The Social Status of the Thessalonians

What was the ‘social setting” of the church at Thessalonica?  John Polhill has a good summary of the usual arguments for the church being primarily Gentile (P&HL, 185).  But this is problematic because Acts tells us that the congregation was formed after a period of time teaching in the Synagogue. In addition, Jews stirred up trouble for Paul out of jealousy – presumably because of his success in their synagogue.

The argument that the recipients of the letters are Gentiles rests on three observations.  First, they are said to have turned “to God from idols.”  Paul would not describe a Jewish convert as “turning from an idol.”   Second, 1 Thess 4:1-8 describes some sexual ethics problems in the church.  This would be more typical of a Gentile congregation than Jewish. Third, 1 Thessalonians does not quote from the Old Testament,  although 2 Thess seems to allude to the Hebrew Bible.  If the church were written to a Gentile audience with very little synagogue training and knowledge, we would expect few biblical quotations.

So where to these Gentiles come from? If the Gentile converts were God-fearers from the synagogue, then it is also unlikely that they would have “turned from idols” since they were worship God in the synagogue.  In addition, a Gentile God-fearer might be expected to know as much of the Hebrew Bible as a Jewish person.  The fact that the second letter is laced with allusions to the Hebrew Bible makes me think that there are other reasons for the lack in 1 Thessalonians.  Paul was only in the city for a short time and there is no reference to evangelism in the marketplace, but he may have made contacts there which Luke chose not to report.

I think that the answer goes back to the persecution faced by the church.  If they are persecuted for “rejecting Rome,” perhaps some of the “prominent people” Luke mentions in Acts 17:4 left the Christian church and returned to the synagogue, or to secular life.  Those who remained “turned from idols,” specifically the national Roman cult.  Someone like Jason was able to use wealth and power to deal with the court system in the city, so there is at least an implication that he was wealthy and connected politically.  Perhaps Jason or other wealthy persons had left  the church by the time Paul writes (suggested by Adolf Deissmann, c.f., Malherbe, Thessalonians, 65).

The letter itself seems to praise the church for their strength in persecution, so maybe it is not wise to make too much of this alleged defection of some prominent converts, but it might explain the last of Jewish allusions in the letter.  This is also the point where the letter is most challenging to the modern church.  If attending Church cost social status or hurt the ability to earn a good wage, or even hold a job in the community, would people still be interested in attending church? I suppose with many younger people choosing not to attend church it might not make much of a difference.

The Thessalonians endured economic persecution and remained faithful, I suspect the American church would shrink dramatically.

14 thoughts on “The Social Status of the Thessalonians

  1. I would have to say that your last comment was a little frustrating to hear, but I definitely understand the context and would have to agree with you. To say, “I suppose with many younger people choosing not to attend church it might not make much of a difference.” might target specific people just a bit too much. Being one of the “younger people” (not compared to most of my fellow GBC students) I take a little offence at the pointedness of the comment. I think American churches as a whole would suffer greatly if actual persecution existed. With such fears as the economy, social security, and living below middle class already plaguing our culture, imagine how drastically the church would respond to political and economic persecution. I think we would very quickly see what the basis of the American church is if such issues happened now.
    Polhill says, “The eschatological aspect of the Christian message was especially appealing with its promise of social redress.” (185) Similarly to the response to persecution in many Asian countries, the church drew from those who already were in the lower classes financially and were under persecution. I don’t see any issue with this at all. Not to do the typical “call for persecution” over American churches, but I think it would ultimately be good for the church. People would be drawn to the church by the truth of the Gospel being lived out rather than the safety and security of finances and social acceptibility.

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  2. Thanks for the post. I have just a couple of thoughts.

    Acts suggests Paul was only in the city for three weeks. In both letters, however, Paul makes it clear that he was there long enough to work among them, most likely as a tentmaker (1 Thess 2.9; 2 Thess 3:7-9). Philippians 4:15-16 makes it clear that Paul was in Thessalonica longer than 3 weeks. He was able to receive at least two offerings from the Philippians in support of his ministry.

