Pastors -- and churches -- should care about leadership credibility.
Bible Study Ideas and Commentary for 1 Thessalonians 2:1-12
Having praised God for the believers in Thessalonica, Paul quickly shifts into defending his credibility against the unjust attacks of his rivals, not for his own sake but so that the church won't be fooled into following the wrong leader. We should care about own pastor's credibility, and we should care about our credibility with non-Christians we minister to.
For you remember our labor and hardship (2:9)
Getting Started: Things to Think About
We've talked about this before, so you may choose to go a different route. How do leaders establish and maintain their credibility?
Observing world leaders with respect to the Ukraine crisis has been very interesting. I don't want to go too much into politics (that's a trap!), so let me just bring up the president of Ukraine, Volodymyr Zelenskyy. I knew nothing about him before; now, I can recognize him by face, and I even know his personal political history. Why?
Zelenskyy was a comedian playing the president on a tv show just a few years ago. (He's younger than I am, btw.) He ran on a disestablishment platform and won in 2019. He says that his training in acting has helped him a great deal in this crisis because he has to make so many appearances and project a certain kind of calm and assurance and defiance. He has built credibility with the West by making very consistent appeals and also by staying in Kyiv in the face of danger. If you read the Ukrainian headlines, you'll see that his continued credibility with his people is entirely dependent on if he will actually see through all of the things he said he would do.
And that's basically the definition of credibility, right? You are seen as a person who knows what you're talking about and can be trusted in what you say, right?
If you are a leader in your place of work, how do you monitor and maintain your credibility? Is it different if you are a leader in a civic organization?
And then let's transition to the church. How do you determine credibility in your church leaders (pastors, deacons, Sunday School teachers, etc.)? And if you are one of those leaders, how do you monitor and maintain your credibility?
Being "Winsome" for Christ
Another idea is to just go straight for the gut. You might not think of yourself as a "leader", but you (assuming you are a Christian) are an ambassador for Christ. All day. Every day. No exceptions.
(To keep the current events connecting, the ambassadors for Russia are taking it on the chin right now. As they repeat Putin's talking points, they are more and more associated with Putin's actions. So you'd better believe that as we repeat things associated with Jesus, people are going to associate us with Jesus. Obviously that's good for us, but is it good for Jesus?)
In our passage, Paul is going to share some characteristics of a good Christian mentor and witness. But before we start, throw this topic out to the group:
Describe a "good" Christian witness or disciplemaker.
In other words, picture someone who is good at sharing Jesus or building someone up in their faith. What is that person like? What traits make them good at that?
Keep that list handy. At the end of the lesson, compare it with Paul's words. What do you need to add to your own mental list?
Passage Overview (I'm Calling an Audible This Week)
I don't usually structure my notes like this, but I thought this might help. I'm not thrilled with the direction Lifeway chose to take their lesson plan. Nothing they said is wrong -- the Bible agrees with all of their points -- but that wasn't really what Paul was trying to say.
Here's what's going on in our passage.
Paul came to Thessalonica from Philippi (you can read more in our Introduction to 1 Thessalonians from last week), where he had been imprisoned by pagans who thought he was a Jew. Then, in Thessalonica, he was chased off by Jews who thought he had completely abandoned Judaism. In both cities (and in every city Paul planted a church), some sort of opponent came after Paul left and tried to damage Paul's credibility so that the church members would leave that church.
A lot of scholars think Paul is usually defending himself against Judaizers (as described in Philippians 3) -- Jewish zealots who followed Paul around and told the new Christians that they had to become Jews to be saved. (Acts 17:5 specifically identifies Jewish opponents in Thessalonica.)
But I'm going to focus on a different set of opponents, one Paul talks about in Philippians 1:
15 To be sure, some preach Christ out of envy and rivalry, but others out of good will. 16 These preach out of love, knowing that I am appointed for the defense of the gospel; 17 the others proclaim Christ out of selfish ambition, not sincerely, thinking that they will cause me trouble in my imprisonment.
