1 Thessalonians: 5:11-13

map of greece1 Thess 5:11

(1 Thess. 5:11 ESV) 11 Therefore encourage one another and build one another up, just as you are doing. 

“Therefore” means this is the first conclusion Paul is drawing from his lesson on the Second Coming. In context, his point is that we can fall away if we aren’t attentive and sober — prepared for the Parousia — which is also a very common teaching of Jesus.

The solution isn’t to lift yourself up by your own bootstraps. It’s not self-reliance. It’s not redoubling your hard work. It’s finding someone who needs encouraging — and encouraging them. And finding someone who needs to be built up and building them up.

Get away from the individualistic notion of spiritual formation where you seek to grow through study, solitude, and meditation (all good things). But even better is learning to look out for the needs of your brothers and sisters and serve them — especially encouragement and edification.

None of us is likely to  make it alone. We need our fellow church members to help us make it to the end. And so we need to help our fellows to make it to the end. If you want your friends to visit you in the hospital, then develop a habit of visiting others in the hospital. Work to bring your entire congregation with you to the end — and amazingly enough, they’ll do the same for you.

1 Thess 5:12

(1 Thess. 5:12-13 ESV)  12 We ask you, brothers, to respect those who labor among you and are over you in the Lord and admonish you,  13 and to esteem them very highly in love because of their work. Be at peace among yourselves.

Over you

“Over you” translates  proistemi, meaning, “to exercise a position of leadership, rule, direct, be at the head (of)” (BDAG). Thayer’s translates “to be over, to superintend, preside over ([KJV] rule).”

Admonish

“Admonish” translates noutheteo, meaning “to counsel about avoidance or cessation of an improper course of conduct, admonish, warn, instruct” (BDAG). Thayer’s translates “to admonish, warn, exhort.”

Elders?

But elders were appointed from quite early times (Acts 11:30; 14:23), and, from the model of the Jewish synagogue, elders are to be expected even in very young churches (once an assembly of Christians is called a synagogue, Jas 2:2). It may be possible for an organization to exist without office-bearers of any kind; but it is far from usual, and such evidence as we have does not indicate that the early church made the attempt.

Leon Morris, 1 and 2 Thessalonians: An Introduction and Commentary, TNTC 13; IVP/Accordance electronic ed. (Downers Grove: InterVarsity Press, 1984), 100.

This seems to plainly teach that even in the very young church, Paul set up a leadership structure. He is almost certainly talking about elders. The synagogues were overseen by elders, likely because the synagogue was the center of Jewish life. Diaspora Jews (Jews outside of Judea) often lived in Gentile cities, and in those cities, they set up their own community and their own government — through the synagogues. In short, the elders of the synagogue served the Jews of the city much as the elders of an ancient Jewish city served that city. The Jews saw their minority communities within a Gentile city as a Jewish city within a city, with its own government headed by elders.

Now, it would only be natural for the Christians living in a pagan or Jewish city to also think of themselves also as a city within a city headed by elders — who would serve the same role as ancient village elders. We think of “church” as a religious institution and “elders” as religious leaders. The early church would agree, but they saw all of life as “religious.” Disputes among Christians were thus to be decided within the church (1 Cor 6:1ff; Matt 18:17).

Thus, the early church formed a single congregation in a city but arranged for the congregation to meet in multiple locations (usually a residence). After all, why would you want to have multiple Christian cities within a single Jewish or pagan city?

So that’s a very different picture than we usually see, because the notion of multiple churches with multiple elderships in a single town is very American — going back to the fact that we have so many independent denominations, each wanting its own leadership and congregation in town. And the Churches of Christ want a separate congregation for every disputed doctrinal issue — and hence a separate eldership. It’s rather as though your candidate for the city council loses the election and so you form a new city government in the same city just for those who support the loser. Obviously, we can’t worship with someone who disagrees with us over the Rapture! (Yes, we show far more grace in secular controversies than religious controversies — and think nothing of it.)

If we did this in the secular world, we’d soon find that we couldn’t get much of anything done due to the division of leadership and lack of direction. We have exactly this problem in church and find that the joys of autonomy outweigh our desire to be effective at God’s mission.

Respect

“Respect” translates eido, meaning “know.” Translators struggle to find an English equivalent. KJV translates “know”; NASB has “appreciate”; ESV and RSV have “respect.” And there are more. Thayer’s suggests “to have regard for one, cherish, pay attention to.” BDAG concludes that it means “to recognize merit, respect, honor.”

The infinitive εἰδέναι is not easy to translate in this passage. More is meant than the usual “to know,” “to understand,” or “to recognize.” Best (224) and Marshall (146f.) favor “to respect” on the basis of the meaning of ἐπιγινώσκετε in 1 Cor. 16:18 and, in the case of Best, on Ignatius of Antioch’s use of εἰδέναι in Smy. 9:1. A better rendering takes εἰδέναι in the sense of “to acknowledge,” a recognized meaning for the verb (see LSJ, 483) and the usual translation in 1 Cor. 16:18.

Charles A. Wanamaker, The Epistles to the Thessalonians: A Commentary on the Greek Text, New International Greek Testament Commentary, (Grand Rapids, MI: W.B. Eerdmans, 1990), 191–192.

Though Paul does not explicitly call for obedience to those who toil at Thessalonica, the request that certain people be recognized in the community probably implies such obedience. Paul seems to have in mind the need for the community to acknowledge as leaders certain of its members because they carry out important functions in its life.

