I continue today with previews from my Thessalonians commentary. Today’s section is from 1 Thess 5:12-15 and what Paul has to say about leaders.
12 Now we ask you, brothers and sisters, to acknowledge those who work hard among you, who care for you in the Lord and who admonish you. 13 Hold them in the highest regard in love because of their work. Live in peace with each other. 14And we urge you, brothers and sisters, warn those who are idle and disruptive, encourage the disheartened, help the weak, be patient with everyone. 15 Make sure that nobody pays back wrong for wrong, but always strive to do what is good for each other and for everyone else.
It is important to note that in his discussions of leadership here Paul does not address the leaders, but the community as a whole. This is the earliest of Paul’s letters and thus provides us a peek at what leadership was like in the earliest days of the church. What we find is that leadership and the community were together, not separate. There was not a focus on titles or offices, but on function. It was what someone did that identified him/her as a leader and was deserving of appreciation and respect. And both the exercise of authority and submission to it were to be done in the context of mutual recognition of Jesus as Lord and their love for one another. With that in mind we can observe the following.
The first thing we can observe is that Paul puts more emphasis on the activities of leaders than he does their titles. Unlike his other letters where Paul will mention titles and even qualifications for some leaders, Paul uses his ink and parchment here to describe what it is the leaders do. This is an important point to remember in a culture that seems to hold titles in high regard. Too often people want to be “professor,” “doctor,” “vice president,” or “pastor” because they perceive a title as a status symbol that will help them move ahead. But they forget that attached to these titles is a high degree of responsibility and expectation. It doesn’t mean that titles are unimportant and should not be used. Paul used them and they help us to identify who is supposed to being doing what in the life and the ministry of the church. And that is what leaders or potential leaders need to keep in mind. It is what they do that makes the title not the other way around. In this day and age there has been a proliferation of titles in the church, many by virtue of necessity. But since we cannot turn back the clock on the modern church, we should use what Paul describes here as a “checklist” of sorts to help leaders evaluate whether they are giving the kind and level of care that leaders are privileged to give.
The second thing we observe here is that the entire congregation needs to have a sense of pastoral responsibility. This means supporting the leadership both in their role as leaders and in their activity of the ministry. One way this should happen is, as Paul says, by “holding them in the highest regard in love because of their work.” It’s easy to fall into the trap of not showing respect to a leader. The political climate over the last twenty or more years in the United States has turned pillaring our national leaders into a sport. Respect for the office of the president, for instance, no matter who occupies it, has, for the most part, been lost. This same attitude can creep into the church. Rather than praying for and supporting our pastor, elders and deacons we spend our time questioning their ability, critiquing their ministry and comparing them with the pastor at the local mega church or on television. Certainly respect is something that is earned, but Paul is saying that we need to love them and hold them in high regard because of their work. This means that we don’t respect them for only how good they look or how well they speak but rather for all of the sick they visit, the late night phone calls they receive, the family vacations that are interrupted by the death of a parishioner, the couples they will counsel, the peace they will make, the friends they will bury. Paul knows from experience that the work of a leader is hard. It can be a bit easier if the people to whom they minister exhibit love and respect towards them.
Those who are serving under a leader also need to remember that she or he is not just a paid employee of the church. They are also a member of the community and the one who is most often in the frontline of ministry activity. I remember when I was a youth pastor at a church we had a workday to clean the grounds and the building. At the beginning of the day one of the parishioners handed me a broom and said: “Here, I want to see my tithe at work.” I realized he was just kidding, but the comment stung a bit since it seemed to suggest that what I did in ministry wasn’t “work.” We should never presume that our tithes and offering “pay the pastor’s salary.” Granted, they do. But we don’t give to control the pastor and “get our money’s worth.” We give to support the ministry in which the pastor is the lead person who carries the most responsibility. Ministry is a community effort. It requires us all to pitch in and do what the Lord bids. But it also means supporting and loving our leaders who are there to guide us and help us along the way. They are part of us and they are over us.
Finally, the role of the leader in the church is not to do all of the ministry. As Paul makes clear in 5:14-15 it is the responsibility of us all to be of assistance in the community of believers. It is not the pastor’s “problem” or “responsibility” alone. Paul encourages everyone to exhibit concern for the life of the community and at times that means encouraging people, helping them or even warning them. We need to share in all aspects of ministry, to be patient with those who are around us, and make sure that everyone is striving to do what is good for one another.