I think that these are the "super-apostles", rival evangelists who think they're better at church-building than Paul and want to poach his church members. They seem to envy Paul's success with evangelism and church planting, and they want the prestige and influence (and money!) that comes with being a leader of a growing church. Remember that cultic priests in those days could do well for themselves.
Remember that Paul was only in Thessalonica for three weeks before he had to leave town. These rival evangelists would have played on that:
"Paul left because he didn't really care about you"
"Someone who jumps ship so quickly isn't trustworthy"
"Paul ran away because he was in over his head"
"Did Paul really dress or talk like a charismatic church leader?"
"Nobody liked his preaching anyway"
It's the "who couldn't love Gaston" argument. And while that argument didn't sway Belle, it sure carried some weight with the rest of the town. So, surely you can see why Paul would have to respond.
I highlighted two attacks that really seemed to bother Paul -- attacking his trustworthiness and his behavior. Paul knew the truth, that he was actually more trustworthy and a better model for behavior than these self-serving, insincere rivals. If church members started following these other guys, who knows what disaster might follow!
That's the heart of 1 Thessalonians 2. The Lifeway lesson seems to be taking the approach that "we need to share the gospel boldly while paying attention to our witness" (which is absolutely true and is what Paul was applying to himself). But the passage is actually about "we need to pay attention to the message and witness of our leaders and teachers, and if they are credible, we need to emulate them".
[If you want more context, read Paul's words to Timothy in 1 Timothy 3:1-13, 6:3-10; 2 Timothy 2:14-4:5.]
(Note: if you are a church leader, or someone in a Paul-type role, then by all means apply the lesson to yourself as it is in the leader guide.)
Where We Are in 1 Thessalonians
I kinda just gave you what you need to know to understand the passage, but let's set this in the full outline of the letter:
Thanksgiving for Thessalonian's Faith (1:1-10)
Defense of Paul's Ministry and Absence (2:1-3:13)
Summary of Teachings under Question (4:1-5:22)
Guidelines for Sexual Conduct (4:1-12)
Guidelines for Understanding Christ's Return (4:13-5:11)
Guidelines for Life and Worship (5:12-22)
Ever since Paul left Thessalonica, he had been thinking about and praying about the new church, but it was too dangerous (for them!) for him to return. So, when he couldn't stand it any longer, he sent Timothy to them to see how they were doing. Timothy found Paul in Corinth with a report from the church, discussing (1) how great they were doing (all things considered), (2) the questions they had, and (3) the personal attacks being leveled against Paul.
Knowing that, the outline of the letter should make good sense. He starts with a lot of thanksgiving for what's going on there. But before he answers any questions or gives his opinion on anything, he defends his own credibility. If those church members have any doubts about his credibility, they won't listen to anything he says.
This passage starts with the word "for", which is actually a big deal. This defense flows directly out of what he had just said:
"Looking at how well you've done, doesn't that imply that I must have said something right? If the Holy Spirit is powerfully at work in you -- the Holy Spirit that comes from the gospel I preached -- doesn't that imply that I was truthful?"
Part 1: Persistent (1 Thessalonians 2:1-2)
For you yourselves know, brothers and sisters, that our visit with you was not without result. 2 On the contrary, after we had previously suffered and were treated outrageously in Philippi, as you know, we were emboldened by our God to speak the gospel of God to you in spite of great opposition.
Here's how I would label this section:
Part 1. A Christian Leader Is Identified by God-Given Results
Paul's point is really simple: "You guys are the proof that we really are messengers of truth."
And then, just to drive it home more sharply, he follows it up with verse 2: "And you know that we were opposed before we got to Thessalonica and while we were in Thessalonica."
Why do you think that "opposition" is a sign of being a true messenger of Jesus?
