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The Priorities of

Christian Ministry

An essay based on Paul's letters to the Thessalonians

By David May
21 August 2009

Abstract

Paul’s letters to the Thessalonians provide many insights


into his approach to ministry, and thereby allow us to
identify the essential priorities for Christian ministry. This
essay considers God’s purpose for Christian ministry, Paul’s
goals, his style and the content of his teaching. It focuses on
the use of the word of God, and on Paul’s use of particular
terms such as example, gentle, love, brothers, and the
parental metaphors mother and father.

The essay concludes that first priority of Christian ministry


is to understand the purpose of ministry, which is essentially
to prepare believers for the coming of the Lord Jesus, and
that the other priorities are grounding the ministry in
prayer, proclaiming the word of God, leading by example,
reproduction, and finally evaluation to both acknowledge
God’s work and identify gaps that require further work.
The Priorities of Christian Ministry
An essay based on Paul's letters to the Thessalonians

Introduction

This essay will consider Paul’s letters to the Thessalonians and seek to
understand what they tell us of the priorities of Christian ministry (referred
to henceforth simply as ‘ministry’). It will consider Paul’s goals, his style and
the content of his teaching.

Both letters were sent to the recently established church in the Macedonian
city of Thessalonica1. The first letter is a ‘mixture of consolation, instruction
and encouragement for a young church’ that had experienced opposition and
unhelpful pressures, whilst the second was written to both encourage the
church in the face of increasing opposition and to counter false teaching2.

The context of these letters is, therefore, ideal for giving us insights into
Paul’s approach to ministry.

Understand the purpose

The priorities of ministry must be determined by God’s purpose for ministry.


We gain insight into this purpose through 1 Thess 2:19-20; 3:13 and 5:23;
When the Lord Jesus returns the believers (a) would be Paul’s joy, glory and
crown and (b) were to be blameless and holy in the presence of God. These
thoughts are reiterated by Bridges in reference to 1 Thess 3:7-9: ‘The
spiritual and permanent fruits of our ministry must rank amongst or highest
consolations… The subsequent walk also of our people in the faith, hope, and
love of the Gospel, forms our ground of unceasing thanksgiving to God, our
chief joy, and the very life of our life’3.

Yet God’s purpose does not stop with the believer’s relationship with God, for
the expression of our love for God is love for one another. The implication of
both 1 Thess 1:4 and 2 Thess 2:13, according to Green, is that divine love
transformed these people from different sectors of society into a family of

1 D. A. Carson and Douglas J. Moo, An introduction to the New Testament (Grand Rapids:
Zondervan, 2005), 532.
2 I. Howard Marshall, ‘Thessalonians’, NDBT, 326-330.
3 Charles Bridges, The Christian Ministry; with an inquiry into the causes of its inefficiency

(New York: Carter, 1847), 28.

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brothers and sisters. In these letters Paul calls the Christians ἀδελφοὶ
(brothers and sisters) 28 times, highlighting one of the most important
aspects of the early church’s self-identity. God’s election resulted in a new
layer of social relationship that could be most closely described as that of
siblings4.

Ministry, then, follows on naturally from faith in God combined with our
understanding of his purposes as we seek to help accomplish his goals (1
Thess 1:3)5.

Prayer

Prayer was one of the foundational factors in Paul’s ministry; he prayed


continually and urged others to follow his example (1 Thess 1:2-3; 3:9-13;
5:17; 2 Thess 1:11-12)6.

Prayer is both a means, inasmuch as it involves acknowledging that the


goals of ministry can only be achieved through the power of God7, but it is
also a goal, because the very act of prayer is key to having an intimate
relationship with God.

Proclaim the Word of God

In the first two chapters of 1 Thessalonians, Paul highlights the significance


of the word of God, referring to it in a variety of ways nine times8.

Paul preached the word of God (1 Thess 2:13). Without it, we have no real
message and we are left to the ever changing ideas of people and human
reasoning9.

Paul had the conviction that what he said was the very word of God, and
therefore preached with both certainty and power. Morris states ‘The

4 Gene L. Green, The letters to the Thessalonians (PNTC; Grand Rapids: Eerdmans, 2002),
93.
5 Leon Morris, The Epistles of Paul to the Thessalonians: An Introduction and Commentary

(TNTC 13; Grand Rapids: Eerdmans, 1979), 34.


