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“A Telling Test” 1 Thess. 5:12-15 Sept. 10, 1995

Text Comments

v. 12 “respect” so the NIV translates the word which literally means “know.” Perhaps another translation might be “acknowledge those who work hard”. The idea is that of appreciating their worth and behaving accordingly.

“admonish” from noutheteo (nouthetic counseling) Paul is speaking here about the church officers we call ministers and elders. The Bible uses a variety of terms to designate these church officers, sometimes by title or the character required for the office, sometimes by function or the duties undertaken by these officers. One of those terms is the word that the NIV here translates “who are over you”. The same word appears, for instance, in 1 Tim. 3:4; 5:17 in reference to elders.

Characteristically, Paul concludes his letter to the church in Thessalonica with general exhortations to godliness. The subject of vv. 12-22 is that which is so beautifully expressed in his concluding prayer in vv. 23-24: “May God sanctify you through and through.” That is, may God make you holy in every way. And the verses which precede that prayer form something of a summary of that holiness that he urges upon them and prays that God might work in them.

He has, you remember, already discussed three separate aspects of sanctification, or Christian holiness, in chapter 4, verses 1-12, three aspects of Christian living which called for special comment because of the particular circumstances of the Thessalonian believers. Now his exhortation is more general, a concluding call to faithfulness and maturity in the Christian life.

But what a lead! If you were to write a letter and close with a general exhortation to growth in Christ and godliness would you begin as Paul did by summoning your brethren to show particular respect to the officers of the church, to those who are over them in the Lord. Would you even use the words “over them” in any comment you might make about a congregation and its elders.

Would it ever occur to you to give such a matter pride of place in describing true Christian piety and godliness: respect for and submission to the elders of the church?

Remember the Washington Post reporter who got into hot water for suggesting in a front page article that evangelical Christians were a generally uneducated lot and easily led. Was he right? Do we just do what we are told by our leaders? Are we just supposed to follow orders?

To put the question that way illustrates the problem we face in the contemporary church and have faced in this congregation as well. There are certain parts of the Bible that run straight across the grain for us. They are simply alien to our way of thinking.

In different cultures at different times different parts of the Bible strike people that way. For example, it is an astonishingly swift development that we have witnessed with our own eyes in just these last 15 years. It was only that long ago that Ephesians 5:22-33 was still widely regarded as the Bible’s most beautiful passage on marriage and was, therefore, the most popular passage for reading at weddings. Not any more! Now Christians, Bible believing Christians, are embarrassed by that passage with its stark gender differentiation and its command to women to be submissive to their husbands.

Well so it is with a text such as 1 Thess. 5:12. That would not have bothered Christians in other places and other times nearly as much as it bothers individualistic, democratic, anti-authoritarian American evangelicals. Let you and I be honest with ourselves, brothers and sisters. It would never have occurred to us to lead a summary of Christian holiness with the subject that Paul chose: submission to and respect for the elders of the church. Indeed, it wouldn’t have occurred to most of us to put it anywhere in our summary of godliness. The idea that others may tell us what to do, have the right and obligation to point out our faults, and that we have an obligation before God to obey and submit to them is alien to us. It is frankly offensive to a great many Christians who would consider themselves Bible believers and take umbrage at anyone who questioned their loyalty to the Word of God.

But Paul’s mind is alien to many of us. We have found out how alien, your elders have often enough, through the years.

Now Christians don’t normally say: “I don’t care what Paul said in 1 Thessalonians 5, I don’t have to listen to what my ministers and elders say.” They don’t say that. They do this instead. They say, when they read 1 Thess. 5:12, But “Remember what the Scripture says about church leaders, and how they are not to lord it over people and that they are to be servants and are to lead by example and to earn the right to the respect of their congregations by the circumspection and holiness and piety of their lives.”

And all of that is true, of course. Absolutely true and most important. But, by emphasizing the one pole of the Bible’s teaching about the leadership of the church and its authority over Christians they are trying to silence the other pole. At 1 Thess 5:12 our task is not to talk about how leaders are to lead in humility and fidelity to both the teaching of Holy Scripture and the example of Christ, our task here is to take heed to what Paul is talking about, namely the obligation of Christians to respect and submit to their leaders.

And this is, of course, by no means the only place the Bible speaks plainly and emphatically about that duty and its crucial place in the cultivation and protection of true godliness in the church.

