As a Father Deals with His Own Children (1 Thessalonians 2:11–12)

In the course of a few verses, Paul, Silas, and Timothy compare their relationship with the Thessalonian believers to “young children,” “a nursing mother,” and “a father” (1 Thes. 2:7, 11). Each of these emphasizes one aspect of the missionaries’ behavior. “Young children” emphasizes the innocence of their dealings with the Thessalonians. “Nursing mother” emphasizes their tender care for them. But what does “father” emphasize?

Here’s what the missionaries write:

For you know that we dealt with each of you as a father deals with his own children, encouraging, comforting and urging you to live lives worthy of God, who calls you into his kingdom and glory (1 Thes. 2:11–12).

To this point, Paul, Silas, and Timothy have spoken to the Thessalonians of their relationship “among you”, “for you,” “with you,” and “to you”—where you is a plural second-person pronoun. They were speaking to the believers collectively. But now, in these verses, they speak to “each of you,” indicating their ministry to individual believers. Pastors who minister only to the church collectively—through preaching, for example—fail to minister properly. They must also minister to individuals, paying attention to their unique spiritual needs, progress, and potential, “as a father deals with his own children.”

In what sense is “encouraging, comforting and urging” a uniquely fatherly role? Don’t mothers do this too? But if the motherly metaphor of verses 7–8 is not interchangeable—fathers can’t “nurse,” after all—shouldn’t we also assume that the fatherly metaphor of verses 11–12 is not interchangeable too?

Perhaps in using these metaphors, Paul, Silas, and Timothy were simply building on the prevailing understanding of sex roles in the Greco-Roman culture of their day. Regarding this, Gordon D. Fee writes: “The essential difference between the two metaphors is in this case to be found in the three participles [i.e., encouraging, comforting, and urging], which together describe what the ancients, both Greek and Roman, would have recognized as a father’s duty, especially in the matter of the moral training of his children.”[1] Perhaps the missionaries were teaching something essential rather than merely cultural in the differences between how mothers and fathers relate to their children. Or perhaps the culture vs. essence dichotomy is a false one, with motherly and fatherly roles being shaped by both nurture and nature. I don’t know.

Whatever the case, for the missionaries, the function of the fatherly metaphor had a specific purpose: to train the Thessalonian believers “to live lives worthy of God, who calls you into his kingdom and glory.” Christians, in other words, should grow up. Today, they should have grown more than yesterday; and tomorrow, they should’ve grown more still. Pastors—Christians, more generally—should cheer this process along. The goal is not to infantilize Christian disciples perpetually as “our children,” making them dependent on us, but to mature them, making them our spiritual peers, or better, our “brothers and sisters.”

Children. Mothers. Fathers. Brothers and sisters. Different metaphors for different ministries at different stages of life—and all necessary!

[1] Gordon D. Fee, The First and Second Letters to the Thessalonians (Grand Rapids, MI: Eerdmans, 2009), 81.

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