12 Now we ask you, brothers and sisters, to acknowledge those who labor among you and preside over you [lead you] in the Lord and admonish you, 13 and to esteem them most highly in love because of their work. Be at peace among yourselves. 14 And we urge you, brothers and sisters, admonish the undisciplined, comfort the discouraged, help the weak, be patient toward all. 15 See that no one pays back evil for evil to anyone, but always pursue what is good for one another and for all (1 Thessalonians 5:12-15).
Sanctification and the Second Coming: The Wider Context of our Text
The overall thrust of 1 Thessalonians 4 and 5 (the application portion of 1 Thessalonians) is sanctification. Look at the way Paul introduces the subject of sanctification in the final verses of chapter 3, and then sums up his instructions with a prayer for sanctification at the closing of chapter 5:
11 Now may God our Father himself and our Lord Jesus direct our way to you. 12 And may the Lord cause you to increase and abound in love for one another and for all, just as we do for you, 13 so that your hearts are strengthened in holiness to be blameless before our God and Father at the coming of our Lord Jesus with all his saints (1 Thessalonians 3:11-13).
23 Now may the God of peace himself make you completely holy [sanctify you completely] and may your spirit and soul and body be kept entirely blameless at the coming of our Lord Jesus Christ. 24 He who calls you is trustworthy, and he will in fact do this (1 Thessalonians 5:23-24).
In verses 11-13 of chapter 3, the term “sanctify” is not found in any of the major English translations, but that is what Paul is talking about. At the conclusion of his emphasis on application, Paul sums it all up with a prayer for the sanctification of the Thessalonian saints, and now nearly every major translation employs the term “sanctify.” If the introduction and conclusion to a portion of Scripture focus on sanctification, then you can be sure that this must be the main thrust of that text.
Having seen the way the introduction to the larger text (3:11—5:24) emphasizes sanctification, let’s consider some of the subjects dealt with in the text and whether they focus on sanctification in their respective areas of emphasis.
As Paul begins chapter 4, it is clear that sanctification is his emphasis, as he indicates in verse 3:
For this is God’s will: that you become holy [literally, your sanctification], that you keep away from sexual immorality (1 Thessalonians 4:3).
Paul’s main emphasis in verses 1-12 of chapter 4 is sanctification and sexual morality. I believe that the last verses of this section (4:9-12) deal with sanctification and social responsibility (love expressed toward others by working hard and not being a burden on them).
That brings us to Paul’s focus on the Second Coming of our Lord in 4:13—5:11. While the term “sanctification” is not found here, I believe that Paul is seeking to motivate Christians to pursue sanctification in the light of the Second Coming. In 4:13-18, Paul indicates that those who have died in Christ before the Second Coming will not miss out on any of the blessings of those believers who are alive at the time of His return. This means that boldly living the Christian life – even if that were to result in a martyr’s death – would not diminish one’s blessings. (Indeed, one might even go so far as to say that the dead in Christ “rise first,” putting them at the proverbial “head of the line.”)
If 4:13-18 compares Christians who have died before the Second Coming with those who remain alive at His return, 5:1-11 compares and contrasts the attitudes and conduct of Christians regarding the Second Coming to unbelievers. I believe that when the New Testament writers address the subject of sanctification, they emphasize (1) that every dimension of one’s life must be transformed through the power of the Holy Spirit, and (2) that the new, sanctified, life of the Christian is radically different than it once was before coming to faith in Jesus. That contrast could not be more clearly stated than what we find in 5:1-11.
If the connection between the Second Coming and sanctification is not clear enough from 1 Thessalonians 5:1-11, one need only remember these words written by Peter, linking sanctification with the “Day of the Lord” (the Second Coming):
10 But the day of the Lord will come like a thief; when it comes, the heavens will disappear with a horrific noise, and the celestial bodies will melt away in a blaze, and the earth and every deed done on it will be laid bare. 11 Since all these things are to melt away in this manner, what sort of people must we be, conducting our lives in holiness and godliness, 12 while waiting for and hastening the coming of the day of God? Because of this day, the heavens will be burned up and dissolve, and the celestial bodies will melt away in a blaze! 13 But, according to his promise, we are waiting for new heavens and a new earth, in which righteousness truly resides. 14 Therefore, dear friends, since you are waiting for these things, strive to be found at peace, without spot or blemish, when you come into his presence (2 Peter 3:10-14, emphasis mine).
The connection between sanctification and our text may not be as obvious, but I believe it is there, as I will attempt to demonstrate in this message. Loving leadership is a vital part of the sanctification process. So let’s press on to see how that becomes clear in our text.
The Structure of Our Text
Our text contains only four verses and falls into two parts, as I understand it. Verses 12 and 13 are Paul’s exhortation to the church at Thessalonica to recognize or acknowledge those who have become evident as the leaders of that church. Verse 12 contains Paul’s primary instruction (acknowledge their leaders), while verse 13 follows up with some related exhortation (esteem them highly, and be at peace among yourselves).
Verses 14 and 15 contain Paul’s exhortation to the same people – the congregation – to strive to be better leaders themselves. In verse 14, Paul specifies the areas in which their leadership should develop, and in verse 15, he follows up with his exhortation to the whole church to stand against all expressions of retaliation and revenge, and instead, to pursue what is good for all.
Recognizing Church Leadership
12 Now we ask you, brothers and sisters, to acknowledge those who labor among you and preside over you [lead you] in the Lord and admonish you, 13 and to esteem them most highly in love because of their work. Be at peace among yourselves (1 Thessalonians 5:12-13, emphasis mine).
The first question we must answer in our text is this: “When Paul refers to you and them in verses 12 and 13 to whom is he referring?” A bit of background information will help us answer this question with confidence.
1. Formal leadership had not yet been recognized in the church at Thessalonica.
Nowhere in this epistle does Paul refer to any elders or deacons – not even in our text. We should remember that Paul was forced to leave Thessalonica earlier than he expected. So far as I can tell, there were no officially recognized leaders in the church at Thessalonica.
2. On the final leg of the first missionary journey, Paul and Barnabas sought to appoint elders in the newly planted churches as soon as possible:
When they had appointed elders for them in the various churches, with prayer and fasting they entrusted them to the protection of the Lord in whom they had believed (Acts 14:23).
