Spiritual Leadership in 1 Thessalonians 2:1-12

1 Thessalonians 2:1-12 is all about leadership, though it is often overlooked as a leadership passage in the NT.

I’ve copied the passage below and inserted some comments in italics as I go.

For you yourselves know, brethren, that our coming to you was not in vain, but after we had already suffered and been mistreated in Philippi, as you know, we had the boldness in our God to speak to you the gospel of God amid much opposition.

So leadership is willing to proceed amidst much opposition, and is bold.

For our exhortation does not come from error or impurity or by way of deceit;

So leaders are truthful, open, and straight talking. They don’t try to hide or conceal or trick people or spin things, or try to “justify” such measures as “necessary politics.” Leaders also speak truth, not error—that is, they should not even be unintentionally mistaken about critical issues, especially the gospel. Neither should their motives be for their own gain or otherwise impure.

but just as we have been approved by God to be entrusted with the gospel, so we speak, not as pleasing men but God, who examines our hearts.

Leaders seek to please God, not men. This shows the necessity of pure inward motives, for God examines the heart.

For we never came with flattering speech, as you know,

Again, leaders don’t “spin” things. They don’t give people a sense that they’ve been “sold” or that they aren’t stating the whole truth. They don’t flatter, which is to give insincere compliments or compliments for the sake of personal gain. They lead through the truth, not manipulation.

nor with a pretext for greed—God is witness—nor did we seek glory from men, either from you or from others,

Again, leaders don’t lead for the sake of enriching themselves or receiving glory from people. This is because (see above) they seek the approval of God, not man, and God knows and examines the heart.

even though as apostles of Christ we might have asserted our authority.

Leaders do not by default seek to exert their authority. Their aim is to serve and build up the other, not lord it over those whom they are leading (cf. Matthew 20:25-28). They seek to primarily lead through influence, not the direct exercise of their authority.

But we proved to be gentle among you, as a nursing mother tenderly cares for her own children.

Leaders are not overly critical, and they don’t tear down their people. They exercise gentleness and are encouraging and upbuilding.

Having thus a fond affection for you,

Leaders love their people!

We were well-pleased to impart to you not only the gospel of God but also our own lives, because you had become very dear to us.

The notion that leaders should not be friends with the people they lead is pretty bad. Since leaders love their people, they also share their lives with them.

For you recall, brethren, our labor and hardship, how working night and day so as not to be a burden to any of you, we proclaimed to you the gospel of God.

This echoes the fact that Paul was not out for gain. He worked so as not to require support from them.

You are witnesses, and so is God, how devoutly and uprightly and blamelessly we behaved toward you believers;

Leaders have integrity and are upright and of high character.

just as you know how we were exhorting and encouraging and imploring each one of you as a father would his own children,

Again, leaders exhort and encourage primarily, rather than control. Paul’s leadership is not authoritarian. It is not about making the leader look good, but rather building people up. He leads primarily through influence, not control. He doesn’t motivate through fear and guilt, but through exhortation and encouragement.

So that you may walk in a manner worthy of the God who calls you into His own kingdom and glory.

The goal of spiritual leadership is that people are built up and living lives that reflect the gospel and the greatness of God. Leadership also points people to the future, which is ultimately the coming of God’s kingdom in its fullness and the restoration of all things.

  • http://biblerefshelf.sudalyph.org/ David Reimer

    Hi Matt – many thanks for the prompts and helpful commentary.

    I wonder why you cast this in terms of “leadership”, though? I did a brief experiment, and substituted disciple/disciples/discipleship for each instance of leader/leaders/leadership … and it “works” very well.

    Which leads me to wonder (or maybe it was the other way around) what Paul might have thought his “primary” category was: leader, or disciple? My hunch (it’s only that at the moment) is the latter: what he exemplifies here is not qualities and characteristics of leading so much as following God’s leading in Christ.

    My further hunch is that if we have a “leadership” fixation, we bypass what for us should be primary: following Jesus. Perhaps if we thought and spoke more about truthful, sacrificial, faithful discipleship, we would actually get more “leaders” like Paul here.

    Sort of like making “profit” when it’s not our (primary/sole) goal? 😉


  • Matt


    Thanks for your thoughts and pressing into this.

    Definitely it would be legitimate to see this in terms of discipleship. Certainly.

    And discipleship is (or, can be) a form of leadership.

