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Lesson 17: Responsibilities in the Local Church (1 Thessalonians 5:12-13)

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November 20, 2016

Everyone wants healthy relationships, but sometimes we assume that such relationships just blossom spontaneously. If they thrive, it’s wonderful; but if they suffer, oh well—there’s not much we can do about it! But the reality is that healthy relationships entail responsibilities. For relationships to flourish, all of the parties involved must understand and work at fulfilling their mutual responsibilities. This is true in our marriages, our families, and in the local church. Healthy churches don’t just happen. Healthy churches require that both leaders and members fulfill their responsibilities.

So Paul concludes this letter to a young church in a pagan city with some practical counsel about their responsibilities in the local church. John Stott (The Message of 1 & 2 Thessalonians [IVP Academic], p. 117) calls this final section, “Christian Community,” or, “How to be a gospel church.” Verses 12-15 show that relationships require responsibility. Verses 12 & 13 show the church’s responsibility toward its leaders: Know them; esteem them highly in love; and, live in peace with one another. These verses also show the leaders’ responsibilities toward the church: work hard; have charge over the church; and, admonish the church. Verses 14 & 15 (next week) show the church’s responsibility toward one another: Minister sensitively; and, live lovingly. The main point of the entire section (1 Thess. 5:12-24) is that “God will sanctify and inspire peace in His people that they may be blameless at Christ’s coming” (G. K. Beale, 1-2 Thessalonians [IVP Academic], p. 157). In verses 12 & 13, Paul shows that …

The local church and its leaders have mutual responsibilities in the Lord.

We’ll look first at the responsibilities of church members and then at the responsibilities of church leaders.

1. The church is responsible to know its leaders, esteem them in love, and live in peace with one another.

Before we look at these responsibilities in more detail, I need to point out that in the American church we need a major shift in how we think about the church. Americans often view the church as a business or service organization that provides benefits for its members or consumers. Customers shop around for a church that provides the benefits that they’re looking for and then they attend and support the best church. If that church later fails to provide the desired benefits, then the customers look for another church that might do better. Churches often cater to this consumer mindset by marketing the church as offering the best services available. Several years ago I was rather stunned to meet a woman who introduced herself as the “pastor of marketing” for one of the churches in Flagstaff! I must confess that I didn’t know that the church needs a pastor of marketing!

But in the New Testament, the church is not a business that competes in the religion marketplace to provide the best services or benefits for spiritual consumers. Rather, the local church is a living organism composed of those who have believed in Jesus Christ as Savior and Lord. The Holy Spirit has baptized them into the one body of Christ, who is the head. Of course, bodies are highly organized and so churches need organization and management, but the main feature of bodies is life. Church members have received new life in the Spirit, who has gifted each member for service. The local church is only healthy when every member is functioning for the building up of the whole (Eph. 4:12-16).

Another way the New Testament pictures the church is as the family or household of God, which is being built together into His temple or dwelling place. Speaking to the Gentiles, who formerly were alienated from God’s people, but now in the church are on equal standing with Jewish believers, Paul wrote (Eph. 2:19-22):

So then you are no longer strangers and aliens, but you are fellow citizens with the saints, and are of God’s household, having been built on the foundation of the apostles and prophets, Christ Jesus Himself being the corner stone, in whom the whole building, being fitted together, is growing into a holy temple in the Lord, in whom you also are being built together into a dwelling of God in the Spirit.

So we need to get rid of the American notion that the church is a business or service organization that provides benefits for consumers. We need to adopt the New Testament picture of the church as the body of Christ, the household of God. As members of the body or God’s household, here are three responsibilities that Paul mentions to this young church. (Obviously, these are not comprehensive, but focus on particular needs in that church.)

A. The church is responsible to know its leaders.

Verse 12 is variously translated: “appreciate” (NASB), “respect” (NIV, ESV), “recognize” (NKJV), or “give recognition to” (HCSB). The Greek verb is simply, “know.” This probably means that they were to recognize certain men as the legitimate leaders of the church and give them due respect (Gene L. Green, The Letters to the Thessalonians [Eerdmans/Apollos], p. 248). Dr. John Walvoord (The Thessalonian Epistles [Zondervan], pp. 89-90) explains that this church had only been in existence a few months, so every member was a relatively new convert. None had any seminary or Bible college training. Yet God had raised up some as leaders. Perhaps Timothy had appointed leaders when he made his follow-up visit under Paul’s direction. Some in the church may have said or thought about these leaders, “Who do they think that they are to take on a leadership role in the church? We all became believers at the same time.” So Paul is urging the church to recognize or respect those whom God had raised up as leaders.