3. Both Timothy and Titus were instructed to appoint elders at Ephesus (Timothy) and Cyprus (Titus) under Paul’s authority.
The reason I left you in Crete was to set in order the remaining matters and to appoint elders in every town, as I directed you (Titus 1:5; see verses 6-9; 1 Timothy 3:1-13).
It was clearly Paul’s intention for every church he (and others) planted to have designated leaders. In both 1 Timothy and Titus, we can see that one reason for Paul’s sense of urgency was that there were men who were not teaching sound doctrine, but who sought to assert themselves as teachers and leaders in the church.
I believe it is apparent to nearly all that the “you” of verse 12 encompasses the entire congregation of the church at Thessalonica. The “them” (or “those”) of this verse refers to those in the congregation who have emerged as leaders in the church. Their spiritual gifts, maturity, and love for Christ and His body (the church) have prompted them to step forward and assume leadership functions, though not the official title. Difficulties – such as those experienced by the church – would only accelerate this rise to leadership functions. Paul makes a similar appeal to recognize godly leaders who have emerged within the congregation in 1 Corinthians:
15 Now, brothers and sisters, you know about the household of Stephanus, that as the first converts of Achaia, they devoted themselves to ministry for the saints. I urge you 16 also to submit to people like this, and to everyone who cooperates in the work and labors hard. 17 I was glad about the arrival of Stephanus, Fortunatus, and Achaicus because they have supplied the fellowship with you that I lacked. 18 For they refreshed my spirit and yours. So then, recognize people like this (1 Corinthians 16:15-18).
Leadership Lessons from Thessalonica
Given what we are told in our text – and from what we learn elsewhere in the New Testament – I believe that we can characterize the leaders who have emerged at Thessalonica in the following ways:
1. The leadership of the church is to be “plural,” not singular.
This is not the top-down leadership of one individual, but leadership by a plurality of those who elsewhere are called elders or overseers.
2. The leadership of the church is to be masculine.
The participles which describe the leadership activities of these men are masculine. While this is somewhat inferential here, Paul is very specific on this matter of masculine leadership elsewhere.
3. The leadership of the church is not by an individual known as “the pastor.”
Indeed, nowhere in the Bible is this title used for an office in the church. There is the gift of pastor-teacher, and there is the shepherding function, but this function is given to the elders (plural):
28 Watch out for yourselves and for all the flock of which the Holy Spirit has made you overseers, to shepherd the church of God that he obtained with the blood of his own Son (Acts 20:28).
1 So as your fellow elder and a witness of Christ’s sufferings and as one who shares in the glory that will be revealed, I urge the elders among you: 2 Give a shepherd’s care to God’s flock among you, exercising oversight not merely as a duty but willingly under God’s direction, not for shameful profit but eagerly. 3 And do not lord it over those entrusted to you, but be examples to the flock (1 Peter 5:1-3).
4. The leaders of the church which are to be “acknowledged” are those who have already begun to carry out leadership ministries.
It would be one thing to designate a few good men as leaders, and then hope that they functioned well in their new roles. It is quite another thing to identify men who are already leading in the congregation, and to formally recognize that leadership.
5. The leaders of the church at Thessalonica who should be formally recognized are those men who are presently doing three things:
- Laboring hard among the saints
- Leading (going before) them
- Admonishing them
Laboring hard: This word is used for hard, strenuous, work. It is the same word that Paul employs in 1 Timothy 5:17-18:
17 Elders who provide effective leadership must be counted worthy of double honor, especially those who work hard in speaking and teaching. 18 For the scripture says, “Do not muzzle an ox while it is treading out the grain,” and, “The worker deserves his pay” (1 Timothy 5:17-18, emphasis mine).
Paul had certainly been an example of working hard among the Thessalonians:
8 with such affection for you we were happy to share with you not only the gospel of God but also our own lives, because you had become dear to us. 9 For you recall, brothers and sisters, our toil and drudgery: By working night and day so as not to impose a burden on any of you, we preached to you the gospel of God (1 Thessalonians 2:8-9).
Working hard would obey Paul’s instruction, and it would enhance one’s testimony in the church and among unbelievers. We know that false teachers or the spiritually undisciplined were often loafers and parasites:
11 to aspire to lead a quiet life, to attend to your own business, and to work with your hands, as we commanded you. 12 In this way you will live a decent life before outsiders and not be in need (1 Thessalonians 4:11-12).
6 But we command you, brothers and sisters, in the name of our Lord Jesus Christ, to keep away from any brother who lives an undisciplined life and not according to the tradition they received from us. 7 For you know yourselves how you must imitate us, because we did not behave without discipline among you, 8 and we did not eat anyone’s food without paying. Instead, in toil and drudgery we worked night and day in order not to burden any of you. 9 It was not because we do not have that right, but to give ourselves as an example for you to imitate. 10 For even when we were with you, we used to give you this command: “If anyone is not willing to work, neither should he eat.” 11 For we hear that some among you are living an undisciplined life, not doing their own work but meddling in the work of others. 12 Now such people we command and urge in the Lord Jesus Christ to work quietly and so provide their own food to eat (2 Thessalonians 3:6-12).
A certain one of them, in fact, one of their own prophets, said, “Cretans are always liars, evil beasts, lazy gluttons” (Titus 1:12).
Leading: I find the translation of the NET Bible (“presiding over you”) to be too strong, and even contrary to the spirit of Paul’s words. I’m not really enthusiastic about the rendering “are over you” or “have charge over you” either. I prefer the rendering of the Holman Christian Standard Bible:
Now we ask you, brothers, to give recognition to those who labor among you and lead you in the Lord and admonish you (1 Thessalonians 5:12, CSB).
Paul has just said that a leader should be one who “labors hard among them,” not “over them.” Jesus had much to say about servant leadership, as did the apostles. The word here is compound and could be literally rendered “to stand before, or in front of.” I believe that this term describes leaders as those who lead others by going before or ahead of others, of setting the example, instilling a vision and the confidence to pursue it, and by being out front, encouraging others to follow behind them. That doesn’t sound like “presiding over” someone, or even “having charge over” someone. I am not denying that leaders have authority over those they lead, only that this is not the emphasis that I see here. I see leadership similarly to the way I view the exercise of spiritual gifts. Leaders lead (and gifted people minister) in a way that not only benefits others, but in a way that inspires others to imitate them.
