Christian leadership is usually visualized by means of multiple images, such as shepherd, servant, and coach. Among the many images, this article will consider the first image for a Christian leader.
Often, people recognize leadership by the titles used to address people or by the offices leaders hold. Granted, titles and offices may have a place in carrying out one’s ministries, but I want to suggest an important way to picture Christian leadership. This unexpected image comes from Paul’s first letter to the Thessalonians. Since the majority of scholars consider 1 Thessalonians as the first Christian document (written around A.D. 50), one could regard this beautiful image as the first image of ministry in the New Testament.
In 1 Thessalonians 2:5-7a, Paul writes:
You know we never used flattery, nor did we put on a mask to cover up greed—God is our witness. We were not looking for praise from people, not from you or anyone else, even though as apostles of Christ we could have asserted our prerogatives. Instead, we were like young children among you (NIV 2011).
Apostles as children? Why so? By using “infants/children,” Paul effectively contrasts the motives behind their mission as being innocent, vulnerable, and unselfish—as opposed to the deceit and manipulation mentioned in vv. 5-6. The members of the Pauline team were harmless, light-weight infants rather than demanding, heavy-weight apostles.
At this point some readers may face a problem because their translation of the Bible would not mention “young children.” In which case, their version will read something like, “We were gentle among you.” Why is this so? And how do we handle these different readings?
The differing versions of 1 Thessalonians 2:7a translate one of two Greek words because two variants exist in the Greek manuscripts. One reads “gentle” and the other “children.” Versions such as the KJV, NRSV, and even a previous version of NIV (1984) have chosen to translate the Greek word ēpioi (meaning “gentle ones”), connecting that to the text of 2:7b—“gentle … as a mother.” Other versions, like the NIV 2011,CEV, and NLT translate the word nēpioi (meaning children/infants). Some versions, like the ESV, mention the variant reading in a footnote. These two words, which in the Greek are different by only one letter (nu), have such different meanings.
So which of these two words has a greater probability of being the word Paul used—“gentle ones” or “children?” Good reasons exist to conclude that in 1 Thessalonians 2:7a Paul used the word nēpioi (children) to refer to the missionary team that founded the church in Thessalonica. One can easily understand why many scholars think this is so, without going into matters that may interest only a few scholars.
First, the variant nēpioi (children) has the better manuscript support: the earliest manuscript (p65) with this reading comes from the third century. Compare this with the earliest manuscript with the reading ēpioi (gentle), which comes from the fifth century. Second, the translation of “infants” or “children” perfectly fits the immediate context of Paul’s words in 1 Thessalonians 2:1-12. It appears that some people in Thessalonica (probably outsiders to the church) had questioned Paul’s motives and integrity. They apparently accused Paul and his companions as being those bent upon exploiting the Thessalonians, especially financially. This may have been reported to Paul by Timothy (1 Thess. 3:6).
In response to these vicious insinuations, Paul reminds the Thessalonian church that both they and God knew the truth of the matter. Paul and his companions had labored hard to support themselves and did not put any financial burden on the new believers (1 Thess. 2:9). They did not don a mask to cover up greed—like some others who preached “for the sake of dishonest gain” (Titus 1:11). Rather, their motives were pure—and Paul appeals to the personal knowledge of the Thessalonians (see the “you know” statements in 2:1, 2, 5, 9, and 11). The apostles were like sacrificial and loving parents to them (2:7b, 11).
One may wonder whether “children/infants” carries a pejorative sense. Not necessarily. Paul uses words with varied connotations in diverse contexts. For example, in 1 Corinthians, Paul first uses the image of “infants” (nēpioi) negatively in 3:1-2: “You are worldly, mere infants in Christ.” Later in the letter he uses the same noun in a neutral sense: “When I was a child, I talked like a child” (13:11). However, in 14:20, he speaks of being an infant in a positive sense: “Brothers and sisters, stop thinking like children [paidia]. In regard to evil be infants [Paul employs the verb for being infants (nēpiazē)], but in your thinking be adults.”
In the same letter, Paul draws on the same image of children/infants in three differing ways. Further, 1 Corinthians 14:20b sheds further light on Paul’s meaning in 1 Thessalonians 2:7a. The apostles were just like innocent babies! Later in the following passage (2:7b-12) Paul also uses the images of a nursing mother and an encouraging father to denote the ministry of the apostolic band.
Paul’s startling image of the apostles as innocent children should come as no surprise. Jesus, in no uncertain terms, declared that unless His disciples, and those who sought to be leaders, became like little children, they would not amount to much in God’s Kingdom.
Truly I tell you, unless you change and become like little children, you will never enter the kingdom of heaven. Therefore, whoever takes a humble place—becoming like this child—is the greatest in the kingdom of heaven” (Matt 18:3-4; Mark 9:33-37; Luke 9:46-48).
In the Gospels, one finds the story of the rich man who was unable to give up his wealth and follow Jesus. This narrative is immediately preceded by the mention of Jesus welcoming children—because children basically are pure and trusting (Matt. 19:13-15; Mark 10:13-16; Luke 18:15-17). The rich man, in contrast, is unable to enter the kingdom, for he is unwilling to become totally dependent on God just like little children are on their parents.
Children can teach believers many things. My wife and I have two teenagers. At times we are pleasantly surprised to see how nice they are to each other, helping each other out, just moments after they have said some unkind things to each other. They appear to have put aside those angry words and go about the business of being brother and sister.
In contrast, many adults could keep in mind, for years, unkind words or hurtful actions of others in the family of God and decide to stay away from them. They are tempted to manipulate others to get what they want. They cleverly pull all the right strings. Tragically, adults are often not “innocent as doves” (Matt 10:16). They are no longer children.
Coming back to 1 Thessalonians, Paul and his associates claim that they had acted as blameless children in their relationship to the Thessalonian believers. They were pure, innocent, and Christ-like. Truly, this serves as the fountainhead of other virtues—the indispensable characteristic of a Christ-like leader. Therefore, from this Pauline image, one can conclude: Christian leadership is growing up to become children.