Saturday, May 09, 2015

Those who work hard among you (Ministry in Thessalonians, #21)

Now we ask you, brothers, to respect those who work hard among you, who are over you in the Lord, and who admonish you. Hold them in the highest regard in love because of their work. Live in peace with each other. 
- 1 Thessalonians 5:12-13

After an extensive discourse on the hope that believers have in the return of Christ and our eventual reunion with Him and other believers, Paul turns to a more earth-bound topic: The healthy functioning of His body, the church.

Don't think for a minute that these practical instructions are of lesser significance than the future promises we have just read. Since Jesus established it, the church has been God's appointed means for spreading the good news of salvation through Jesus, teaching and bringing others into the family so that one day, people will worship around the throne from "every tribe and tongue and nation and people group" (Revelation 7:9). He wants to multiply exponentially the number of people who will "live together with Him" (verse 10) and that requires a healthy, growing, global church.

No one believer, or one body of believers, or even one massive people movement of believers, can ever fully reflect the character of Jesus to the world or live out the Great Commandments in all the ways God loves. No single body can fulfill the Great Commission. It takes all of us - yet as real as the overall body of Christ is, the fact remains that it is revealed to the world in local bodies of believers. God didn't stay on an abstract plane, but came down to earth in the form of a baby who grew to be a man who revealed God's true nature to us. In that same sense, the "body of Christ" is incarnated in hundreds of thousands of local bodies - the local church. And for each local church to fulfill its God-given purpose in God's global plan, each person has a part to play. As Paul turns to address some of these aspects of healthy church life, let us recall that this is one of the earliest books of the Bible, written to one of the first churches Paul planted. Without the full counsel of the word of God to inform their faith and practice, this church was very dependent on Paul's guidance. What did he consider significant enough to write down and send to them?

Respect. Your. Leaders.

A close examination of verses 12-14 makes it clear that Paul is talking about two different groups: "brothers" and another group described in three ways:
  • They work hard among you
  • They are over you in the Lord
  • They admonish you
These aren't people from outside the church (like Paul & his team) but people who are integrally involved in the daily life of the church. Putting together all the puzzle pieces, and comparing to other Scriptures, we can deduce that this three-fold description can only be referring to church leaders. These verses give insight both into how church leaders should do their job, and how church members - referred to here as "brothers" - can fulfill Paul's request to respect leaders.
1. Leaders work hard. Strong's dictionary defines the Greek word translated as "work hard" with this descriptive explanation: "1. to grow weary, tired, exhausted (with toil or burdens or grief)  2. to labour with wearisome effort, to toil a.of bodily labour". Simply put: Ministry is hard. Sometimes it's hard mentally, sometimes it's hard spiritually ... and sometimes it is physically demanding.

If you are in any kind of ministry, please don't get confused by the common but misguided notion that attempts to assure you that anything done for God will give energy. Yes, it is true that works empowered by the Holy Spirit and fueled by faith do feel different than works done in the flesh. We can feel spiritually renewed in the midst of ministry. But we can also know, beyond a shadow of a doubt, that we are walking in our calling and still get really, really tired. 

If you are not in church leadership, please remember this aspect of ministry. Respect your leaders by being aware of their fatigue and the burdens of ministry. Realize that your pastor, or his wife, or elders, or nursery coordinator, are carrying loads that you don't have to carry. Sometimes they may seem to be distracted when you're talking to them simply because they haven't slept in two nights. Maybe your pastor fumbled over a few words in the sermon because he was up all night preparing it. Demonstrate the respect that Paul asks of us by extending the same grace you want after a hard day's work and little sleep. If your pastor has a scheduled day off, respect his time and pray for his rest. In fact, keep your pastor, his family, and all your church leaders at the top of your prayer list every day. You can be sure that part of the "hard work" they do is praying for you, so respect them by returning the favor.

2. Leaders have spiritual authority. I know that word grates at the nerves of a lot of us, especially those of us in more egalitarian cultures. Please know that I am well aware of the abuses of authority that many of us have seen, both outside and sadly, inside, the church. However, hear this well: abusive authority is not spiritual authority. Consider the range of meanings wrapped up in the word translated "over you": "to set over; to superintend; to preside over; to be a protector or guardian; to give aid; to care for or give attention to." Spiritual authority boils down to this: Someone has to be responsible. Part of being responsible is protecting, guarding, helping, paying attention to details.

If you are in church leadership, first of all thank you for taking on this responsibility. See in this Scripture the Biblical authority God has given you over the church extends far beyond giving a message or arranging the Sunday service. Good leaders are the shepherds who guard the sheep; John 10 tells us that a good shepherd won't let any interlopers into the sheep pen. Pray for discernment, to be sensitive to every detail that God wants you to pay attention to for the care and protection of the people God has given you.

If you are a church member, you may read this verse and envy your leaders for their "higher calling." Scripture never makes the distinction that it's higher; only that it carries a heavier weight. Consider  Hebrews 13:17: "Have confidence in your leaders and submit to their authority, because they keep watch over you as those who must give an account. Do this so that their work will be a joy, not a burden, for that would be of no benefit to you." This verse gives very specific instructions on how we can respect our leaders in this area: Have confidence in them, and submit to their authority. If you chafe at the word "submit", remember the description of what spiritual authority means: They protect us, they care for us, they help us and pay attention to things on our behalf. When you submit to your church leaders' authority, you are not checking your brain at the door. You are simply allowing them to fulfill their God-given role of protecting you, caring for you, helping you, paying attention to things.

3. Leaders speak hard truths. "Admonish" is a word related to teaching and simply means warning or exhorting. When Scripture speaks of exhorting it is always in the context of the word of God, so this is essentially another way of saying that leaders tell us hard truths from the Bible. They highlight things we might want to skip over. They remind us of truths that we have forgotten. If they are walking in the spiritual authority God gave them as we just noted, they will be paying attention to things we might miss - so they will occasionally giving us Biblical warnings that we might otherwise miss. Of course, as Christ's under-shepherds (1 Peter 5:1-4) they will speak in love and with compassion. But they will speak it.

Leaders, always remember that God doesn't simply give you permission to speak hard truths - He assumes that you will do so. He will always be with you and empower you in anything He calls you to share.

Members, the next time you sense a difficult word coming from your pastor or another leader, pray for him and ask God to help you receive the message. Good leaders are prescient and will always be ahead of the people, so consider that he might be seeing something you just cannot yet see. Study the Scriptures he references and ask God to help you apply them to your own life. 
Paul wraps up this by telling the brothers not only to respect their leaders, but to hold them in high regard in love because of what they do. In a culture based on honor and shame, Paul is telling these church brothers to hold their leaders in a place of honor - not because the leaders demand it or expect it, but because they work hard. We are to do this in love - it's not a burden to show honor to someone who is protecting and caring for you and not seeking honor for themselves.

Finally, Paul wraps up this section by telling the believers to live in peace with each other. Leaders with non-leaders. All the brothers and sisters of the body with each other. Nothing shows respect and honor like peace!

In these two verses, Paul lays the groundwork for a healthy church: Leaders who watch out for the body, and members who let them do so. When the foundation is solid, then the church is able to fulfill God's purpose - reaching out beyond itself to a world that needs to know the love of God and the message of salvation through Christ. 

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