Paul told the Christians in Thessalonica to respect the leaders who labored among them (1 Thessalonians 5:12). We’ve looked at what it means for them to labor, but who were those leaders? Were they people with some official position? Let’s look at the text and see what we can learn about these people who give their lives in service to the other saints.
Our thoughts naturally flow toward the leadership positions mentioned in the Bible. Namely, those leaders we see in Ephesians 4.11: apostles, prophets, evangelists, and shepherds, that is, teachers. These leaders are to labor in the church, equipping the saints for the work of ministry. This enables the body to grow to its full potential where all the saints work together, building the body up in love.
I argue, however, these leaders are more than just those with “official positions”. Leadership in the first century wasn’t based on position but work. Those who spent themselves on a local church were, by definition, leaders who deserved respect and love. Other words we typically associate with “official positions” are also actions first: preachers preach, shepherds herd, and ministers minister. These nouns are born from the verbs detailing the work done.
Leaders in Hebrews 13
Consider Hebrews 13.7. The leaders mentioned here people who “spoke…the word of God”. They were people who labored and worked with saints in teaching the Bible. Does this refer to preachers and elders? It better. It certainly should, and what preacher worth their salt wouldn’t fit that description? If elders aren’t teaching the word of God, then they aren’t fit as shepherds in a local church. In addition to preachers and elders, Hebrews 13.7 includes any who spend themselves teaching the Bible.
How can I say that? It’s simple: God doesn’t qualify who he’s referring to here. He simply says, “Remember your leaders, those who spoke to you the word of God.” If we’re to take God at his word, then anyone who spends himself in this way is a leader.
I imagine this is where the concept of “lay leadership” has come from. Admittedly, I haven’t done the research yet, but it certainly seems like a possibility. We know in the first century there were “official” leaders (cf. Ephesians 4.11), and “unofficial” leaders defined by their work. It doesn’t take much imagination to see how this would give rise to two different classes of leadership. Since there is no clergy in the body of Christ, there’s really no such thing as a “lay leader”, either. However, there are people charged with certain elements of spiritual oversight, like preachers and elders. In addition to their work, there are saints in a local church who lead others in the good works we should all be doing.
Check out the first article in this series on 1 Thessalonians 5.12 and leaders.