6 Robert I. Bradshaw, The Missionary Principles of Paul and How They Should Apply Today

(n.p., 1998).
7 Richard Mayhue and Robert L. Thomas, ‘The Master’s Perspective on Pastoral Ministry’,

TMPS, 1.
8 Carson and Moo, An introduction to the New Testament, 550.
9 J. Hampton Keathley, I Thessalonians: An Exegetical and Devotional Commentary, n.p.

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Christian church cannot do without this conviction. To preach interesting
little moral essays can never prove an adequate substitute for the word
which comes from God.’10 This conviction drove Paul and his team to preach
the word despite the suffering and insults they had previously endured (1
Thess 2:2). That is the heart and soul of ministry!11

The first step in each person’s spiritual journey is to hear the gospel (1 Thess
1:5, 9-10). Therefore, the proclamation of the gospel is fundamental to
ministry12. The sense is that deep conviction of sin was brought upon the
Thessalonians by the Holy Spirit when they heard the gospel preached13.
Spiritual transformation takes place when the word of God is preached and
the Holy Spirit applies its truths to hearts of the hearers.

The call of God comes to unbelievers through the preaching of the gospel (2
Thess 2:13-14)14, whilst the teaching and preaching of the word is the
‘appointed remedy’ to ‘supply what is lacking’ in the faith of believers (1
Thess 3:10)15.

Lead by example

The word τύπον (translated ‘model’ in the NIV and ‘example’ in the NASB)
used in 1 Thess 1:7 meant ‘originally the mark of a stroke or blow, then a
figure formed by a blow, an impression left by a seal or die, and so it came to
mean a pattern, which is its meaning here’16.

Paul sought to lead in such a way that he would provide a pattern for others
to follow. We shall examine the key aspects of his leadership style in the
remainder of this section.

10 Leon Morris, The Epistles of Paul to the Thessalonians, 54.


11 John MacArthur, ‘The Defining Character of Ministry’, The Master’s Mantle 13.1 (2006):
1-4.
12 Mayhue and Thomas, ‘Pastoral Ministry’, TMPS, 1.
13 Green gives the following alternate view: πληροφορίᾳ (translated ‘deep conviction’ in the

NIV and ‘full conviction’ in the NASB) can also signify ‘complete fullness’, in this case the
fullness of the divine work. Therefore the focus of 1:5 is on ‘the divine operation of the
apostolic preaching and not on the conviction of the missionaries nor in the way the
Thessalonians received the message’.
14 Charles A. Wanamaker, Commentary on 1 & 2 Thessalonians (Grand Rapids: Eerdmans,

1990), 267.
15 Bridges, The Christian Ministry, 18.
16 Leon Morris, The Epistles of Paul to the Thessalonians, 38.

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First, Paul made it clear that he desired to please God, not people (1 Thess
2:4-6). We should be able to observe, in a Christian leader’s choices and
actions, a person who seeks to please God rather than desiring the approval
of humans17. It must be recognised, however, that not seeking glory from
people is difficult. A strong belief in God’s omniscience is needed to create a
sense of accountability18.

Closely related to this, the moral character of the messenger gives a stamp of
authenticity to the message. Many of the false teachers in the ancient world
were, as they are today, marked by a secret life of gross sexual sin19. Paul’s
Christ-likeness, on the other hand, was a key to his success and foundational
to his teaching (1 Thess 2:8; 2 Thess 3:3-9)20.

Secondly, Paul and his team demonstrated a preparedness to suffer (1 Thess


3:3-4).

Thirdly, Paul and his team were gentle21. Paul employs the parental
metaphors to stress his deep, affectionate, and ongoing love and commitment
to his spiritual children (1 Thess 2:7-12)22. On the mother’s side we see love,
care, tenderness, and compassion, whilst on the father’s side we see courage,
moral character, example, exhortation, and instruction. Mothers have the
intimate influence; fathers set the course for direction, spiritual strength,
and motivation23. The expression ἀπορφανισθέντες ἀφ’ ὑμῶν, translated in
the NIV as ‘torn away from you’, further emphasises Paul’s affection for
those to whom he writes (1 Thess 2:17)24.

