The next passage I want to examine on leadership in Paul’s letters is 1 Thessalonians 5.12-13. Up until this point, Paul had been discussing those who have died in Christ and the “Day of the Lord.” What Paul says about leaders here, almost as an aside, is important because Paul gives instructions as to how leadership should progress. He assumes that it is being done and he is encouraging the church at Thessalonica to give proper respect to those performing the hard work of overseeing the congregation.
Paul lists three participles that describe the function of these members who deserved to be acknowledged: those who work hard; who are over you and who admonish you. The way it is written in Greek implies that the reference is to one group of people who performed three specified services within the church.
“Work hard” in Paul’s letters usually describes his own activity in spreading the gospel. The verb has the sense here of toiling for the needs of the church when coupled with the words “among you.” Paul does not say what this “toiling” entailed, but the Thessalonians knew to whom and what Paul referred.
Those who are “over you” is the term that I recently covered found also in Romans 12.8, the plural form of ho proistamenos. It can have the connotation of “those who lead or govern”, “those who stand before someone in protection” or “those who care for someone.” There is no reason to think, in this context, that this term couldn’t refer to all three of these ideas (that of leading, protecting and caring).
Wayne Meeks compares this term here to the situation that Paul describes in 1 Corinthians 16 concerning the members of Stephanas’ household. They had “devoted themselves for ministry to the saints” and are to be given their proper regard in the church. Meeks points out that positions of authority grew out of the benefits that persons of relatively higher wealth and status could confer on the community and served as patrons or protectors of the community. (See The First Urban Christians, 89).
Those due “appreciation” could be the leaders of the various house churches if we hold to the understanding that the Christians met in houses under a form of patronage of the head of the household. The word for “those who are over you” comes from the same root word at the noun for “patron.” One commentator believes Paul is urging respect to “those who act as your patrons.” This patronage is not legal or hierarchical, but informal and brotherly.
If “those who are over you” refers to those functioning as patrons of the community at Thessalonica, then it seems that this is a position of authority that grows out of the benefits that persons of relatively higher wealth and status could confer on the community.
Gerd Theissen calls this situation of protection by the socially stronger “love-patriarchalism.” These leaders in Thessalonica did not lead by the secular model of leadership, a heavy handed hierarchy, but led by an example of hard work providing protection and instruction. As has been show in Rom. 12.8, the leadership exhibited by these people was Spirit-endowed and ruled by love, first of God and second of their brothers and sisters in the name of Christ. Leadership ability was valued as an endowment of the Spirit alongside prophetic utterance and similar gifts.