Paul’s Practical Theology for the Church, pt.1: Ecclesiology
1 Thessalonians 5:12–13 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, 13 and that you esteem them very highly in love because of their work. Live in peace with one another.
In the context, these practical exhortations and instructions come in the light of the eschaton. It is no different than what we find in Peter (cf. 2 Pet. 3.10-13). In light of the great realities of the day of the Lord, believers must reorient their lives around the kingdom of God. That orientation is church-centered. It is the difference between having a high view versus a low view of the church. In this distinction Paul’s desire for the church is to live in light of eternity with their leaders with a proper and realistic view of their leaders. Paul’s theology here is very practical and his practical theology is a hallmark of his letters and directions for the church (cf. Eph. 4-6; Col. 3; 2 Th. 3). In fact, in the body of writing that Paul leaves us he covers everything from singleness and marriage (1 Cor. 7), family and childrearing (Eph. 6.1-2), divorce and remarriage (1 Cor. 7.10ff.), finances (1 Tim. 5.17-18), social norms (1 Cor. 10.31-33), church and state issues (Rom. 13.1-7), and personal conduct and holiness (Gal. 5.17-23; Col. 3.1-12).
In this closing section of the letter Paul also gives us extensive, rich and practical instructions for a myriad of real issues for the believer and the church (vv.12-22). In verses 12, 13 Paul begins with directions dealing with church life, ecclesiology and specifically the relationship of church members and their leaders (i.e. overseers). This was very important for Paul to do. As their original pastor, Paul was now handing the church off to other qualified men who would lead the church in his place and under his instructions (cf. Acts 14.23). Paul calls the church to do three things specifically. They had to acknowledge their leaders for their ministry of shepherding them, esteem their leaders because of the gravity of their labor, and live at peace with their leaders for the sake of unity.
Appreciating The Role Of Pastoral Ministry
As Paul begins his instructions on ecclesiology, he makes what can be considered a polite or pastoral appeal to the church. Many commentators have pointed out the distinction between this appeal, “But we request of you, brethren” (Ἐρωτῶμεν δὲ ὑμᾶς, ἀδελφοί) and the fact that Paul could have easily given them a direct command. The word “request” (Ἐρωτῶμεν) is not an imperative which probably indicates Paul’s desire to broach the subject of pastoral oversight and submission to that oversight from a point of encouragement not heavy-handed or stern instructions. This touches on the manner of pastoral ministry. Richard Baxter once said, “The whole of our ministry must be carried on in tender love to our people” (Richard Baxter, The Reformed Pastor (Edinburgh: The Banner of Truth Trust, 1974) 117). Paul himself had this type of tender love toward the church:
1 Thessalonians 2:7–8 7 But we proved to be gentle among you, as a nursing mother tenderly cares for her own children. 8 Having so fond an affection for you, we were well-pleased to impart to you not only the gospel of God but also our own lives, because you had become very dear to us.
This captures the essence of biblical pastoral ministry. Only paternal metaphors are strong enough to express the devotion shepherds are to have for their people (2.11 cf. 1 Cor. 4.15). This also shows us the logical reason for Paul’s appeal. He appeals to them for their good as a shepherd that seeks their good and admonishes them for their good. The heart of the admonition is to acknowledge (οἶδα) their leaders. The root meaning of the term “appreciate” (NASB), is ‘to know.’ Given the context however, this word can have a wide range of meaning. One Greek Lexicon renders the use of this word here in this context as a call ‘to recognize merit’ (BDAG). Ignatius, an early second century theologian, uses this word as a call to ‘honor God an the bishop’ of the church (BDAG). Such a strong parallel reveals the utter reverence the early church had for their leaders. The reason for this of course is manifold. The ‘merit’ implied in this term stems from the duties and responsibilities of pastoral ministry. Notice Paul’s initial threefold list here.
First, we are called to appreciate our shepherds because of their labor in the church. Paul says they “diligently labor among you” (τοὺς κοπιῶντας ἐν ὑμῖν). A man who desires to be a pastor is first and foremost asking for a workload, “a fine work” (1 Tim. 3.1). The word means nothing less than that. It is not a glorious word, it is not a mystical word, a super-spiritual word, it is a brute fact of ministry but this term simply means “weariness” (BDAG). In other words, the term speaks of real physical, psychological, emotional and mental exhaustion. John used this word to describe Jesus’ weariness as he journeyed from Galilee to Samaria in Sychar about a 30-40 mile trek and a day and half of travel (John 4.1-6). The truth is, there is serious labor involved in every aspect and facet of ministry.