The Lord Jesus spoke of the authority, his authority, that he was placing in his church and in the hands of its officers, when, in Matthew 16, he gave to Peter, as the representative of all the elders of the church, the keys to the kingdom, and made that astonishing promise which few Christians today give any thought to at all.

“Whatever you bind on earth will be bound in heaven and whatever you loose on earth will be loosed in heaven.” A statement that, as its repetition in Matthew 18:18 makes unmistakably clear has to do with the authority to bring individuals into the kingdom and church of God and to cast them out if they are unworthy.

Here is a promise the Lord repeated in even more breathtaking language in John 20:23: “If you forgive anyone his sins, they are forgiven; if you do not forgive them, they are not forgiven.”

The real authority in this world does not lie with the secular government. It can only throw you in prison or take your life. The real authority, though only faith sees it, lies in the church, where, by Christ’s authority given to it, it can stand in judgment over the spiritual lives and existence of men and women, and render judgment which applies not only to this world but that which is to come.

And then, how plainly does the rest of the Bible speak.

“Obey your leaders,” writes the author of the letter to the Hebrews, “and submit to their authority. They keep watch over you as men who must give an account. Obey them so that their work will be a joy, not a burden, for that would be of no advantage to you.”

No wonder it was always taught in the Bible, both in the OT and the NT, that the church would prosper so long as she had godly, spiritual principled, men of faith for her leaders and that the lack of such men was the surest sign of God’s curse and judgment upon the people of God.

Listen to Ezekiel describe the ruin of God’s unfaithful people Israel (7:26):

“Calamity upon calamity will come, and rumor upon rumor. They will try to get a vision from the prophet; the teaching of the law by the priest will be lost, as well as the counsel of the elders.”

And so no wonder that Paul and other biblical writers would lay God’s people under the charge of submission to such men. It is the way the Lord himself has appointed to exercise his authority over his people in the church, and to protect them and bless them.

So much is this so that over and again the Scripture says, in one way or another, that as God’s people listen to his officers in the church and heed them, they listen to and heed the Lord himself. Paul said as much in Chapter 1.

Do you know that there are many churches in our city and that there are even some churches in our own denomination that will tell you that their elders do not practice church discipline as a matter of policy. The authority of the elders, of those who are over the people of God, has been laid down and is no longer exercised. They no longer exercise the keys, no longer shut the doors of the kingdom of God against those who betray her publicly. In that direct and ultimate sense and in many lesser ways, Paul’s counsel to Christians here is moot for Christians in such churches because they have no elders “over them” or “admonishing them.”
We have discovered this to our amazement and our dismay when we have approached other bodies of elders regarding folk who have left us precisely to avoid the discipline of the church for their betrayals of the Lord. We have sought to be over these professing Christians in the way the Bible so clearly indicates we should, we have sought to admonish them and to bring them back to obedience to the law of God, and they have simply left us for the church down the street, where they were welcomed no questions asked. Such is the situation today. Everyone doing what is right in his own eyes and few elders exercising the keys to the kingdom as the Lord has ordered them to do and given them his authority to do.

But think for a moment. Why do you suppose a group of elders would have the audacity to lay down a charge given them by Christ himself? And particularly a charge that the Scripture everywhere says is so essential to the wellbeing and salvation of God’s children? Why do you suppose they would openly admit that they will not do what Holy Scripture commands them to do. Why will they not admonish those who need it! Well, they must answer for themselves, and, without doubt, they ought to do their duty and have no excuse for not doing so.

But, I will tell you plainly. The first reason why elders do not admonish and do not rule and do not practice discipline and why, in so many churches for all practical purposes, there are no officers who are “over Christians in the Lord” is because the men do not think that Christians will stand for it, and, in many cases, they have the experience to prove it.

I have had people come to this church — professing Christian people, people I thought and others thought were earnest Christians, people who apparently thought and certainly said that the ministry of this church was just what they had been looking for, something to be prized for its faithfulness to the Word, and all the rest. But, when I went to them in the company of the elders to tell them in the Lord’s name that they could not marry a Unitarian, or could not leave her husband or his wife, or must answer for having written bad checks and told outright lies, suddenly we were not the church and not the minister and not the elders they had thought we were and they left us, offended and angry, caring not a whit for what we said or for the threats of divine displeasure and judgment that we made on God’s behalf.

