A Crash Course in Church Membership | 1 Thessalonians 5:12-15

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  • A Crash Course in Church Membership | 1 Thessalonians 5:12-15
  • 1 Thessalonians is about what it means to live in anticipation of the return of the Lord Jesus Christ. In 1 Thessalonians 5:12-22, Paul teaches the church how to live for Christ in the meantime. These final instructions of the letter fall into four categories:

    • Verses 12-13 teach the church to submit to their leaders.
    • Verses 14-15 teach the responsibility members have to one another.
    • Verses 16-18 teach the saints to live joyfully in the will of God.
    • Verses 19-21 teach the congregation how to respond to divine revelation.

    These final instructions begin with a lesson about the harmony in the church. The nine commands in these four verses show us the relational elements of a healthy church.

    There are no perfect churches. Not yours. Not the one down the street. Not the one you watch online. But every church should strive to be healthy. Every Christian should desire to be a member of a healthy church.

    A healthy church has three core characteristics: truth, holiness, and unity. Paul has addressed fidelity of doctrine and holiness of lifestyle earlier in this letter. In this closing section of the letter, he addresses unity of fellowship.

    1 Thessalonians 5:12-15 is a crash course in church membership. But the lesson of the text is critical: A healthy church consists of healthy relationships. As we study these verses, ask yourself: If every member of this church was just like me, what kind of church would this be? 1 Thessalonians 5:12-15 teaches two fundamental lessons about what it means to be a participating members of the local church.

    Honor Spiritual Leaders

    1 Thessalonians 5:12-13 reads: “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.”

    These exhortations are addressed to the “brothers,” a gender-neutral term. Paul uses it to affirm their bond in Christ. With brotherly affection, Paul asks the saints to honor spiritual leadership. Warren Wiersbe wrote: “There is nothing wrong with honoring faithful servants of God, so long as God as God gets the glory.” These verses outline what leaders and members should expect of one another.

    There is nothing wrong with honoring faithful servants of God, as long as God gets the glory.

    Warren W. Wiersbe

    What You Should Expect From Your Leaders. There are two offices in the church: elders and deacons. Elders is the common New Testament term for the pastoral office. Deacons assist the elders in caring for the members. Deacons lead by serving. Elders serve by leading. These instructions are about elders. The office of elder is not named. But the function of elders is described.

    Verse 12 says, “We ask you, brothers, to respect those who labor among you and are over you in the Lord and admonish you.” The word “those” indicates the church is not a one-man show. It is to be led by a plurality of elders. These verses summarizes what you should expect from the elders of the church.

    Elders Labor Among You. Paul writes, “We ask you, brothers, to respect those who labor among you.” Elders are not worthy of respect because of their title, office, or position. The earn respect by their labor. “Labor” is wearisome toil. It is to wok to the point of exhaustion. Jesus used the term in Matthew 11:28: “Come to me, all who labor and are heavy laden.”

    T.E. Wilson wrote: “Pastoral work is hard work, often a night and day occupation, weighed down with anxiety and tears.” Pastors have gained a reputation as men of leisure. Congregations think pastors only work on Sundays. Some wonder if they work then. But elders should be known as hardworking men. 1 Timothy 5:17 says, “Let the elders who rule well be considered worthy of double honor, especially those who labor in preaching and teaching.”

    Elders Are Over You in the Lord. The verb means “to stand before.” Elders have been given authority and responsibility fo the church. The church is not a dictatorship. It is not a democracy, either. There must be clear leadership. But it must be “in the Lord.” This clause states the divine accountability of the elders.

    It also states the nature of the elder’s work. Elders are not politicians who make sure the government does right. Elders are pastors who make sure the church does right. In Acts 20:28, Paul exhorts the Ephesians elders, “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, which he obtained with his own blood.”

    Elders Admonish You. “Admonish” literally means “to put in the mind.” It is a work of instruction. But it is distinguished from teaching in the New Testament. To admonishment is to warn the hearer of the importance of the teaching and the consequences of disobedience. Leon Morris wrote: “While its tone is brotherly; it is big=brotherly.”

