The What & Why of Honoring Church Leaders for Unity’s Sake

We continue 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.

So far we have considered the family and hard nature of that work. This post focuses on the leading nature of the ministry.


Respect those who labor among you and are over you in the Lord. The verb over is made up of two Greek words, literally to stand before.

It means to provide oversight. Paul exhorted the elders at Ephesus about this aspect of the work in Acts 20:28.

Pay careful attention to yourselves and to all the flock, in which the Holy Spirit has made you overseers, to care for the church of God (emphasis added).

Overseer is episkopos—one who watches over. These servants preside over the affairs of the congregation for its welfare and good order.

Please don’t miss those words in the Lord. The elder’s domain is spiritual. It’s the church. Elders tend to the affairs of Christ within the local congregation as His representatives doing His business.

I love to start every new member class the same way. I introduce myself: Curt Heffelfinger. I give my title: I am the pastor-teacher here at OGC. Then I add, “I am not the senior pastor.”

To which I then ask, “Would you like to know who is?” Inevitably I get a yes and some just blurt out the answer. Jesus. Jesus is the Chief Shepherd of His church (1 Pet. 5:4). Every elder and deacon who assists elders is nothing more than Christ’s underling/steward.

Hebrews 13:17 summarizes this well:

Obey your leaders and submit to them, for they are keeping watch over your souls, as those who will have to give an account. Let them do this with joy and not with groaning, for that would be of no advantage to you (emphasis added).

By the way, you simply cannot obey this verse, if you don’t belong to a local church as a member, partner, whatever you want to call it. Someone in a local context of Jesus’ universal church needs your informed consent to take accountable responsibility for your spiritual welfare.

Alfred Poirer notes this as one of several aspects of a biblical basis for covenant membership in a local church.

The New Testament writers assume that Christians can identify their leaders to whom they have voluntarily submitted themselves. . . . And conversely, they expect the leaders of a church to be able to identify those members for whom they must give an account (Acts 2:28-30; 1 Thess. 5:12-13; Heb. 13:17; 1 Peter 5:1-4). If the sheep must know their shepherd, so too the shepherd must know his sheep. Yet God will not hold a pastor liable for failing to discharge his duties as shepherd over sheep that he cannot determine are his own.

But my primary point here is that a lack of respect for the officer for his work can tempt him to groan. It can tempt him to discouragement. Don’t go there.

Threatening Christ’s servants’ joy through disrespect and being unduly difficult to shepherd will not profit you and will jeopardize the peace of the church. Please determine to be easily led for the sake of the unity of your fellowship!

Some practical suggestions on this front:

Are you going to be gone for several weeks and go missing on Sundays? Let your pastor know so he does not wonder if you are OK.

If he tries to reach you via text, email, or phone to check up on you, to ask for your help, to follow up on something, don’t make it hard for him. Be responsive, be prompt, be cooperative in every way you can. You will give him such joy.

Of course, if you have not yet become a member of your church, determine to take advantage of the soonest possible opportunity you can to identify with that congregation and its leaders.

Labor mightily for a healing spirit!


The What & Why of Honoring Church Leaders for Unity’s Sake

In my latest series of posts based on 1 Thess. 5:12-13, I have argued for the pursuit of church unity by the way followers honor their leaders. It has everything to do with the nature of their work.

In the last post we covered the family nature of the work. In this post we consider the toilsome nature of the ministry.

Hard Work

The Greek language has a variety of terms for work. In v. 12, Paul uses a verb form of a particularly vivid word. It describes toil, labor, or work so depleting it leaves one weary—completely exhausted.

The root of the word means beaten, as in this kind of work leaves you feeling like you just went fifteen rounds with Muhammad Ali.

Paul uses the same word in 1 Tim. 5:17 when he speaks of those who labor in preaching and teaching, a principal role of an elder.

In his own testimony, Paul claimed in 1 Cor. 15:10, I worked harder than any of them, though it was not I, but the grace of God that is with me.

If you are worth your salt, if you are duly qualified, if you are rightly called to office, if you truly get the nature of service in God’s church, whether elders who devote themselves to prayer and the ministry of the word or deacons who “wait on tables” serving practical needs in the body and ministering to those in need (Acts 6:1-7), I guarantee you, you know the reality of this.

You know what it means to work hard. You’ve lost sleep, sacrificed family time, and put your own needs second to those you serve countless times. And sometimes it just leaves you feeling spent.

Not only that, but by Jesus’ own admission the laborers are few (Matt. 9:37). So you are likely undermanned on your team for the tasks on your list. These realities of church ministry alone are reason enough, Paul argues, for followers to pursue peace by treating their officers with respect.

In my role as a shepherd of God’s people, I get called upon often to assist folks in resolving disputes. I find the effort, time, and commitments necessary for effective assisted peacemaking among the toughest assignments in my ministry.

I always approach these challenges the same way. First, I meet with the individuals alone for conflict coaching—multiple times if necessary. Then, we meet for the actual mediation.

