In 1 Thessalonians 5:12-13, the apostle Paul reminds the saints in Thessalonica to respect the leaders among them and over them in the Lord. We can see some important things about Christian leaders in these verses, and it’s obvious that leadership in Jesus’s church is different than how the world does things.
First, leaders in a local group of God’s people are tasked with spending themselves for the congregation. They serve others with their lives for the sole benefit of those they serve. They are, truly, public servants for the saints. Jesus would say that he came to serve, and he expected his followers to do the same (Matthew 20.25-28). Leadership in the Lord’s church is different than in the world. CEOs and other financial leaders have monetary success as the driving, bottom line in their work. They will do whatever is necessary to make sure their business stays profitable – that’s sort of the point. However, leadership in the church has no such bottom line, and there is no real authority to hang over someone other than the word of God. Leaders in Christianity are servants.
They are servants who exhaust themselves for other people. The word “labor” in the text literally means “to exert oneself physically, spiritually or mentally.”(1) This is a word used to describe preparation for Olympic events. It’s working and exercising to the point of complete and total exhaustion, spending every ounce of strength in the work. Spiritual leaders in a local congregation are those who work without ceasing, spending all their emotional, physical and spiritual strength to help their brothers and sisters better glorify God. Christian leadership is never about getting better things for yourself, it’s about getting better things for other people at the expense of self.
Secondly, leaders in the church of God are “over” other saints. We’ve got to do some serious thinking about what this means because Jesus clearly says that his followers will not “lord it over” other Christians. They are to make themselves slaves to the other believers. Unfortunately, this doesn’t match with the way many congregations in the United States operate. Many have a “board of directors” type approach to leading, which at best is an unbiblical misunderstanding and at worst a willful, sinful violation of God’s word.
At this point, someone will argue that Hebrews 13.17 says to “obey your leaders”. That’s true, there are many English version that unfortunately use the word “obey”. However, we’re going to have to decide whether we really believe what Jesus said in Matthew 20. What he said flies in the face of every form of worldly leadership throughout history; it truly is something unique to Christianity. Unless, of course, we just dismiss it as nonsense and conform the church to the world – the exact opposite of what should be taking place.
So, how do we reconcile these things? We must take Jesus at his word: leadership in the church will be different and look different than leadership in the world. Since the world expects immediate and absolute obedience to those in authority, we should expect something different for the church. Indeed, as Jesus said, we are not to be lording ourselves over others. Hebrews 13 must be understood in the context of Jesus’ axiomatic instruction: leaders cannot demand obedience from others. Incidentally, the Greek word “πείθω” doesn’t really mean “obey”; it carries the idea of allowing yourself to be persuaded by someone else’s arguments and point-of-view.(2)
This new perspective brings things into perfect harmony. Leaders in local churches don’t exercise executive authority, God does. The only recourse leaders have to persuade people to do the right thing is by appealing to the word of God and showing God’s wisdom through a faithful life. There is no power to force obedience. The saints must choose to listen and be persuaded only by evidence from the word of God and the power of seeing God’s way put into practice.
It shouldn’t surprise us that people react negatively to this concept. “This isn’t the way business is run.” That’s right, and the church isn’t a business. “This isn’t the way the military operates.” That’s right, and the church isn’t our military. “The nation would fail if we ran it this way.” Maybe. Good thing the church isn’t the United States. “I’ve been a Christian for ## years, and we’ve never done things this way.” Great! Now you have an opportunity to finally do what God says. Or, perhaps you’ve mistaken your experiences and wisdom and ideas with the word of God. A dreadful mistake, indeed. Best repent as soon as possible and let the wisdom of God flow into your life.