We don’t know whether they were yet called elders or overseers, although Paul does describe part of their responsibility as “having charge over you in the Lord.” The New Testament uses three words for the same office: elders, overseers, and pastors (or shepherds; Acts 20:17, 28; Eph. 4:11; 1 Tim. 3:1; Titus 1:5, 7; 1 Pet. 5:1-4). “Elder” reflects the spiritual maturity necessary for the office. “Overseer” focuses on the spiritual and administrative requirement for the body to function well. And “pastor” looks at the task of shepherding God’s flock.

On his first missionary journey, Paul revisited the churches that he had founded and appointed elders in every church (Acts 14:23). Later, when he wrote Philippians, he addressed the letter to the saints, including the overseers and deacons (Phil. 1:1). Deacons (which as I understand it, may be male or female; 1 Tim. 3:8-13; Rom. 16:1) serve by assisting the elders in practical matters (Acts 6:1-6; see my message on 1 Tim. 3:8-13, “Servants: Official & Otherwise,” 3/13/94). The qualifications for these offices are similar, except that elders must be able to teach God’s Word (1 Tim. 3:2; Titus 1:9). The other qualifications focus on godly character.

Also, the New Testament always refers to a plurality of elders in each church. In Acts 20:17, Paul called to himself “the elders of the church” in Ephesus. In Titus 1:5, Paul reminds Titus that he was to “appoint elders in every city.” Since there was at that time only one church per city, Paul meant for there to be several elders in each church. It may be that in a large city like Ephesus, each elder was in charge of a particular house church, since the church did not meet in its own building. But there were elders (plural) in every church (singular). The only time the New Testament mentions one man who was over a local church, the apostle John condemns Diotrephes, who loved to be first among them (3 John 9-10).

Granted, one man may be a leader among the elders, as James, the brother of the Lord, seems to have been in Jerusalem (Acts 15:6-30; 21:8); but he worked with the other apostles and elders (Acts 15:22; Gal. 2:9). There is wisdom in a multitude of counselors (Prov. 11:14; 15:22) and a plurality of elders provides checks and balances. The pastor is not supposed to “run the church.” Rather, together the elders’ are to discern the will of God for His church as they seek the Lord and interact together.

So, whether the nuance is “know,” “appreciate,” “respect,” or “recognize,” your church leaders, how do you do it? Well, one starting point would be to get to know them! Have them and their families over for dinner. Learn about how they met the Lord and what has helped them to grow in the Lord. Find out what their concerns are as they seek to lead the church so that you can pray faithfully for them. Ask how you can help serve them as they serve the church.

B. The church is responsible to esteem its leaders very highly in love.

1 Thess. 5:13: “Esteem them very highly in love because of their work.” The verb translated “esteem” means to think or consider. The adverb translated “very highly” is used in Ephesians 3:20 where Paul says that God is able to do “far more abundantly beyond” all we ask or think. So rather than gripe about church leaders (as we tend to complain about our political leaders), Paul says that the church should “hold them in the highest regard in love because of their work” (NIV). Their work is overseeing, guarding, and shepherding those whom Christ bought with His own blood (Acts 20:28). I assure you, it is not easy work!

There is one sense in which every member of Christ’s body is responsible to help shepherd the other members. You know certain members of this church far better than any of the elders will ever know them. If you sense that they are struggling or straying from the Lord, then you should come alongside and try to help them get back on track (Rom. 15:14; Gal. 6:1; 1 Thess. 5:14). If the problem is bigger than you can help with, call one of the elders and seek his help. We can shepherd God’s flock better together than if you dump the job totally on the elders.

