In these gender-bending, gender neutral, hermaphroditic dog days of sexual fog, some things do not go without saying. And one of those things is that Paul was a manly man. He was no lisping prancer, no tittering poofter. He was fearless, bold, fiery, and he was gentle.
In fact, he said so himself: “But we were gentle among you, just as a nursing mother cherishes her own children” (1 Thess. 2:7). But Paul was gentle in a way that was fully consistent with his biblical masculinity. This was not Paul “getting in touch with his feminine side.” To put the point bluntly: Paul didn’t have breasts. And please, if you can control the urge, do not regale me with tales of male nipples lactating. Such perfidy is nothing to my point. Take your lactation red herrings to the pet store where you will you get whatever the going rate is for such things.
My point is that someone out there, and I don’t have a name in mind, has attempted to describe Paul as a proto-feminist struggling with his patriarchal instincts and misogynist cultural blinders, and here, for a brief moment, he let down his guard, likened his ministry to nursing motherhood, thus validating all of our super-duper, up-to-date, modern, new fangled theories about sexual repression, equality, revolution, empowerment, and Bill Cosby.
But I have a modest yet radical suggestion that we read Paul in context. I mean, I know this sounds old fashioned and a bit angular, but what does Paul mean by this nursing mother metaphor? Well, in context it turns out not to be quite as erotic as our egalitarian pimps would prefer. And yes, I called them pimps, and yes, I said erotic, as in, sexually arousing. And yes, I do believe that’s what’s driving a lot of bad exegesis. If we can get the Bible to be a difficult, mysterious, ambiguous, culturally colonized text, then people can hump whatever they want. That’s pretty much the story of liberal hermeneutics over the last hundred years or so.
Where was I? Oh. Right, the context – the part in the text in which Paul describes what he means by likening his ministry to that of a nursing mother. What’s striking is that Paul immediately describes his love for the Thessalonians and eagerness to impart the gospel to them (1 Thess. 2:8), and the fact that Paul and his assistants labored in this gospel with them night and day, without charge (1 Thess. 2:9). And again, Paul says that the Thessalonians were witnesses of this selfless plodding for the good of the saints in Thessalonica (1 Thess. 2:10). In other words, the way the metaphor works is Paul says that like a nursing mother, he worked night and day to give gospel milk, gospel life to the newborn Thessalonians, and all without charge.
The metaphor is not about being cuddly. The metaphor is not about being sweet and syrupy. The metaphor is not about Paul being feminine. The metaphor is about a steady work ethic, about laboring without charge, at all hours, as needed, night and day with a continual, balanced, and sturdy (i.e. gentle) resolve to keep the Thessalonians alive and growing in Christ. That’s what nursing mothers do: they keep new people alive. They nurse their newborn babies around the clock, pushing through the pain, the sleeplessness, faithful in their calling, not bothered by the fact that these new little people aren’t exactly expressing how thankful they are for this round the clock room service yet. That’s what Paul and Silvanus and Timothy did with the Thessalonians. And we could do with a lot more of that sort of thankless, selfless, hard-working, plodding pastoral care in our land. This isn’t glamourous work. But it is faithful, manly, and courageous work.
It turns out that work is an awful lot like a being a father as Paul hastens to add in the following verse, “As you know, we exhorted and comforted and charged every one of you, as a father does with his children” (1 Thess. 2:11).