Admonishing: It is interesting that most of the best known translations employ the same term “admonish.” Only the NASB differs here with the translation, “give you instruction.” This interests me because Paul twice links “instruction” with “admonition” in Colossians:
We proclaim him by instructing and teaching all people with all wisdom so that we may present every person mature in Christ (Colossians 1:28, emphasis mine).
Let the word of Christ dwell in you richly, teaching and exhorting one another with all wisdom, singing psalms, hymns, and spiritual songs, all with grace in your hearts to God (Colossians 3:16, emphasis mine).
I believe that admonition may involve a measure of instruction, but the emphasis falls upon speech or actions that are either preventative or corrective. Admonition, then, is issuing a warning or a rebuke, with the goal of preventing further damage.
Therefore be alert, remembering that night and day for three years I did not stop warning each one of you with tears (Acts 20:31, emphasis mine).
I am not writing these things to shame you, but to correct you as my dear children (1 Corinthians 4:14, emphasis mine).
Yet do not regard him as an enemy, but admonish him as a brother (2 Thessalonians 3:15, emphasis mine).
I believe the Book of Proverbs contains a great deal of admonition. Paul’s epistles are also filled with admonitions. In my opinion, admonition is a vital function in the body of Christ, and yet it is perhaps one of the most neglected areas of ministry. The church is not good at discipline (many churches fail or refuse to exercise church discipline), I believe the church is better at church discipline (dealing with the mess sin has caused) than it is at admonition (keeping the mess from happening). Leaders, Paul tells us, are those who admonish their brothers and sisters for their good, the good of the church, and the glory of God.
How Are Church Leaders “Acknowledged”?
It is fascinating to note all the ways that the rather simple verb “to know” (oida) is rendered in verse 12:
- Acknowledge (NET Bible)
- Appreciate (NASB)
- Respect (ESV, NIV, NRSV)
- Give recognition to (CSB)
- Recognize (NKJV)
- Honor (NLT)
- Be considerate to (NJB)
- Know (KJV)
I believe that the NET Bible (“acknowledge”), the New King James Version (“recognize”), and the CSB (“give recognition to”) handle the translation of this term best, though the simple “know” of the old King James Version isn’t so bad, either. The others tend to miss the point to one degree or another. Paul is certainly calling for more than mere appreciation and honor, though these are appropriate responses to the godly ministry of church leaders.
Paul is very simply calling for the members of the church at Thessalonica to formally identify and acknowledge that those godly men in the church who are already functioning as leaders be officially designated as such. Some might challenge my understanding of this text and insist that if this is what Paul meant, he should have spoken more clearly, something similar to what we read in Acts 14:23 or Titus 1:5. I think Paul chose the precise wording that we find in our text for good reason. In this instance, Timothy was not instructed to appoint the leaders of the church in Thessalonica. This was something that the Thessalonians themselves were to do. I think that the process may have worked more like what we find in Acts 6, where deacons were appointed. Here, the apostles set forth the qualifications, but the congregation chose the men, and then the apostles ordained or commissioned them:
1 Now in those days, when the disciples were growing in number, a complaint arose on the part of the Greek-speaking Jews against the native Hebraic Jews, because their widows were being overlooked in the daily distribution of food. 2 So the twelve called the whole group of the disciples together and said, “It is not right for us to neglect the word of God to wait on tables. 3 But carefully select from among you, brothers, seven men who are well-attested, full of the Spirit and of wisdom, whom we may put in charge of this necessary task. 4 But we will devote ourselves to prayer and to the ministry of the word.” 5 The proposal pleased the entire group, so they chose Stephen, a man full of faith and of the Holy Spirit, with Philip, Prochorus, Nicanor, Timon, Parmenas, and Nicolas, a Gentile convert to Judaism from Antioch. 6 They stood these men before the apostles, who prayed and placed their hands on them (Acts 6:1-6).
Paul’s wording is rather generic for a very good reason: we should strive to obey the New Testament by following the example of the apostles and the churches. Years ago, a played a small role in helping a startup church appoint its first elders. I taught three lessons on the role and qualifications of elders. During the process of selecting their leaders, one of the men involved said to me, “Doesn’t it bother you that Paul was not more specific about the process that we should use to appoint elders?” “No,” I said, “it doesn’t trouble me; it informs me.” We find that elders were recognized or appointed in several ways in the New Testament. They were appointed directly by men like Paul and Barnabas (Acts 14:23); they were appointed by men like Timothy or Titus, who were commissioned by Paul to appoint elders (Titus 1:5); and, they were simply recognized or acknowledged by the church, within the guidelines and qualifications set down by the apostles (Acts 6:1-6; 1 Corinthians 16:15-18; 1 Thessalonians 5:12-13). Thus, we have clearly drawn guidelines in Scripture regarding the character qualifications of elders and deacons (1 Timothy 3; Titus 1), we have a description of what elders (and deacons) do, and we have a more general instruction regarding the process by which they are appointed. This means that we are granted a certain flexibility to respond somewhat differently to different conditions.
How Were The Elders of Community Bible Chapel Recognized?
When a group of men began to seriously consider planting another church in the Dallas metroplex, we sought the counsel and encouragement of the elders of the church we were attending. They were very gracious to encourage us, give us godly counsel, and to provide financial assistance until we (shortly) became independent. They even loaned us one of their elders as a transitional elder, and as a liaison with the parent church. A group of interested men met once a week to study the Scriptures regarding how a New Testament church should be organized, and how it should carry on its worship, meetings, and ministry. We knew that it was not only important to be doctrinally and biblically accurate in how we went about starting a new church, but that the church would need to have designated leaders from the outset. We also realized that elders would become evident as time passed, as needs arose, and as certain men rose to the occasion, demonstrating their spiritual gifts and leadership.
With some oversight from our parent church, we designated several men (myself included) as “Provisional Leaders.” These leaders would serve for a term of one year, at which time “Provisional Leaders” would no longer serve in that capacity, and the position would no longer exist. Toward the end of our first year, I began to teach what the Scriptures taught about elders. We then asked the members of our church to nominate those men whom they believed both functioned and qualified as elders. We then evaluated ourselves. Some men withdrew from the process (or declined it initially), and others were encouraged to step aside from consideration. In the end, several elders were “acknowledged” or “recognized” by means of this process.