This is where being a Christian in the age of the Moral Majority can be confusing. Many of us grew up in a time and place where Christianity was a de facto "state religion", and the popular thing to do was line up behind some Christian church or another. But that's not really normative:
18 “If the world hates you, understand that it hated me before it hated you. 19 If you were of the world, the world would love you as its own. However, because you are not of the world, but I have chosen you out of it, the world hates you. 20 Remember the word I spoke to you: ‘A servant is not greater than his master.’ If they persecuted me, they will also persecute you. If they kept my word, they will also keep yours." (John 15)
21 “Brother will betray brother to death, and a father his child. Children will rise up against parents and have them put to death. 22 You will be hated by everyone because of my name. But the one who endures to the end will be saved." (Matt 10)
19 "This is the judgment: The light has come into the world, and people loved darkness rather than the light because their deeds were evil. 20 For everyone who does evil hates the light and avoids it, so that his deeds may not be exposed. 21 But anyone who lives by the truth comes to the light, so that his works may be shown to be accomplished by God.” (John 3)
If you are popular with the world at large around you, you really need to question if you're living and teaching the full counsel of God. Remember, the Bible teaches that anyone who doesn't follow Jesus as Lord and Savior is going to hell. And the Bible teaches that anyone who doesn't adhere to a biblical ethic is a wicked hypocrite. Those are not popular teachings, and they never have been!
Humans, by nature, want to "have it easy". We want money, success, growth, influence, and all of that as easy as possible. In fact, many people believe that "the easier it is, the more right you must be doing it". (The idea of "Easy Street" has been around at least since 1917.)
But that's never been God's method of building up believers. God doesn't make life easy for us; God gives us the strength to overcome the obstacles "life" puts in our way.
And that's what Paul's saying. "The fact that you listened to our message in spite of all opposition is proof that God's power was at work."
There are two clarifications I want to make about this:
There are some churches who might respond, "This is great! We make things super-difficult for our pastors. That's just all the more for God's power to overcome, right?" No. Just, no. The opposition Paul's talking about comes from the enemies of God. If the opposition is coming from inside the church, well, that's just not good.
There are some church leaders who might respond, "This is disappointing. I haven't seen any results of any kind. God must not be at work in me." That's also not what Paul is saying. Even Jesus mentioned times of "fruitless ministry". God just might have a different timeline or a different plan for that place of ministry.
Paul's point was simply that the existence of God-given results (salvation and discipleship in the face of opposition) is evidence that God was at work in Paul, and the church members in Thessalonica could trust him.
Part 2: Gentle (1 Thessalonians 2:3-7)
3 For our exhortation didn’t come from error or impurity or an intent to deceive. 4 Instead, just as we have been approved by God to be entrusted with the gospel, so we speak, not to please people, but rather God, who examines our hearts. 5 For we never used flattering speech, as you know, or had greedy motives—God is our witness— 6 and we didn’t seek glory from people, either from you or from others. 7 Although we could have been a burden as Christ’s apostles, instead we were gentle among you, as a nurse nurtures her own children.
Here's my label for this section based on my outline:
Part 2. A Christian Leader Is Identified by Humility
Again, Paul makes this really simple. He's obviously comparing himself with these rival evangelists who must not have behaved anything like him. Using Philippians 2 as a second data point, here's how I describe these rivals:
They demanded respect
They were authoritarian
They expected good pay
They used flattery and manipulation
They lorded their position over others
They were socialites
If we could all *gasp* at the scandal of such church leaders, that would be awesome. Sadly, are we really surprised?
These are all bits of information easily researched and confirmed, so I'll do some name-naming.
Tanver Smith, pastor of megachurch Venue Church, announced in January that he would be taking a sabbatical after allegations of an affair came up. Staff members who resigned as consequence had to sign a non-disclosure agreement (?!).
Carl Lentz was fired as pastor of Hillsong NYC in November for cheating on his wife and other unidentified moral failures.
Jeremy Foster of Hope City Church (January), Bruxy Cavey of The Meeting House (March), and Micah Carter of Church of the Highlands (July) all lost their pastorates due to sexual misconduct.
Kirbyjon Caldwell of Windsor Village UMC was sent to prison in July for defrauding church members of millions of dollars.
GJ Barnes of The Empowerment Temple was removed from his pastorate in July due to financial mismanagement (personal and corporate).
