Most of the Bible is addressed to groups of people, not individuals. And while collective commands have clear implications for individuals, the corporate nature matters.
Many modern Christians have been breathing individualistic air for years, with far-reaching consequences. But we must remember the communal nature of the Bible if we are to live faithfully as God’s people.
A Community Standard
There’s a verse in Paul’s first letter to the Thessalonian church that highlights this point.
See that no one repays anyone evil for evil, but always seek to do good to one another and to everyone. (1 Thessalonians 5:15)
The context, as always, is important—this verse falls in the middle of several commands Paul gives to this church. That a group is addressed is obvious, both in verse 15 itself as well as in the presence of “brothers” in verses 12 and 14 and “yourselves” in verse 13.
Note that the command here is not simply “don’t repay evil for evil.” Rather, “See that no one repays evil for evil.” Paul prohibits revenge for each person, but he also makes every individual responsible for the obedience of others. Each person is charged with maintaining the no-retaliation standard in the community.
It’s natural to balk here. I have enough trouble obeying God myself. How can I be responsible for others?
We turn back to the passage for the answer. We are to respect our church leaders and “esteem them very highly in love” (verses 12–13). Giving proper love and encouragement to our elders is essential for the health of the church.
Additionally, we are to “be at peace” among ourselves (verse 13). And there is a summary of sorts at the end of verse 15: “always seek to do good to one another and to everyone.” If we are all seeking to do good for everyone, no one will be repaying evil for evil.
Becoming Like God
A church’s reputation and testimony can be damaged by one flagrant or unrepentant sinner. But the church acting together in love can say glorious things about God.
As a local church body obeys this no-revenge command, they become more and more like their patient, saving God. Quite simply, God does not repay evil for evil! Rather he is “merciful and gracious, slow to anger and abounding in steadfast love” (Psalm 103:8). God’s patience and forbearance are such that we were reconciled to God while we were his enemies (Romans 5:10).
God is just, but his is a patient justice. He will repay, but he offers mercy. In fact, our forbearance with others must be based upon the certainty of God’s justice (see Romans 12:19).
In some ways, it’s in our (fallen) nature to seek revenge. When we are injured, we want to nurture the internal wound until just the right moment to visit an equal or greater injury in return.
But as we practice forgiveness and reconciliation, fueled by the forgiveness we’ve received in Christ, the church can offer (and point to) a balm the world desperately needs. That balm is the very presence of God.
For God has not destined us for wrath, but to obtain salvation through our Lord Jesus Christ, who died for us so that whether we are awake or asleep we might live with him. (1 Thessalonians 5:9–10)