In my continuing series on the Thessalonians correspondence I look at 1 Thessalonians 2:7b-12
Just as a nursing mother cares for her children, 8 so we cared for you. Because we loved you so much, we were delighted to share with you not only the gospel of God but our lives as well. 9 Surely you remember, brothers and sisters, our toil and hardship; we worked night and day in order not to be a burden to anyone while we preached the gospel of God to you. 10 You are witnesses, and so is God, of how holy, righteous and blameless we were among you who believed. 11 For you know that we dealt with each of you as a father deals with his own children, 12 encouraging, comforting and urging you to live lives worthy of God, who calls you into his kingdom and glory.
In some Christian denominations it is common practice to refer to the male priest or minister of a church as “father.” Similarly, in a convent where a woman is the recognized leader she will be given the title of “mother.” While the title of “father” and “mother” could be interpreted as creating gender specific ministry roles, I think that misses the more important point of these titles. These men and women are parents in God’s house. While some will be uncomfortable with addressing a leader as “parent,” it does highlight an important element of ministry. Those to whom we give direction and guidance are our spiritual children. Just as biological parents are expected to care for, discipline, and give counsel to help their children be successful in life, ministers of the gospel should do the same for those in their care. Moreover, when we act as parents in God’s house we are emulating the way that God interacts with his children and how the Apostle Paul related to his converts.
In 2:7b-12 Paul reveals parental instincts for his children, the Thessalonians. Beginning with the second half of verse 7 Paul’s completes the transition away from talking about how the apostles did not act among the Thessalonians (vv 1-7a) to how they did act among them. Bookending the section is a pair of parental metaphors that illustrates the apostles’ conduct during their visit. The opening sentence compares the apostles to a nursing mother and the last sentence compares them to a caring father. Both sentences mention “children,” which is certainly meant to refer to the Thessalonian believers. This parental language communicates the depth of the relationship that Paul feel’s for his converts. Add to this the relief that Paul displays in this letter at learning that Thessalonians are doing well (cf. 3:6-10) and it is easy to see that Paul views himself and the other apostles as foster parents for God in this chapter.
It’s easy so caught up in the goal of delivering the gospel and forget that there is more to it than that. Salvation is important! But so is sharing life together with those who are on the journey with you. Paul reminds the Thessalonians here that the apostles didn’t just give them the gospel, but also their lives. Tie this together with Paul’s parental metaphors in this section and you realize that being in ministry is more than just about numbers saved, programs started, and buildings built. It is about relationship.
I am blessed to fulfill my ministry calling in the context of a seminary where I teach some great students who are going to be even greater pastors, counselors and missionaries. Along the way I have also developed relationships with some who have become close friends. These relationships began not over a discussion of the Greek text or a particular doctrinal question. More often they began with a crisis. I have had more conversations in my office, home and over lunch with students who wanted to talk about what was going on in their life rather than how to exegete a passage. That means that I am often sacrificing precious time out of my schedule to listen and minster to them. But I have also learned that simply delivering them information in a classroom is not going to make them successful in ministry. I am going to have to invest myself in their lives.
We aren't accustomed to thinking of Paul’s ministry along these lines. We read Acts and assume that he kept moving from place to place winning converts and establishing churches. While this is true to some extent, we also see that he invested his life. Paul cared about the people he ministered to. Had he not he probably wouldn't have written so many letters. The same can be said for any type of ministry, but particularly pastoral ministry where we are tasked with the long term care for a group of people. It can be easier to show up twice a week and deliver a sermon and cast a vote at a board meeting than it is to get involved with the lives of people. Life is messy and sometimes when you are trying to help someone you get dirty. But that is part of being family.