Biblical Leadership: Strengthening the Church
1 Thessalonians 3:1–5 1 Therefore when we could endure it no longer, we thought it best to be left behind at Athens alone, 2 and we sent Timothy, our brother and God’s fellow worker in the gospel of Christ, to strengthen and encourage you as to your faith, 3 so that no one would be disturbed by these afflictions; for you yourselves know that we have been destined for this. 4 For indeed when we were with you, we kept telling you in advance that we were going to suffer affliction; and so it came to pass, as you know. 5 For this reason, when I could endure it no longer, I also sent to find out about your faith, for fear that the tempter might have tempted you, and our labor would be in vain.
The greatest need in the Church today has been the same throughout Church history – qualified, called, Spirit-filled biblical leaders who will faithfully lead the Church God’s way according to God’s word, under God’s authority, and for God’s glory. Thus, down the present hour, we need men who will faithfully execute the ministry of the word and men who will serve as pastors and deacons according to qualifications Paul gives in First Timothy (1 Tim. 3.1-11). But others are also gifted with skills and gifts to lead others spiritually whether its in the context of family devotions, a women’s fellowship group, men’s accountability group, a bible study at work with coworkers, or Christians who faithfully encourage the body on a one on one basis. Here Paul is going to focus on the efforts of his young protégé Timothy who was entrusted with the task of edifying the Thessalonian church in Paul’s stead. Paul’s aim in sending Timothy was to strengthen the church’s faith and it reminds us what biblical leadership looks like. Here we can see the encouragement, the counsel and the vigilance that is demanded of faithful leaders in the local church especially but not limited to the elders.
Leaders Strengthen The Church Through Godly Encouragement
The primary existence for leaders is encouragement. Encouragement however comes in all kinds of shapes and sizes. Encouragement can look as comforting as a private conversation over coffee and it can look as intense as a coach encouraging a runner on the last lap of a marathon exhausted by the pain and agony of the race. Encouragement can also be conceived of as discipline, possibly corrective in nature but most often this discipline is formative and falls under the category of discipleship and training even as Paul once told Timothy to discipline himself for the purpose of godliness (1 Tim. 4.7). Of course this is all done through the primary ministry of the Word. Pastoral leadership has no greater tool than the word of God being brought to bear upon the life and consciousness of the church. The church should be led by the word to the word. This is just part of godly leadership. Notice also the character and effectiveness of a godly leader.
The Characteristic Of A Godly Leader
Probably the most implicit characteristic of a godly leader is trustworthiness. Timothy was Paul’s emissary to the church and came with his authority to deliver his teaching, his counsel and his heart for the church. Leaders should be interchangeable that way. They must be unified, think the same thing and be intent on one purpose to use Paul’s words (cf. Phil. 2.1-4). Of course, Paul had no greater co-worker in the gospel than Timothy, his true child in the faith (2 Tim. 1.5):
Philippians 2:19–22 19 But I hope in the Lord Jesus to send Timothy to you shortly, so that I also may be encouraged when I learn of your condition. 20 For I have no one else of kindred spirit who will genuinely be concerned for your welfare. 21 For they all seek after their own interests, not those of Christ Jesus. 22 But you know of his proven worth, that he served with me in the furtherance of the gospel like a child serving his father.
This characteristic was also in other leaders that Paul had personally trained and mentored. Paul mentions the same virtues in connection with Titus and “the brother” whose reputation, much like Paul’s, preceded him for his faithfulness:
2 Corinthians 8:16–19 16 But thanks be to God who puts the same earnestness on your behalf in the heart of Titus. 17 For he not only accepted our appeal, but being himself very earnest, he has gone to you of his own accord. 18 We have sent along with him the brother whose fame in the things of the gospel has spread through all the churches; 19 and not only this, but he has also been appointed by the churches to travel with us in this gracious work, which is being administered by us for the glory of the Lord Himself, and to show our readiness,
Paul sends Timothy to the church to strengthen the church in the midst of pressing needs, in dire circumstances, and with the confidence that Timothy was there to advance, not his own agenda but the gospel, which Paul preached. The level of trust that it took for Paul to send Timothy was significant. Surely Paul wondered if Timothy would communicate the right things in the right way and truly give his life for church even as he had, “we were well-pleased to impart to you not only the gospel of God but also our own lives” (2.8). Timothy reminds us that a biblical leader must be trustworthy, faithful, sacrificial, confident, and competent. These are just some of the virtues necessary for godly leadership.
The Effectiveness Of A Godly Leader
Of course leadership not only requires virtue and character but also effectiveness. You really cannot have one without the other. You can be extraordinarily gifted and godly and yet lake the zeal to carry it out. I have met many men who have been to school, received degrees, and have all the necessary tools for pastoral ministry or other ministries, and yet, because they lack initiative, boldness, faith, and confidence; they often fail to use those gifts to their maximum potential. After Paul tells Timothy for example, to preach God’s word ‘in season and out season’ and other injunctions, Paul finishes the passage with these simple words, “fulfill your ministry” (2 Tim. 4.5). In other words, there comes a point in time when ‘talk is cheap.’ At the end of the day after all of the study is finished, the schooling and preparation is done, the planning and praying is over; we must act!
