Later in the same epistle, Paul requests something else from the Thessalonian believers. He uses two nearly synonymous verbs to make his point:
12 We ask you, brothers, to respect those who labor among you and are over you in the Lord and admonish you, 13 and to esteem them very highly in love because of their work. Be at peace among yourselves (1Th 5.12-13).
We all know what respect is. It’s to place value on someone for an appropriate reason. It’s a custom in most cultures to respect an older person, usually because he is considered wiser due to his greater experience. Similarly teachers, because they’re (supposedly) wiser due to education. To such people you show deference; you show that you value them by doing helpful things.
When I teach in Africa, it’s common for a student to ask to carry my Bible or my backpack from the car to wherever I’m headed, and back again later. The student is not saying that I’m old and feeble—at least I hope not. I can handle the heft of my Bible, and even of my backpack. It isn’t that I need the help; it’s just a service, a sign of respect.
At first I was uncomfortable with these things. I was born a Westerner, and we take care of ourselves, thank you very much. Why should someone else carry my stuff?
But I’ve come to realize that these dear people want to indicate their respect, and it is wrong of me, both culturally and otherwise, to deprive them of the joy of giving that gift.
Note what this does not mean. It does not mean that your pastor is better than you are. It does not mean that you have to do whatever he says. It does not mean that you are his servant.
It means that you appreciate the labor that he expends on serving as your shepherd, that you benefit from that labor, and that you freely and willingly want to demonstrate that.
Paul amplifies the force of this word by adding a second. “Esteem them,” he says—and do so “in love.” The Greek word translated “esteem” comes from a root meaning “lead.” The idea is that this person’s leadership places him in a position of respect.
In our democratic culture we Americans are uncomfortable with this idea; we think everybody should be equal. But we still esteem people; we just do so on an irrational and senseless basis. We go nuts over people who sing, who act, who bounce balls. Now, of course it takes work and skill to do those things at a professional level. But even though some heroes are indeed talented—and work unimaginably hard to get that way—it’s still only a game with a ball. This word speaks of an honor that is the result of careful, rational analysis; you look at the facts, and you determine that this is a person worthy of honor.
And, Paul says, you esteem them because of their work. Not their charm, their eloquence, their rugged good looks, but because of the labor that they expend that makes a difference in your life and because of their faithfulness to the work that God has given them to do.
A qualifying thought. We have all heard of pastors who abused their authority, who demanded respect that they had not earned, who claimed authority over areas of life that the Bible does not give them. Some cite such examples to excuse themselves from following the Scripture even when they ought to. I would remind them that there’s a baby in that bathwater.
The fact that something is done badly is not an argument that the thing ought not to be done at all.
When your pastor, through his labor, has earned your respect, you should give it—freely, creatively, effusively, and, as the verse notes, “in love.” You take care of people you love; you honor them; you reciprocate. Love is, after all, a two-way street.
Have fun thinking of ways to do that.