Wednesday, August 01, 2007

1 Thess 5:14 - Leaders or Congregation?

In his homily on 1 Thessalonians 5:14, John Chrysostom argued that it referred to those who lead, or "rule." This has not found favour among contemporary commentators such as Bruce, Best, Morris, Green and now Witherington. I, however, like to swim against the tide of scholarship often and wish to suggest that Chrysostom was actually on to something that is too easily dismissed by our regular commentators. Look carefully at the passage:
But we appeal to you, brothers and sisters, to recognise those who labour among you, and have charge of you in the Lord and admonish you; 13 consider them very highly in love because of their work. Be at peace among yourselves. 14 And we urge you, beloved, to admonish the idlers, encourage the fainthearted, help the weak, be patient with everyone. 15 See that none of you repays evil for evil, but always seek to do good to one another and to all. 16 Rejoice always, 17 pray without ceasing, 18 give thanks in all circumstances; for this is the will of God in Christ Jesus for you. 19 Do not annihilate the Spirit’s fire. 20 Do not despise prophesying, 21 but test everything; hold fast to what is good; 22 abstain from every form of evil. 23 May the God of peace himself sanctify you entirely; and may your spirit and soul and body be kept sound and blameless at the coming of our Lord Jesus Christ. 24 The one who calls you is faithful, and he will do this. 25 Beloved, pray for us. 26 Greet all the brothers and sisters with a holy kiss. 27 I solemnly command you by the Lord that this letter be read to all of them. 28 The grace of our Lord Jesus Christ be with you.
The question at the transition in vs. 14 is pivotal, who does Paul address? The leaders or the community? Chrysostom and Theodore of Mopsuestia held the view that the leaders are here being addressed.[1] Contemporary commentators, however, have suggested that the whole church is in view here. Perhaps the ambiguity is intentional in that of course it is applied to the whole community, but it is the leaders who are to model this to the others. Because Paul has urged the leaders in vs. 12 to admonish the community, Paul probably still has in mind the leaders, but this of course applies to the entire community. In fact, Paul may be addressing the leaders in front of the community so that the community is aware of the leaders responsibility to them, and the churches responsibility to each other.
The strongest critique of the position that it is the leaders to whom Paul is referring to in vs. 14 comes from E. Best in his celebrated commentary on the Thessalonian Epistles.[2]
(i) The position of the leaders as a definite group is not as clearly defined in v.12 as this view supposes; there will have been at this early stage of development in the Thessalonian community considerable fluidity as to who the leaders were and what their duties were. The much more clearly cut situation depicted in the Pastorals comes from a later date.
(ii) Verse 16ff are certainly addressed to the church as a whole; there is nothing to suggest a change of subject between v.16 and v.15; v.15, as Rom 12:14-17, is most easily understood as spoken to the community as a whole, an probably a common tradition underlies both 1 Th 5:12ff and Rom 12:9ff; finally there does not appear to be any change of subject between v.14 and v.15
(iii) If v.14 is addressed to the leaders then there is a change of subject from vv.12f; but v.14 is introduced by practically the same phrase as v.12, and if a change of subject were intended we should expect some greater contrast.
(iv) Brothers as in v. 12 indicates the community at large and not a group within it.
(v) In fact Paul elsewhere uses phrases like those of v.14 to address communities as a whole rather than their leaders; although the same words are not used the conceptions of the second and third phrases are found in Gal.6:1; Phil 2:4 and in 2 Cor 2:7; 7:13; 1 Th 3:17 leaders are encouraged by ordinary church members. We thus conclude that in our verse Paul is laying a duty on all the members of the church.
We'll deal with these objections and in doing so, suggest why Chrysostom and others are actually on to something important. (i) This objection assumes to much and neglects the fact that in vs. 12, the leaders are identified as a specific group. We have no real data concerning the developmental stages of leadership among early Christianity and to assume some sort of evolutionary model is to go beyond the specific evidence of vs. 12. It is most likely that Christianity merely assumed the leadership structures of the Synagogue and/or cultural structures.
With regards to (ii), I would concur with Best that the subject has not changed and that this refers to the entire community. But we must pay careful attention to whom Paul's primary directives are to here. Paul is directing the leaders in this final pericope, and he is doing so in a public letter so that they may do likewise to the community. The subtle change in primary audience happens in vs. 14. Paul addresses the entire community, about the leaders (this includes the leaders being addressed) and then in vs. 14 he addresses the leaders about the community (this includes the community being addressed). Otherwise the repetition of brothers is unnecessary - why not just carry on with the exhortation? But because I contend the exhortation is to all, but specified groups within the all and in front of the all, this makes more sense of the data.
(iii) Best is again correct that this is addressed to the whole community, but Paul is addressing the leaders and the community, and does not want to make a greater contrast. Vs. 14 is directed to the leaders, so as to motivate and direct the entire community in these directives.
(iv) We agree, but "brothers" in vs. 14 could be primarily directed at the leaders, and it makes more sense to hold this because Paul has already addressed the community about the function of leadership in vs. 12-13 and now primarily addresses the leaders as to their further duties in front of the congregation so that the congregation can also follow these directions but also allow the leaders to especially model this and fulfill these duties.
(v) We do not deny that Paul uses these terms and actions for the work of the whole church, but Paul is especially interested in emphasizing the role and function of leaders here, in front of the community. This in fact makes sense of 1 Th 5:27, where Paul writes: I solemnly command you by the Lord that this letter be read to all of them. Who is the "you"? And then who is the all of "them"? Surely, Paul and the apostolic team have written to the leaders, and now wish this letter to be read, as instruction, to the whole community.
Thoughts, comments and criticisms are welcome...
[1] See also C. Masson, Les Deux Epitres de Saint Paul aux Thessaloniciens (Paris, 1957).
[2] Best, A Commentary on the First and Second Epistles to the Thessalonians, pg. 229

1 comment:

jpu said...

I appreciate the additional push on the leaders, as I am one.
God is good
jpu