Leading with Love: Exploring Textual and Historical Criticism in 1 Thessalonians 2:7
Raise your hand if you love textual criticism!
As I look at the kind of responses and readers we see here at the Two Cities, it might actually be the case that a couple of you raised your hands (or at least raised your eyelids). Certainly, the blogosphere isn’t the normal medium through which the difficulties disputed within this discipline are discussed, but I hope to stimulate some discussion on a passage that has stirred theologians for many a millennia (ok, I guess two versus “many”). But beyond this, let’s explore what a possible reading might mean for helping us understand biblical leadership. How can the shepherd of a church, the Christian leader of his office, the Father or Mother of a household, or a team captain amongst his peers better learn to model Christ and the model set forth by Paul in leading others? Let’s look at one passage that might shed one perspective on the Scriptural picture.
1 Thessalonians 2:7 has been a stumper for students of the Bible for centuries. The discussion is largely oriented around trying to best understand which of two words was actually the one Paul and his companions meant to write in his original audience: did Paul come as the church planting Apostle as gentle (h.pioi in the Greek word being in the Thessalonians midst, or did he come to them as a child (νήπιοι).
In 1 Thessalonians 2:1-10, which is a thanksgiving portion of Paul’s letter, spends several verses reflecting on the founding months Paul and his team spent planting the church in Thessalonica. Yet, in the midst of this thanksgiving, Paul also seems to spend some time defending this apostolic authority. It seems that there may be some aggitators who are infiltrating the ranks of the young Thessalonian church (and there has been much discussion as to who exactly this group might be), seeking to challenge or critique Paul’s authority and Apostolic leadership. Thus, Paul seeks to authenticate his leadership, and how the fruits of his leadership support this validity.
Paul begins by reminding of what his ministry was not: it was not by impurity and deceit (v 3), nor did it seek to please men, but God (v 4), or to flatter his listeners with his speech. Paul’s ministry was not motivated by greed (v5). Paul then adds an interesting and much discussed note “even though as apostles of Christ we might have asserted our authority” (NAS), seeming to suggest that as an Apostle, he has the right to financial support, or to some degree of what may be perceived as rougher fatherly discipline, when appropriate, to his people. Then comes verse 7:
For we never came with flattering speech, as you know, nor with a pretext for greed– God is witness– 6 nor did we seek glory from men, either from you or from others, even though as apostles of Christ we might have asserted our authority. 7 But we proved to be gentle (or as children) among you, as a nursing mother tenderly cares for her own children. 8 Having thus a fond affection for you, we were well-pleased to impart to you not only the gospel of God but also our own lives, because you had become very dear to us.
You can see the conundrum: “But we proved to be gentle, like a nursing mother,” seems to make far more sense than “We became children among you, as a nursing mother.” How can a child be like a nursing mother? Aren’t these antithetical images?
Yet, the overwhelming support of the NT copies support the “children” rendering. If we take this almost entirely one-sided evidence seriously, we must try to find a logical reading of this passage. What is Paul saying about his authority and his leadership?
In addition to textual criticism, looking at ways to logically diagram, or to grammatically evaluate, Paul’s writing to understand what he sought to say, is also important.
In the NAS’s translation/ interpretation above, its clear that they looked at 2:7 as all being a part of one unit of thought, and that the metaphor of the nursing mother must be related to Paul’s discussion of being… whatever… amongst them.
But what if Paul was really saying this:
For we never came with words of flattery,
as you know,
nor with a pretext for greed
–God is witness.
Nor did we seek glory from people,
whether from you
or from others,
though we could have made demands as apostles of Christ.
But we were (as)children among you.
Like a nursing mother taking care of her own children,
So, being affectionately desirous of you, we were ready to share with you
not only the gospel of God
but also our own selves,
because you had become very dear to us.
Basically, this view sees Paul making one point seeking to contrast the actually childlikeness (perhaps we understand this still as gentleness, innocence, not-harshness) to the accusations and caricatures of his ministry his agitators were spreading. Thus Paul says: we were not like a) b), c), etc…BUT we were like children). Then, he begins a new sentence. He instead came as one loving them (not out of greed, impurity, deceit, etc.) like a mother, so affectionately and desiring of them because they were so dear to him.
So, Leadership is…
What does this show us about leadership in the writings of Paul?
It seems that Paul’s leadership was not one that was obviously not one driven my selfish and sinful motives, but driven by earnest and longing love (the passion Paul has for the Thessalonians is evidence in extremely obvious language, not only here, but in much of 1 Thess 1-3).
In evaluating the “nursing mother” metaphor, we can see that leadership and pasturing requires a sincere and compassionate heart, one that longs and breaks for his flock.
In consideration of the nhpioi imagery, it seems that Paul is maybe evoking images of innocence and naiveté, and one acts like a child who has no authority in His speech and pastoral conduct (even though, as an apostle, he does carry great authority). This is in contrast to the accusations of him being driven by vain praise of men, deceit, and flattery.
As one who works in the business arena, I can testify to the copious amount of books and philosophies that abound on the subject of leadership. Every year, a new author is presenting some distinct leadership secret that, once you read his book, will transform you, your team, and your organization into the next Fortune 500 Cinderella story (yes, even in this economy). And what we see even more of are the same people who have written best-sellers already, putting out this year’s slightly rearranged anthology of the same “business bullets” and other leadership truisms that they have been espousing for years.
Many of these models, as diverse as they are, advocate for a leaders having some sort of strong and dominant presence amongst his team, one that is keen to know his team, but always reminds them of who is the boss, the inspiring rouser of the troops.
Certainly, the life and words of Paul do inspire. Yet, there also seems to be great, great power in also making purity and sincere compassion core commitments of one’s leadership profile.
How can we do the same, and perhaps model Paul, and like the Thessalonians, become “imitators of us and the Lord.” (1 Thess 1:6).
 As argued by Timothy Sailors, “Wedding Textual and Rhetorical Criticism to Understand the Text of 1 Thessalonians 2:7, JSNT 80 (2000)81-98, and Jeffery Weima
 (and again, there is now open discussion on what it means to be like a ‘child’ in Scripture)