Over the years, we have sought the number of elders we felt were necessary for a church our size. We believe that we have more men who qualify as elders than what we actually need, and so we do not appoint every individual who qualifies. We seek to have a group of elders who are diverse in age, experience, gift, socioeconomic status, culture, and ethnicity, and yet who can and do work together in unity.
When we feel that we need to add an elder or more, we (the existing elders) look throughout our body for the man who best meets our needs. Of course, we look first at those who function as leaders, just as our text indicates and those whom God seems to be “raising up.” We also look at the qualifications of 1 Timothy 3 and Titus 1. (Often, there may be a deacon whose character, gifts, and servanthood have already been demonstrated in their ministry as a deacon.) We then ask the candidate and his wife to fill out an evaluation, and then ask both to come and discuss the man’s qualifications (including the character of his wife). If this goes well, we ask the candidate’s “ministry group” to evaluate this man as a potential elder. If this goes well, we encourage the entire congregation to fill out an elder evaluation form. Assuming that there are no unexpected problems which arise from these evaluations, we designate the individual as a “Provisional Elder.” Normally, we ask the individual to function with the elders and as an elder for at least six months, as the congregation observes him, at which time we ask the entire church to fill out one final evaluation. When this goes well (as it most often does), we recognize this man as an “elder.” We believe that this process is consistent with the teaching of Scripture regarding the elders of the church. A similar process is employed for deacons.
An Aside: The Relationship of Elders and Deacons at Community Bible Chapel
For those who are relatively new to our church, or who are curious as to the role deacons play in our leadership, let me say a few words about deacons in our church, and how they relate to the elders.
I will never forget how my friend “Dick” distinguished between the elders and the deacons of the church he attended years ago: “The elders do the spiritual work, while the deacons do the dirty work.” That’s what a lot of folks think. They may say it in more pious terms, but the elders are responsible for the spiritual health of the body, while the deacons take care of the “merely” physical dimensions of the church (maintaining the building and grounds, proposing improvements to the physical building, maintaining the church vehicles). That’s not the way we understand the Scriptures at all! We observe first of all that the qualifications for deacons are very similar to the qualifications for elders. One need only compare 1 Timothy 3:1-7 with 1 Timothy 3:8-13 to see this similarity. Why would the qualifications for elders and deacons be so similar if the work of deacons was merely physical?
When we read Acts 6:1-6, we see that the work of these “deacons” was very spiritual in nature, and very important. Thus, the qualifications the apostles set down were very high. We believe that the function of the deacons is to assist the elders in carrying out the task of shepherding the flock. The difference is not to be found in the nature of the ministry (spiritual vs. physical), but rather in the scope and administrative level of the ministry. A vice-president of a company is engaged in the same general work as the president, but he assists the president by carrying out those tasks which the president assigns to him. We believe that our deacons assist us in shepherding the flock, and thus we require that our ministry group co-leaders must meet the qualifications and serve as deacons. In our church, the deacons therefore assist the elders and answer directly to them.
We do not have any board other than the board of elders. We learned long ago not to have two boards: a board of elders and a board of deacons. (Some churches even have a third board – the board of deaconesses.) The reason is that if elders and deacons are engaged in the same basic task, then two boards will have overlapping board responsibilities and will sometimes reach different decisions, and thus be at odds with each other. We abolished the “board of deacons” long ago, and have no regrets. (I might add that I don’t think our deacons regret this, either.)
Now, back to our text, and to verse 13 in particular:
and to esteem them most highly in love because of their work. Be at peace among yourselves (1 Thessalonians 5:13).
I’m going to stick my neck out here in a way that you might rightly consider speculative – so be warned! Paul chose his words very carefully here (as he always does). The Greek word rendered “esteem” in our text (above) is hegeomai. When you look in a Greek lexicon, this verb has two primary meanings: (1) to lead or guide; and, (2) to think, consider, or regard.
Isn’t it interesting – and I am inclined to say significant – that Paul would choose a word that encompasses the idea of leading and of considering, so that we are to “consider our leaders” in a certain way? That really looks like a play on words to me. I think he may have sought to give the Thessalonians pause for some reflection here. I think it is safe to say that when we “consider” or “regard” someone in a certain way, we have ourselves exercised leadership. When we “evaluate” the worth and respectability of others, we do so in a leadership mode. Thus, to “condemn” others could be wrong on two counts: (1) We set ourselves above them when we judge them; and (2) We pass judgment which may be wrong, and which is really God’s business anyway.
Paul did not merely call for the Thessalonians to submit to their new leaders, or even to respect them; he instructed them to regard them in the highest possible manner. The NET Bible accurately reflects this with the rendering, “esteem them most highly in love.” Many of the translations simply render “very highly” (NASB, ESV, CSB, NKJV, NRS), but there is a difference, I feel, between “very highly” and “most highly.” Not only is this attitude toward their leaders to be of the greatest magnitude of respect, it is also to be the highest regard “in love.” There are various motivations for respect, one of which could be fear. The motivation for the respect Paul requires is love. This is the highest motivation for following one’s leaders. This applies beyond eldering. This would apply to a wife’s regard for her husband and for a child’s respect for its parents.
It interesting that here Paul does not instruct his readers to respect their leaders because of their position, but rather because of their work. It seems to me that both aspects are valid. There are those whom God has placed in authority over us that we should respect simply because of their position. But we should remember that in the context, Paul has instructed the church to recognize their leaders on the basis of the work they have already been doing among them (verse 12). This is a noble work, a work for which those who engage in it should be honored most highly in love.
The instruction to “be at peace among yourselves” is interesting, and I must say unexpected (at least on my part). From what we have heard from Paul up to this point, things had been going well in the church at Thessalonica. These saints were growing in faith, love, and hope. Why the sudden exhortation to be at peace? I think it is safe to say that unity is something that the church has to work at to protect, preserve, and promote:
1 I, therefore, the prisoner for the Lord, urge you to live worthily of the calling with which you have been called, 2 with all humility and gentleness, with patience, bearing with one another in love, 3 making every effort to keep the unity of the Spirit in the bond of peace (Ephesians 4:1-3, emphasis mine).
1 Therefore, if there is any encouragement in Christ, any comfort provided by love, any fellowship in the Spirit, any affection or mercy, 2 complete my joy and be of the same mind, by having the same love, being united in spirit, and having one purpose (Philippians 2:1-2).