Fourthly, ministry should be performed, not by the proud and independent,


but by people prepared to acknowledge their need of others, as did Paul (1
Thess 1:1; 3:1). After he established a body of believers in Thessalonica, he
was forced to move on (2 Thess 2:17) and leave them to proclaim the gospel

17 David A. DeSilva, An introduction to the New Testament: contexts, methods & ministry
formation (Downers Grove: IVP, 2004), 550.
18 MacArthur, ‘The Defining Character of Ministry’. 4.
19 MacArthur, ‘The Defining Character of Ministry’. 1.
20 Bradshaw, The Missionary Principles of Paul.
21 Note that many early manuscripts read νήπιοι (babies) instead of ήπιοι (gentle); the TNIV

has in fact reversed the decision of the NIV (which read ‘gentle’), adopting the rendering
‘like young children’. The external evidence slightly favours and the internal evidence
strongly favours ‘young children’ (i.e. ‘babies’). Babies and Gentle differ by only one letter
(‘ν’) in the Greek.
22 Craig L. Blomberg, From Pentecost to Patmos (Nottingham: Apollos, 2006). 143.
23 MacArthur, ‘The Defining Character of Ministry’, 4.
24 Morris, The Epistles of Paul to the Thessalonians. 57-58.

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(1 Thess 1:7,8)25. It is vital to recognise that Christian leaders need the
pastoral care of other Christians (1 Thess 5:25; 2 Thess 3:1-2)26.

Fifthly, Paul and his team worked night and day so that they would not be a
financial burden to the Thessalonians (1 Thess 2:9-12; 2 Thess 3:8), and
furthermore would set an example for the them to follow (2 Thess 3:9-10).
Note, however, that Paul does not mean to imply that those involved in
ministry should never accept pay for their work (2 Thess 3:9)27.

In 1 Thess 1:3, κόπου (labor) denotes laborious toil, whilst ἀγάπης (love)
denotes the love of the completely unworthy. Those who seek to minister
must allow God to transform them by the power of the divine ἀγάπης, so that
they are content to give themselves in the service of others28.

Reproduce

With prayer to undergird ministry, the word of God to provide the power for
change and leaders that set Christlike examples, the obvious next priority in
ministry is to reproduce in the sense of helping believers become like their
leaders in every aspect of spiritual maturity29.

Firstly, to accomplish this, a culture must exist whereby believers imitate


their leaders. The fact that the believers at Thessalonica became imitators of
other churches is established in 1 Thess 2:14. They in turn had become a
model for other believers to imitate (1 Thess 1:7; 2 Thess 1:4). Imitation is
the link between those coming to faith and their suffering leaders30.

A key step in encouraging people to imitate their leaders is to engender a


respect for the authority of those leaders. Therefore, Paul appealed to his
readers to hold in the highest regard those who laboured among them and
who had charge of them (1 Thess 5:12)31.

25 Bradshaw, The Missionary Principles of Paul, n.p.


26 DeSilva, An introduction to the New Testament, 553.
27 Garrett E. Wishall, ‘A ministry manifesto’, SBTS chapel live blog, n.p.
28 Morris, The Epistles of Paul to the Thessalonians, 34-35.
29 Noting that reproducing in the sense of preaching the gospel to unbelievers has already

being covered early in this essay.


30 John W. Simpson, ‘Letters to the Thessalonians’, DPL, 939.
31 Colin G. Kruse, ‘Ministry’, DPL, 603.

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Secondly, Paul’s example directs us to instruct believers in the deepest and
most solid truths (1 Thess 4:1)32. The Thessalonian church grew so fast and
well because the believers there recognised the gospel message as God’s very
words active in believers to empower them for all God requires (1 Thess
2:13)33.

Thirdly, Paul was concerned with inculcating the need for love among his
converts (1 Thess 3:11-13), who came from varying social and economic
strata within the community. That meant, according to Wanamaker, that
‘Paul and his fellow missionaries had to create a sense of shared identity and
community where none previously existed.’34

Fourthly, Paul sought to strengthen the tenacity of the Thessalonians.


Rather than attempting to diminish the severity of their persecution, Paul
instead sought to help them see their suffering in the proper context; that
they were indeed suffering for nothing less than the kingdom of God (1
Thess 1:5; 5:9-10; 2 Thess 1:5, 11; 2:13-14). He pointed out that their
suffering was evidence of their faith and a reflection of their true imitation of
both God’s apostles and the Lord himself, so that they in turn had become
models of faith for others (1 Thess 1:6-7; 2 Thess 1:4)35.

