When we examine New Testament letters, we usually begin with the occasion of the letter. We want to understand each passage within the letter in light of the purpose of the whole book. 1 Thessalonians 5:12-13, however, occurs in the context of a series of exhortations that might be made up of traditional Christian teaching that is not as specifically tied to the the purpose of 1 Thessalonians.
We find several examples of the kind of general Christian exhortation that was reworked to fit the context of different New Testament books. The lists of qualifications for church leaders in 1 Timothy 3:1-7 and Titus 1:5-9 are one such example. The lists are similar, but they are not identical. Ephesians 5:22-6:4 and Colossians 3:18-4:1 both contain similar instructions commonly referred to as household codes. Romans 13:1-7 and 1 Peter 2:13-17 both deal with Christians and their relationship to the state. Some see Romans 12:12-18 the closest parallel to 1 Thessalonians 5:12-22, both perhaps containing traditional teaching applied to two different contexts.
So how do we interpret passages like this one that occur in the middle of what seems to be general Christian exhortation?
1. Read these sections as general exhortations to the church at large. One of the main issues in interpreting New Testament letters is determining what was particularly applicable to a specific church and what is generally applicable to all churches. With passages like 1 Thessalonians 5:12-13, we should begin with the assumption that this passage is generally applicable to any church in any age.
2. Look for ways that the content has been specifically applied to this particular situation. While we have argued that this passage is generally applicable in any age, the content of the passage might be crafted to meet the specific needs of a given congregation. Given that the parallel passages are not identical, we can assume that there has been some attempt to shape the content for this specific audience. So, for example, 1 Thessalonians 5:12-13 is somewhat unique. So we can perhaps assume that in the midst of general Christian exhortation, Paul has specifically included this section on church leaders because it was particular relevant for the church in Thessalonica.