1 So then, my brothers and sisters, dear friends whom I long to see, my joy and crown, stand in the Lord in this way, my dear friends! 2 I appeal to Euodia and to Syntyche to agree in the Lord. 3 Yes, I say also to you, true companion, help them. They have struggled together in the gospel ministry along with me and Clement and my other coworkers, whose names are in the book of life (Philippians 4:1-3).
The church in Thessalonica was a group of relatively new believers. There was much progress to be made in their spiritual growth and maturity. The church had both Jewish and Gentile believers, and leaders had not yet been formally recognized. In addition to this, the church was suffering persecution. From what we will find in 2 Thessalonians 2, false teaching had also come to the church. All these factors (and more) would open the door to division and disunity. Paul is seeking to preserve and promote the unity of the brethren at Thessalonica.
One other factor may be involved here. In the immediate context, Paul is calling for the church members to officially recognize leaders. One can easily see how this process could be a challenge to their unity as a body of believers. Certain people might be favored over others. Certain people may be more likeable than others. Not every candidate for leadership would be qualified, and some candidates may have desired leadership for the wrong reasons. This was the perfect opportunity for factions to arise. If Paul was writing this epistle from Corinth, he would be very sensitive to the dangers of factions (see 1 Corinthians 1:10-17).
Another Layer of Leadership
14 And we urge you, brothers and sisters, admonish the undisciplined, comfort the discouraged, help the weak, be patient toward all. 15 See that no one pays back evil for evil to anyone, but always pursue what is good for one another and for all (1 Thessalonians 5:14-15).
The big question here is this: “To whom was Paul referring as ‘you’?” There are those, A. T. Robertson among them, who believe that these words are addressed primarily to the leaders referred to in verses 12 and 13 above. Here are the reasons why I believe they are wrong, and that Paul is speaking to the congregation at large.
First, the “you” in verse 14 should be understood to have the same antecedent as the “you” in verse 12.
In other words, “you” in verse 14 refers to all the “brothers and sisters” in the church and not just to the leaders. Granted, “brothers and sisters” is an embellishment of the word “brethren,” adapted (rightly or wrongly) to our current culture. But even if you render the text more literally (“you brethren”), it is exactly the same two words in verse 14 that we encountered in verse 12. Why would Paul change the antecedent of “you brethren” from the congregation as a whole to just the new leaders without any indication that he has done so? If Paul wanted to change the antecedent of “you (church members)” to “you (leaders),” would he not have made this change clear? A natural reading of the text would assume that Paul is speaking to the same people in verse 14 that he was in verse 12.
Second, the functions that Paul encourages are not just those of elders and deacons.
These are functions that the entire congregation is obliged to carry out, to some degree or another:
But I myself am fully convinced about you, my brothers and sisters, that you yourselves are full of goodness, filled with all knowledge, and able to instruct [admonish] one another (Romans 15:14).
Let the word of Christ dwell in you richly, teaching and exhorting [admonishing] one another with all wisdom, singing psalms, hymns, and spiritual songs, all with grace in your hearts to God (Colossians 3:16).
Third, the work of the ministry is the work of the body, not primarily the work of the few.
11 It was he who gave some as apostles, some as prophets, some as evangelists, and some as pastors and teachers, 12 to equip the saints for the work of ministry, that is, to build up the body of Christ, 13 until we all attain to the unity of the faith and of the knowledge of the Son of God – a mature person, attaining to the measure of Christ’s full stature (Ephesians 4:11-13, emphasis mine).
In this Ephesians text, Paul indicates that apostles, prophets, evangelists, and pastor-teachers are something like coaches, training and equipping the saints to do the work of ministry. Thus, we should not be surprised to find Paul exhorting the church members in general (and not just the leaders) to assist the elders and deacons in shepherding the flock, under the authority of the elders.
Fourth, the New Testament teaches us that church discipline must be exercised in cases where professing believers refuse to accept admonition and correction, but nowhere is church discipline referred to as the responsibility of the elders.
Whoever observes a fellow saint overtaken by a sin is responsible to seek to correct the wayward one.
15 “If your brother sins, go and show him his fault when the two of you are alone. If he listens to you, you have regained your brother. 16 But if he does not listen, take one or two others with you, so that at the testimony of two or three witnesses every matter may be established. 17 If he refuses to listen to them, tell it to the church. If he refuses to listen to the church, treat him like a Gentile or a tax collector. 18 “I tell you the truth, whatever you bind on earth will have been bound in heaven, and whatever you release on earth will have been released in heaven. 19 Again, I tell you the truth, if two of you on earth agree about whatever you ask, my Father in heaven will do it for you. 20 For where two or three are assembled in my name, I am there among them” (Matthew 18:15-20).
1 Brothers and sisters, if a person is discovered in some sin, you who are spiritual restore such a person in a spirit of gentleness. Pay close attention to yourselves, so that you are not tempted too. 2 Carry one another’s burdens, and in this way you will fulfill the law of Christ (Galatians 6:1-2).
Three Kinds of Ministry
Paul specifies three kinds of ministry in particular.
First, he urges members of the church to “admonish the undisciplined.”
The word (neutheteo) rendered “admonish” is the same word we saw in verse 12. The adjective rendered “undisciplined” (ataktos) in the NET Bible and NJB is translated “unruly” in the NASB, NKJV, and KJV. It is translated either “lazy” or “idle” in the ESV, NIV, and CSB.
We have a pretty good idea who it is that Paul has in mind here because the adverbial form of this word is employed by Paul in 2 Thessalonians 3:
6 But we command you, brothers and sisters, in the name of our Lord Jesus Christ, to keep away from any brother who lives an undisciplined life and not according to the tradition they received from us. 7 For you know yourselves how you must imitate us, because we did not behave without discipline among you, 8 and we did not eat anyone’s food without paying. Instead, in toil and drudgery we worked night and day in order not to burden any of you. 9 It was not because we do not have that right, but to give ourselves as an example for you to imitate. 10 For even when we were with you, we used to give you this command: “If anyone is not willing to work, neither should he eat.” 11 For we hear that some among you are living an undisciplined life, not doing their own work but meddling in the work of others. 12 Now such people we command and urge in the Lord Jesus Christ to work quietly and so provide their own food to eat. 13 But you, brothers and sisters, do not grow weary in doing what is right. 14 But if anyone does not obey our message through this letter, take note of him and do not associate closely with him, so that he may be ashamed. 15 Yet do not regard him as an enemy, but admonish him as a brother (2 Thessalonians 3:6-15, emphasis mine).
