Reading 1 Thessalonians this morning I was struck by a few passages that are probably incomprehensible to most Christians and their churches in the United States, perhaps in the West in general. The first is 2:14:
For you, brothers, became imitators of the churches of God in Christ Jesus that are in Judea. For you suffered the same things from your own countrymen as they did from the Jews…
Now, I am sure that American churches love to imitate other churches, but those are certainly not the same types as those “that are in Judea.” Our mega-churches are ‘successful’ and ‘growing’ and it is those that we strive to imitate. The churches in Judea that the Thessalonian church is imitating—with Paul’s thanks to God—are “suffering” churches: the Jews in Palestine were at the time persecuting Jewish Christians on a large scale (cf. Galatians), and it seems that these Christians in Macedonia were going through something similar.
First, think of a church which you know to be beset by external opposition: the saints inside Iran facing a formidable Islamic government, the churches in India who are in the midst popular resistance from both Muslim and Hindu groups, or even many churches in Europe who cling fast to an outdated, backward and irrelevant faith that was delivered to them by those saints who came before. Supposing these churches similarly “received the word” of God, now tell your pastors and eldership that your middle-class suburban church ought to do what those folks are doing. The idea of their acquiescence is almost, as a wise man one put it, inconceivable. O that we would evaluate the health of our churches like Paul did, and work “night and day” to make them faithful to the word of God despite affliction.
The second passage which is similarly startling for a 21st c. American is 5:12–13:
We ask you, brothers, to respect those who labor among you and are over you in the Lord and admonish you, and to esteem them very highly in love because of their work.
This is clearly talking about the officers of the local church: “over you in the Lord” is used here and in 1 Timothy and Romans to mean someone who has authority over and responsibility for others, whether in the church or in the family. This command is a whole lot like the demand that we Americans respect our President no matter who he is since he is our leader in that office that demands our respect. It’s incredibly difficult in this age of incivility to do this in the political realm, and it is likely more difficult to do this in the church. Why? Because the consumerism of the American public has been coupled with the numerous stories of pastors falling from respect by outrageous sins, thus making the office of pastor one of the least respected or trusted occupations in the country. Americans can (and will likely need to) always find a better ‘product’ to meet their spiritual needs elsewhere.
But Paul here admonishes these very faithful saints to not only “respect” their pastors and elders, but to “esteem them very highly” and to do so “in love.” How many of us look at our pastors that way, or speak about them like that to our children, family and friends? We do not because we have the wrong motivation: we are motivated by the personality of the preacher and how much ‘good vibes’ I get on a Sunday morning from his words. Paul says (God says!) we should respect and love them “because of their work.” This work is most likely not organization and management of programs to give you something to do, but is similar to what he sent Timothy to Thessalonica to do, in 3:2–3: “to establish and exhort you in your faith, that no one be moved by these afflictions.” Let’s love our pastors and elders because of the work they do in study and prayer and preaching the Word and administering the sacraments, even if we’re not enthralled by their personalities.