In 1 Thessalonians 5:12-13 Paul said, “And we urge you, brethren, to recognize those who labor among you, and are over you in the Lord and admonish you, and to esteem them very highly in love for their work’s sake. Be at peace among yourselves.” This passage addresses the attitude that the brethren at Thessalonica were to have toward their spiritual leaders. The words “labor” and “over” indicate that these were leaders particularly responsible for giving direction to the congregation. Whereas the words elders, shepherds, pastors or bishops are not specifically used, if Paul’s description does not point to that group I am at a loss to know how it should be applied. These elders should be recognized and esteemed very highly. It is interesting that these two terms are different, but bear some semblance. Twin duties are here highlighted:
“Recognize those who labor among you” (Vs. 12). To “recognize” indicates more than a visual identification of the persons involved. It suggests the idea of knowing with respect and appreciation. The men that Paul wanted the Thessalonians to appreciate are noted for three things: They are “those who labor among you,” they “are over you in the Lord,” and, they “admonish you.” That is, they do more than just make decisions. They work, serve, teach, guide, sacrifice and admonish.
It is sad when a demonstrated appreciation for the wisdom and spiritual insights of elders is met with the caustic charge that such is tantamount to “elder worship.” Does following Paul’s admonition in these verses make us elder worshippers? Such a rabid criticism is more of an indictment against the one who gives it than of those who simply appreciate a church’s overseers. Such a critic reveals a maverick spirit of rebellion that will not submit to man or God.
On the other hand some elders need to be admonished and corrected when they do wrong. It is not uncommon today to hear of some elders who say on the matters of mechanical instruments of music in worship, that even though they might not push it, they see nothing wrong with it and that they are willing to fellowship those that use it.
“Esteem them very highly in love for their work’s sake” (Vs. 13). The meaning of the word “esteem” is to hold them in the highest regard. Elders that serve faithfully are worthy of high esteem. Faithfulness is always worthy of honor. There is no work in this world more important than that of our spiritual shepherds. Their responsibilities involve both time and eternity (Heb. 13:17). Brethren should tap into the wisdom and knowledge of faithful elders. Often people will go to preachers with serious questions seeking counsel, because it is usually assumed that preachers are experts in Bible knowledge. A much better approach, it seems to me, is to go to the elders as long as they are faithful, sound and knowledgeable of God’s word, as they should be. We place ourselves under their oversight to guide, instruct and help us. We need to utilize that valuable resource.