Our Duty Toward Leaders
What should our relationship to our church leaders look like? Dr. Marty Baker takes us to 1 Thessalonians 5:12-13 and helps us unpack Paul's instruction to the church about interacting with elders.
In light of the fact that the Rapture of the Church is imminent, meaning it can occur at any time, Christians need to ask and answer a foundational question:
How Should We Live In Light Of Christ’s Arrival? (1 Thess. 5:12-14)
Beginning with verse 12 of chapter 5 of First Thessalonians, Paul turns and answers this all-important question for us. He typically teaches like this. First, he introduces sound doctrine and then shows us how to apply these timeless truths. The books of Ephesians and Colossians are illustrations of this point. The verses before us are no exception, for Paul realized biblical teaching is designed to impact not only the mind but the life of a believer. Hence, as we consider these practical closing verses, you should ask yourself regarding each command that is permitted whether you are obeying it or not. Always remember that the Lord is interested not in you just gaining valuable spiritual information but in you realizing valuable spiritual transformation.
The opening adversative particle, but (δὲ ) informs us we are now moving from one subject to another. Contextually, Paul just taught us the importance of being watchful and ready for the Lord’s return for His Church (1 Thess. 4:13-18). He wrapped up his teaching about eschatological matters with verse 11 of chapter 5. The adversative, therefore, introduces us to our spiritual duties in light of what the Lord will do in the imminent future.
Structurally, Paul’s practical exhortations cover three distinct areas:
- Our Duty Toward Leaders (1 Thess. 5:12-13)
- Our Duty Toward Followers (1 Thess. 5:14-15)
- Our Duty Toward The Lord (1 Thess. 5:16-22)
For our purposes in this study, we shall consider our Christian duty toward spiritual leaders.
Our Duty Toward Leaders (1 Thess. 5:12-13)
While Paul ministered in Greece, he dispatched Timothy to ascertain the health of the Thessalonian church. Based on Timothy’s report, areas of strength and weakness existed (1 Thess. 3:10), as is always true with local churches. With this letter, Paul addressed both of these areas, and from the exhortations and commands of chapter 5, verses 12 through 22, we can surmise where work and growth were warranted.
The first area the saints in Thessalonica needed to grow spiritually entailed how they thought about and responded to their spiritual leaders. Paul’s counsel here is spot on because the health and impact of a given local church can be no greater than the relationship between the leaders and the parishioners. Here is the timeless principle: The stronger the relationship, the more significant the impact. The weaker the relationship, the lesser the impact. Realizing this truth from his years of pastoral experience (Rom. 1:9-12; 1 Cor. 16:10-11; 2 Cor. 7:13-16; Eph. 4:15-16; 1 Tim. 3:14-15; Titus 2:1-10), Paul moved to mature the bonds between the people and their leaders. Watch how the seasoned, wise shepherd sought to bring this to fruition in this church. What he said here two thousand years ago is still applicable today.
1 Thessalonians 5:12 But we request of you, brethren, that you appreciate those who diligently labor among you, and have charge over you in the Lord and give you instruction,
Underscore the tender tone Paul employs. He could have given the parishioners commands at this juncture, but he didn’t. Conversely, he chose to speak to them as brothers and sisters in Christ to highlight their responsibilities to each other as family members. As siblings, they are to love and respect each other, and as in any family relationship, where there are siblings, there are parents or leaders. Siblings must respond to their leaders in a God-prescribed fashion so order and not disorder prevails.
Which leaders does Paul speak about here? Elders, first and foremost. We know this because the Greek word Paul employs here for those who are in charge of the saints, viz., proistemi ( προΐστημι ) denotes elders in Paul’s teaching about elder traits in 1 Timothy 3:4. Is just one leadership group represented here in verses 12 and 13? The answer is “Yes” because one article, “the,” is applied to three descriptive participles:
WHT 1 Thessalonians 5:12 Ἐρωτῶμεν δὲ ὑμᾶς, ἀδελφοί, εἰδέναι τοὺς κοπιῶντας ἐν ὑμῖν καὶ προϊσταμένους ὑμῶν ἐν κυρίῳ καὶ νουθετοῦντας ὑμᾶς . . .