We can see that the one living an undisciplined life is not living as Paul did, because the apostle labored hard among them with his own hands. There were some “freeloaders” among the saints who were not working and who were living off the labor of others. Bluntly put, they were parasites. These were not people who were disabled or in some way not able to work; they were people who chose not to work and to take advantage of their Christian brethren. The “admonition” Paul calls for would first come in the form of a warning and an exhortation, but eventually this would lead to a form of church discipline, as we see in 2 Thessalonians 3.
I believe one should be able to see why both leadership and the church body should admonish those who were undisciplined in this way. The leaders can admonish and exhort the slothful saint, but when church discipline is required, the entire church must agree with and support the discipline process. Thus, the whole church should admonish the one who is headed for trouble.
Second, Paul instructs that we all should comfort or console the discouraged or fainthearted.
Literally, the term discouraged means to be “small-souled.” These are folks who have just lost heart, and they need to be comforted in such a way as to encourage and strengthen them. I see the individual in this situation not as a willful sinner, but as someone who needs a caring friend to come alongside (not like Job’s friends!) and comfort them in a time of need.
I believe that there are far more of these kinds of people in the church than we would imagine. In many cases, we would not recognize the need unless we were very observant.
Third, Paul tells the Thessalonians to help (literally “cling to” or “take hold of”) the weak.
I take it that this could refer both to those who are physically infirm and to those who are mentally or spiritually in a weakened condition. Such people need those who will uphold them.
Fourth, Paul gives a general command to “be patient toward all.”
In Romans 12, when Paul speaks of certain spiritual gifts, he focuses on the attitude with which these gifts are exercised:
8 if it is exhortation, he must exhort; if it is contributing, he must do so with sincerity; if it is leadership, he must do so with diligence; if it is showing mercy, he must do so with cheerfulness (Romans 12:8, emphasis mine).
Certain gifts have inherent temptations. Public gifts like teaching (preaching) or leading have the inherent danger of pride or arrogance. Other gifts have their own inherent dangers. But a life of service to others has a common problem: impatience. It is easy to get tired of working with imperfect people (not to mention the fact that we, too, are flawed). Even Jesus found working with His disciples and others exasperating:
14 When they came to the crowd, a man came to him, knelt before him, 15 and said, “Lord, have mercy on my son, because he has seizures and suffers terribly, for he often falls into the fire and into the water. 16 I brought him to your disciples, but they were not able to heal him.” 17 Jesus answered, “You unbelieving and perverse generation! How much longer must I be with you? How much longer must I endure you? Bring him here to me” (Matthew 17:14-17).
Ministry to those in need is physically, mentally, and emotionally draining. There are (or will be) times when you get exasperated with your fellow believers, sometimes because they know the right thing to do but are simply unwilling to do it. Patience is therefore something that is required of every saint who would seek to serve our Lord by serving others. We should not forget that patience is a fruit of the Spirit, available to every Christian. Patience is a key to maintaining Christian unity:
1 I, therefore, the prisoner for the Lord, urge you to live worthily of the calling with which you have been called, 2 with all humility and gentleness, with patience, bearing with one another in love, 3 making every effort to keep the unity of the Spirit in the bond of peace (Ephesians 4:1-3).
When we come to verse 15, Paul is still addressing the issue of Christian unity:
See that no one pays back evil for evil to anyone, but always pursue what is good for one another and for all (1 Thessalonians 5:15).
I am reminded here of Paul’s words to the saints at Philippi, where Paul exhorted the church to help two sisters live in peace with each other:
1 So then, my brothers and sisters, dear friends whom I long to see, my joy and crown, stand in the Lord in this way, my dear friends! 2 I appeal to Euodia and to Syntyche to agree in the Lord. 3 Yes, I say also to you, true companion, help them. They have struggled together in the gospel ministry along with me and Clement and my other coworkers, whose names are in the book of life. 4 Rejoice in the Lord always. Again I say, rejoice! 5 Let everyone see your gentleness. The Lord is near! (Philippians 4:1-5)
Then there are Paul’s instructions to the Romans:
16 Live in harmony with one another; do not be haughty but associate with the lowly. Do not be conceited. 17 Do not repay anyone evil for evil; consider what is good before all people. 18 If possible, so far as it depends on you, live peaceably with all people. 19 Do not avenge yourselves, dear friends, but give place to God’s wrath, for it is written, “Vengeance is mine, I will repay,” says the Lord. 20 Rather, if your enemy is hungry, feed him; if he is thirsty, give him a drink; for in doing this you will be heaping burning coals on his head. 21 Do not be overcome by evil, but overcome evil with good (Romans 12:16-21).
Humility puts the interests of others above our own. Pride seeks our own interests at the expense of others. Thus, in Romans, Paul plainly calls for humility, because this will lead one to “consider what is good before all people” (verse 18). In our text in 1 Thessalonians 5, I believe that the need for humility is implied (or assumed), but not stated. But the end result is the same: seeking the good of others, rather than seeking to make others pay for the harm we assume they have done to us.
I think we can safely say that our benevolent spirit toward others should flow from the love which we have for them:
8 Owe no one anything, except to love one another, for the one who loves his neighbor has fulfilled the law. 9 For the commandments, “Do not commit adultery, do not murder, do not steal, do not covet,” (and if there is any other commandment) are summed up in this, “Love your neighbor as yourself.” 10 Love does no wrong to a neighbor. Therefore love is the fulfillment of the law (Romans 13:8-10; see also 1 Corinthians 13:4-7).
We might say that love seeks for the corporate good of the body of Christ at the expense of our own agendas. If one’s attitude is right in such matters, one’s actions will flow accordingly, to the benefit and blessing of others.
