Six Marks of an Excellent Ministry
The Spirit-Led Church in its Labor of Love:
Final Instructions 1/2
“We ask you, brothers, to respect those who labor among you and are over you in the Lord and admonish you, and to esteem them very highly in love because of their work. Be at peace among yourselves. And we urge you, brothers, admonish the idle, encourage the fainthearted, help the weak, be patient with them all. See that no one repays anyone evil for evil, but always seek to do good to one another and to everyone. Rejoice always, pray without ceasing, give thanks in all circumstances; for this is the will of God in Christ Jesus for you. Do not quench the Spirit. Do not despise prophecies, but test everything; hold fast what is good. Abstain from every form of evil.”
1 Thessalonians 5.12-22
With these verses, the apostle lays before the Thessalonians, and us, sixteen or seventeen instructions, depending on how one groups them. For now at least, I see 16 . The temptation is to see them as a list of dos and don’ts, as a list of codified rules. But we must not see them this way. Instead, I suggest to you that we see them as marks of what an exemplary church looks like. And what I mean by exemplary is Spirit-filled or Spirit-led. I get this from a number of places in the epistle. But to show you just one, look at verse 19. It says, “Do not quench the Spirit.”
So I take it that the Spirit of God was very much active in this church. And I also take it that quenching the Spirit’s work would in turn stifle and subdue that which marks His work, namely, in this case, these final instructions Paul furnishes for us here. So, what are they? We’ll expound upon one and one only for this morning.
Regard Your Leaders Highly (verses 12-13).
“We ask you, brothers, to respect those who labor among you and are over you in the Lord and admonish you, and to esteem them very highly in love because of their work.”
The two words to which I draw your attention are ‘respect’ and ‘esteem.’ We know what it is to respect, and to show respect. It’s first of all an attitude, a posture towards something or someone. According to Oxford, it’s a sense of admiration resulting from some qualities or achievements in someone or something. What follows is a certain, undeniable decorum towards what is respected. We respect fire. So, we don’t play with it. We respect the undercurrents of oceans. So, when vacationing in Hawaii, we keep our distance, especially if we don’t swim. But even if we do, we do not presume all undertows are no match for us. We know better. We know the power of waves crashing against the beach. There’s a fascination with it which draws us. But there’s also a fear of it which tempers our approach, and the way we live around it and walk by it. We respect it. And if we respect people, we behave a certain way towards them as well. We pay attention to them. We don’t disregard those respected. We regard them. We don’t dismiss them or deny them. They have our ears. We don’t tune them out. We recognize just who they are. We treat them well, honorably, and with courtesy. We do not undermine those we respect. Nor do we treat them with contempt.
The other word here is ‘esteem.’ To esteem is to hold an opinion. To esteem highly is to hold a high opinion. To esteem very highly, as the text says, is to hold a very high opinion.
So, members are to highly regard their leaders. This is one mark of a Spirit-led church. It rightly recognizes its leadership.
That leadership is known not by its office per se, not by whatever name can be attached to it, but primarily by what it does. I want you to see this here. Leadership, local church leadership, isn’t in a name or title. One isn’t a spiritual leader simply because he’s been given some position, say for example, ‘elder.’ An elder isn’t an elder because he’s been given the position. An elder is an elder before he’s been so affirmed. I say this primarily because, for whatever reason, Paul makes no mention of the names we link with church office here, like “pastor” or “elder” or “bishop.” I think those names lurk beneath the surface. But what is in plain sight is not an office per se, but a function, and not status, but a service.
That function/service Paul describes in three ways. First, they ‘labor among you.’ ‘Respect those who labor among you.’ Spiritual leadership is labor. It’s work. It’s intensive and at times exhausting. This work involves no small task, much of which is done behind the scenes. I once heard it said that before any man stand as I now stand, he must sit many times longer. But the point I want to get across to you is this: true leadership labors. It doesn’t fritter. It’s not at ease as if on vacation. Paul says to respect those who labor among you, not those who leisure among you.
It should also occur to us that labor in the local church is the thing – and not things like success in business, social status or rank, like-ability, sense of humor, or ability to sway a crowd. Those kinds of things have nothing whatsoever to do with validating or legitimizing church leadership. What does legitimize it, and thus beckons our respect, is a work, and a certain kind of work at that, as we shall soon see and be reminded of, if only in brief. Gene L. Green is very helpful when he writes:
“In the Thessalonian church, those who were distinguished by their labors for the church, their leadership and provision, and their moral influence over others were those who should be recognized as the true leaders in the church. Neither their status nor their title but rather their service among the believers is what separated them for this ministry. True Christian leadership is not show but substance, not self-serving but self-sacrificial.”
In the age of the internet, we need to understand something at this very point. Everyone seems to have a net pastor or preacher/teacher. We live in an amazing day, don’t we? There’s so much access to so much that is good and beneficial for us, provided by men who upload the fruit of their labors on websites and podcasts and the like. We praise God for men, for sound, godly men, who allow us to profit from them that way. But here’s the thing: Paul says to respect those who labor among you. This doesn’t mean our favorite net pastor isn’t to be respected. But it does mean our favorite net pastor is not in view here. Why not? Because he is not ‘among you.’ He therefore doesn’t know you. He doesn’t observe you. He doesn’t watch over you. He will not give account because of you. He is not preaching to you; he speaks to his own church. True, we might benefit from what he says to his own people, but only indirectly. So again I say what the apostle says – “Respect those who labor among you.” The one who respects such ones is truly committed to God’s conception of the local church (as opposed to his own conception of it).
Second, those who labor among you are further described as “over you in the Lord.”
