[This is a brief small group/Bible class series that parallels the sermons of Dean Barham at Woodmont Hills Family of God in Nashville, TN, for the month of July 2009. The is the final installment. Unfortunately, I offer the homily on this one to which you may listen here when it becomes available.]
Leadership in Community
1 Thessalonians 5:12-24
Paul had to make a quick exit from Thessalonica (cf. Acts 17:1-9) and shortly thereafter passionately pens this letter. His absence created a vacuum but his letter encourages them to live worthy of the kingdom of God that he himself modeled among them (1 Thessalonians 2:12). Addressing the newly planted but the seemingly tentative condition of the Thessalonian church, the letter’s final segment naturally, I think, divides into three sections.
- He begs the community to respect and esteem its leaders (1 Thessalonians 5:12-13).
- He encourages them to live as a hopeful, grateful, caring community (1 Thessalonians 5:14-22).
- He concludes with a prayer and an assurance (1 Thessalonians 5:23-24).
Paul’s brief stay in Thessalonica (perhaps less than a month) did not give him much opportunity to develop leadership for the new church, but apparently he did charge some to give it direction. These leaders are described as people who “work hard” among them (that is, labor to the point of exhaustion), “rule” over them (etymologically, they “stand before them”), and “admonish” them (that is, warn and instruct, and the same word is used in verse 14). The verb “rule” or “over you” is the most complex word here. It may indicate either the exercise of direction or management (as in 1 Timothy 3:4, 5, 12; 5:17) or of care and assistance (as in Romans 12:8; 16:2)—or both. It has the ideas of directing, managing, caring for, and protecting. “In the Lord” reflects a kind of spiritual authority invested in these leaders.
Whether we should title these leaders as “elders,” “evangelists,” “deacons,” or some other category is uncertain but it is clear that they are the spiritual caregivers for the Thessalonians. They are, in some sense, responsible for the community. I understand it is broader than the category of “elders” and at least includes Paul’s broad notions of “co-workers” in the kingdom (like Silas and Timothy who co-author the letter with him).
Paul quite literally begs the congregation to “respect” (literally, know or recognize) and esteem (“hold in high regard”) their leaders in love because of their work (identified in verse 12). Their function is important for the body—it is not their power but their work that grounds this respect and esteem. Where there is such respect and esteem in love, there is also peace.
Turning his attention to how the members of the body treat one another, Paul rattles off in rapid fire a series of imperatives that direct the community toward a particular way of being community. The virtues, ministry and attitudes expected here would shape a community into a peaceful, loving and serving body of people who are attentive to the Spirit in their lives.
A Christian community is…..and one can fill in the blanks with this series of imperatives—warning the disorderly, comforting the hurting, serving the weak, treating everyone with patience, resisting revenge, practicing kindness, praying unceasingly, rejoicing always, loving, giving thanks in everything, listening to the Spirit, testing everything, holding to what is noble (good) and avoiding every evil.
That kind of community is utopian but it is the “God of peace” who makes it possible. Paul prays that God would fully sanctify the Thessalonian community so that they might be “blameless” when Jesus appears again. God “will do it”—he is faithful.
The goal here is not utopian as if it is generated by human means, but it is the kingdom of God breaking into a broken, fallen world. God will do it, and God has called us to live worthy of that kingdom.
Questions for Discussion:
- Why do you think Paul thought it important to urge the congregation to “peace” in the context of living with leaders in community? How might his instructions here lead to “peace” in the community?
- Reading through the imperatives again, which do you think need the most emphasis within the current context of the Woodmont Hills Family of God? How do we need to “admonish” or encourage each other with these words? How can we encourage these attitudes within the family?
- Reflecting on what it means to be attentive to the Spirit, how does this apply to our current elder selection process and its results? How do we listen to the Spirit in this process?
- Reflecting on this text, what might you add to Paul’s own prayer for the Thessalonians in 5:23-24 as you think particularly about the situation at Woodmont Hills. Pray that prayer together with the confidence that “God will do it.”