But the act of leadership is not an exercise in managerial skills, it is not the result of good planning, or effective listening or people skills; it is above all a spiritual enterprise rooted in holy love. This is seen by Timothy’s identity and objectives. His identity is found in his relationship with God, “God’s fellow worker in the gospel of Christ” (συνεργὸν τοῦ θεοῦ ἐν τῷ εὐαγγελίῳ τοῦ Χριστοῦ). Paul uses this term in other places to emphasize the leader’s absolute priority to partner with God in the progress of the gospel and the advancement of His kingdom (cf. 1 Cor. 3.9). As Paul teaches in 1 Corinthians 3, to be God’s ‘fellow worker’ (συνεργὸν) means that we are rendered selfless. God is everything we are nothing! Biblical leadership is a call to reorient our lives around God’s will and to remove self-will and arrogance from His servants (cf. Tit. 1.7). The interest has to be for the people not for yourself and Timothy, did not seek his own and that is why, among other reasons, he was chosen to go in Paul’s place.
Notice also Timothy’s objectives, “to strengthen and encourage you as to your faith,” (εἰς τὸ στηρίξαι ὑμᾶς καὶ παρακαλέσαι ὑπὲρ τῆς πίστεως ὑμῶν). Again, this reinforces the truly spiritual nature of Christian leadership in the church. Paul’s objectives were in one sense lived out in the invisible plain of the heart. The greatest priority in discipleship is the heart because the greatest commodity in the Christian life is “faith” (πίστις). It is faith that wanes, faith that can be weakened, challenged, attacked and assaulted by the enemies of faith and it is faith that needs to be strengthened, built up, and completed (cf. 3.10). He mentions this strength within the context of our adversary who seeks to devour our faith, “But the Lord is faithful, and He will strengthen and protect you from the evil one” (2 Th. 3.3). Similarly, Jesus also focuses on the survival of our faith when considering our great adversary:
Luke 22:31–32 31 “Simon, Simon, behold, Satan has demanded permission to sift you like wheat; 32 but I have prayed for you, that your faith may not fail; and you, when once you have turned again, strengthen your brothers.”
Part of the way that God protects our faith, encourages, strengthens and preserves our faith is through the ministry of the local church and its leaders like Timothy.
Leaders Strengthen The Church Through Godly Counsel
The word that Paul uses in the text for “strengthen” (στηρίζω) can also mean “to establish” (3.13). In v.13 it is associated with God’s final preservation of the believer, in v.2, it refers to the practical preservation of the believer. God uses leaders to establish our faith or make us stronger as God effectively preserves us to the end by His own mercy and grace (cf. Phil. 1.6). This also happens through godly counsel. Notice the character of Paul’s counsel to the Thessalonians.
Counsel That Is Needed
The counsel that was offered was necessary in light of the church’s present struggle, namely the impending persecution that would befall Paul at the hands of the Jews; a persecution that would dog Paul all his life and on all his missionary journeys whether from the Jews or from the Romans. Paul always had sober words for the church. This was his message to the churches in his first and second missionary journeys:
Acts 14:21–22 21 After they had preached the gospel to that city and had made many disciples, they returned to Lystra and to Iconium and to Antioch, 22 strengthening the souls of the disciples, encouraging them to continue in the faith, and saying, “Through many tribulations we must enter the kingdom of God.”
Acts 20:22–24 22 “And now, behold, bound by the Spirit, I am on my way to Jerusalem, not knowing what will happen to me there, 23 except that the Holy Spirit solemnly testifies to me in every city, saying that bonds and afflictions await me. 24 “But I do not consider my life of any account as dear to myself, so that I may finish my course and the ministry which I received from the Lord Jesus, to testify solemnly of the gospel of the grace of God.
Paul’s counsel was needed ultimately so that the church would not apostatize in the face of his “afflictions.” That is what is meant by, “that no one would be disturbed by these afflictions” (τὸ μηδένα σαίνεσθαι ἐν ταῖς θλίψεσιν ταύταις). Paul feared a disruption that is, and unsettling of the Thessalonian’s faith because of what may befall their spiritual father. We think of the principle in Scripture, ‘strike the shepherd and the sheep will scatter’; Paul’s fear was that his own persecution and suffering could be the catalyst to undo the church’s faith in the gospel. That is why he warned them, “you yourselves know that we have been destined for this” (αὐτοὶ γὰρ οἴδατε ὅτι εἰς τοῦτο κείμεθα).