Charles A. Wanamaker, The Epistles to the Thessalonians: A Commentary on the Greek Text, New International Greek Testament Commentary, (Grand Rapids, MI: W.B. Eerdmans, 1990), 194.

The Churches of Christ have long had an inconsistent view of the authority of elders. Some treat elders as God’s under-shepherds and believe that they must be obeyed period. The Bible commands obedience, and so obedience it is.

(Heb. 13:17 ESV)  17 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.

Others see elders as mere examples. Therefore, ordination is merely a formal recognition that this man is a Christ-like example to follow. This view is a minority position but widely held. It goes back to the writings of David Lipscomb and E. G. Sewell in the Gospel Advocate from the close of the Civil War to the early 20th Century.

(1 Pet. 5:1-3 ESV) So I exhort the elders among you, as a fellow elder and a witness of the sufferings of Christ, as well as a partaker in the glory that is going to be revealed:  2 shepherd the flock of God that is among you, exercising oversight, not under compulsion, but willingly, as God would have you; not for shameful gain, but eagerly;  3 not domineering over those in your charge, but being examples to the flock.

I believe that this view is not remotely supported by the scriptures, but it continues to be vigorously argued for because we keep ordaining unqualified men as elders — making obedience to them very unattractive. Of course, elders are to be examples — but they are also to be overseers (v.2) and shepherds (v. 2).

The fact is that no organization will do well without leadership that has been given authority to lead. “Over you” does not mean “domineer.” Nor does it mean “set an example only.”

1 Thess does not set forth a comprehensive theology of church leadership, but it does tell us that there were members with positional authority in the earliest records we have of the church.  (See the discussion on “over you” above.) This does not at all negate the fact that congregational leaders should also have relational authority, that is, authority arising from the personal respect they’ve earned in that church.

And because 1 Thess is not attempting to answer all possible questions about elders, we shouldn’t be surprised that it says nothing about how to deal with unqualified elders. For that, you have to read 1 Tim 5:19 ff.

Esteem … because of their work

Paul instructs the church to “esteem them very highly in love because of their work.” Again, the Greek is capable of multiple meanings. Does this mean “because of the work they’ve been appointed to”? Or “because they work so hard”?

In the phrase διὰ τὸ ἔργον αὐτῶν (“on account of their work”) Paul explains why the Thessalonians should respect those described in the three participles of v. 12: their work is done for the sake of the community and its members. Therefore Paul urges that they be treated with the deference due to them.

Charles A. Wanamaker, The Epistles to the Thessalonians: A Commentary on the Greek Text, New International Greek Testament Commentary, (Grand Rapids, MI: W.B. Eerdmans, 1990), 194.

To the extent the question is addressed at all, I think here Paul is speaking of the work they do for the church, assuming that the leaders labor diligently for the congregation.

Peace

In the Scriptures, “peace” generally carries the Hebrew meaning of shalom, which includes right relationship. For a congregation to be “at peace” does not mean there is no disagreement but that we are in right relationship. We love each other and so, when we inevitably disagree, we work it out — like family.

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About Jay F Guin

My name is Jay Guin, and I’m a retired elder. I wrote The Holy Spirit and Revolutionary Grace about 18 years ago. I’ve spoken at the Pepperdine, Lipscomb, ACU, Harding, and Tulsa lectureships and at ElderLink. My wife’s name is Denise, and I have four sons, Chris, Jonathan, Tyler, and Philip. I have two grandchildren. And I practice law.
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2 Responses to 1 Thessalonians: 5:11-13

  1. JohnF says:

    That strong view of “obedience” is what led to the Roman church (among others). A BAD eldership is worse than no eldership. hose who has suffered through such could (perhaps should) write books about the damage done (spiritually, emotionally, as well as financially and physically. You want to know “Why Churches Die?” Start with poor decision making that led to poor leadership. Even as we consider these things, churches in NW Zambia are deeply studying these things, and realizing they are NOT ready – yet.

    A true Biblical functioning eldership is I think, quite rare, as the responsibilites and honor that should be due result in Diotrephes syndrome. I know of an eldership that had to “hire” outside consultants to help them get along as fellow elders. 🙁 Something is deeply wron with that picture.

    1 Tim 5:19 is seldom used, and even more rarely from a “loving family” relationship.

  2. JohnF says:

    (Heb. 13:17 ESV) “Obey your leaders and submit to them.” From verse 7 (Remember your leaders, those who spoke to you the word of God. Consider the outcome of their way of life, and imitate their faith. ESV) it is not so clear that “elders” are in mind here, likely so, but not beyond question. Chrysostom suggests we should consider this passage in light of Jesus’ words: Hebrews 13:17 “What then (you say), when he is wicked should we obey?

    Wicked? In what sense? If indeed in regard to Faith, flee and avoid him; not only if he be a man, but even if he be an angel come down from Heaven; but if in regard to life, be not over-curious. And this instance I do not allege from my own mind, but from the Divine Scripture. For hear Christ saying, “The Scribes and the Pharisees sit on Moses’ seat.” (Matt 23:2.) Having previously spoken many fearful things concerning them, He then says, “They sit on Moses’ seat: all therefore whatsoever they tell you observe, do; but do not ye after their works.” (Matt 23:2,3.) They have (He means) the dignity of office, but are of unclean life. Do thou however attend, not to their life, but to their words.
    (from Nicene and Post-Nicene Fathers, Series 1, Volume 14, Schaff)

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