Owning a million-dollar home isn't what it used to be, but Joel Osteen of Lakewood Church (15,700sf), I. V. Hilliard of New Light Church (40,500sf), Steven Furtick of Elevation Church (16,000sf), Creflo Dollar of World Changers (17,000), and John Gray of Relentless Church (a 7,500sf "parsonage"), all currently live in houses that seem rather large to me. But see below.
And those are just from American megachurches during the past 12 months.
I realize that I'm picking on people I don't even know. Look, I have no idea why they got into ministry or how they ended up in the situations they did. But -- whether they got into ministry because they were hoping for power and prestige or not -- my point is that church leaders in our world today can and do misuse their authority. (And that's not even to get into the Prosperity Gospel, which we've talked about elsewhere.)
Here's the best way I can think to study this passage: create a list! These first verses focus on the "not" of identifying someone sent ("approved") by God, and the next verses focus on the "yes". So, have your group list the characteristics Paul describes in these verses. There might be some questions as to what Paul means by certain words, so here's a brief description:
Not from error. In other words, Paul's rivals were starting from flawed teachings. Think of it like this: a person believes they've discovered some new information in the Bible; they immediately write a book and go on a speaking tour and give interviews, all to share this new information they've discovered (think The Bible Code or A Generous Orthodoxy). Whether or not they're actually right.
Not from impure [motives]. What's an impure motive that someone might have for building a church? (Remember -- Paul isn't worried about impure motives for sharing the gospel, whatever that might look like, so this must be about building a church.)
[Side possibility -- scholars have noted that this word also refers to sexual impurity. In other words, those church leaders were looking to take advantage of female members of the church. Sadly, the illustrations above prove this is a real possibility.]
No intent to deceive. Paul is definitely thinking of a hard-core deception. But I think we can pull it back to "intent to mislead" for the same purpose. Ask if anyone in your group has ever served on a search committee/pulpit committee. What tools were they given to "sniff out" if a candidate wasn't being completely honest?
[Side possibility -- this isn't about deceiving the church into making him a leader; this is about misleading someone into becoming a Christian by making false promises. I put the Prosperity Gospel in this category.]
Not worried about pleasing people but God. What does this look like in a church leader? This is complex -- after all, I serve our congregation at the request of our congregation, right? But, God has "appointed some to be pastors" because congregations need leadership, not "tickled ears".
Not using flattery. By this, Paul means flattery as manipulation. What is flattery, and how can it be misused? Personally, I enjoy saying nice things about people, but there is a fine line between encouragement and flattery.
Not having greedy motives. I want us to be cautious with this one. Paul speaks of motives; it's hard for us to know what someone's motives are! Take my bullet point above about large houses with a grain of salt. We don't know the "why", but the perception isn't great. What are ways that church leaders can be greedy?
Not seeking glory. This is another phrase that can mean a lot of different things. What kinds of "glory" might a church leader seek and how? I don't personally know anyone who has gone full-bore into self-promotion (in order to sell a book, grow a church, etc.), so I can only make guesses.
It's possible to be a Christian leader with worldly acclaim and influence -- Billy Graham comes to mind -- but I think that's going to be more and more difficult as the world realizes its hatred of Jesus.
[Here's my "please people" comic]
[And here's a great "flattery" comic]
Let's talk about verse 7, but not too much (because Paul is going to explain what he means in the next verses). First, realize that Paul is not saying that the apostles are a burden! He's saying that the apostles have the "right" to be a burden. When you hear "we could have been a burden, but instead we were gentle", what's your initial thought? What's your gut reaction what you think it means? ("Gut reaction" is important because I think it will illustrate my warning below.)
How could church leaders be a burden?
There is a trope of this in a whole bunch of movies and games -- the "holy man" who comes through the scene being carried/pulled by servants (church members) who cater to his every need, makes some ridiculous pronouncement while being applauded by those church members, and makes some demand of food/water/shade/quiet. That's the satirical extreme. What are more real-world examples you might think of?
