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Future Glory | Present Trial: 1 Thess. 5:12-13

1 Thessalonians 5:12-13 :: Under-Shepherds

As we continue our study of 1 Thessalonians, we come to an abrupt change of subject in the body of the letter. Paul has been discussing end times and teaching the young church about end time details, misunderstandings, the timing of events and application. In a word, he shifts gears to discuss the dynamic relationship of church leaders and church congregation. This is not uncommon at all for Paul. And we will follow his lead.

Several years ago, our entire pastoral staff studied a book by Lance Witt entitled Replenish. It consists of 41 brief chapters aimed at restoring spiritual health to pastors and church leaders. It was a tremendous blessing. In the very first chapter, Witt shares some shocking statistics on American pastors gleaned from The Barna Group, Focus on the Family, Fuller Seminary and the Institute of Church Leadership Development. I share it here for your affect.

- 1500 pastors leave the ministry permanently each month in America
- 80% of pastors and 85% of their spouses feel discouraged in their roles
- 70% of pastors do not have a close friend, confidant or mentor
- Over 50% of pastors are so discouraged they would leave the ministry if they could but have no other way of making a living
- Over 50% of pastors’ wives feel that their husband entering ministry was the most destructive thing to ever happen to their families
- 71% of pastors stated they were burned out, and they battle depression beyond fatigue on a weekly and even a daily basis
- Only one out of every ten ministers will retire as a minister

If these stats were accurate in 2011, consider what they would be in 2021, on the heels of a worldwide shutdown. My only response is this: if I were a passionate enemy of the church and of God, the leadership of the church is where I would focus my attack. That seems to be what is happening. I don’t need to tell you of the many sad, sinful, abusive and destructive stories of recent pastor behavior in the church. Anger, adultery, alcoholism and abuse are only a sample of a much longer list of ills and vices and choices. While these stories often cause us to squint at or doubt the pastor or pastoral calling, Paul seems to think it should lead us to a very different conclusion.

Our text today is simple: “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, and that you esteem them very highly in love because of their work. Live in peace with one another.” 1 Thessalonians 5:12-13

I personally find this text a little awkward to teach, only because it centers around an injunction for the church to respect and esteem me, as Lead Pastor, among other church leaders - including other pastors, elders and deacons. While that may sound self-serving and potentially autocratic, I assure you the text of God’s Holy Word has different goals in mind. It is my aim to preach the whole counsel of God to you without qualm. As I do, I will teach to three specific target audiences: the church congregation, myself, and other church leaders.

The text itself centers on a group Paul calls “those who diligently labor among you.” They are further described as those that “have charge over you in the Lord,” and those that “give you instruction.” Labor, charge, instruction. It is highly unlikely that this group is anyone other than the plurality of elder/pastors that Paul set up in the church. Even though he was run out of town hurriedly, I am assuming that he set up leaders rather quickly as was his custom (Acts 14:23; Titus 1:5). These descriptors match the qualifications and conduct of these church leaders as described elsewhere (1 Timothy 3; Titus 1; 1 Peter 5).

Consider, for example, Hebrews 13:17. A text very much about the same topic. Pay attention to the way it ends. “Obey your leaders and submit to them, for they keep watch over your souls as those who will give an account. Let them do this with joy and not with grief, for this would be unprofitable for you.

Notice the benefit of the church in the very last phrase. When leaders (which include pastor/elders) serve out of grief, it is not profitable for the church family at large. This parallel text to 1 Thessalonians 5:12-13 reinforces the truth that a mutual care and concern between shepherd and sheep, pastor and congregation, is God’s ideal. You might pause here? Wait a second? The church is supposed to care for the pastor? I thought the pastor cared for the church? Yes. Both are true. But both truths are not equally practiced.

With this in our mind, let’s work on our main text.

First Thessalonians 5:12-13 is likely connected to the commands in 4:11-12 and their counterpart in 2 Thessalonians 3:6-15. It is possible that the leaders (likely elder/pastors) that Paul set up in the church, as was his custom (see Acts 14:23; Titus 1:5), responded poorly to those that stopped working as they waited for the rapture. This is conjecture but it makes sense of the text and draws some connections. If so, Paul’s instruction is that the church persevere in love with their leaders, as their leaders persevere in love with them. This leads to the dual responses of “appreciate” and “esteem highly.” Although Paul does not specifically work these actions out in application, it is not difficult to do so.