    The main reason I’m looking at this in terms of leadership here is that I’m looking at how Paul uses authority. Formal authority is not essential to leadership–leadership is ultimately influence, and you can have that without formal authority.

    But leaders often do have formal authority over people, and they need to know how to use that well. By looking at how Paul acted with his authority, we see transferable lessons that we can apply in leadership roles generally. Obviously not everything applies in the same way. But we see principles that are transferable.

    One key is the title here: “_Spiritual_ leadership.” I’m specifically looking at the nature of spiritual leadership here. Again, discipleship is a valid lens for this text, but if we only see it in those terms, we miss lessons that are applicable to us in other roles, and where Paul’s example should guide us.

    For example, in a church a staff person might report to a department head or pastor. The department head or manager is not discipling them–they are their manager or leader in the department or on the team. But the way Paul used his authority ought to affect how they think about using their own authority. If we look at this text only in terms of discipleship, we will miss that.

    I’m not couching this in terms of leadership because of some sort of modern fixation on leadership. The fact is that Paul really was a leader–he had charge over his people. We need to look at how he did this. Also, leadership is a very NT category. Romans 12:8 speaks of leadership as a spiritual gift, and probably also 1 Corinthians 12:28 (but, more so, “leading” is intrinsic to many of the other gifts listed there as well). The pastoral epistles also speak of pastors “governing” or “ruling well” (1 Tim 5:17) and “exercising oversight” (1 Peter 5:2)– that’s leadership. In the new heavens and new earth, we will reign with Christ–which is leadership.

    The issue is not simply following God’s leading, though that is central to an effective spiritual leader. You can follow God’s leading without it necessarily meaning that you are leading others. Central to the task of NT leadership is following God’s leadership such that others follow where you are going–you are taking them somewhere.

    I like your emphasis on discipleship; I would just say it is not broad enough–there are other forms of leadership in the church, organizations, and the Christian life that the discipleship category does not cover. Or, where that category gives certain connotations that are not helpful to the role.


  • http://biblerefshelf.sudalyph.org/ David Reimer

    Thanks for your full and thoughtful reply, Matt. It helped me get a better grasp on why you framed your commentary in terms of “leadership” — how Paul’s language here provides valuable guidance to those who influence others, as you say.

    I see you in your follow-up bringing together both formal and informal exercise of authority, and this is surely right.

    In reflecting further on the passage (cf. post title: 1 Thessalonians of course! 2 Thess 2 gets us the “man of lawlessness” — most definitely not a leadership model for believers!) in light of your comments and this exchange, it was instructive to see the consistency of Paul’s behaviour and activity both before their conversion and after they became believers. (The transition seems to come around v. 6.) So both “informal” and “formal” categories are helpful.

    I admit to surprise that you think the category of disciple “is not broad enough”, though! Perhaps I’m missing something, but it seems to me that every believer is called to discipleship! Not every believer exercises authority of whatever kind, although most believers are in a position to influence others in some form. My own take is that “discipleship” is the over-arching (“broad”!) category. Some disciples exercise “leadership” — a more narrow category, a gift of grace, as you point out — but even that of a kind framed by the gospel and life in the Kingdom.

    What did you make of my suggestion that a focus on “discipleship” will actually lead to the kind of “leaders” that you discern in 1 Thess 2? For me, Chris Wright makes this point very sharply in a brief video clip (plain text http://vimeo.com/25054061 just in case that link doesn’t work).

    In sum, I would continue to urge that following God’s leading is what all believers do: teachers do it in their teaching, givers in their giving, (etc.), and leaders do it in their leading. In any event, thanks for this conversation — it’s been a help to me!

  • Matt

    Just FYI, the text you quoted is found in 1 Thessalonians not 2 Thessalonians.

  • Matt

    Thanks–sorry about that!

  • http://www.lifeofasteward.com Loren Pinilis

    I think it’s key to add, as Matt did, that this is an examination of authority that is not necessarily formal. If you look at the context of this passage, 1 Thes 1:6 (which is before the passage) and 2 Thes 2:14 (which is after) talks about how the Thessalonians were imitators of Paul and of other Christians – speaking mainly to their informal authority.

    It seems to me that the qualities of a good informal leader are virtually identical to the qualities of a formal leader. This passage is spot on, therefore, in speaking on all aspects of leadership.