Paul, Silas, and Timothy used three metaphors to describe how they acted toward the Thessalonian believers: “young children” (1 Thes. 2:7a), “nursing mother” (v. 7b), and “father” (v. 11). Each of these emphasizes one aspect of the missionaries’ behavior. “Young children” emphasizes innocence. “Nursing mother” emphasizes the missionaries’ in-it-together-ness with the Thessalonians. And “father” emphasizes the goals they were trying to accomplish.
I recognize that discussion about sex roles in America is contested ground, so I want to tread lightly on the differences between mothers and fathers. Nevertheless, it seems to me that that there is a basic difference between the ways moms and dads relate to their children. It is this: Mothers relate to children as “insiders,” fathers as “outsiders.”
A mother carries a child in her womb for nine months. She eats for two. Her health is affected by her baby, and her baby’s health is affected by her. She endures hours of agonizing labor to deliver her baby into the world. Then, as one of her first maternal acts, she brings that baby to her breast and nurses it. This is what I mean when I say that mothers relate to their children as insiders.
A father, on the other hand, is an outsider. He is responsible for but external to the mother-infant relationship. He doesn’t have a womb in which to carry a child. He doesn’t eat for two (although he may experience “sympathetic weight gain”). He watches as his wife endure hours of agonizing labor to deliver their baby (often being reminded, “You did this to me!”). He gets to cut the umbilical cord that has linked mother and child for nine months. (Talk about a highly symbolic act!)
The distinction between insider and outsider relationships leads to a startling insight: A father gives his child what he has, but a mother gives her child what she is.
I’ve waxed philosophical long enough. Let’s get back to what Paul, Silas, and Timothy wrote: “Just as a nursing mother cares for her children, 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” (2:7b–8).
Like good fathers, the missionaries gave the Thessalonians what they had: “the gospel of God.” And as good fathers, they encouraged, comforted, and urged the Thessalonians “to live lives worthy of God” (2:12), a topic to which we’ll return later. But—and this is where the “nursing mother” metaphor kicks in with force—the missionaries shared “our lives as well.” They gave what they were.
There is a lesson here for ministers in particular and the church in general. If we give people what we have but not what we are, they get a creed but not a life. If we give people what we are but not what we have, they get an experience but not a theological reference point. We need both doctrine and experience, “gospel” and “life.” Perhaps that’s why, as Paul, Silas, and Timothy wrote, we need mothers and fathers.