Counsel That Is Forthright
The counsel Paul gave was always straightforward and honest. He spoke on the sight of God with godly sincerity and truth (cf. 2 Cor. 2.17; 12.19). He never held back the telling the church about the genuine nature of the Christianity. He never hid the reality of suffering because he could not. He lived in this suffering. He tells them, “we kept telling you in advance that we were going to suffer affliction” (προελέγομεν ὑμῖν ὅτι μέλλομεν θλίβεσθαι). Today we do everything we can to make life look pleasant and smooth but the reality is we cannot afford to preach a seeker-sensitive message or a prosperity message of ease lest we contribute to the overwhelming about false conversions that plague the Church. We had better listen to Jesus’ parable concerning the significance of trials and suffering and how one can easily be deceived by the man-centered, therapeutic gospel of wealth and health:
Matthew 13:18–21 18 “Hear then the parable of the sower. 19 “When anyone hears the word of the kingdom and does not understand it, the evil one comes and snatches away what has been sown in his heart. This is the one on whom seed was sown beside the road. 20 “The one on whom seed was sown on the rocky places, this is the man who hears the word and immediately receives it with joy; 21 yet he has no firm root in himself, but is only temporary, and when affliction or persecution arises because of the word, immediately he falls away.
The reason people fall away is because they encounter a Christianity that did not conform to their desires and expectations because in their attempt to superimpose their worldview upon the gospel message suffering uniquely leaves them disappointed and disillusioned with Christ and His kingdom. This touches directly on the nature of our worldview. Gordon Fee comments:
“The Christian faith, after all, beginning with our Lord himself, stands in total contradiction to the primary worldview and values of our fallen, broken world. It should therefore not be surprising that those who stand in opposition to such a world and its primary values—even if not verbally so, but by contrasting lifestyles—should regularly experience the scorn and hatred of those who prefer Satan’s values to Christ’s. Perhaps the single most unfortunate result of Christendom as a cultural reality has been that the overlay of a less than radical Christian worldview allows God’s people to “coast” rather than to experience the kind of expected discipleship Paul speaks of here.” (Gordon D. Fee, The First and Second Letters to the Thessalonians, The New International Commentary on the New Testament (Grand Rapids, MI: Wm. B. Eerdmans Publishing Co., 2009), 119).
Leaders Strengthen The Church Through Godly Vigilance
All of this leads us in the direction that godly leaders are to be vigilant. They understand both the urgency of leadership and the gravity. In reality, believers need constant encouragement, constant truth, constant care and discipleship. If we do not provide this for our people, the church can become stagnant, dry, cold, and indifferent to claims of Christ.
The Urgency Of Leadership
If God’s people are going to kept from such indifference, the leaders of the church cannot afford to be slothful, lazy, negligent, absent minded, lukewarm, apathetic, or lack vision for the church themselves. If the leaders have these defects then the people can become carnal, cold, loveless, and indifferent to revealed truth which is a contemptible condition for any church. That is why when Paul focuses in on the leaders in the church as he considers the different parts of the body in Romans 12, Paul simply prods the leader by saying, “he who leads with diligence” (Rom. 12.8). In other words, its Paul way of saying ‘get moving’! Paul had this sense of urgency and sent Timothy when he could not take it any more, “For this reason, when I could endure it no longer, I also sent to find out about your faith” (διὰ τοῦτο κἀγὼ μηκέτι στέγων ἔπεμψα εἰς τὸ γνῶναι τὴν πίστιν ὑμῶν). Of course, “faith” is the operative word here. Here it is the collective faith of the church. It refers not to the individual act of faith, but to the corporate commitment of the church to the gospel. Paul’s concern was church-wide.
The Gravity Of Leadership
We move from the urgency to the gravity of the situation. The reason this was all so urgent was because in the context of the churches affairs, Paul knew ‘the devil was in the details.’ When faith is tested by trials whether persecution as in this context, or suffering, or temptation, or any other test; there is a great potential for faith to be purified, refined and strengthened. Conversely, when our faith is tested, “the tempter” (ὁ πειράζων) is not far behind seeking, as he always does, his own sinister ends. We saw this with Job and the suffering he endured and the tempter’s involvement there (Job 1.6-12), we see this with Jesus and His wilderness experience where God was putting Him through a temptation at the tempter’s hand (Mt. 4.1ff.), Paul of course saw this in his own life where “the tempter” had often buffeted him in his suffering tempting him away from relying on the Lord’s strength, providence and grace (2 Cor. 12.7-10).
For the Thessalonians the persecution that was brought on by the gospel presented a great occasion for satanic temptation and the potential for complete apostasy. Notice that unlike the Galatians who self-consciously were moving themselves away from the gospel, Paul offers no rebuke to the Thessalonians. They would have been more victims of circumstance than anything if the proper leadership had not been provided. But that’s why Paul’s leadership shines so brightly here. He recognized the potential for a specific hazard, i.e. persecution and the danger it could pose to the church knowing the adversary would easily take advantage of them, and he prepared them for it ahead of time. He knew what was at stake. Not only the loss of this church but the loss of his labor and crown (cf. 2.19). The good news for the Thessalonians is that they remained, they withstood the tempter’s assault and stood fast in their faith. The only question remains is, how will we endure when trials shake us, when temptation presents itself, when we move from an oppressive culture to an overtly violent culture that seeks not only the removal of our influence but the removal of our lives?