We ask you, brothers, to respect those who labor among you and are over you in the Lord and admonish you, and to esteem them very highly in love because of their work. Be at peace among yourselves.
I Thessalonians 5:12-1 ESV
In one of Paul’s earliest letters, he addresses the Thessalonian church about their life together. It appears from the sources that he had spent a minimal amount of time with this believing community, yet he had developed a great bond of affection for them. It is doubtful that the church has much of a formal structure at this point, probably lacking ordained elders or other official leaders.
Yet, the church does have leadership, and Paul clarifies some basic practices crucial for developing a healthy life together. These practices involve the behavior of leaders, and the attitude of the community towards them. The context implies that a healthy understanding of these issues will lead a Christian community to peace.
This passage is interesting because it gives us a glimpse into how leadership emerged and was recognized in Paul’s early church plants. So, assuming that these church leaders had no formal recognition, let us see what Paul prescribed for them.
1) Leaders of the Christian community labor
Respect those who labor among you . . . and esteem them highly in love because of their work. Not only do we respect leaders (literally ‘recognize’ in the Greek, from oida, to know or see), but we respect them because their labor makes them stand out. They are esteemed because of their work.
In another very similar passage, Paul admonishes the Corinthians,
Now I urge you, brothers —you know that the household of Stephanas were the first converts in Achaia, and that they have devoted themselves to the service of the saints— be subject to such as these, and to every fellow worker and laborer.
I Corinthians 16:15-16
Here it seems service or labor is a function of leadership.
The household of Stephanus are those who ‘get their hands dirty’ in acts of service to others. They are actively involved in the lives of the people and the broader purposes of the church. Laboring is a pre-requisite, though not a guarantee, that one is qualified to lead.
In seeking to establish leadership, we do well to watch for those with a heart to labor. The call of God can be recognized because these folks are often energized by their efforts rather than drained by them. A refusal to get involved, to labor, is a failure to lead, and a clear disqualification for formal recognition.
2) Leaders of the Christian community lead!
This statement is not as silly as it sounds. The ESV refers to those who ‘are over you in the Lord.’ The word is literally ‘those who stand before.’ These are ones who get out in front. They are visible and they are willing to take responsibility – take the heat as it were. It is said of great military leaders that their soldiers know they won’t be asked to do what their leader is unwilling to do himself. This is true with spiritual leaders also.
While an overbearing demeanor is a drawback in almost any endeavor, excessive passivity is a formula for failure for the leader and the entire enterprise. Pro-active, forward-looking leadership brings security and peace to a flock. A confident presence in the face of serious threats is contagious and gives a sense of well-being to a vulnerable community. Psychologists refer to this leadership trait as a ‘non-anxious presence’ in the face of crisis. In the days of persecution, such as that experienced by the church in Thessalonica, this is what it meant to ‘stand before’ the community.
3) Leaders of the Christian community have the courage and wisdom to communicate
Those who labor, and are over the Thessalonians, are those who admonish. This is, in fact, part of the labor that leaders perform. The careful work of relating to the community, out of genuine concern, requires admonishing them.
And we urge you, brothers, admonish the idle, encourage the fainthearted, help the weak, be patient with them all. See that no one repays anyone evil for evil, but always seek to do good to one another and to everyone.
I Thessalonians 5:14-15
There’s a small catalogue of communication terms listed in the context of this passage. The first is to admonish (Gk. noutheteo) which means “to impart understanding, to set right, to have a corrective influence on someone, describes an effect on the will and the disposition, and it presupposes an opposition which has to be overcome. It seeks to correct the mind, to put right what is wrong, to improve the spiritual attitude. A word of admonition which is designed to correct while not provoking or embittering” (Theological Dictionary of the New Testament). That is a daunting task.
In the context of admonishing the community, great care is to be taken to discern the emotional and spiritual state of each person approached. In our ESV translation, they are the idle, the fainthearted, the weak. There is a subtle but important distinction between each of these persons. The leader who brings peace not only has the courage but also the wisdom to communicate in each nuanced situation.
The first is the idle (Gr. ataktos), meaning “disordered, without order or plan, to roam about in disorderly fashion, to evade one’s obligations, to act irresponsibly” (TDNT). I see here the moral culpability of the lazy or undisciplined person. (I know, the idea of moral culpability is totally out of vogue, politically incorrect, and, as a psychological term, antiquated – it is, nevertheless, accurate).
Encourage the fainthearted, or timid (Gr. oligopsuchos). This is a great word which means to be of several minds, to be a confused and irresolute soul. It carries the idea of being confused, or directionless. It might apply to a member of the community who is in mourning, or transition, or who has lost their place in their family or society. Perhaps they have lost a job and their status in society. Or through the death of a loved one, the break-up of a marriage, maybe by the fact of being newly retired they have lost their sense of place and purpose in the community. These must be approached differently than the irresponsibly disordered, or idle.
Then there are the weak or sick (Gr. asthenos – without strength). We are to stand by the sick — those without the strength to fulfill their obligations or take care of themselves. They are deserving of the support of the community and its leaders. Leaders must know the difference and then communicate and act accordingly.
Toward everyone, we are to show patience, prayerfully exercising our ministry without strife, expecting that our efforts will produce the good fruit of faithful discipleship in the long run. As the passage states, this work requires patience. To be patient is to show the endurance of a physician treating a stubborn ailment, or a soldier on a difficult deployment, or a swimmer against a contrary current (TDNT). Sometimes ministry feels like swimming against the current for a long time.
The exhortation to patience implies that all ministry is to be exercised without quick temper, hasty decisions, or a tendency toward retribution. To exercise patience, however, does not mean to exercise an unhealthy, enabling indulgence.
In short, leaders of the Christian community know and respect their flock and its foibles and determine to seek the best interest of everyone in their church family.
4) Leaders in the Christian community deserve recognition and respect
The clear implication of this message to Thessalonica is that leaders deserve the respect of those they lead – respect for their work and their role in the community, and respect for their position. Recognition and respect are a decision of the mind as well as an attitude of the heart.
We struggle today with the idea of honoring one for the sake of their position out of fear of enabling the overbearing. But truth be told, honor to whom honor is due, simply by virtue of one’s position, is a biblical principle. Exceptions to this rule are more rare than we want to believe. To honor the leadership of the community is to help insure its peace. To hold leaders in disdain is to disdain the order and peace of the community, to place our own concerns or perceptions above the well-being of the wider community.
So the exhortation to “be patient toward all” applies to those who “stand before” as well as those who follow behind. A healthy respect is the honor due those who “devote themselves to the service of the saints.”
No doubt these practices will take any believing community a long way toward enjoying the peace God intends.