There is the labor of prayer for the church (Acts 6.4), the labor of discipleship (2 Tim. 2.1-2), the labor of rigorous study and sermon preparation (2 Tim. 2.15), there is the labor of fighting off wolves in the church (Acts 20.29; 1 Tim. 1.20), stamping out sin in the church (1 Cor. 5.1-13), confronting error in the church (1 Th. 2.13; 2 Pet. 3.16), combating culture (1 John 2.15-17), rejecting worldliness (Jam. 4.4), refuting heresy (Acts 13.9-10), and exposing heretics (Phil. 3.1-2; Rev. 2.6). Practically, there is also logistical labor (Phil. 4.15), administrative labor (Acts 5.1-2, 2 Cor. 8-9), financial labor (2 Cor. 8), and the labor of a never-ending, seemingly always increasing, busy schedule (Acts 6.4; 2 Cor. 3.4-5). If that was not hard enough, there is the most important work of all, self-mastery, self-discipline and personal devotion and zeal in the Lord (1 Tim. 4.16).
Second, shepherds in have “charge” (προΐστημι) over the church “in the Lord” (ἐν κυρίῳ). This term stresses both the nature and limits of pastoral ministry. To have “charge” speaks of leadership, it refers to the rule the pastors have over the church and even stresses the fact that they stand at the ‘head’ of the church. The pastor’s role is to be focal to be central and the pivotal point of the church in terms of its government. There simply is no avoiding the important role shepherds have in the life of the church. That is why the church is called to “appreciate” them; in a sense everything starts and stops with them and they are responsible for everything that transpires in the church one way or another.
However, we should also be quick to point out that the phrase, “in the Lord” (ἐν κυρίῳ) also stresses the shepherd’s limitations. In other words, our sphere pertains to the things of the Lord, in the sphere of salvation and pertaining to your religious devotion to God. The pastor should not be your personal life-coach, your financial adviser, your dietitian, your doctor, therapist, cop, or politician. The pastor is also not charged to be your judge in tertiary issues. He should not be deciding every point of conviction and conscience (cf. 1 Cor. 7.22; 10.29; Gal. 5.1; Col. 2.16). The pastor is empowered with the Holy Spirit but is not the Holy Spirit in your life. We should not overlook in this text what is omitted from the pastor’s charge because his ministry very much focused on the teaching ministry of the word (cf. Acts 6.4; 18.5; 2 Tim. 4.1-5).
Third, and to emphasize this point, Paul also bases his exhortation on the teaching ministry itself. If nothing else, the shepherd should be respected because he is God’s chosen instrument through which God’s revelation comes, “give you instruction” (νουθετοῦντας ὑμᾶς). In touching on this, Paul uses a term (νουθετέω) that emphasizes the pastor’s ministry of offering wise and godly counsel so as to avert spiritual danger:
Acts 20:29–31 29 “I know that after my departure savage wolves will come in among you, not sparing the flock; 30 and from among your own selves men will arise, speaking perverse things, to draw away the disciples after them. 31 “Therefore be on the alert, remembering that night and day for a period of three years I did not cease to admonish each one with tears.
In the second letter, Paul uses this word so that the church will graciously admonish anyone who disregards Paul’s authority and teaching (cf. 2 Th. 3.14-15). We are to appreciate pastors not for their personality, not for their charisma or their friendship but for their teaching, preaching, training and discipleship. This after all is not only the heart of their work but the reason God empowers them to serve!:
Colossians 1:28–29 28 We proclaim Him, admonishing every man and teaching every man with all wisdom, so that we may present every man complete in Christ. 29 For this purpose also I labor, striving according to His power, which mightily works within me.
Esteeming The Gravity Of Pastoral Ministry
This second exhortation is similar to the first but here it serves to remind the church how and why church leaders, especially elders/pastors/overseers should be ‘highly esteemed’ (that is not to the exclusion of deacons who are also given due honor cf. 1 Tim. 3.13). In terms of the manner in which the shepherd should be esteemed, Paul does not shy away from being very specific in this, “esteem them very highly in love” (ἡγεῖσθαι αὐτοὺς ὑπερεκπερισσοῦ ἐν ἀγάπῃ). The term he uses here means, “beyond measure” (ὑπερεκπερισσοῦ). It stresses the truly reverent view of the church toward its leaders and teachers. It is the same word Paul uses to describe God’s bountiful provision of power for the believer’s sanctification and growth (Eph. 3.20), and he also uses the term in this letter to describe the surpassing and intense desire he had to see the church again and complete his ministry with them (3.10). So then, this word is calling the church to understand and recognize and even more than that to have a high view of the office and the work of the shepherds among them.