The plural nature of the particles also tells us that the church had several elders, which was Paul’s model as he planted churches (Acts 14:23). Leadership over a church should never be a one-man show. On the contrary, leadership should be shared by a team of biblically qualified men, as denoted by the inspiration of the Holy Spirit (1 Tim. 3:1-7; Titus 1:5-9). C. Gene Wilkes gives us sound advice about the value of teams and teamwork in his book Jesus on Leadership:
- Teams involve more people, thus affording more resources, ideas, and energy than would an individual.
- Teams maximize a leader’s potential and minimize her [his] weaknesses. Strengths and weaknesses are more exposed in individuals.
- Teams provide multiple perspectives on how to meet a need or reach a goal, thus devising several alternatives for each situation. Individuals’ insight is seldom as broad and deep as a group’s when it takes on a problem.
- Teams share the credit for victories and the blame for losses. This fosters genuine humility and an authentic community. Individuals take credit and blame alone. This encourages pride and sometimes a sense of failure.
- Teams keep leaders accountable for the goal. Individuals connected to no one can change their goal without accountability.
- Teams can simply do more than an individual.
I would add a team of leaders like elders provides more spiritual strength and support when dealing with the complex internal and external issues which can arise in churches. A team of elders also gives more wisdom and insight into how to address problems and challenges than is possible for a lone leader. With these truths in mind, let us consider Paul’s counsel for the saints at Thessalonica Community Bible Church.
First, Paul challenges saints to appreciate or respect their elders. The word Paul uses here means “to know” someone or something. It is the word oida (οἶδα). The NAS translates it as “appreciate” and the NIV says it means to “acknowledge.” The term does have a lexical meaning that stresses the meaning of “respect,” but first and foremost, it denotes firsthand knowledge. What does this all mean? It means the more you know your spiritual leaders, the more you will understand them, the pressures they experience, the victories they achieve, the burdens they carry, and the complex issues they are called to address to safeguard you and the church and to guide everyone toward spiritual maturity. This can be a daunting task in a church our size, but it is still a worthy goal for parishioners. So go ahead, and ask elders out to dinner. Have them over to your home. Send them emails. Get to know them so you can do your part in building the unity of the church/team.
As I stated, a secondary meaning of the term is to respect. Friberg’s Analytical Greek Lexicon verifies this usage: “(6) as giving deserved recognition to someone respect, appreciate, have regard for (1TH 5.12).” Since the Thessalonian church was only about a year old, I’m sure some chafed against some of the new elders Paul and/or Timothy selected to lead them. “Why do I have to respect him? I’ve known him for many years, and I’ve seen him in action in the community, and it hasn’t always been good,” some could argue. Now that the given man was saved, his life was different (2 Cor. 5:17), and Paul and/or Timothy also saw spiritual strengths that qualified him for his position as a church leader. Hence, in Paul’s mind, he should be respected for holding the office of elder. As a brand-new senior pastor (and elder) of a small church plant in 1989, a new parishioner told me in the church office, “I just want to let you know upfront you will have earn my respect. I never trust a pastor from the beginning.” I let him know upfront that I disagreed with his statement. He had no reason not to respect me because he didn’t even know me, and according to the Scripture, respect is to be given to those who lead the Lord’s local church as His undershepherds.
Why else should you respect your spiritual leaders? Paul gives you two reasons in verse 12:
12 But we request of you, brethren, that you appreciate those who diligently labor among you, and have charge over you in the Lord and give you instruction,
Like all the other leaders in a thriving church body, the elders lead the way “diligently” laboring. The word kopiao ( κοπιάω) describes back-breaking, sweat-producing work, like when one works as a reaper in a field of wheat (John 4:38). The present tense nature of the verb alerts you to the fact these men are persistently working hard behind the scenes to care for, protect, and lead the church.
