Paul’s Relationship to the Thessalonians
The Thessalonian church was started through Paul’s normal practice of preaching in the synagogue of a town he visited on his journeys. Paul preached Christ in the synagogue at Thessalonica for three Sabbaths before he was opposed by a riotous mob of Jews in Thessalonica. Ultimately, because of the danger created by the uproar, Paul and Silas left Thessalonica for Berea (Acts 17:1-10). The opposition to Paul in Thessalonica was so strong that a group of Jews from Thessalonica followed Paul to Berea and began to stir up the crowds in Berea against Paul (Acts 17:13).
Though Paul’s ministry in Thessalonica was brief, a faithful church was established. Much of the content of 1 Thessalonians is an expression of Paul’s thankfulness for the Thessalonian church. Especially given the situation surrounding the founding of the church in Thessalonica, both Paul’s brief stay there and intense opposition to the gospel, Paul is exceedingly grateful for the faithfulness of the Thessalonian Christians.
Leaders in the Early Church
There is much debate over when the church began to develop a formal leadership structure. Some argue that the earliest churches lacked formal leadership and that official church leaders only began to develop later in the first century. Since 1 Thessalonians is one of Paul’s earliest letters, some argue that this passage can’t refer to formal church leaders.
Two lines of argument, however, suggest that even 1 Thessalonians refers to formally recognized church leaders. First, the title elder is taken from the Jewish world. In the Gospels, we see the elders functioning as a recognized group, often associated with the chief priests and the scribes. The role of elders in the church likely was modeled after elders in the Jewish synagogue, so it seems likely that even the earliest churches would have had some form of recognized leadership. Second, we see Paul and Barnabas appointing elders in churches even on Paul’s first missionary journey (Acts 14:23). After having preached the gospel in Antioch, Lystra, and Iconium, Paul and Barnabas made a return trip through these towns to appoint elders in the churches there.
So when both of these ideas are brought together, that Paul had a very brief stay in Thessalonica and the expectation that the earliest churches would have had recognized leaders, it does seem possible that Paul is seeking to make sure that the Thessalonian has a recognized group of leaders. This might account for why Paul encourages them to recognize their leaders. It’s possible Paul did not have the opportunity to appoint leaders in Thessalonica, so perhaps he is now calling on the church to recognize those men who have been performing the functions of church leaders.