Esteeming an elder very highly in love does not mean that you should never raise concerns or problems that you see in the church. Elders can’t do their jobs well if they are not aware of problems that need addressing. But there is a right and a wrong way to bring up problems. When my children were still in the home, I wanted them to feel free to talk to me about things that they weren’t happy about in the home. But I didn’t allow them to do so defiantly. They needed to respect my authority in the Lord as their father. The same analogy carries over to the local church. God has put elders over you in the church (more on that in a moment). You are to esteem them very highly in love in the Lord. With that attitude, you’re free to bring problems or complaints to them (not to everyone else in the church!). But also, you need to understand that the elder to whom you complain may ask you to get involved in the solution!

Also, if an elder mistreats you in any way or if you observe something in his conduct or his teaching that violates Scripture, you need to go to him privately and talk to him about the matter. If he doesn’t listen to you, take one other person and go to him. If he doesn’t listen to both of you, then take the matter to the other elders (Matt. 18:15-17). Regarding a leader highly in love does not mean that he is free from correction when he is wrong. Pastors are not exempt from rebuke as “God’s anointed,” as some teach!

But, also, if an elder confronts you about some sin or shortcoming that he sees in your life, you still need to regard him highly in love because of his work! You should assume that he is admonishing you because he loves you and cares about you. Don’t react by thinking or saying, “Who does he think he is? He’s got his problems, too! What gives him the right to correct me?” God’s word says that God gave him that right, or responsibility. And it isn’t an easy responsibility! So know (respect) your leaders and esteem them highly in love because of their work.

C. The church is responsible to live in peace with one another.

If you stir up dissension in the church by complaining or you get into personal squabbles with other members of the church, you make the elders’ job much more difficult! As I just said, if there is a legitimate problem that needs to be addressed, please bring it to the attention of an elder! False doctrine or serious disobedience in the church needs to be dealt with. But all too often, churches divide over selfish, petty matters. I’ve heard of churches that have divided because the announcements got moved from the middle of the service to the beginning, or because the worship leaders use drums! As Paul commanded (Col. 3:15), “Let the peace of Christ rule in your hearts, to which indeed you were called in one body; and be thankful.”

But, although Paul is primarily addressing church members in verses 12 & 13, embedded in his request are some responsibilities of church leaders. Again, this list is not comprehensive:

2. Church leaders are responsible to work diligently in the church, to have charge over the church in the Lord, and to admonish the church.

A. Church leaders are responsible to work diligently in the church.

There’s an old joke that being a pastor doesn’t pay very well, but the hours are great: 11-12 on Sunday! With the non-paid elders, even the pay isn’t there! Paul here may be countering those in the Thessalonian church who were not working, but sponging off the rest of the body (2 Thess. 3:6-12). Perhaps if any of the elders were being supported by the church, there was the tendency to slack off. Most of them were probably bi-vocational, and when push came to shove, church duties took second place.

In 1 Timothy 5:17, Paul writes, “The elders who rule well are to be considered worthy of double honor, especially those who work hard at preaching and teaching.” “Double honor” refers both to respect and to financial remuneration. But that double honor is to go to those who “work hard at preaching and teaching.” To do that job well is hard work! At least for me, messages don’t float down from heaven each week! They require many hours of labor.

I had an older pastor friend in California who wanted to get together with me often, but I often had to say no because I was swamped just trying to get my work done each week. I finally asked him how many hours each week he spent in ministry. He said, “About thirty.” I was stunned, in that I’ve always tried to limit myself to fifty hours a week. It was no wonder he had time to get together with me more often than I did with him!

B. Church leaders are responsible to have charge over the church in the Lord.

Herodotus and Plato used the word translated, “have charge over you,” to refer to leadership in an army, a state, or a party. In the New Testament, Paul uses it when he says that both elders and deacons must be “good managers of their own households” (1 Tim. 3:4, 5, 12), and when he said that elders who “rule well” should be considered worthy of double honor (1 Tim. 5:17). So it includes responsibility for the management or oversight of all aspects of a local church: preaching the word, guarding the flock from false teaching, guiding them in the ways of the Lord, helping resolve conflicts between members, overseeing church finances, and providing overall direction for the church.

Elders are not to carry out these responsibilities by lording it over the flock, but rather by example and gentle exhortation (Luke 22:25-27; 1 Pet. 5:2-3; 2 Tim. 2:24-26; 1 Thess. 2:7-8, 11-12). On their part, the church is required to follow the elders’ leadership and submit to them, unless they are in serious doctrinal error or sin. Hebrews 13:17 (a scary verse for every elder!) commands, “Obey your leaders and submit to them, for they keep watch over your souls as those who will give an account. Let them do this with joy and not with grief, for this would be unprofitable for you.”