I can attest to the truth of this since I am an elder who serves on the elder council. The more you get to know the elders here, the more you will understand how much of their personal time they pour into this calling and position. While we are supposed to have two meetings per month, that typically doesn’t happen because needs and complex issues call for additional meetings either in person or via Zoom. Meetings are never thirty minutes. Several hours per meeting is the norm. Why? These men desire to honor God, be wise in their decisions, be fair, and guide the church toward more excellent health and wholeness. We never make flippant decisions. Our decisions are always prayed over, discussed in depth beforehand, measured against biblical standards, and executed with courage and as much clarity, as we can share. So, please respect those working hard to lead a wonderful and challenging body like ours. And, as you get to know them, let them know how much you appreciate their unseen labor to give sound, biblical leadership to a great church like ours.
Second, you should respect your elders because they give you “instruction.” The NAS is a little misleading with the translation of the Greek word noutheteo (νουθετέω). The KJV, NIV, and NKJV are more precise in choosing the connotation to “admonish.” Danker’s Greek lexicon offers this helpful definition:
νουθετέω [νοῦς, τίθημι] ‘offer counsel and instruction’ for avoidance or cessation of inappropriate conduct, instruct, admonish, freq. in context of solicitous concern, Ac 20:31; Ro 15:14; 1 Cor 4:14; Col 1:28; 3:16; 1 Th 5:12, 14; 2 Th 3:15.
Gingrich’s Greek NT Lexicon (p. 168) adds the meaning “to warn” to this list. The present tense nature of the participle informs us that this is a perpetual calling of an elder. It also tells us this is how the leaders in Thessalonica function. Despite the fact their admonishment might cost them parishioners, offend the spiritually comfortable, or result in them being called names (you are unloving, unkind, judgmental, and so forth), result in fewer tithes coming into the church, or cast the church in a negative light, these courageous elders lovingly called sinning saints to repent of various sins, to be filled with the Spirit (Eph. 5:18), and to produce the fruits of a Spirit-filled/controlled life (Gal. 5:16-25). By so doing, the sinning saints received instruction in holy living.
Admonishment is never easy, fun, or simple. Anyone who lives for admonishing others must be questioned from the outset as to their motives. Admonishment, especially in our overly-touchy and there-are-no-absolute-truths culture, is always challenging but always warranted to protect the body from the contagion of sin, to build the unity of the body, and to hopefully help a saint move away from destructive behavior and toward constructive behavior that leads to life transformation and maturity. This is why Paul showcased admonishment in a positive light to the Roman saints:
14 And concerning you, my brethren, I myself also am convinced that you yourselves are full of goodness, filled with all knowledge, and able also to admonish one another (Rom. 15).
Mutual admonishment in the body builds the body, and this admonishment must start with the spiritual leaders.
Paul, the elder, did not flinch when admonishing sinning saints.
- In Corinth, he called the leaders to task for not properly dealing with a young man who had a sexual relationship with his stepmother (1 Cor. 5:1).
- In Galatia, he warned the believers of embracing a gospel that erroneously wedded faith and works together for salvation (Gal. 1).
- In Ephesus, he admonished saints who continued to steal from others so they didn’t have to get jobs (Eph. 4:28).
- In Colossae, he admonished those who thought their spirituality was wedded somehow to the perpetual observance of religious regulations (Col. 2:20ff).
Paul set the example of how a godly leader should function, and the elders in Thessalonica followed suit.
