The What & Why of Honoring Church Leaders for Unity’s Sake
We complete unpacking Paul’s quest in 1 Thess. 5:12-13 for preserving unity in the church by advocating followers’ respect for their leaders because of their work.
The last of three verbs in v. 12 describing the nature of a church officer’s work is the word “admonish.” Literally it means “to put in mind.” It has instruction and teaching overtones.
But more is involved in that. We get some help from what follows: “And we urge you, brothers, admonish the idle” (1 Thess. 5:14a). Admonishment is confrontational in a good sense. It confronts sinful behaviors like idleness.
Apparently some of the Thessalonians, confused about the doctrine of the return of Christ and its implications (see 1Thess. 4:13-5:11), stopped working for their provision, waiting around for Jesus to come back. Paul urged that this kind of thing not to on unchecked.
Here is another example: “As for a person who stirs up division, after warning him once and then twice, have nothing more to do with him” (Titus 3:10). It is the job of elders to identity ungodly behavior in followers of Jesus—like divisiveness—and to help uproot the idols that lie beneath those sins.
That, by the way, is terribly hard work. In some ways, I would say the hardest part of my job as a pastor. But it is absolutely essential ministry for the welfare of the flock.
David Mathis, writing for Desiring God, explains why this kind of spiritual work by leaders, or anyone in our lives for that matter, deserves our utmost respect:
How is it that God’s reproof most often comes to us? Answer: in reproof from a brother or sister in Christ. We’ll beware resisting the reproof of a fellow in Jesus, especially when it’s echoed in multiple voices, knowing that likely we would be resisting the very reproof of God. When a brother or sister in Christ goes to the inconvenience to have the unpleasant conversation bringing correction into our lives, we should be floored with thanksgiving. . . . Count it as love from your brother, and as God’s channel of his love for you.
Here is another practical suggestion. Watch your attitude when a church officer dares in love to take you aside to reprove or exhort you. You may not end up agreeing in the long run, but that is still such an important work for your spiritual well-being.
Take it to heart. At least pray about it. Thank him for reaching out to you. Respect the fact that he went out of his way to risk speaking to you with truth in love (Eph. 4:15).
For all these reasons, the nature of an officer of the church’s work as family work, hard work, leading work in the Lord, and corrective work, followers should pursue peace by holding their leaders in the highest regard worthy of all esteem.
This kind of honoring, submissive virtue does not come naturally. It is not our default heart setting as self-centered beings. I think that’s why Paul motivates the way he does just before this context:
For God has not destined us for wrath, but to obtain salvation through our Lord Jesus Christ, who died for us so that whether we are awake or asleep we might live with him. Therefore encourage one another and build one another up, just as you are doing (1 Thess. 5:9-11).
To encourage one another, to build one another up, to honor one another, whether officers or not, these capacities come from Him who died for us so that whether we are awake or asleep we might live with Him.
In their book, Redeeming Church Conflicts, Tara Barthell and David Edling point to this kind of gospel motivation in lobbying for thinking the world of our church leaders:
As you consider your role as a follower in your church . . . how are you affirming the gifts and strengths of your leaders, and how are you bearing with their weaknesses? Remember how gentle and patient God is toward you—that it is his kindness that “leads you toward repentance” (Rom. 2:4). . . . One of the most appreciative and encouraging things you can do for your leaders is to pray for them and let them know you are doing so. This will demonstrate your proactive devotion.
Great concept—proactive devotion—yet another practice contributing significantly to some very sweet rewards accompanying unity in the church.