These applications directly led Christopher Ash, a writer in residence with Tyndale Publishers, to write The Book Your Pastor Wishes You Would Read (But Is Too Embarrassed To Ask). It is all about how a church can better care for her pastor. In it he outlines seven “virtues” that would greatly improve the two-way dynamic of care and love between pastor and congregation. He also identifies the coordinated seven vices that will damage this relationship. As a former pastor but present church member, Ash writes in reference to Hebrews 13:17:

“Unless there is at least some whisper of joy in [the pastor’s] hearts as they do their work, some spring of gladness in their step, they will never persevere to the end. And - and this is the point - it is we who will suffer. Instead of being well taught - faithfully preached to with insight and depth - instead of being patiently prayed for, instead of having our souls guarded from evil, instead of being lovingly equipped, instead of being well led in our churches, we will be harassed and helpless, like sheep without a shepherd, at the mercy of all kinds of destructive evil. And our churches will be places of shallow immaturity and instability, at the mercy of every whim of cultural pressure or theological oddity. It is therefore in our own interests, to say nothing of love for the pastor, that we should make their work a joy and not simply a heavy and gloomy burden.”
—Christopher Ash

Ash’s seven virtues (each a two-word phrase) are so profoundly simple, they are in danger of being overlooked:
1. Daily repentance and eager faith (okay, this one is two, two-word phrases)
2. Committed belonging (displaying a commitment to church life and community)
3. Open honesty (sharing openly and honestly with the pastor)
4. Thoughtful watchfulness (helping to watch over the pastors heart and life)
5. Loving kindness (intentional displays of thoughtful love and care)
6. High expectations (living out biblical expectations for pastor and church)
7. Zealous submission (letting the pastor lead and zealously following healthy, biblical leadership)

Although all of them apply biblical truths very well, virtues 2 and 6 deeply resonate with me personally. I find great joy in the stories of committed belonging and joyful service of church members. It is really what the community of the body of Christ is all about: finding our Ephesians 2:10 works, walking in them together, and being equipped to do the work of ministry (Ephesians 4:11). I also greatly appreciate a shared commitment to biblical expectations of the life, conduct, family and character of the pastor (not perfect, but called to be a leading example). I believe the pastor should hold the church accountable to her commitments, and the church should hold the pastor accountable to his, as he is also a member of the body.

Several years ago we gave a fantastic little book to our whole church entitled I Am A Church Member by Thom S. Rainer. In in Rainer identifies six critical commitments church members make to the church family. Together, they form a solid foundation from which to both experience all that God has for His body, the church, and for mutual love, support and care (think of all the “one another” passages in Scripture) for the church family, including all levels of church leadership. His six member commitments are:

1. I will be a functioning church member
2. I will be a unifying church member
3. I will not let my church be about my preferences and desires
4. I will pray for my church leaders
5. I will lead my family to be healthy church members
6. I will treasure church membership as a gift

Dedicating each commitment to a chapter of explanation and application, Rainer’s succinct capture of these foundational elements to church life is a blessing. I highly recommend it.

Consider what kind of church family and experience would result in 1 Thessalonians 5:12-13 lived out. Of course, behind these verses are the commitments, character and conduct of church leaders as described in 1 Timothy and Titus, and exemplified by Paul and Jesus Himself. Put all of these ingredients together - with healthy helpings of the virtues and commitments shared above - and you’ll have a feast of vision, depth, life, joy and impact for the local church. I can’t think of much better than that.

Group Discussion Questions:
1. Today our main text is about church leaders, including pastors, elders and probably deacons. Reread 1 Thessalonians 5:12-13. What are the two main responses Paul commands from the church family? What do they mean?
2. The New American standard uses the word “appreciate” in verse 12. Other translations use the words respect, recognize, acknowledge and honor to translate this Greek verb, which is basically “to know.” What do you think Paul is getting at with this word? How would a church family do this?
3. These two verses have several things to say about the role and responsibilities of church leaders? What does it say specifically? What do you think are the most important aspects of a pastors job and calling? Why? Discuss with your group.
4. At the beginning of the notes above are some statistics concerning pastors collected from Barna, Focus on the Family and other resources. Discuss them among your group. What do you make of these?
5. There are seven virtues shared above from the book by Christopher Ash entitled The book your pastor wishes you would read (but is too embarrassed to ask). Read the virtues as listed above (and their brief descriptions) and discuss them as a group. You don’t have to have read the book to engage a discussion of the virtues, knowing that Ash relates these commitments by the church body to be gifts of love and service to the pastor. Which virtue sticks out to you? Which one do you struggle with the most?
6. Read Hebrews 13:17 and discuss it as a group. What is the main idea? Identify as many applications as possible.
7. Read 1 Peter 5:1-4 and discuss it as a group. What does this text say about the role and responsibilities of an elder/shepherd (note: shepherd in the NT word pastor)? What is the role of the flock?
8. Another book is mentioned above, I am a church member by Thom S. Rainer. The six commitments that make up the book chapters are listed. Discuss them as a group. How would these commitments change the perspective and engagement of a typical church member? Which one sticks out to you the most? Why?
9. Back to 1 Thessalonians 5:13, what does it mean to “esteem them very highly in love because of their work”? How would one do that? What difference would that make for both church family and pastor?
10. The very last phrase of 1 Thessalonians 5:13 says “Live in peace with one another.” How does this relate to the dynamic between pastor and congregation? What is Paul’s point?
11. In group discussion, identify as many ways as you can that you can “live in peace with one another.”
12. Spend some time in prayer for one another as you close your group time.
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