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Examining Paul’s use of the father/child language

Posted by on Aug 29, 2012 in discipleship, office | Comments Off

Examining Paul’s use of the father/child language

In this short series, I’m looking at the ways that Paul referred to people who traveled with him and people he worked with in various cities in order to answer these questions: How did Paul think those who traveled with him and worked with him? Did he think of himself as being a superior with them being subordinates (i.e., a hierarchy)? Did he think of them all as equals?

A few days ago, I introduced the series by asking, “What did Paul think of his subordinates?” Next, I defined some of the terms that I will use: superior, subordinate, and hierarchy. Then, I covered the terms that Paul used most often to refer to other believers: brother/sister and fellow-worker/soldier/servant and listed all the passages in which Paul used father/child (or mother/child) language.

In this post, I return to those passages in which Paul used father/child (or mother/child) language to determine if he used that language in a sense that denotes a superior/subordinate (hierarchy) relationship.

In most of the passages, Paul simply calls someone his “child” or calls himself a “father” without explaining what he means by using that language. However, a few passages help us understand what Paul means when he uses that father/child language.

To begin with, Paul uses this language in many different contexts. He uses this language in reference to a specific individual such as Timothy, Titus, or Onesimus. However, he also uses father/child language when referring to a large number of people, such as the believers in Corinth or Thessaloniki. This is interesting because Paul spent a lot of time with the Corinthians, but, according to Luke (Acts 17:1-10), he spent only a few weeks with the Thessalonians. Even though he only spent a few weeks with them, he still referred to their relationship like that of a father to a child (1 Thessalonians 2:11-12). (By the way, he also used mother/child language to describe his relationship with the Thessalonians in 1 Thessalonians 2:7-8.)

The passage in 1 Thessalonians is interesting for another reason as well. In that passage, he does not only refer to himself as the “father” in the relationship, but instead he also includes all of those who were traveling with him. We don’t know everyone that Paul included in the “we” as fathers in 2 Thessalonians 2:11, but it seems that at least Silas is included in that number (according to Luke in Acts 17:10).

Finally, in the 1 Thessalonians passage, we read exactly what Paul considered to be their work as “fathers”:

For you know how, like a father with his children, we exhorted each one of you and encouraged you and charged you to walk in a manner worthy of God, who calls you into his own kingdom and glory. (1 Thessalonians 2:11-12 ESV)

So, according to Paul, a “father” is one who exhorts, encourages, and charges his “children” to walk with God. This is not relationship of superior to subordinate (perhaps like a father to an infant child or toddler) but more of a relationship of the more mature toward the less mature… like a father to an adult child who is seeking wisdom and advice from one who has more experience.

Another passage when seems to point in this same position is found in Paul’s first letter to his “child” Timothy:

Do not rebuke an older man but encourage him as you would a father, younger men as brothers, older women as mothers, younger women as sisters, in all purity. (1 Timothy 5:1-2 ESV)

In this passage, Paul is encouraging Timothy to treat all older men as “fathers” (and older women as “mothers”). So, the “father/child” language does not seem to represent a special type of relationship to Paul, but a general relationship between any more mature (or older) believer to a less mature (or younger) believer and vice versa. So, it refers to respect that is owed to someone who is older or more mature, it does not refer to a hierarchy of relationships / functions / positions.

Like I said earlier, Paul does not explain what he means by the father/child language in every passage in which he uses it. However, I think that every passage fits within the patterns that we find in the few passages in which Paul does explain what he means by the father/child language.

What do you think? This is obviously a brief examination of the father/child language. What have I missed?

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Series: Does Paul refer to other Christians as superiors/subordinates?

  1. What did Paul think about his subordinates?
  2. Defining the terms
  3. The ways that Paul most often refers to other believers
  4. When Paul refers to other believers using father/child language
  5. Examining Paul’s use of the father/child language
  6. Does Paul use the term apostle to refer to a superior/subordinate relationship?
  7. When Paul DOES use the language of superiors and subordinates