Our text describes a rather radical concept of leadership. It is not an autocratic, top-down model, but rather a leadership style that promotes the development of leaders at lower levels of authority. The elders of the church are the highest level of leadership. The model I find here is one of a plurality of elders, but they are not collectively authoritarian or dictatorial. They are humble shepherds, whose leadership style serves as an example to all. They function in such a way as to encourage and facilitate others to assume leadership at lower levels. While our text by itself does not describe church leadership in such detail, I believe that the elders lead at the highest level, supported and assisted by the deacons, who lead at a somewhat lower level. And (here is the radical part) leadership does not stop here. All believers are encouraged to exercise leadership at lower levels of authority. That is why Paul encourages the general congregation to engage in ministries that require, in some measure, leadership.
As I was thinking about this multi-layered form of leadership, it occurred to me that (at least ideally) our country (the United States of America) was designed to function in a similar way. While we have a president, he does not have full and independent authority. Authority is shared between the executive, legislative, and judicial branches of government. There is (if all is working as it should) rule by a plurality. But the federal government does not have complete authority. The states have their own realm of authority, and they are expected to carry out their leadership role as well as the federal government. But in addition to this, we believe in individual authority and responsibility. We should not expect the government (whether federal or state) to do for us what we can and should do for ourselves. If the government usurps or undermines individual authority, then it has ceased to function in its proper role.
I believe that this is the way the church should function. There should be a plurality of elders, ideally reflecting diversity in race, culture, age, spiritual gifts, and socioeconomic status. No one (or more) elders should dictate or dominate the others, and as a group, they should not be overly authoritarian. As Peter says, they should humbly and sacrificially shepherd the flock of God as our Lord’s under-shepherds. As we know from the Gospels, it took Peter a good while (and some hard knocks) to learn this lesson.
The more I have thought about this kind of leadership, the more convinced I have become that New Testament leadership best encourages the development of leaders. Think about it for a moment in secular terms. Do you think that a dictatorship encourages and facilitates the development of leaders? I can assure you it doesn’t, and for a very simple and obvious reason: dictators do not want to create leaders who could overturn and replace them.
Some churches have a dictatorial leader, who demands allegiance, control (especially of finances and people), and esteem from the congregation. He is accountable to no one, but everyone is accountable to him (or her). Some preachers are unwilling to share “their pulpit” with others. They may claim that it is to assure doctrinal purity (as only he gets it right), but it often has other elements that smack of self-interest. A promising young man may evidence an excellent teaching gift, but an authoritarian leader may perceive this man as a threat (to him personally), rather than as an asset and a blessing to the church (local and beyond).
As an elder at Community Bible Chapel, I would have to confess many personal failures in the leadership role I play, and I’m quite certain that my fellow-elders would say the same for their leadership. But with all of our failings, I believe that we are at least on the right track, leadership-wise.
I believe that several biblical practices encourage the development of leaders in our church.
First, the fact that there is no one central leader (other than our Lord) means no one has an “empire” that needs to be protected.
Since I do not control how often I preach, or even who preaches, the pulpit is not my “turf” to promote or protect.
Second, we believe and teach what the Scriptures teach about spiritual gifts.
We endeavor to discern spiritual gifts in our body and to maximize their use, both inside and outside our church. We are eager to see men and women grow in the use of their gifts and in ministry (while women may do so in different spheres).
Third, we believe that God has clearly instructed that the church is to be ruled by men, and that women are not to teach or lead men in the church.
This means the men in our church are not free to sit back and let the ladies do all the work, especially the leading. In the meeting of the church, the men understand it is their privilege and responsibility to lead us in worship. If they don’t, the women will not rush to our rescue. The prohibition of female leadership over men is the promotion of the leadership of men.
Fourth, the open worship meeting of our church each week provides a setting in which men may learn to lead in spiritual things.
Every week our church gathers for worship, instruction, Scripture reading, prayer, singing, and the observance of the Lord’s Table. We begin at 9:00 with some prepared songs, and then a man who has been designated opens the meeting with a greeting, a few introductory comments, perhaps a few words to prepare us for our worship, and from that time on, nothing is pre-planned or orchestrated (except for an offertory) until the time comes to end the meeting at 10:15. The same man who opened the meeting will close the meeting with prayer and by welcoming any visitors. It is not just designated leaders (elders or deacons) who pray and hand out the elements for communion; any man who feels led of the Lord may do so. Over the 34 years that we have met, many men have grown in their leadership through this open worship time.
Let me say just a few more words about the congregation’s responsibility to admonish the undisciplined, comfort the discouraged, and help the weak. It is absolutely crucial for the church to grow in its ability to discern where people are in their struggles. What we don’t want is for folks to admonish the weak or to comfort the undisciplined. In truth, sometimes a struggling Christian may be a combination of these needs, and thus may need a combined and concerted effort on the part of a plurality of people who will minister to him or her. I think that you can see how plurality leadership and plurality ministry best serves the needs of the church body. It shows why we cannot hire a few staff workers to meet the needs of our body. It takes the active participation of the whole body to minister to itself in love.
Finally, I want to say that assuming leadership is important not only because of biblical ecclesiology (how the Bible says we should do church), but also because of the Second Coming. I have looked at this text in Luke numerous times, but I’ve never really understood it in the light of leadership until now:
41 Then Peter said, “Lord, are you telling this parable for us or for everyone?” 42 The Lord replied, “Who then is the faithful and wise manager, whom the master puts in charge of his household servants, to give them their allowance of food at the proper time? 43 Blessed is that slave whom his master finds at work [so doing] when he returns. 44 I tell you the truth, the master will put him in charge of all his possessions” (Luke 12:41-44, emphasis mine).
Strangely, the New Jerusalem Bible does perhaps the best job at paraphrasing what the text literally (“doing thus”) says:
41 Peter said, “Lord, do you mean this parable for us, or for everyone?” 42 The Lord replied, “Who, then, is the wise and trustworthy steward whom the master will place over his household to give them at the proper time their allowance of food? 43 Blessed [is] that servant if his master’s arrival finds him doing exactly that. 44 I tell you truly, he will put him in charge of everything that he owns” (Luke 12:41-44, NJB).