One of the most significant motivations Paul gave them for endurance was
hope of the Saviour’s return (1 Thess 2:19-20)36. Paul highlights that their
endurance is inspired by ἐλπίδος (hope) in our Lord Jesus Christ, where
ἐλπίδος means a confident expectation, not the unfounded optimism that is
commonly understood37. According to Vine, ἐλπίδος means literally ‘an
anchor of the soul’38.

Fiftly, Paul encouraged believers to bring the Lord into everything that they
do, and to conduct themselves in ways that honour him. In 1 Thess 2:12,
περιπατεῖν (translated ‘live lives’ in the NIV and ‘walk’ in the NASB) is used

32 Bridges, The Christian Ministry, 339.


33 Blomberg, From Pentecost to Patmos, 143-144.
34 Charles A. Wanamaker, Commentary on 1 & 2 Thessalonians (NIGTC; Grand Rapids:

Eerdmans, 1990), 140-145.


35 D. Michael Martin, 1, 2 Thessalonians (NAC 33; Nashville: Broadman & Holman, 1995),

1.
36 Keathley, I Thessalonians, n.p.
37 Morris, The Epistles of Paul to the Thessalonians, 35.
38 W. E. Vine, ‘Hope’, Vine’s Expository Dictionary of Old and New Testament Words (New

Jersey: Revell, 1981), 232.

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metaphorically of one’s course of life in all areas, whilst ἀξίως τοῦ θεοῦ
(‘worthy of God’) describes the desired quality of life39.

In particular, Paul exhorted believers to reserve their sexual behaviour for a


lawfully wedded spouse (1 Thess 4:4)40, and to ‘avoid every kind of evil.’ (1
Thess 5:22)41.

Seventhly, Paul sought to minimise the impact of inappropriate models of


behaviour. He exhorts the Thessalonians to keep away from those who had
ignored the teaching they had received from Paul (2 Thess 3:6,14)42. The
treatment of such a person is to withdraw from close fellowship with him.
συναναμίγνυσθαι (translated ‘associate with’) literally means ‘mix yourself up
with’. However, Paul insists that the erring one be treated in such a way as
to bring him to his senses. So he adds ἵνα ἐντραπῇ (‘that he may feel
ashamed’). But it must be done with an attitude of tenderness, with the
explicit statement that the person is still to be regarded as a brother (2
Thess 3:15); perhaps to curb the desire of those eager for more drastic
action43.

Finally, reproduction must involve training new leaders. That the


Thessalonian church had a formal leadership was clear (1 Thess 5:12); but
this did not come about by chance44. Paul was always training others,
involving them in ministry (1 Thess 1:1) and building the confidence of
others in those he trained. There was no jealousy or fear of competition45.

Evaluate

The final priority of ministry is to evaluate. When God had finished creation
he took time out to observe what he had done. Likewise those involved in
ministry must take time to consider what has been accomplished, and what
remains to be done. When he could not see for himself, Paul sent Timothy to
report on the situation (1 Thess 3:5-7).

39 Keathley, I Thessalonians, n.p.


40 Kruse, ‘Ministry’, DPL, 603.
41 Blomberg, From Pentecost to Patmos, 149.
42 Wanamaker, Commentary on 1 & 2 Thessalonians, 140-145.
43 Morris, The Epistles of Paul to the Thessalonians, 149.
44 George Eldon Ladd and Donald A. Hagner, A Theology of the New Testament (Grand

Rapids: Eerdmans, 1993), 577.


45 Keathley, I Thessalonians, n.p.

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Evaluation of ministry provides opportunity for thanksgiving to God, as we
acknowledge that it is by his hand that spiritual growth has occurred, and
encourages those that see that their labour is bearing fruit. It also highlights
problems that need to be corrected. After he learned of concerns that left
gaps in the certainty and security of the Thessalonians newfound faith (1
Thess 3:10), Paul responded to both needs by writing 1 Thessalonians to
cement further the community’s commitment in the face of society’s
hostility46.

Conclusion

We have seen that the first priority of ministry is to understand the purpose
of ministry, which is essentially to prepare believers for the coming of the
Lord Jesus. Without this, a person seeking to minister will end up engaged
in humanistic activities.

The other priorities build upon this foundation, and include grounding the
ministry in prayer, proclaiming the word of God, which is the power behind
spiritual change, leading by example, reproduction by imitation, teaching
the word of God, encouragement and discipline, and finally evaluation to
both acknowledge God’s work and identify gaps that require further work.

46 DeSilva, An introduction to the New Testament, 531.

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