The sphere of this honor is also stipulated in the text. Some have taken this to unhealthy levels and degrees of what can only be called, ‘pastor-worship’; supposing that the pastor is super human, sinless, untouchable, unreachable, unrelatable, inaccessible, and even infallible. This can easily lead to factions in the church (cf. 1 Cor. 3.1-4), heavy-handedness in the church (Lk. 22.24-27; 2 Cor. 1.24), and spiritual coercion (cf. 1 Pet. 5.2). These are certainly unhealthy ways of highly esteeming church leaders. That is to say nothing about the radical fraudulent financial manipulation people in the word of faith movement are subjected to by their ‘leaders.’ Such are not leaders but wolves in sheep’s clothing who care nothing for the flock other than what can be gained from them (cf. John 10.11-13; Gal. 6.11-13).
The proper sphere of this, what could be called, transcendent honor, is rooted in the realm of the affections, “in love” (ἐν ἀγάπῃ). There are actually two prepositional phrases here, “in love” and “because of their work” (διὰ τὸ ἔργον αὐτῶν). The first conveys the manner of the honor given and the second conveys the motive behind this honor given (see, Weima, 1-2 Thessalonians, 388). The honor is given “in love” through love, in loving expressions, with loving motives, and for loving ends. This love is a spiritual love a familial love like children to their father, sister to a brother and the love that exists between all of the brethren in God’s family God’s household (cf. Gal. 6.10; Eph. 2.19; 1 Tim. 3.15). The motivation is rooted in the labor that is involved in the ministry and this motivation also helps us to understand the nature of this loving relationship, namely gratitude. The honor we ought to be giving the pastors should be rooted in genuine gratefulness for the spiritual benefits that flow from the shepherd to the sheep. We can see this gratitude in Paul’s relationship to the Galatians, especially early on before they began to compromise:
Galatians 4:14–15 14 and that which was a trial to you in my bodily condition you did not despise or loathe, but you received me as an angel of God, as Christ Jesus Himself. 15 Where then is that sense of blessing you had? For I bear you witness that, if possible, you would have plucked out your eyes and given them to me.
Striving For Unity In Pastoral Ministry
All of this just reinforces Paul’s final admonition that he gives in this short but very important text, namely to “Live in peace with one another” (εἰρηνεύετε ἐν ἑαυτοῖς). This is the total congregational picture. Paul is calling us to pursue a certain quality of life in the church, a certain culture and mindset. “Peace” should dominate the overall prevailing disposition of the church. We should be careful to point out here that “peace” here is a verb not a noun. In other words, it is a call to action. It is a call to establish and maintain a long lasting over/under relationship with your pastors for the sake of lasting unity in the church.
Preserving the peace of the church will ensure the unity of the church (Acts 15.24; Rom. 12.18; 2 Cor. 13.11; Jam. 3.18), the love of the church (Eph. 6.23; 2 Tim. 2.22; Jude 2), the focus of the church (Rom. 15.5-6), the mission of the church (Acts 2.42; 1 Cor. 14.33), the holiness of the church (Heb. 12.14; 1 Pet. 3.10–11), and will only serve to discourage toxic attitudes that are harmful for the life of any church. When peace is not actively pursued, the church runs the risk of filling that void of virtue with the vitriol of vice. This is not only the greatest fear of modern day pastors who want to have a good church, a thriving church, and a growing church that’s growing both qualitatively as well as quantitatively; this was also Paul’s express fear:
2 Corinthians 12:20 20 For I am afraid that perhaps when I come I may find you to be not what I wish and may be found by you to be not what you wish; that perhaps there will be strife, jealousy, angry tempers, disputes, slanders, gossip, arrogance, disturbances;
A hallmark of Christian maturity is unity. This is crucial character of a spiritual church and spiritual people. More than the apparent appropriation of doctrinal acumen, the surface level reach and influence of the church, the giftedness of the church, the talent in the church, or the confessional adherence of the church; the Spirit loves the unity of the brethren in the bond of peace. The main reason for this of course is because presumably when that bond of peace is there it ought to be indicative of a virtuous people, a Christlike people who are a Spirit-filled, Spirit-led, and Spirit-empowered people characterized by good works:
Ephesians 4:1–3 1 Therefore I, the prisoner of the Lord, implore you to walk in a manner worthy of the calling with which you have been called, 2 with all humility and gentleness, with patience, showing tolerance for one another in love, 3 being diligent to preserve the unity of the Spirit in the bond of peace.