[Teacher's Warning: watch out for examples that are too close to home, like, for instance, someone using this topic as a way to complain about a current/recent pastor or ministry leader in your church. That's not helpful or constructive, and it's essentially gossip! That's why I put "could" in italics. If someone in your group has a grievance, they need to air that privately. You keep the conversation moving to the point of the topic.]
Here's the important question: why would Paul care if church leaders are a burden?
Obviously, in this context, it has something to do with credibility. Why is it that a church leader who is not a burden should have more credibility than a church leader who is a burden? Well, just look at my section title: humility. The idea of "burden" implies a disproportionate claim (for money, resources, assistance, etc.) beyond necessity. A person who is a burden is looking out for himself, regardless of the expense to others. But instead of being such a burden, Paul (and his associates) were not -- save this for the next section, when Paul describes it in more detail.
A Christian leader who is a burden is a red flag. Here's my warning -- be aware that everyone's definition of "burden" is going to be different! Can you see how that kind of range could create real tension in a congregation? What would be your way to handle such tension (so that your congregation doesn't treat a church leader unfairly)?
But you also need to be able to apply this verse to yourself, even if you aren't a "church leader". Consider yourself as a witness and disciplemaker. To those non-Christians, you are a leader. How does their perception of you affect that process? And what can you do to shape that perception?
[Aside: Lifeway obviously got their title for this section from the word "gentle", which is probably not the original Greek word. There are two words in play -- epioi and nepioi. Epioi means "gentle"; nepioi means "little children" and is found in the most ancient manuscripts. Obviously, "little children" makes a mixed metaphor, which is why the copyists went with the variant reading. But Paul didn't care about mixing metaphors; he was trying to demonstrate humility. No worries, though -- the meaning of the passage isn't affected.]
Part 3: Blameless (1 Thessalonians 2:8-12)
8 We cared so much for you that we were pleased to share with you not only the gospel of God but also our own lives, because you had become dear to us. 9 For you remember our labor and hardship, brothers and sisters. Working night and day so that we would not burden any of you, we preached God’s gospel to you. 10 You are witnesses, and so is God, of how devoutly, righteously, and blamelessly we conducted ourselves with you believers. 11 As you know, like a father with his own children, 12 we encouraged, comforted, and implored each one of you to walk worthy of God, who calls you into his own kingdom and glory.
And here's my final label:
Part 3. A Christian Leader Is Identified by Selflessness
This one ties everything together. You'll finish off the list you started above. In these verses, Paul frames the description with a basic assumption -- you can identify someone sent by God by how much they care about the people (the church members) they are sent to. So, from these verses, what does it mean to "care" about church members? I don't think there are any tricky meanings here, so you can write up Paul's list; work together as a group to describe what these things mean:
Meaningfully sharing life together.
Preaching a consistent gospel message.
Laboring to "pull his own weight".
Being devoted to the church members.
Modeling righteous behavior.
Caring about being blameless.
Encouraging and comforting like a father.
Imploring godly behavior.
I think that's a great list for what it means to care about a congregation. Realize that Paul is contrasting himself with his rivals. Based on this list, we can assume that the rival evangelists talked a good talk, but by their behavior it was evident that they didn't really care about the church members. Based on this list, what would be red flags that a church leader doesn't really care about the congregation?
But as you can imagine, I have a similar warning as before -- everyone is going to have a different definition of "care". I have known church members with this mindset: "If my pastor doesn't show me 'care' in the way I expect, then my pastor doesn't care." As above, can you see how that can create tension in a congregation? Just consider these topics alone -- "front porch sitting" "cold calls" "football games" "personal privacy" "civic engagement" -- and you'll find mutually exclusive opinions distributed throughout a congregation!
Here's one for you -- I recently had a conversation with someone (who is not a church member) who said that pastors should serve churches for free. Without being clear, I think he was using Paul's tentmaking vocation as his justification. A pastor who accepted a salary didn't really care about his church but was in it for the money. That belief was so ingrained that he couldn't accept Paul's own words in 2 Thess. 3:9.