    As to the Gentile make up of the church, I suspect that there are Jews there, but they are in the minority. And even if the Gentiles were God fearers that Paul won from the synagogue that still would not negate the claim that they turned from idols since becoming a God fearer would also include that. Was is significant for Paul in 1:10 is not just the turn but also the waiting for Jesus.

    Thanks

    John

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    • I think Paul was in Thessalonica for two or three months, much longer than three weeks but a short time compared to his later residency in Corinth and Ephesus. You are correct, there were undoubtedly some Jews but not very many. My point above is that the Jews who accepted Paul’s message may have been able to return to the synagogue to avoid civic persecution caused by Paul’s preaching of another king other than Caesar, and perhaps another kingdom besides Rome.

      If this suggestion can be sustained, it would not be unlike the situation in Hebrews. A Jewish Christian could claim legal status to worship in the synagogue and avoid persecution.

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  3. Persecution would have a huge effect on the church today. Right now it seems that 95% of the church is living a double life. They can deal with being a Christian for one day a week but once they feel good about themselves there is no reason to live for God. David said, “I think we would very quickly see what the basis of the American church is if such issues happened now.” It makes me wonder what would happen if the church was under persecution. What would happen if it was hard to be a Christian? I think it could possibly have a very positive effect because we would no longer have the “Sunday” Christians. The church would be made up of a people that are on fire for God and willing to give up everything for Jesus. That is what non-believers are looking to see. They want to see authentic people living like Jesus would. I think the number one reason people are so turned off by Christians is because they are so hypocritical. One day they are telling people that drinking is bad but then they go out and see that the very person that told them this is having sex with someone. We will have the greatest impact on the world when we can change the way we live so it is attractive again to the outside. Persecution could definitely bring the church back to what it really means to be “joyful in our trials” (James 1:2).

    Now I would like to quickly discuss the social make-up of the church in Thessalonian Church. Polhill says, “The Thessalonian church seems to have been primarily Gentile in composition” (185). As P. Long said in the blog that three things point to this; the call to abandon idols, refrain from sexual immorality, and it doesn’t refer to the Old Testament at all. P. Long goes on to question where exactly the Gentiles came from and who they were. He says that they probably aren’t converted God-fearing Gentiles because there isn’t Hebrew in the letter and they wouldn’t be called to refrain from idols if they were God-fearing Jews. This is where I question a little bit. All throughout Israel’s history we see they struggle with the problem of idol worship even when they were Jews who served “one God”. Also Paul reminds the church of idol worship in 1 Corinthians 8. Could these people actually be converted Gentiles who were worshipping both God and idols, and Paul is just praising them for getting rid of the idols in their lives?

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  4. I think as difficult it is to hear things like, “I suppose with many younger people choosing not to attend church it might not make much of a difference” and “The Thessalonians endured economic persecution and remained faithful, I suspect the American church would shrink dramatically”, it’s the reality we are facing today. We are kidding ourselves if we think our generation isn’t stepping it up. And by this, I mean on a whole. I see an energy (so to speak) amongst our generation of Christians that is passionate about living out their faith, but on the flip side, there seem to be just as many, and more, that are not interested in being involved in the church. I have no statistics or research to prove this, but am just merely making some observations from my perspective.

    Sometimes I wonder if persecution would do the church good. This may sound terrible, but bear with me. When one is put into a time of testing, their true character shines through. I would agree that churches would shrink dramatically, but how many awesome believers would stand up and show true perseverance and faith? The Church in Thessalonica certainly had members like this: “therefore, among God’s churches we boast about your perseverance and faith in all the persecutions and trials you are enduring.” (2 Thess 1:4). Regarding these letters, Polhill wrote: “the need for pastoral care was the more urgent because the Thessalonians were facing intense persecution.” (185).

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  5. I like where this is going here. I believe persecution would have tremendous affects on the church if it still occurred today. The church in its current state faces a lot of Christians who choose to live a double life. They come to a place of worship once a week and go back to living life the way they want to. i feel like that is why so many people are turned off by Christianity. They see those who proclaim to know Christ go out and brag about how they had slept with someone the other night. These people are commonly refereed to as “Sunday Christians.” I do wonder what would happen if all of the sudden it became a challenge to be a Christian. What if we were under the same persecution as those in the middle east? Greg makes a good point, there would be a heck of a lot less “Sunday Christians.” Everyone in the church would be getting on fire for the glory of God. If everyone in today’s church was doing that, then there would be more UN-believers seeing the gospel for what it truly is and then follow it. Paul gives the framework in Galatians 5 to living a life pleasing to God. He tells us to put to death our sinful nature and live by the spirit.