That’s good reason to respect, isn’t it. To be “over you in the Lord:” the phrase speaks of leadership, of ruling and presiding over, of oversight, authority, and direction in the things of Christ. But this is not to ‘be over you’ in order to be in a position of power over you. That’s not it at all. To be ‘over you in the Lord’ is to be placed in a position of authority for spiritual protection, direction, instruction, and benefaction. In other words, to be under such is a very good and safe place to be. It’s where the Head of the Church would have you. And so, to remove oneself from the local church, either by falling away, staying away, whatever, is to remove oneself from this advantageous position. It is, to be sure, to place oneself in a perilous position, to say the least.
Third, those who labor are those who admonish you.
To admonish is literally to instruct so as to correct in both belief and behavior. This the ‘meat and potatoes’ of spiritual leadership. It marked Paul’s own ministry. In his farewell speech to the Ephesian elders, you’ll recall how he mentions he did not cease to admonish every one under his care. Listen to him speak. He says:
“I know that after my departure fierce wolves will come in among you, not sparing the flock; and from among your own selves will arise men speaking twisted things, to draw away the disciples after them. Therefore be alert, remembering that for three years I did not cease night or day to admonish every one with tears” (Acts 20:29-31).
What are tears? Are they not uncontrollable, involuntary expressions of a broken, burdened heart? And Paul says he admonished night and day with them. What is this? Well, this is Christian leadership; done with tender hearts, a love for the body, wet eyes, and not with clenched fist.
To the puffed up, arrogant Corinthians, desperately in need of correction, Paul writes:
“I do not write these things [i.e. sarcastic things, words of sarcasm immediately before these words] to make you ashamed, but to admonish you as my beloved children” (1 Corinthians 4:14).
Immediately, the family comes to mind, doesn’t it? Maybe not yours, but God’s. Remember Hebrews 12?
“7It is for discipline that you have to endure. God is treating you as sons. For what son is there whom his father does not discipline? 8 If you are left without discipline, in which all have participated, then you are illegitimate children and not sons. 9 Besides this, we have had earthly fathers who disciplined us and we respected them. Shall we not much more be subject to the Father of spirits and live? 10 For they disciplined us for a short time as it seemed best to them, but he disciplines us for our good, that we may share his holiness. 11 For the moment all discipline seems painful rather than pleasant, but later it yields the peaceful fruit of righteousness to those who have been trained by it.”
One only has to reflect on this briefly, and he will begin to taste something of why this is laborious. To understand the Scriptures, to discern truth from falsehood, to rightly apply, and then to mess around with, and even interfere with the “sacred” habits and cherished doctrines of others, is simply a crazy thing to do! Ha! No one likes to be told what to believe and how to behave and not behave, especially unbelievers. And how foreign is this to our conception of church life, body life, and real ministry? I mean, who thinks of the word and ministry of admonishment when they think church life? That’s anathema today, isn’t it. That’s alright and fine for everybody else. But when it affects you? Well, that’s a different story. Maybe, just maybe, that’s why Paul gives this very instruction, that the Thessalonian church members, and members of every local church henceforth, respect their leaders.
But we must not leave it at that. It must be remembered: those to whom Paul wrote were a blessed people. They were a changed people. The proof of that transformation was seen in their steadfastness to Christ in the midst of all manner of persecution because of their allegiance to Him. They received the Word. They behaved as their teachers, even the apostle and those he endorsed with him. They trumpeted the glorious truth of Christ, Paul’s gospel, both near and far. God was giving to them His Holy Spirit. And God Himself, by His direct presence and influence in their souls, taught them to love even as Christ loved. So, I think it’s more than safe to assume Paul had great confidence his instruction would be heeded. How could it be otherwise! These instructions, inspired by the Spirit of God, given to the people of God, a people in whom the Spirit dwelt, these instructions would indeed be received, and even produce in them that for which they call.
In the next verse, Paul adds to his request.
Not only does the Spirit-led church respect its leaders, it esteems them highly in love. Evidently, the esteem here is extreme. ‘Esteem them in the highest degree possible, ‘ says Paul, ‘in love.’ Two quotes to share with you and we’re done. We’ll resume with this in the New Year. But I choose these excerpts because they are jam packed with implication and application and counter-intuitive, Christ-exalting, body-building food. So…
Gene L. Green-
“This esteem is expressed in love (cf. Ephesians 4:2,15–16). Their great regard for their leaders is not mere submission to a person of higher rank but is rather part of a relationship that is characterized by love. Just as love delimits the relationship between all the members of the congregation (1:3, 4:9–10), so it should be the seal of their relationship with their leaders. This love is closely related to the community harmony or peace that is called for in the exhortation of the second part of this verse … The apostle summons the congregation to this profound loyalty to their leaders because of their work and not because of their position or office.”
“…Paul expressly says that they are to esteem their rulers in love “because of their work.” It is not a matter of personalities. It is the good of the church that is the important thing. The church cannot be expected to do its work effectively if the leaders are not being loyally supported by their fellows. It is a matter of fact that to this day we are often slow to realize that effective leadership in the church of Christ demands effective following. If we are continually critical of those who are set over us in the Lord, small wonder that they are unable to perform the miracles that we demand of them. If we bear in mind “because of their work,” we may be more inclined to esteem them very highly in love.”
So, let us respect our leaders, those who labor among us, are over us in the Lord, and admonish us. Let us esteem them very highly in love because of their work. This is good and right and fitting for those to whom God gives his Holy Spirit. Amen.
Pastor Braye studied at Canadian Theological Seminary and the University of Alberta. Presently he labors for “Pastoral Leadership Development at Action International Ministries” In the past he served as pastor of Sovereign Grace Baptist Church and Beckwith Baptist Church. He is From Edmonton, Alberta