[Note: we learn in 2 Thessalonians that Paul was intentional about working with his hands because there were some in the church who were too lazy to work, and he wanted to provide a good model for them.]
I have two questions to let this all sink in:
How can you identify if your church leaders really care about your congregation?
Who is providing care for your church leaders?
This is where you compare the list you made at the beginning of the lesson. What did you miss? What did you not appreciate?
That second question is an application you might not have expected. Remember that Paul was planting churches in areas where the church members had been Christians for all of a few weeks. They had no idea how a church or church leadership worked. We don't have that excuse today. In churches around here, there are at least some members who have been Christians for a long time and should be living according to the Bible. They should care how their church cares for their pastor (and his family). Shelly and I recently went on a pastor/wife retreat sponsored by the Georgia Baptist Mission Board (the GBMB truly cares about healthy pastors and healthy churches) where it was obvious that not every church cares about the well-being of her pastors/families.
I've said elsewhere that biblical expectations of Christian leaders aren't any different from biblical expectations of all Christians -- just in degree (as in the bar is higher for Christian leaders). In other words, if Christian churches should expect Christian pastors to truly care, then the Christians in those churches should also care about the pastors.
And then here's my closing application: Paul said that a mark of godly leadership is imploring the church members to walk worthy of God. Well, I've listened to the same sermons and Sunday School lessons that you have, so I know that we're being implored to walk worthy of God. Are we? Have you been making personal applications from our Sundays together? What's your personal application from our Sunday School lesson today?
Super Bonus Application
And then let's bring this back around to my earlier assertion -- even if we are not a "church leader", we fill that role to anyone we're sharing the gospel with or being a mentor to. Go back through those lists you created and apply them to yourself. *shock* How are you doing as a witness for Jesus Christ to the unbelieving world?
Closing Thoughts: Pastor/Church Wellness
You've all heard the conventional wisdom -- that pastors constantly hop churches when the going gets tough (every 18-24 months). Such would imply that most church leaders are more like Paul's rivals that he was warning the Thessalonians about, and it makes church members naturally skeptical of new pastors.
But that conventional wisdom isn't accurate. The average pastoral tenure is actually 6-8 years, and those numbers are skewed by the smaller churches who run through pastors regularly -- not because the pastor wants a bigger church, but because the church doesn't want to be pastored. (I like this line from Trevin Wax: "there are more pastor-chasing churches than church-hopping pastors".)
A recent survey from Lifeway Research tried to reshape the conventional wisdom:
the demands on a pastor require them to quickly switch between different complex tasks that require completely different knowledge, skills, or abilities. ... And this list of tasks for a pastor never ends. There is always another complex task to switch to and to pour your all into. A congregation’s needs, demands, and desires seem never-ending and are often ill-timed. Yet, few pastors quit.
I bolded the last bit because that was the point of the article. Despite the difficulties of effective pastoral ministry, pastors are committed to their calling.
In poking around some surveys, I found examples of obstacles to pastoral leadership. (Note: I didn't vet these statistics because the specifics aren't actually important -- every church and pastor is unique!)
In one survey, only 60% of pastors said that the church clearly and regularly communicated expectations of the pastor.
Another survey found that almost 80% of pastors are considered overweight or obese, and they pointed to their unpredictable schedule as their biggest barrier to a healthier lifestyle.
Yet another survey found that 75% of pastors experience severe stress in the ministry, leading to worry or depression.
This survey found that half of pastors report fatigue and are worried about burnout.
A Barna pandemic survey found that the majority of pastors only somewhat understand the physical and emotional needs of church members (our cultural awareness of mental health is a moving target), making care difficult.
Those things make it harder for a pastor to stay in a church. It shouldn't be a surprise that there is a direct correlation between pastor tenure and congregational health!
All of that to say -- there are a lot of pastors out there who truly care about their churches. They don't have all of the answers, and they don't have the skills to meet everyone's felt needs. But the call of God and commitment to their church is evident. As church members, we should all be aware of the gifts and calling of our pastors (really, of all of our church leaders) -- and if we expect them to care for us, then we should appreciate, support, and care for them.