In 1 Corinthians 4:14-15, Paul describes the Corinthians as “my dear children” and himself as “your father through the gospel.” The tenderness underlying these images is obvious. What is unexpected is the toughness.
Consider what Paul writes in 1 Corinthians 4:18-21:
Some of you have become arrogant, as if I were not coming to you. But I will come to you very soon, if the Lord is willing, and then I will find out not only how these arrogant people are talking, but what power they have. For the kingdom of God is not a matter of talk but of power. What do you prefer? Shall I come to you with a whip, or in love and with a gentle spirit?
Many moderns have a sentimental view of parenting, in which the parent-child relationship is all love and no discipline. In Paul’s day, people were less sentimental about such things. They realized that disciplining a child was necessary both for the child’s good and the good of the entire community.
My son is 18-months old. He is a sociable and smart little kid. But he doesn’t know things I know, namely, that hot stoves burn, that cars drive fast on the streets of our neighborhood, and that not every new person he meets is kind. Sometimes, he wants to touch the stove, run in the street, or cozy up to perfect strangers. At those times, it is my job to tell him, “No.” If he heeds my words, fine. But if not, it’s my job to physically stop him.
When I read Paul’s words in verses 18-21, I keep my duties as a father in mind. If false belief and feckless behavior alienate us from God and from one another, then we repent of them. Unfortunately, like children, we sometimes refuse to repent because we honestly don’t know or don’t care that we’re doing something wrong or believing something false. And so, spiritual fathers and mothers come alongside us to reason with us “in love, and with a gentle spirit,” or, failing that with “a whip,” which is a metaphor for the congregation discipline outlined in Matthew 18:15-20.
Like children being punished – or like sentimental moderns – we shrink from Paul’s words about discipline. Not only that, we shrink from the stark distinction Paul draws between the “arrogance” of certain Corinthians and his own “power” as an apostle. How does he know that he’s right and they’re wrong?
The answer is that he knows in the same way a father or mother knows not to let their child touch hot stoves or run in the street or talk to strangers. When we object to Paul’s stark language, we reveal that we’re the ignorant, petulant kid, not the loving parent. “The kingdom of God…is a matter of power,” Paul writes. Leadership, understood Christianly, is power exercised for the wellbeing of others, but always under God’s authority and direction.
That may not be a sentimental view of leadership, but it’s a wise one.