Along the way I try to help identify issues, concerns, offenses, idols of the heart, and paths to reconciliation. It can be brutally exhausting work.

Some time ago I served a family in such a conflict. The Lord worked mightily in healing the rift. I received one of the kindest notes notes of appreciation anyone has ever sent me.

I put that card in my Why I Became a Pastor File. I pull it out on days I think about abandoning ship and becoming a Walmart greeter.

Few things convey more honor and respect to someone like me in pastoral ministry than tangible appreciation.

What is something you might do to show your gratitude for the hard work done by your spiritual leaders?



The What & Why of Honoring Church Leaders for Unity’s Sake

“Love one another with brotherly affection. Outdo one another in showing honor.”

So Paul, the apostle, exhorts in Rom. 12:10.

A gospel-shaped life (Rom.1-11) demonstrates itself in a variety of manifestations of love-in this case competitive honor-showing.

I have argued in my previous three posts that this must especially be true in the way followers treat their leaders in the local church.

We will struggle to enjoy ongoing unity in the body of Christ failing to cultivate such a virtue.

In 1 Thess. 5:12-13 Paul details four aspects of the nature of a shepherd’s work which warrant extra attention in the way of honor and esteem on the part of us as followers: family, hard, leading, and corrective work.

In this post I want to address the first.


Family Work  

Remember how Paul begins? We ask you. He urges gently; he doesn’t pull apostolic rank. And he writes with affection calling them brothers. Of course, as the ESV marginal note clarifies, he means brothers and sisters—both men and women.

He builds everything he commends here on the gospel foundation of brotherhood. We are family. Before we are elders, deacons, congregants et al, we are brothers and sisters in Christ. The church is God’s family.

What should distinguish us above all else is the love for which we have for one another.  For followers that must be especially true of the way they esteem their church officers.

One Sunday morning a number of years ago I went on an ill-advised tirade during the announcement segment of the worship service. A new round of what we call Equipping Hour (think Sunday school) classes lay before us.

Attendance at these often started strong but waned as weeks went by. In an effort to motivate greater participation, I went on a legalistic rant and rave. I mean, it was ugly.

It was so bad my wife actually pulled me aside during the music to express her dismay at my meltdown!

If that wasn’t bad enough, a week or so later our young pastoral intern asked to meet me for lunch. After the usual chit chat, Scott courageously brought up that Sunday.

I’ll never forget what he said. Pastor Curt, the only thing that entire day that pointed me to the gospel was the baptisms at the end. This clearly had not been my finest pastoral hour.

That both my wife and an intern needed to exhort me about it humbled me big time. I got the message. I determined never to do that again.

Both the way Nancy and Scott approached me made all the difference in the world in the way I reacted. They never lost sight of respect for my calling and authority as an elder. They entreated me with esteeming love as a brother—and in my wife’s case—also as her husband!

When you engage an officer about some issue in your church, picture him with his family hat on—your brother—before you do with his leader hat on.

What is one way you could show your esteem for a pastor this week as your brother?


The What & Why of Honoring Church Leaders for Unity’s Sake


In their book, Redeeming Church Conflicts, Tara Barthel and David Edling put their finger on a troublesome issue between followers and leaders in the church:

Typically, in our churches today, we find followers who don’t want to follow because they think they know more than their leader. They are like rebellious sheep who just want to do what they would do naturally. It’s true that all leaders are imperfect. But we can all learn to follow imperfect leaders. We have no other choice, for there is no perfect leader in a fallen world, and as followers, this is what we are called to do.

In this series of posts regarding followers excelling in safeguarding unity with leaders, we have answered the “what” question from this passage.

Followers who master peacemaking with leaders in their church treat them with the utmost, relational, loving esteem/honor/respect possible.

Now we are ready to ask the “why” question.

The answer comes in the middle of 1 Thess. 5:12-13because of their work.

I make it a point every Sunday before the worship service to eyeball the congregation looking for new people. If possible, I head their way to welcome them.

One Sunday I approached a lady visiting for the first time. I introduced myself by my first name. She smiled and replied, Hi, Curt, and shook my hand.

But then she paused, maybe catching a glimpse of my name tag. She actually gasped a bit. Are you the pastor? she asked. Well, yes, I am. I answered.

And then she apologized. She explained: Then I should have addressed you as “pastor.”

I assured her that she did not offend me. Lots of folks around Orlando Grace call me “PC” for short. I actually like the affection behind the nickname!

Some even address me by my first name, without the title. It really makes no difference to me.

But the fact that she took the office seriously and wanted to convey that even by the way she addressed me made me think.

She gets this verse.

Don’t get me wrong. This principal for safeguarding unity isn’t necessarily about titles.

But particularly in a conflict involving your shepherds, if peacemaking and Paul’s teaching matter here, you will want to take enormous pains about the way you go about communicating.

You will govern your tone of voice, the choice of words, and your overall demeanor so that you guard your heart from disrespect.

Paul lists four aspects of the officers’ work that necessitate honoring them as an essential part of pursuing peace and preserving unity in Christ’s church.

