Meditations in 1 Thessalonians
Part 3 : 18. Respect Spiritual Authority
1 Thess 5:12,13 Now we ask you, brothers, to respect those who work hard among you, who are over you in the Lord and who admonish you. Hold them in the highest regard in love because of their work. Live in peace with each other.
We jump a number of verses before we come to the next set of practical instructions, simply because Paul had spoken in some detail in the intervening verses about the coming of Jesus a second time. Now he steps back into the present time and deals with another concern or simple matter of teaching to be considered, that of those who work for the Gospel in the local church. At the end of that previous teaching he said, “Therefore encourage one another and build each other up, just as in fact you are doing,” (5:11) which, flowing out of that teaching about waiting for Christ’s return, seems to be saying, “As we think he will come soon, make sure he does find you doing the best you can and so keep on building one another up and, (in the light of that which we considered in the previous meditation that came just before that Second Coming teaching,) “Make it your ambition to lead a quiet life,” (4:11) and make sure you do this in every aspect of your life and the life of the church.”
He is, perhaps from his own experience, mindful that church life isn’t always the peaceful place it should be, and especially in respect of leaders and the flock. A simple reason for this may be that the enemy knows that if he can bring down the leaders, the flock will be more vulnerable and so leaders become first in his sights for attack. Paul’s letter (especially 2 Cor) show that often he was under pressure from the enemy through the flock. Indeed we noted that earlier in the letter a number of verses were defensive about how they had handled themselves when they had been with them. Rumours had obviously circulated or grumbles noticed.
So now he comes and gently asks: “Now we ask you brothers.” That is quite a gentle approach. It is not a strong demand as Paul sometimes makes when urging or giving instructions. His request is to respect their local leaders and in so doing he notes three things about them. First, “respect those who work hard among you.” I have noticed in church life there is banter about the leader getting ‘a real job’. Having been in leadership for over twenty five years (and now retired), I am utterly convinced that unless you have been in that role you do not have a clue as to the pressures that come on church leaders. From the congregation’s point of view the vicar, the minister, the pastor, the elder, call him (or her today) what you will, has a dead easy job. After all they are just there to lead on a Sunday aren’t they. Well if that is all you feel they do, you really are clueless! First of all these men and women carry the burden of the church and it remains with you twenty four hours a day. Not for you leaving the job behind when you leave the office. When people call for you in a crisis, they may do it in the middle of the night – I have been called out in the early hours. You are there as the leader, the guide, the director, the counsellor, and so much more. You are also the brunt of people’s criticisms which may vary from not liking the songs sung on Sunday, the length or content of the sermon, the way you conduct the prayer meeting and so on. When I consider all the leaders I know (and it is a lot), MOST of them have been shot to pieces at some time in their ministry, and that goes from the vicar with a traditional, grumbling congregation of twenty to the minister of a large number whose role is to guide bleating sheep gradually into the path of sanctification – often when they don’t want to go down it. Sorry if this sounds a grouse, but many if not most do not know how hard their leaders labour in this role. Respect them for it.
Now part of this kickback from the enemy is because of the second description that Paul gives: “who are over you in the Lord”. Leaders are God’s spiritual authority and in a days when we distrust authority, because there have been so many abuses of it in public life, that distrust often flows over to our feelings about those in spiritual leadership. These are those who struggle to hear the word from God, who struggle to counter the works – the lies and the deceptions – of the enemy, as he tries to upset and draw away the flock, and who struggle to keep the peace among fractious people. Christians shouldn’t be like that but they are – and that is why Paul has to speak as he does in this letter.
But the third reason even more gives us understanding why this state of affairs so often prevails: “and who admonish you.” Dictionary definitions for ‘admonish’ are “to caution against specific faults, to warn, to reprove mildly, to urge or exhort.” This IS part of the role of the spiritual leader. Do you remember Paul’s description of the purpose of Scripture: “useful for teaching, rebuking, correcting and training in righteousness.” (2 Tim 3:16).This is all the work of the Holy Spirit in bringing about our sanctification, our being changed into the likeness of Jesus. Where there is resistance because sin has not been fully dealt with in a life, that is where upset occurs and the leader carries the brunt of it.
For this reason Paul concludes, “Hold them in the highest regard in love because of their work.” (5:13a) We will do this when we take to heart some of the things I have said in this study. When we realise the scope of their activities, their role in God and their being in the front line of the enemy’s attack, then we will hold them in the highest regard and when we allow the Spirit to touch us over this, we will find a love for them we hadn’t had before. So in respect of them and the rest of the church he concludes, “live in peace with each other.” If you heed these things we may find ourselves with a very different church.