I’m thankful to be part of a leadership team that understands the value of admonishment, who gets the fact that admonishment is based not on personal opinion but the unchanging Word of God, admonishes based on facts, not hearsay, and who are not afraid to admonish despite the potentiality of negative repercussions. Over the last fifteen years, we have faced many sinful situations. Some were simple to address, while others were more complicated . . . and potentially costly. I have never watched these leaders flinch and falter at their job before the Lord. Sure, they might not have acted as quickly in a given situation as you would have liked, and they might have made decisions you didn’t completely understand or maybe even liked; however, as an elder, I can represent the board when I say we methodically dig into the facts of a situation so our admonishment is biblical and just. As an elder, we are confident before our Lord in our decisions when we admonish. Put differently, none of us is worried about giving account before the Lord’s Judgment Seat (1 Cor. 3:10ff) for how we admonished a person or persons, for we gave ample time to prayer and accumulating facts before we made a decision.
So, respect those spiritual leaders who lead by doing the hard but most necessary thing, like admonishment. And pray for them, for the Devil would like nothing more than to divide the body from its leaders or drive a wedge between them so distrust and chaos can ensue.
Paul is not finished with how saints should think about their leaders. In verse 13, he adds two more essential truths for parishioners to apply:
13 and that you esteem them very highly in love because of their work. Live in peace with one another (1 Thess. 5).
The coordinating conjunction “and” informs believers of their additional duties toward their spiritual leaders.
The word translated as “esteem” is egeomai (ἡγέομαι). In its base form, it means to think hard about or intently consider something. The present tense nature of the verb informs us that Paul considered it to be a perpetual life action on the part of saints. It is followed by a most interesting word, hupekperissou (ὑπερεκπερισσοῦ). This word combines the preposition huper stapled to the word perissos. As I’ve said before, adding a preposition to a word makes it highly intensive. According to Friberg’s Analytical Greek Lexicon, here are the lexical meanings of the base word perissos:
περισσός, ή, όν (1) of what exceeds usual expectation extraordinary, remarkable (MT 5.47); neuter as a substantive τὸ περισσόν the advantage (RO 3.1); adverbially ἐκ περισσοῦ exceedingly, greatly (MK 6.51); (2) of what exceeds necessity abundant; περισσόν ἔχειν have abundantly (JN 10.10); (3) superfluous, unnecessary (2C 9.1); (4) as a colloquial substitute for comparative τὸ περισσόν what is more than, what goes beyond (MT 5.37); (5) comparative περισσότερος, τέρα, ον, used as a popular substitute for πλείων (more) and μᾶλλον (more, rather); (a) as adding a degree of intensity to a noun greater, more severe, more excellent, more abundant, etc. (MK 12.40; 1C 12.23); (b) περισσότερον with the genitive of comparison much more than, even more than (MK 12.33; LU 7.26); (c) neuter singular περισσότερον as an adverb even more, exceedingly, more abundantly (HE 6.17).
From this, we can now better appreciate what Paul is teaching. He’s telling parishioners always to think exceedingly highly positive about their leaders. Did you get that? He’s not telling you to . . .
- Think the leaders are guilty until proven innocent.
- Think the leaders are more worried about what man thinks than what God thinks.
- Think the leaders are not doing their God-given jobs.
- Think the leaders are timid and afraid to lead.
No, Paul is telling you that your thoughts about spiritual leaders should gravitate toward lofty, positive, noble ideas first and foremost. Why? Paul tells you why. You should do this because of “their work.” What is their work?
- They stand between you and spiritual wolves.
- They teach you the Word of God.
- They teach you how the Word and its application to life doesn’t change with culture.
- They handle the day-to-day issues of the church.
- They care for the sick and the needy.
- They seek to settle disputes between believers to achieve growth and unity.
- They are proverbial watchmen on the walls, looking for the intrusion of the Devil.
- They are vocal about cultural issues and how the church should respond.
- They hold teachers accountable for their teaching.
- They plan, strategize, execute, and evaluate ministry opportunities.
- They go after lost sheep.
- They spend quality time in Bible study and prayer.
