We were like young children among you. Just as a nursing mother cares for her children . . . 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 Thessalonians 2:7–8, 11–12
The apostle Paul gives us a beautiful model of the church: a family in which leaders think of themselves as loving parents who are called to care for and encourage those they lead.
But Paul’s use of the analogy of parenthood in 1 Thessalonians 2 may have surprised some in the church. This was before the study of child development, so the parents of Paul’s day probably didn’t spend much time thinking about the emotional or spiritual needs of their kids.
So for Paul to say that he and his fellow missionaries, Silas and Timothy (see 1 Thessalonians 1:1), had acted like nurturing mothers and encouraging fathers was no doubt radical thinking for many. Paul assumed that a loving, caring parent doesn’t just order a kid around and demand respect. Instead, a good parent is supportive, sets a good example, offers comfort and care when a child is struggling, and guides the child as parent and child each try to live lives “worthy of God” (2:12).
Today some Christian parents believe that their most important role is to teach their children to be obedient and to respect authority. If they fail to do this, they think their children won’t respect God’s authority and will fall away from the faith. Such parenting can take on an air of infallibility, become harsh and demand absolute submission. In a family with this type of parenting style, children are punished for disrespecting parental authority or questioning a parent’s God-given right to boss them around.
That is not the way God parents us. True, our heavenly Father asks for obedience to his commands—and he punishes those who persist in rebelling against him—but he is also compassionate, slow to anger and faithful to forgive. He doesn’t demand our respect; he wins it by his loving care and mercy. God doesn’t push us into obedience; he invites us to follow Jesus.
We want so badly to raise our children well that often, instead of graciously guiding our children toward abundant life with God, we fearfully pull them away from the evils of this fallen world. Instead of offering our children grace and guidance when they make mistakes, we pour shame and disappointment on them, hoping the guilt they feel will ward off future trouble. Parenting out of fear may work in the short run, but it does little to help our children become the hopeful, loving people God created them to be.
Parenting gives us an amazing opportunity to participate in the formation and training of another human being. Like Paul and his fellow church leaders, parents who offer their children encouragement, comfort, guidance and discipline are building the church of the future, the church that will continue to bring the love and grace of God to a hurting world.