1-7 Paul As The Model Elder
“We were gentle...”
Paul says he was gentle with his Thessalonians, as a nurse with her own
children (1 Thess. 2:7 RV). This is a touching figure- a wet nurse giving
that extra special attention to her own child (as 2:11 RV a father
with his own children); and like children, they mimicked him
(1 Thess. 1:6 Gk.). This was quite different to Paul’s background culture,
where “boldness and abusive scolding were considered essential by many
of the wandering philosophers if their teaching was to have any impact”
(3). Many a Pentecostal pastor likewise
scolds his flock for their lack of faith; but the leaders of our groups
shouldn’t be like this. There should be gentleness, an appeal for love’s
sake, rather than shouting and criticism. Paul dealt with his converts
“as a father with his own children”, encouraging, comforting, ‘dealing
with each one [individually]’ and urging them to live a life worthy of
God’s grace (1 Thess. 2:11,12 RV). Note in this context how Paul says
that he cares for them as for his own babies, as both the father and mother,
and yet reminds them that “We were babes among you” (1 Thess. 2:7 RVmg.).
His appeal to them was on the basis of the fact that although their parent,
he was also essentially like them. Only as their spiritual father could
he ask the Corinthians whether they wanted him to come to them with a
whip or with a loving appeal. He could exercise the discipline
of a father, out of his affectionate concern for them; but he chose, wherever
possible, a better way. He normally uses the father:child image to show
his closeness to them, rather than to impose his authority upon them.
And so it should be with the true spiritual father or mother in our groups
today. He asks them to copy him; his method of shaping the community was
to present himself as the pattern. This was especially necessary amongst
largely illiterate converts (4) one could
not direct them merely to independent study of the text of Scripture.
Paul even likens himself to a woman breast feeding a child (1 Cor. 3:1-3;
1 Thess. 2:7). And yet such wet nursing was considered to be an occupation
for the very lowest of women in the Roman world; it was common for
even a respectable slave woman to pass her baby over to such a woman to
breast feed (5) . But no, Paul himself, as
their leader and converter, as it were breast fed them himself. This very
nicely shows the link between unashamed, self-abasing humility and
true leadership. And again, the Spirit chose ‘shepherd’ as an image of
ecclesial leadership, when the surrounding Rabbis despised shepherds as
dishonest (6). It’s just the same as the
Lord Jesus describing Himself as the humble King- a very contradiction
in the terms of the contemporary culture. There is an intended juxtaposition
in Zech. 9:9: “thy King cometh...lowly, and riding upon an ass”.
There is the implication in the New Testament that whoever lives the life of Christ will convert others to the Way. 1 Cor. 3 speaks of the converts a man builds on the foundation of Christ. They, like himself, must go through the fire of judgment, and if they are lost, then he himself will still be saved (if he has remained faithful). The implication is that all of us build up others, and our work is tried in the end. Paul laments that some for the time they had been baptized ought to be teachers, but themselves needed to re-learn basic doctrine (Heb. 5:12). He understood that we all inevitably teach the Gospel to others over time, if we are spiritually healthy. It may well be that we have children, and it is our duty to bring them up in the knowledge of the Gospel. In this sense, therefore, every brother or sister will become a spiritual father or mother to someone; what we have written above ought to apply to all of us eventually.
The spiritual leaders of the apostasy often lead their congregations into a position where they feel they must suppress any opinion or feeling which contradicts the one in authority. The leaders can’t cope with disagreement, and they impose their views rather than truly teach and father / shepherd. This all leads to the average member feeling guilty for thinking for themselves; they are made to feel that any independent thought is in fact being critical of the leader. And so they become fearful to take healthy risks, narrow minded, suspicious of others who think for themselves, because they have been taught that ‘unity’ means uniformity, agreement about everything. And this is just how cult mentalities develop. The leaders who develop this reason initially from pure motives, one assumes, that ‘the sheep can’t handle truth, they’re not mature enough’. And thus there develops a kind of conspiracy mentality between the leaders, and in time therefore, also among the flock. If the essential unity between us all was accepted and felt, if the respect given to an elder was earnt not demanded by reason of their office alone, then this won’t happen. When Jesus spoke, the people were amazed at His authority, which was not as the Scribes. They had ‘authority’ by reason of their position; He had authority by reason of who He was, and the way He made God’s word live in flesh before their eyes. Which is why the Lord Himself taught that we should not follow the words of a spiritual leader, but only the deeds which we see them actually doing (Mt. 23:3). It has been observed that in such systems the leaders often use ‘proof texts’ in order to almost bully the flock into producing certain works / behaviours. And the flock will tend to follow the leaders in using the same method, rather than more comprehensively dividing the word of truth. The ultimate teacher must be the Lord Himself, not the pastor or speaking brother. The Law was a paidogogos, a slave who lead the children to the school teacher. And the teacher, Paul says, is Christ (Gal. 3:23-25). He uses the whole body to make increase of itself in love- not just the elders.
(4) Keith Hopkins argues that there were about
7000 Christians by the year 100, about 30% of whom were males, with a
literacy rate amongst the males of 20%. This would have meant that there
were only around 420 literate Christians even by 100. Hopkins guesses
that only 10% of literate people were in any sense “fluent and skilled
literates”- thus there would only have been say 42 at that level in the
Christian community empire-wide. See Keith Hopkins, A World Full Of
Gods: Pagans, Jews And Christians In The Roman Empire (London: Weidenfeld
and Nicolson, 1999).
(5) K.R. Bradley, Slaves And Masters
In The Roman Empire (New York: O.U.P., 1987), pp. 71,72.
(6) Donald E. Messer, Contemporary
Images Of ChristianMinistry (Nashville, Tennessee: Abingdon Press,
1989), pp. 171-174.