In the following posts we will look at each—family, hard, leading and corrective work—and make some practical applications.

How might you be tempted to think that you know more than your leaders?



The What & Why of Honoring Church Leaders for Unity’s Sake

In my last post, I argued that eager preservers of church unity (Eph. 4:1-3) bring a lot of energy to peacemaking in the church. It always ranks high in their priorities as members of a fellowship.

respectWith this end in view, the apostle Paul zeroes in on the relationship between followers and their leaders in 1 Thess. 5:12-13. He spells out a practice they must master, if they are to excel as a peacemaking people.

Simply put: Peacemaking people in Christ’s church treat their officers with utmost honor given the nature of their work.

Paul models a peacemaking spirit himself in carefully chosen words up front. We ask you, brothers (emphasis added). He commands at the end of v. 13—but he leads with a request.

The same word ask appears earlier in the letter coupled with another term in 1 Thess. 4:1. We ask and urge you. The two verbs combine to reveal his heart. He pleads with them.

He appeals to their familial sentiments—like a father would his children. With respect to their attitude toward their leaders—elders and deacons alike—he begs for a spirit of honor.

The What—Respect and Esteem

Paul uses two infinitives—synonyms to drive home his point—to respect (v. 12) and to esteem (v. 13). The former literally is the Greek word for to know. We ask you, brothers, to know those who labor among you.

He desires something more than raw recognition or mere dutiful honor. Don’t just acknowledge them because you must obey. Know them. Relate to them. Personally engage them.

That fits well with the addition of the words in love that go with the second infinitive: esteem them. That infinitive normally gets translated to consider or to think in a certain way. Here the context dictates a nuance of honor.

Think of them in terms of esteem—and to no small degree. Esteem them very highly in love (emphasis added). One commentator calls very highly a triple Pauline intensive. It means quite beyond all measure.

It conveys the highest form of comparison imaginable. It appears rarely in the New Testament, but perhaps most vividly in Eph. 3:20—Now to him who is able to do far more abundantly than all we ask or think (emphasis added).

Tara Barthel relates a story about a woman she once helped. It illustrates the kind of spirit Paul advocates in these verses:

Her marriage was very difficult, and her church leaders, though involved, were inexperienced in biblical counseling and biblical peacemaking. They made mistakes but they truly wanted to do what was biblically correct. Although this woman suffered greatly, she did so with great love and patience, realizing that her temporary circumstance was not just about her—it was also about helping her church leaders grow in knowledge, wisdom, and ability to serve as officers of Christ’s church. Her marital and familial conflicts concerned her church family, and so she endured patiently as her church leaders stumbled, erred, and caused hurt. Yes, she wept. Yes, it was hard. But God was glorified throughout the process, and her church was strengthened as she lived by faith and modeled what it looks like to be a biblical follower. This dear woman remembered that leaders are human; leaders are in the process of growing too. They are just as much in need of grace as followers are.

What are some ideas you have for showing respect and esteem to your church leaders?



Preserving Unity When Your Church Struggles

Every church experiences its ups and downs.

Ours has had its share. Most have involved me as lead pastor.

Between mega-loss and poor health, it seems I’ve spent more time out of the pulpit over the last three years than in it.

It’s awfully tough for a church to maintain momentum when the point man goes down.

Those things are largely behind me now. We’re working on rebuilding. But staying positive has its challenges.

And yet remaining thankful in all things matters so very much to a church’s peace. Paul exhorts in Phi. 2:14, Do all things without grumbling or disputing.

The church at Philippi suffered its share of disunity. Paul went so far as to call out publicly two women at odds with one another within the body (Phil. 4:2-3). Yikes, that must have hurt!

A spirit of discontent cripples the peace of any congregation.

Dietrich Bonhoeffer offered this counsel for navigating hard times in a needy congregation:

In the Christian community thankfulness is just what it is anywhere else in the Christian life. Only he who gives thanks for little things receives the big things. We prevent God from giving us the great spiritual gifts He has in store for us, because we do not give thanks for daily gifts. We think we dare not be satisfied with the small measure of spiritual knowledge, experience, and love that has been given to us, and that we must constantly be looking forward eagerly for the highest good. Then we deplore the fact that we lack the deep certainty, the strong faith, and the rich experience that God has given to others, and we consider this lament to be pious. We pray for the big things and forget to give thanks for the ordinary, small (and yet really not small) gifts. How can God entrust great things to one who will not thankfully receive from Him the little things? If we do not give thanks daily for the Christian fellowship in which we have been placed, even where there is no great experience, no discoverable riches, but much weakness, small faith, and difficulty; if on the contrary, we only keep complaining to God that everything is so paltry and petty, so far from what we expected, then we hinder God from letting our fellowship grow according to the measure and riches which are there for us all in Jesus Christ.

How’s your thanksgiving quotient in your church? Its peace depends in part on your faithfulness in the little things.

Give thanks in all circumstances; for this is the will of God in Christ Jesus for you (1 Thess. 5:18).