This represents just some of the hard, important work of elders. Question: Do you highly esteem them for their work? How are you to show high esteem? Paul says you show it “in love.” What does this mean? It means you tell them you love them, and you do things to show you love them. I know the elders here love you, and the hard work they render on your behalf behind the scenes underscores the depth of their love for you. When you love them back, this builds strength in the body, making it a powerhouse for the work of the Holy Spirit. So, what about it? Are you showing high esteem for your spiritual leaders by evidencing a loving attitude followed by loving actions?
I’ve served and led a local church for thirty-seven years. I’ve seen saints who highly esteemed their leaders, and I am thankful for each of them. I’ve also seen saints who disrespected their leaders. What does that look like?
- You talk negatively about them behind their backs.
- You call them names.
- You disregard their insight and counsel, choosing your own way.
- You misrepresent what they said to you to build a case to support your sinful and selfish position.
- You admonish them when you don’t have all the facts.
- You second-guess their decisions when you don’t have all the facts.
- You write them highly pointed emails and employ cutting terms.
- You send them letters unsigned.
I could add more to the sad list, but you get the point. God desires for you to esteem your leaders, not efface them. Are you living as you should, after all, you, too, shall give account to the Lord at His Judgment Seat for how you thought about and responded to the spiritual leaders the Lord placed in your life (2 Cor. 5:10).
The last exhortation Paul gives here to saints about their spiritual leaders abruptly appears at the close of verse 13:
13 and you esteem them highly in love because of their work. Live in peace with one another (1 Thess. 5).
While believers are called to live at peace with each other (Rom. 14:19; 2 Cor. 13:11; Eph. 4:3; Col. 3:15; James 3:18), contextually, Paul’s word here directly applies to how saints should live in relation to their spiritual leaders. Interestingly enough, he moves from words of counsel to a word of command. Why did he do this? He couched this particular word in a present tense command format to underscore its perpetual need in the body and showcase its importance for the peace of the body.
Show me a church where the saints respect the elders, hold them in high esteem, and lovingly submit to their leadership (Heb. 13:17), even if they don’t know all the specific ins and outs of how the leadership in question functions, and I’ll show you a church where there is peace, joy, and tranquility. I’ll also show you a growing church, one that is growing spiritually and numerically.
Show me a church where some saints within the body attack leadership, cast it in a negative light, lie about situations the leaders are dealing with, say things to besmirch the character of leaders, and I’ll show you a church in turmoil. I know of a church right now where a few people (and it’s always just a few . . . who project that they represent the masses) don’t like one of their pastors. They think he is mean because he has made tough decisions, so they want him gone. So, they complain about him and misrepresent what he has said about certain situations to get others to join their insurrection. Other church leaders have caved to the cry of these folks, and leaders have now formed a committee to get to the heart of the matter. In the meantime, the pastor in question was put on ice, meaning his pastoral duties are highly curtailed . . . and he is not guilty of a moral or doctrinal sin. Amazing.
What’s the climate at the church in question? It’s a warzone, and peace is nowhere to be found. People have formed alliances, friendships have been broken, and the future does not look too bright or healthy. And to think the peace was crushed by a handful of people who don’t like a leader who leads. Perhaps one of the other pastors at this church needs to give a message from Paul’s words here in 1 Thessalonians 5.
How are you faring? Is your life at our church all about preserving or pulverizing peace? Church peace is fragile, but it is what the Lord wants His people to work toward consistently. Yes, leaders need to be admonished when moral or doctrinal sin exists. They need to be lovingly held accountable if they act inappropriately as they lead. But if you are disturbing the peace of this place for unfounded or misdirected reasons, perhaps confession is in order so peace can prevail.
As James tells us in chapter 5 and verse 9 of his practical letter, the Lord is at the proverbial door. I pray you will be ready to give account to the Lord when you see Him regarding how you’ve lived your spiritual life and especially how you responded to the spiritual leaders He placed in your life.