    Admonishing is not something spiritual leaders enjoy. To take pleasure in admonishing other may disqualify a man from leadership. But you cannot be a people-pleaser who neglects the burdensome tasks of admonishing the saints to proclaim truth, promote holiness, and protect unity. Colossians 1:28 reads: “Him we proclaim, warning everyone and teaching everyone with all wisdom, that we may present everyone mature in Christ.”

    What Your Leaders Should Expect From You. In verse 12, Paul emphasizes the high calling of spiritual leadership. But he does not do so to exhort the elders to do their job. He does so to exhort the saints to honor elders who do their job. The elders are to be laboring, overseeing, and admonishing the church. The members are to respect and esteem the elders.

    Respect the Elders. Verse 12 says, “We ask you, brothers, to respect those who labor among you.” “Respect” is the verb “to know.” But the command is not about identifying the pastors. And it is not about getting to know them personally. It is to acknowledge them. It is to know their worth. Recognize their true value.

    The call to respect the elders does not promote an honor culture that treats pastors like kings. It is to respect their pastoral ministry. Receive their word work. Submit to tier oversight. Heed their admonishment.

    Hebrews 13:7 bids us to respect past leaders: “Remember your leaders, those who spoke to you the word of God. Consider the outcome of their way of life, and imitate their faith.” Hebrews 13:17 bids us to respect current leaders; “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.”

    Esteem the Elders. Verse 13 says: “and to esteem them very highly in love because of their work. “Respect” focuses on the behavior of the saints. “Esteem” focuses on the attitude of the saints. It is a continual attitude of proper regard for the elders. This should not be halfhearted. Verse 13 says: “esteem them very highly.” This is a triple Pauline intensive. He also uses it in Ephesians 3:20: “Now to him who is able to do far more abundantly than all that we ask or think…” And God is able to answer prayer beyond all measure, the church is to esteem its elders without reservation.

    We are to esteem them “in love.” The elders are the Lord’s gifts to the church. The church expresses its gratitude by loving the elders the Lord gives to them. Esteem for the elders is not based on title, office, or position. “Esteem them very highly in love because of their work.”

    1 Timothy 3:1 reads: “the saying is trustworthy: f anyone aspires to the office of oversee, he desires a noble task.” Leadership in the early church was prone to bring suffering, not celebrity. But the fearful need to know pastoral ministry is noble work. The church can do this by esteeming the elders very highly in love because of their work.

    Verse 13 ends: “Be at peace among yourselves.” This exhortation has no grammatical connection to verses 12-13 or verses 14-15. But it seems most appropriate to read it as a part of the members’ duty to honor spiritual leadership.

    This call to peace can be read two ways. It may be there was tension between the elders and the members. Paul bids them to be at peace among themselves. Or it may be there was tension among the members. Paul bids them to be at peace among themselves. I read it the latter way. As members of the church, you honor spiritual leadership, not merely by how you treat the elders, but also by how you treat one another. It is hard to shepherd the flock when you have to constantly referee quarreling sheep. Psalm 133:1 sings, “Behold, how good and pleasant it is when brothers dwell in unity!”

    Care For One Another.

    Verse 14-15 read: “And we urge you, brothers, admonish the idle, encourage the faint hearted, 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.”

    These verses record a new set of exhortations. But these exhortations are addressed to the same audience. Again, Paul calls them “Brothers.”

    These exhortations their duties as members of the church. But the focus shifts. Verses 12-13 is the members’ duty to the elders. Verses 14-15 is the members’ duty to one another. F.B. Meyer wrote: “Each soul has a ministry to others.”

    • In verse 12, Paul asks the brothers.
    • In verse 14, he urges the brothers.

    Caring for one another is more urgent than honoring spiritual leadership. This urgency is based on needs around you.

    Care for the Troubled. Verse 14 says, “And we urge you, brothers, admonish the idle, encourage the fainthearted, help the weak, be patient with them all.” This verse gives four ways to care for others in the church.

    Admonish the Idle. “Idle” is a military term for a soldier who gets out of line, lags behind the ranks, or abandons his post. Paul uses it for members of the church who are out of order.

    • They are spiritual draft-dodgers.
    • They are spiritually AWOL.
    • They are spiritually missing-in-action.