    In light of speaking to the social make up of the Thessalonian church, Pohill writes “The Thessalonian Church seems to have been primary Gentile in composition” (185) P-Long “These Gentiles are probably not converted God-fearing Gentiles because there is no references of the Old Testament not to mention the fact that they would not be called to refrain from the worship of Idols. I find this kind of interesting because Israel dealt with a significant amount of Idol worship in the temple. Paul even warns us about it in his first letter to the Corinthians. So this means that that they would not be called to refrain from idol worship if they were God-fearing Jews.

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  6. I agree with David and Greg that the American church is in it’s own kind of despair right now. It is so easy to be a Christian in America because of freedom of religion and the other rights we are blessed to have. I am a subscriber to Voice of the Martyrs and it is incredible how the church thrives under persecution. Members of these often illegal churches are afraid, but they take courage and their ministries are blessed. Romans 8:28 and 31 says, “And we know that in all things God works for the good of those who love him, who have been called according to his purpose. What, then, shall we say in response to these things? If God is for us, who can be against us?” Persecution only allows God’s power to be noticed by those who have the power to do something about it. How many people have been inspired by the stories of martyrs? They say to themselves, “If they can do that when a whole government is willing to do whatever it takes to get rid of them, then why can’t I just step up a little more for God?” Persecution inspires true belief when we see our paths being worked out to bring glory to God.
    Polhill says, “The Thessalonian church seems to have been primarily Gentile in composition. This is indicated by Paul’s summary of his initial preaching 1 Thessalonians 1:9-10, which is aimed at Gentiles urging them to abandon their idols and embrace the one true God. (185)” I believe that the Thessalonian church prospered despite the persecution. As Paul stressed in 1 Thessalonians, they became to accept each other as a family in Christ, and began to spread that family out and expand it to more and more people despite the persecution they experienced.

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  7. Ricky, I’m going get a bit technical here. Persecution against the Church is still a current problem. Maybe not in America, but for sure in other countries who are closed to the message of the gospel. Though these situations are unknown to us, they are still situations that Christians face every day. They endure with courage though, “We are afflicted in every way, but not crushed; perplexed, but not driven to despair; persecuted, but not forsaken; struck down, but not destroyed;” (2 Corinthians 4:8-9). There are lessons there that would be amazing for us to learn.
    I think I agree with you and P. Long, though, when he says that church attendance would drop dramatically if persecution ensued. We would definitely lose all the poser or face-value Christians if they had to stand up for what they believe in. Our faith would be challenged in ways we can’t even imagine. But there would still be the true Body who would persevere. Hebrews 10:39 says, “But we are not of those who shrink back and are destroyed, but of those who have faith and preserve their souls.”

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  8. Persecution affects the modern church today because it is just that, persecution. Things in America are suppose to be easy. Life is “great” and no one suffers. We have a democracy. All these thoughts make it so that when things get tough, we run. Matthew 7:24-27 gives a good view on what we should do with our faith. Those who believe in Him and follow His ways, will not be harmed but those who are foolish will suffer. I agree with Elizabeth about persecution becoming greater and losing all “poser or face-value Christians”, it is difficult to believe somethings or carry on through tough times if you don not actually believe it or live it. The church in Thessalonica remained strong in Christ. Persecution brings out the true believers and strengthens faith.

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  9. I agree that with persecution, the church would shrink dramatically in the U.S. I think that the reason is because there are many ‘shallow’ Christians who simply go to church because they should. The Thessalonians, regardless of their social status, were for the most part new Christians who had to completely turn their lives around. They were not believers merely because their neighbors were, they were because they put their faith in Christ and put their trust in him. Here in the U.S. there seems to be a lot of Christians who say they are Christians merely to enhance their lives in some way. If those ‘Christians’ were to be persecuted, they would never be found near churches or Christians.