I speak boldly.(3) I refuse to hide behind vague phrases or only hint at what is right. This is what Jesus has said, quite plainly, and this is what Hebrews 13 means. Either we will consider these things and accept them if they are right, or we must admit that we really aren’t interested in what God says about this. Again, Jesus has spoken plainly on the matter.(4) Will there need to be changes in the way some local congregations operate? Yes, probably. That’s a good thing. We should be changing constantly as we learn and grow in our faith. We should be implementing the new things we learn from God’s word and removing the mistakes of the past. We must be those who press onward, who learn and apply, or we will be those who grow stagnant and die.(5) As it stands, leaders are those in a local group who aren’t commanders but servants, and those who are over others in the Lord have willingly placed themselves at the bottom of the pecking order. Leaders in the church look nothing like leaders in the world. The world would assume those actually “over us in the Lord” were the servants.
Thirdly, those who lead the Lord’s people are those who willingly take the risk to admonish others in the faith. “Admonish” in our text means “to impart understanding” or “to lay on the heart”. It has emphasis on not only increasing someone’s understanding but also to impact “the will and disposition.”(6) Admonition is similarly defined as “to counsel about avoidance or cessation of an improper course of conduct.”(7) This isn’t someone standing over another, from a position of authority, and demanding their obedience. This is a moral appeal to fellow saints to do the Lord’s will.
Noticeably lacking from our definition of admonish is the concept of judgment. It isn’t our job to determine how someone stands before God, but it is our job to help everyone serve the Lord better.(8) This is different from rebuke, and we should understand that admonition isn’t (or at least shouldn’t be) a judgment against our faithfulness to the Lord. Admonition is simply a moral appeal, based on the word of God, to do better, to strive for more glory, to better align our lives with our faith.
This is risky business. There is no authority on which to base an appeal other than the word of God, and people tend to throw equality back in your face. “Who are you to judge me?” No one, and I’m not judging you. I’m simply trying to help you live better for the Lord. “Who are you to think your ways are better than mine?” No one, just a fellow servant of God with insight in a particular area. Look at how these things have played out in other people’s lives. Don’t you want to live so God’s glory is maximized in your life? No matter how careful those who admonish may be, it’s always a risk. They risk ruined friendships, exile within the church, and broken hearts. For some reason, for the lord of the Lord and their fellow Christian, they think the risk is worth it, even when they’ve been burned repeatedly. They continue to try and help. They continue to desire for others to grow. They continue to strive for what God says is best. They certainly are worthy of our respect and our admiration.
These leaders among us do some amazing things, and we’re certainly blessed to have them. Let us all be more aware of what they do for us and offer thanks for them.
Who are these leaders? That’s what the next article will be about, so be sure to check back soon.
(1) Arndt, William, Frederick W. Danker, and Walter Bauer. A Greek-English Lexicon of the New Testament and Other Early Christian Literature. Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 2000. κοπιάω.
(2) Ibid., πείθω.
(3) Apollos boldly spoke what he knew about the gospel of God. He did not have the vain conceit that his knowledge was perfect and willingly received correction based in God’s word, cf Acts 18.26. If one can show where these things are in error, where I have misunderstood the words of Jesus, I will gladly receive correction. Until that time, however, I write boldly to remind those who love the Lord that we must be willing to follow the Lord’s instructions, no matter how foreign they may seem to us, cf Romans 15.15.
(4) Matthew 20.25-28. It would take a major stretch of the imagination and do violence to the text to come away with a different understanding. Jesus has quite clearly explained that leaders in the church are the servants of the church.
(5) Revelation 3.16, the Lord will spew out those who are lukewarm, including those who refuse to learn and grow.
(6) Kittel, Gerhard, Gerhard Friedrich, and Geoffrey William Bromiley. Theological Dictionary of the New Testament. Grand Rapids, MI: W.B. Eerdmans, 1985. “νοέω, nouthetéō”.
(7) Arndt, “νουθετέω”.
(8) Romans 14.4, 12. This is a difficult to balance with passages like 1 Corinthians 5. As this isn’t the point or purpose of this article, details of that difference will have to wait until later.