I think that we often carry our American democracy mindset too far into local church government. While the entire congregation is given many important responsibilities in the functioning of the church, the elders have the final authority and responsibility in the Lord. That little phrase added to “have charge over you,” namely, “in the Lord,” means that elders are subject to the Lord. They will answer to Him. It’s like authority in the home: husbands are responsible for the direction of their families, but that doesn’t mean being dictators. Any God-given authority is primarily a responsibility, not a perk. But those under authority also need to submit to authority (an un-American concept!).

This also means that when we “elect” elders, we shouldn’t view it as voting for the candidates. Rather, we are giving our prayerful judgment that the men recognized as elders meet the qualifications spelled out in Scripture. We shouldn’t put any man into the office of elder so that he will begin doing the work of an elder. Rather, the man should be doing the work and because of that, we recognize him as an elder. Elders must be hard workers who have charge over the church in the Lord.

C. Church leaders are responsible to admonish the church.

The NASB translates, “give you instruction,” but as the marginal reading notes, it literally is, “admonish you” (ESV, NIV, NJKV). Paul uses the same word in verse 14, “admonish the unruly.” Paul is the only person in the NT to use this word. In Acts 20:31, he reminded the Ephesian elders, “Therefore be on the alert, remembering that night and day for a period of three years I did not cease to admonish each one with tears.” It has the nuance of giving verbal correction, whether individually or when teaching a larger group. It’s the task of every church member, not just of the elders (1 Thess. 5:14; Rom. 15:14; Col. 3:16; Eph. 6:4). But it is especially the task of the elders.

Let’s face it: Admonishing someone is never a pleasant task! Usually the person being admonished will resist your counsel or attack you in response because he doesn’t want to face his sin. But if you care about him and want him to be all that God wants him to be (which is the heart of biblical love), then you must admonish him if he’s heading toward a spiritual cliff. A good shepherd doesn’t watch a sheep stray toward a cliff and say, “That sure seems dumb! I’ll bet he’ll go over the side!” Rather, the shepherd does everything he can to keep the sheep from danger and harm.

The main job of a faithful pastor is to preach the word, which involves reproving, rebuking, and exhorting (2 Tim. 4:2). Paul explains (2 Tim. 4:3-4), “For the time will come when they will not endure sound doctrine; but wanting to have their ears tickled, they will accumulate for themselves teachers in accordance to their own desires, and will turn away their ears from the truth and will turn aside to myths.” That means that when you choose a church, don’t pick one where the pastor always gives “feel good” messages. If a pastor’s sermons never step on your toes, then he isn’t doing his job, because the Bible often steps on our toes! It never does that to harm us, but rather to correct us so that we will be blessed by lives that conform to the image of Jesus Christ. Church leaders are responsible to use God’s word to admonish the flock.


To review: Healthy relationships and a healthy church don’t just happen. They require certain responsibilities. You’re responsible to recognize and respect church leaders, to esteem them very highly in love, and to live in peace with other church members. The leaders are responsible to work diligently in shepherding the flock, to have charge over the church in the Lord, and to admonish the church as needed.

Someone has observed that God is going to salvage only two things off this planet: His Word, which endures forever; and, His church, consisting of all who believe in Him. So our responsibilities in the local church are important in light of eternity. “Therefore, my beloved brethren, be steadfast, immovable, always abounding in the work of the Lord, knowing that your toil is not in vain in the Lord” (1 Cor. 15:58).

Application Questions

  1. How can we change the common idea that the church is made up of “spiritual consumers,” rather than committed, serving members?
  2. In looking for a solid church, what qualities in order would you look for? (See Joshua Harris, “How to choose a church,” on the church website.)
  3. How might God want you to be more committed to this church?
  4. Spiritual authority sounds kind of scary (we think of some abusive cult leader!). Do we give this the proper biblical emphasis? (See Titus 2:15 & Hebrews 13:17.)

Copyright, Steven J. Cole, 2016, All Rights Reserved.

Unless otherwise noted, all Scripture Quotations are from the New American Standard Bible, Updated Edition © The Lockman Foundation

Related Topics: Ecclesiology (The Church)

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