    The church is to admonish the idle. Verse 12 says the elders are to admonish the saints. But it is not their job alone. We are to admonish another. This is the key purpose of corporate worship. Colossians 3:16 says, “Let the word of Christ dwell in you richly, teaching and admonishing one another in all wisdom, singing psalms and humans and spiritual songs, with thankfulness in your hearts to God.”

    Encourage the Fainthearted. “Fainthearted” literally means to be “little-souled.” It is the spiritual condition of one who is depressed, discouraged, or despondent. The born-again can become fainthearted. But they should not be left alone in that condition. You should encourage the fainthearted.

    The Greek word for “encourage” is used in John 11:19, which says, “Many of the Jews had come to Martha and Mary to console them concerning their brother.” When Lazarus died, the community showed up to comfort the grieving sisters. This is what should happen in the church. We should encourage the fainthearted.

    Help the Weak. “Weak” is used in the New Testament for one who is sick or ill. Bu tit is doubtful it refers to physical weakness here. All of these final instructions address spiritual matters. This statement refers to those Romans 14:1 calls “weak in faith.” Their faith is not strong enough to resist temptation, live obediently, or endure hardship.

    Some use the weak as an excuse to change churches. But Romans 15:1 exhorts: “We who are strong have an obligation to bear with the failings of the weak, and not to pleasure ourselves.” Do not judge, criticize, or reject the weak. Help them! The world “help” means “to hold one’s self over against.” If you are strong, put your arms around the weak and hold them up.

    Be Patient With Them All. This closing exhortation refers to the idle, fainthearted, and weak previously mentioned. To admonish the idle, encourage the fainthearted, and help the weak, you must be patient with them all. Patience is not perseverance is difficult circumstances. It is longsuffering with dijficput people.

    Exodus 34:6 says God is “slow to anger.” That the reason we are here. God is patient with us. Galatians 5:22 lists “patience” as the fruit of the Holy Spirit. But the fruit of the Spirit is cultivated in the soil of relationships. The Lord does not implant patience while you are sleepHe cultivates patience through people who get on your last never. Yet 1 Corinthians 13:4 says Christians love is patient. We are to be patient with troubled people who are hard to love.

    Care For the Troublemakers. Verse 14 addresses our corporate responsibility to one another. Verse 15 gets personal: “See that no one repays anyone evil for evil, but always seek to do good to one another and to everyone. This verse gives a negative and positive exhortation for dealign with troublemakers.

    Refuse to Retaliate. Verse 15 says, “See that no one repays anyone evil for evil.” The verb “see” presents our mutual responsibility to keep one another from repaying evil with evil. This is a said indictment. Christian people sometimes do evil things to one another. But you must not repay the evil you receive by doing evil in return.

    The spirit of revenge has no place in a believer’s life. Proverbs 20:22 says, “Do not say, ‘I will repay evil’; wait for the Lord, and he will deliver you.” People who do not trust God get revenge. Those who trust God forgive and wait for the Lord to deliver them. This is not graduate-level faith. It is fundamental Christian teaching.

    Romans 12:19-21 says, “Beloved, never avenge yourselves, but leave it to the wrath of God, for it is written, ‘Vengeance is mind, I will repay, says the Lord.’ To the contrary, ‘if you enemy is hungry, fee him; if he is thirsty, give him something to drink; for by so doing you will heap burning coals on his head. Do not be overcome by evil, but overcome evil with good.'”

    Determine To Do Good. Verse 15 says, “But always seek to do good to one another and to everyone.” There are three ways to treat people.

    • You can do evil to those who do good to you. This is the way of Satan.
    • You can do good to those who do good to you and do evil to those who do evil to you. That is the way of the world.
    • Or you can do good to those who do evil to you. That is the way of Christ.

    Acts 10:38 says Jesus went about doing good. Christ-followers should seek to do good. “Seek” is the word for persecution. It means “to pursue.” When people pursue you to do you harm, you pursue them to do good to them.

    We should always seek to do good, no exceptions. We should seek to do good to another. We should always seek to do good to everyone. Galatians 6:10 says, “So then, as we have opportunity, let us do good to everyone, and especially to those who are of the household of faith.” We do good to others because the Lord Jesus Christ has been good to us. `


    H.B. Charles Jr.

    Pastor-Teacher at the Shiloh Metropolitan Baptist Church of Jacksonville and Orange Park, Florida.

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