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The Church at Thessalonica was perhaps a year old when Paul writes this letter and most of the members were Gentiles, former pagans who now are in Christ. Typical of Paul’s churches, there were some rich, prominent members of the community, but also many poor, perhaps slaves. There would not have been that many who were leaders outside the church, so the people now who were “church leaders” were inexperienced.
This naturally leads to some troubles in the church. Imagine a slave who was particularly gifted with the Holy Spirit as a leader is chosen as a leader of the church and offers an admonition from Scripture. How would a prominent member of the Thessalonian society handle hearing a slave preaching the word and exhorting them to godly living? Alternatively, if a rich person from a socially well-placed family exhorted the congregation, would the poor slave listen to him objectively?
Given the commands Paul gives here, it is likely that these inexperienced leaders were not being given respect due them because of the office they held as elders of the church, and because of the labor the did for the church. Paul describes the work that they do as “toilsome labor,” the very same word Paul used to describe his own work in 1 Thess 1:3. The work that these leaders are doing is had work, taxing physically and emotionally. They are doing this work on behalf of the church, they are due some respect for being the ones that carry the heaviest load.
The leaders are appointed by God, they are “over you in the Lord.” This is how church leaders are described in Romans 12:8, as well as the leader of a family in 1 Tim 5:17. The emphasis is on leading with care and diligence.
Paul says that the congregation is to hold their leaders is high esteem in love because of their work. Notice that the congregation is to hold them in high esteem because of their work, not because of their personality, or whether they do what you want them do, or because you agree with everything they say, etc.
A year before Paul wrote this letter, the leaders of the Thessalonian church were still pagans, and now they are spirit led leaders of a growing Christian congregation. They were doing the best they could, even though they were not the “experts.”
Many applications of this principle come to mind for the modern church. Paul’s point is that the work of the church is the most important thing and that any lack of personal respect needs to take a back seat to the presentation of the Gospel. This is a very difficult section because modern church is very performance oriented. We are very critical of a pastor or elder, comparing their abilities to other pastors and elders we know. I am thinking about the American church because that is what I know, but I am confident the same is true for any church, anywhere in the world.
Many pastors are judged as successful if they have a large congregation. They may judge themselves this way, if there are a lot of people there on Sunday morning they assume they are doing a great job. But numbers are not the measure of success or respect. It is possible that the pastor is doing everything that God wants him to do, yet there are lots of empty pews on Sunday.
People in the pew judge the pastor’s sermon by the standard of others they have heard, perhaps on Christian radio or the internet. Modern media makes it possible to hear twenty excellent sermons a week, making it hard for your local pastor to compete! This is like judging the ability of the church softball team by the standard of the Dodgers. They are playing the same game, but the level of experience and gifted-ness is in another league. There are not many Chuck Swindoll’s, or John MacArthur’s out there, it is highly unlikely we will be able to attract either of them to our church.