    I think that in a sense Christianity has become so popular in the U.S. that there are many people who go to church that have no idea what a Christian really is. I think it would be scary how many people would pull out if they were persecuted. In contrast, the Thessalonians were true believers rooted in faith. In verse 6, Paul talks about the Thessalonians imitating him in suffering for Christ (190). They followed his example in persevering. Before Paul talks about that though, he talks about the Thessalonians receiving the gospel and how it was genuine (1 Thessalonians 1:2-5). In order to persevere, we must have a genuine faith, something I think many Americans lack.

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  10. I try to imagine persecution in America how it is around the world, or how it was for the Church mentioned in Thessalonians. What would it look like? Would people really stand up for what they believe in? I think back to the story of the girl who, “said yes” at Columbine, and if I were faced with persecution, that’s how I would hope I would handle it. As much as I hate to say it, I don’t think this country would respond well to persecution. We live with very little to worry about in comparison with other countries. Also as unfortunate as it is, I agree with P. Long about the Church here facing persecution economically or physically; the Churches would drastically decrease. I agree with Dave that it is unfair to just pick on the young people of the Church as many would leave the Church, specifically those who value their possessions; I do see where your point is being made though P. Long about many youth (i.e. college students) leaving the Church. I don’t think the Church in America will ever face persecution like the rest of the world in my lifetime, but if it did happen, I don’t think Christians would be prospering in America, which upsets me greatly.

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  11. I have to agree with P. Long when he said in regards to persecution that he “suspect[ed] the American church would shrink dramatically.” Sadly enough, this is true. Right now, I know a number of people (as I am sure all of you do) who have left the church for one personal reason or another. If people leave the church because they are angry with God, or because they don’t agree with something said in the church, or for other reasons beyond persecution…how much would the church in America shrink WITH persecution? I would have to agree with Emily, when I say that persecution may not be a bad thing in the churches of America — not that anyone WANTS to be persecuted, but persecution has the power to strengthen the church in passion and purpose, as we imitate Paul as the Thessalonians did “in their suffering for Christ” (Polhill 190).

    Paul exhorts the people of the church of Thessalonica to “stand firm” (2 Thess 2:15) — would we stand firm in such a situation, or would we balk at the test? Why are people forsaking the church today? Is it because our world is more corrupt (I doubt it, look at Sodom and Gomorrah), or is it because the church is so tepid and faithless? Paul speaks of the church of Thessalonica as being “an example to all believers” (1 Thess 1:7); I think that this should be true of the church today! We as believers in America (and everywhere), need not the passion of emotions, but we are gravely in need of a deep and meaningful passion and purpose for the work of God — maybe a little persecution would develop this in our lives as it did in the lives of those in the church at Thessalonica.

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  12. Considering that a good majority of people who attend church today attend for a social status, I would say that church attendance would drop more than dramatically if it were to cause a lower social status. Unfortunately, people who attend church are doing so simply so that others around them will see them as good people.
    Moving on to the youth talk, I woudn’t say that it is unfair to pick on them, considering it is true. The majority of college students do not attend church. The reason why however, is the church itself, or even more so, the youth programs in America. They simply are failing to do anything that is preparing students for the test that college will bring to students faith.
    Let us not count out adults in this conversation too. A good amount of adults do not attend church either. Or if they do attend church, it is only because, like I said earlier, they simply attend so others see that they are attending. Thus, this leads them to raise children who are not authentic either. And so the circle begins and goes and goes…

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  13. I do not think the church in the United States (and most other western nations) would be nearly as strong if we weren’t “free” to worship how we please. Many people are interested in Chrisitanity because they think it is easy. Only, they think that way because they aren’t true disciples trying to live worthy lives. So, if they could not go to church unscathed, many would not go. People do not want to make sacrifices when it comes to their personal happiness. People are getting purpose in life through pursuits of personal happiness through material gain. Take away that ability to gain material possesions freely or ask people to sacrifice that pursuit of happiness and they will quickly flee from wahtever it is that is costing them that. Whether that is family, faith, or farmville.

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