Wednesday 10 February 2016

The pastor as parent

In class yesterday we spent some time thinking about Paul’s letter to the Galatians as a model for us of pastoral ministry. Of course the whole letter is an exercise in pastoral ministry, but we focussed on 4:12-20 and read through Calvin’s commentary on that section which draws out many helpful implications for pastors (you can find that text here).

In particular there is the arresting image of Paul as a mother in the pains of childbirth (4:19). Paul uses the parent metaphor in several places to describe his relationship to those converted under his ministry (e.g. Paul and his companions as mother and father in 1 Thessalonians 2:7-12, Paul as father in 1 Corinthians 4:14-15, Philemon 1:10), but it’s an image that many people have rightly applied to ministry more generally. 

In Galatians, the power of the metaphor is that it is able to express Paul’s anguish as well as his affection for his people, a point wonderfully explored by the lesser-known Reformer Rudolf Gwalther (son-in-law of Ulrich Zwingli):

This passage reminds us of the many things needed for our understanding. First of all, we have to realize that the ministry of the Word is something full of hard work and trouble. Just as a mother carries a fetus in her womb with great effort, losing her appetite for food and appealing to others for help, and just as she gives birth in great pain and then feeds and educates her child with enormous effort, so the trials laid on the backs of ministers of the Word are infinite, and those who risk their reputations in order to win others for Christ have to suffer great trouble (as we are taught by the example of Elijah). The innate depravity of our mind and nature does not accept that we are children of God. The world is against them, because it does not let people escape from its clutches. What grieves ministers the most is that those for whose salvation they sacrifice everything are often not only ungrateful to them for their efforts but even hostile to them. But just as a mother’s love conquers everything and turns sorrow and trouble into joy, sustaining her through the birth process and the education of her children, so ministers should burn with unquenched love for Christ and the church, so that however hard the going may be, nothing will overpower the joy and delight that they get from fulfilling their ministry. (Quoted in Gerald L. Bray, ed., Galatians, Ephesians, Reformed Commentary on Scripture 10 (Downers Grove, Ill.: IVP Academic, 2011), 154.

Lots there to ponder, and in the midst of the passage an interesting thought: that one of the key roles for pastors in this parental role is to assure believers that they are God’s children.