I know a church, in our own denomination that justifies its practice of not practicing church discipline, of refusing to be “over the saints” in the way Paul meant and of requiring their obedience to the law of Christ, with the simple explanation that they had found that it doesn’t work!

Now, we could say many things about that: about what purposes, holy and essential purposes church discipline serves even when the rebellious church member is not recovered to a faithful life. We could speak of the bottom line — that elders are men under orders and are not free for any reason to lay down the yolk Christ has placed upon them.

But, Paul here is not speaking to the elders, he is speaking to the congregation. And the message before us this morning is not about how they are to rule, but how willingly and cheerfully and respectfully Christians are to receive the rule of Christ as it is dispensed to them through the officers the Lord himself has called and appointed.

Absolutely the Scripture says that the authority of church officers is ministerial only, that it extends only insofar as they are faithful to Holy Scripture in their words and deeds. Absolutely, that authority is to be exercised in humility and with love for God and for his saints as the prevailing motive. Absolutely they are to be “over” the church as men who must give an account to God.

But, that is not Paul’s point here. His point here is the obligation of Christians to offer respectful submission and obedience, as unto the Lord, to those who are over them and who admonish them in the church. And is it not often the case that Christians who chafe under that rule and under the obligation of that submission get exactly what they ask for, weak and ineffective rule in the church and so they and everyone else lose the benefit Christ intends for them in having godly men take care and notice of their lives and correct that which is wanting.

We give lip service so easily to this, of course. The importance of honest speaking between one another, of speaking the truth in love to our brethren, of humbly accepting the correction of others.

But the experience of ministers and elders and, if you are honest with yourselves, the experience of most Christians is that people, even principled Christian people, are more likely to be defensive than grateful when corrected, even when corrected for sins that are the common frailties of many if not all of their fellows in the body of Christ.

It is not customary, even for Christians who should know better, to hold those who admonish them in the highest regard because of their work, even though the Apostle Paul and the Lord Christ himself have told them to do so.

No wonder that in the Beatitudes the Lord followed, “Blessed are the poor in spirit” with “Blessed are the meek.” We are all so ready to believe ourselves poor in spirit — that is, humble before God, because, of course, who is to say that we are not. But to be meek, to be humble before other men, especially to take their correction and discipline — which is true meekness — this is the true, public test of our humility. No one is humble before God whom he cannot see, if he is not humble before men whom he can see. So the Bible says in many different ways. And that is one great reason why the Lord entrusted his rule in the church to human officers; to test the fidelity of his people both to himself and to his word and to show them clearly how much humility, how much love of holiness, how much hunger and thirst for righteousness they really had.

We love to tell of the great Bishop Ambrose, who in an act of true ministerial faithfulness and Christian heroism, met the emperor Theodosius I in the narthex of the great basilica in Milan and ordered him out of the church, refused him a place in the company of the worshippers of God, because he had so savagely suppressed a riot in Thessalonica and had not cared that the innocent had suffered with the guilty. And it causes us to be proud of our faith and our God and the great history of faithful and fearless Christian ministry that Theodosius soon repented of his sin, made public confession of it, and at Ambrose’s insistence promulgated a law forbidding the execution of criminals until a waiting period had passed that no one might be killed in a fit of temper. We marvel at the true wisdom and divine genius of it all when we read that Theodosius later died in Ambrose’s arms and that he said near his death that his bishop was the only man who had ever told him the truth about himself.

But the story, alas, comes from a world and a time far away — a time and a world the church of Jesus Christ needs to recover if it would be healthy and holy again. And a time and a world you and I need to recover, brothers and sisters, if we would be holy and if we would go down deep and up high in the things of our God and Savior.

Your ministers and elders must be faithful to the great and difficult calling they have been given. We accept that and, the Lord helping us, we strive to be. But you can make our job much easier. It is one thing to admonish a man or woman whom you feel for certain will never forgive you for saying what must be said. It is another thing altogether to admonish a man or woman whom you know will love you for giving them what any sinner needs who wishes to rise above sin to love and serve the Lord Jesus ever more faithfully.

Brothers and sisters, you ponder the fact that Paul began his summation of Christian holiness with this subject — the respect and submission Christians owe those over them in the Lord. And you then tell the Lord that this will be part of your holiness as well and your submission to him and your love of him and your acknowledgement of his perfect wisdom in ordering the life of his people. And then and only then you pray that God’s officers in this church will, by his grace and your prayers, always be worthy of the confidence you are to place in them and the submission you are to render to them.