So just what is “exactly that”? To see the answer, we would do well to recognize that Jesus stressed a very close relationship between what the saints do on earth and what they will do in heaven:
20 The one who had received the five talents came and brought five more, saying, ‘Sir, you entrusted me with five talents. See, I have gained five more.’ 21 His master answered, ‘Well done, good and faithful slave! You have been faithful in a few things. I will put you in charge of many things. Enter into the joy of your master.’ 22 The one with the two talents also came and said, ‘Sir, you entrusted two talents to me. See, I have gained two more.’ 23 His master answered, ‘Well done, good and faithful slave! You have been faithful with a few things. I will put you in charge of many things. Enter into the joy of your master’” (Matthew 25:20-23, emphasis mine)
9 And I tell you, make friends for yourselves by how you use worldly wealth, so that when it runs out you will be welcomed into the eternal homes. 10 “The one who is faithful in a very little is also faithful in much, and the one who is dishonest in a very little is also dishonest in much. 11 If then you haven’t been trustworthy in handling worldly wealth, who will entrust you with the true riches? 12 And if you haven’t been trustworthy with someone else’s property, who will give you your own? (Luke 16:9-12)
This is exactly what we see in our text in Luke 12. There is a correlation between what we do now and what we will do in heaven. What will be do in heaven? We will reign with Him:
6 Blessed and holy is the one who takes part in the first resurrection. The second death has no power over them, but they will be priests of God and of Christ, and they will reign with him for a thousand years (Revelation 20:6; see also 2 Timothy 2:12).
Remember, too, that when God created Adam and Eve and placed them on this earth it was to “rule over” it (Genesis 1:26). Though it is the Perfect Man who will rule over the earth (Psalm 8), those who are His saints will reign with Him.
And so what is it that we should be doing now, which prepares us to rule with Him then? It is to exercise leadership in this life, especially in living the Christian life and in serving others. And so our Lord teaches in Luke 12 that those whom He will “put in charge” (make leaders) in heaven are those who are “doing thus” (exercising leadership in serving others) now.
Exercising leadership is not the task of the few (though it is the office of the few). It is the task of the many, and thus we do because we love God, and we love others. And thus we do because it is what we should be doing in the light of the Second Coming.
Copyright © 2010 by Robert L. Deffinbaugh. This is the edited manuscript of Lesson 8 in the series Paul’s Epistles to the Thessalonians prepared by Robert L. Deffinbaugh on August 15, 2010. Anyone is at liberty to use this lesson for educational purposes only, with or without credit.
 Unless otherwise indicated, all Scripture quotations are from the NET Bible. The NEW ENGLISH TRANSLATION, also known as THE NET BIBLE, is a completely new translation of the Bible, not a revision or an update of a previous English version. It was completed by more than twenty biblical scholars who worked directly from the best currently available Hebrew, Aramaic, and Greek texts. The translation project originally started as an attempt to provide an electronic version of a modern translation for electronic distribution over the Internet and on CD (compact disk). Anyone anywhere in the world with an Internet connection will be able to use and print out the NET Bible without cost for personal study. In addition, anyone who wants to share the Bible with others can print unlimited copies and give them away free to others. It is available on the Internet at: www.netbible.org.
 I think I should point out that sanctification is not merely (and not primarily) individual. The exhortation to encourage or comfort one another in 4:18 and 5:11 is addressed to the entire church. We are not merely to be sanctified individually (though this is certainly one aspect of sanctification); we are to grow in purity and holiness as a church. We see this not only in Ephesians 4:11-16, but also in 5:25-27 (also 2 Corinthians 11:1-2).
 When Paul was at Miletus, he called for the elders (plural) of the church at Ephesus. When Paul greets the Philippian saints, he specifically mentions the overseers (plural) and the deacons (plural). In 1 Timothy 5:17-20, we again find Paul speaking of the elders as a body of leaders, and not merely one leader. (Those who would argue that Paul’s use of the singular in 1 Timothy 3:2 proves otherwise need to consider the specialized use of the singular in Greek more carefully. To say, “A statesman, then, must always treat others with respect,” does not indicate that there is but one statesman.)
 In part, this is indicated by the fact that the three participles which characterize the leadership activities of these men are present participles. Paul uses the present participle to describe what they are currently doing, not what he hopes they will eventually do.
 The Greek verb rendered “working” (ergazomai) in verse 10 is not the same word (kopiao) that is found in 1 Thessalonians 5:12, but the noun (kopos) here rendered “toil” is from the same root as the verb (kopiao) in our text. Regardless, whether the same word is used in both texts isn’t crucial. The point is the same. Anyone recognized as a leader in the church at Thessalonica should be a hard worker among them.
 We have a number of small groups, called “ministry groups,” in our church. Here is where much teaching, sharing, prayer, and shepherding takes place. Ideally, our ministry groups are led by two co-leaders, both of whom are deacons.
 The noun for “deacon” is not found in this text, but the verb is found in verse 1. Thus, even though these men are not formally identified as “deacons,” I believe that they functioned as deacons. Call them proto-deacons if you please.
 Here is the way this term is translated in the KJV: chief (1), consider (3), considered (2), considering (1), count (4), counted (1), esteem (1), governor (1), leader (1), leaders (3), leading (1), led (1), regard (5), regarded (1), Ruler (1), thought (2). (From BibleWorks 7)
 Ephesians 5:33.
 Ephesians 6:1-2.
 See Romans 13:1ff.; 1 Peter 2:13-14.
 I am using the electronic version of A. T. Robertson’s Word Pictures in the New Testament. At 1 Thessalonians 5:14, you will find his statement: “These disorderly elements try the patience of the leaders. Hold out with them. What a wonderful ideal Paul here holds up for church leaders!”
 The NASB renders “brethren” literally. Since it is generally (but not always!) understood that “brethren” often refers to both men and women believers, some translations render it “brothers and sisters,” as does the NET Bible.
 See also 1 Corinthians 5:1-8.
 Here we find the verb form of the same root.
 A. T. Robertson, Word Pictures in the New Testament (in BibleWorks 7).
 “Sincerity” is one of the meanings of this word, but another is “simplicity,” which would refer to giving without mixed motives (one of which might be personal gain, especially in the form of praise, or perhaps control).
 I do not mean that all Christians should seek official leadership positions. What I mean is that all Christians need to exercise a measure of leadership in their own personal walk with God and in their ministry to others.
Copyright © 2010 by Robert L. Deffinbaugh. This is the edited manuscript of Lesson 8 in the series Paul’s Epistles to the Thessalonians prepared by Robert L. Deffinbaugh on August 15, 2010. Anyone is at liberty to use this lesson for educational purposes only, with or without credit.
*note: used with permission