); had himself admonished the church by letter in relation to the disorderly behavior (1 Thess 4:10-12); had instructed the congregation to admonish the disorderly (1 Thess 5:14), which they apparently had done (2 Thess 3:4); and now was directly admonishing the disorderly a second time by letter (2 Thess 3:10).
Some think that “admonishing as a brother” has reference to the disorderly member once expelled (this seems to be, e.g., how Polycarp understands it in Epistle to the Philippians 11). It seems evident, however, that once a person is disciplined out of the church, he is not to be considered to have the status of “brother” anymore.
One innovative suggestion has been that the progression of thought in 3:14-15 indicates that the verses should be understood thus: “If anyone continues to disobey our instruction in this letter, publicly note and expel that one, with the goal that, once excluded, he might come to repentance. And once that happens (kai, , kai ) stop regarding him as an enemy, but instead admonish him as your brother (since he may once again be regarded as one).” (So Michael M. Canham, “‘Not Home Yet’: The Role of Over-Realized Eschatology in Pauline Church Discipline Cases,” [Ph.D. diss., Westminster Theological Seminary, 2005], 105-08.) While this would resolve the tension of 3:14-15 nicely, it makes awkward use of nouqetevw (noutheteo); Paul’s use of the word in 1 Thess 5:14 suggests that admonition was appropriate for those who were walking in a disorderly fashion, not those who had repented from doing such. Also, one would expect Paul to be more explicit if he were speaking about admonition after restoration.
I believe that the best way to understand the connection between “dissociate” and “warn him as a brother” is neither (1) to understand the dissociation as a sort of probationary ostracization, nor (2) to understand the offender to be expelled from the church yet somehow retaining the status of “brother,” nor (3) to understand Paul as using “brother” terminology for an offender who has been expelled and then restored.  Instead, it seems best to understand Paul’s instructions in 3:15 (“And do not regard him as an enemy, but warn him as a brother”) as informing the attitude with which the Thessalonians are to carry out the instructions of 3:14 regarding their expelling the offender from the church.  They are not to see the offender as their enemy, to be harshly thrust from the church because he is not “playing by the rules,” but all through the disciplinary process, they are to admonish him as a brother (as Paul instructed them in 1 Thess 5:14).
This conclusion is supported by the progression in Matt 18:15-17; the last step before expulsion is the church’s admonition of the offender; this is indicated by the instruction to “tell it to the church” and the possibility that the offender might refuse to listen to the church.
This conclusion is certainly not the majority position on this question, but is supported by John F. Brug, “Exegetical Brief: 2 Thessalonians 3:6, 14, 15 – Admonish Him as a Brother,” Wisconsin Lutheran Quarterly 96 (1999): 208-217; Beda Rigaux, Saint Paul. Les épîtres aux Thessaloniciens, Études bibliques (Paris: Gabalda, 1956), 715-716.


  1. i’m pretty much with you,
    but am curious to know what “disorderly” entails.

    that is…in this context, “disorderly” obviously speaks of someone
    who is refusing to work, while assuming his/her rights to continue eating.
    (and of course, they are busy doing other things while they should be working) i guess what i’m primarily interested in is the occasioning of the expulsion. is the text/are you saying: “you’re lazy and nosey…and you’re out.”

    in my experience, the actions of those who would use this passage as grounds for separation are typically motivated by much more than the issues on the table in this text.

  2. Scott,

    I’ll post on “disorderly” in the near future; at this point suffice it to say that I understand Paul to use that term instead of “lazy” or “idle” because he has a particular “order” in mind to which the offenders are not adhering. And that order is specified in 3:6 as the apostolic tradition: “walking in a disorderly manner, that is to say [epexegetical kai], not according to the tradition which you received from us.”

    Or to put it another way, I understand the text to say [so to speak] “You are living in a way contrary to what I have authoritatively taught you, and you have refused to cease living that way in spite of continued remonstrance, and although we want you to be part of this body, we are forced to expel you from it to make you see the seriousness of your choices, so that perhaps you will be ashamed of them and repent.”

    The particular occasion (that is, the question of why they were not working in the first place) is broadly debated. The two top contenders today, from my study, are (1) overrealized eschatology (too much “already”; not enough “not yet”); (2) some sort of social impetus (patronage; loss of benefit from trade guilds; etc.). But it is clear enough, I think, that they were “doing no work at all” when they should have been. In some fashion or another, this would have harmed the testimony of the church before outsiders, and was not demonstrating brotherly love (1 Thess 4:10-12). In the present text, however, the direct reason that their lack of work was unacceptable is because it contradicted the teaching and example of the apostle.

  3. great…looking forward to it.
    give meg and the kids a squeeze for me.

  4. It is a simple dis-fellowship, the opposite of fellowship. Excommunication is not an option because there is NO authority on earth that has that right to perform such an act.

    • Hi, Bill,

      How would you distinguish between “dis-fellowship” and “excommunicate”? What would be the difference between the two in your thinking?

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