Commentary on 1 Thessalonians 3:9-13
Paul’s words of thanksgiving, admonition, and encouragement to the fledgling churches at Thessalonica reverberate with pastoral passion; nearly every sentence could end with an exclamation point!
Those of us who have experienced (or endured) clinical pastoral education (CPE) might recognize something of Paul’s exuberance in some of our colleagues’ verbatims (or perhaps it was one of our verbatims). Paul’s pastoral care, concern, and devotion to this nascent community are contagious.
I must confess, however, that as I re-read this epistle I sensed a mounting wariness within me. All of the important lessons I learned through CPE I wanted to shout to the Apostle — Don’t get too close Paul! Keep some pastoral distance for your own sake!
Early in one’s ministry it is all too easy to fuse one’s calling with the faithfulness (or lack thereof) of those we are called to serve. New ministers have a tendency to experience the emotional undulations of pastoral ministry as a child on her first rollercoaster ride: jaw clenched, knuckles white, shoulders tense, brow furrowed. We see things without gradation, employing words like always, never, completely, and altogether to convey the life of Christian discipleship.
I am confessing my own experiences and struggles through my first pastoral calling … and my second … and my third. I cringe at Paul’s seemingly unhealthy attachment to his flock (does he really compare himself to a mother in 2:7? And a father in 2:10?). I cringe because his effusiveness reflects my own experiences of insalubrious ministerial attachment.
Paul displays the telltale signs of one unlearned in the art of emotional abstemiousness. His all-in, hold-nothing-back love (2:8) for this nascent community undergoing intense suffering and conflict (1:5; 2:14) is a recipe for pastoral disaster.1 Just a few verses prior to this week’s Scripture lesson (3:5), Paul declares that if some have fallen away his work would have been “to no purpose” (eis kenon). A little extreme, don’t you think?
Commentators marvel at Paul’s rhetoric of 1 Thessalonians.2 This epistle is epideictic in the service of communicating Paul’s profound love and concern that the Thessalonian congregants not fall away during these times of persecution (3:2). This week’s lection forms the culmination of the grounds for thanksgiving begun in 1:6. That’s thirty-seven verses of thanksgiving!
In 3:9 Paul declares, “How can we thank God enough for you, given all the joy we have because of you before our God?” His prayers of thanksgiving and supplication ring out incessantly (“night and day”) and his only wish is to reunite with his flock. Paul’s work busts the seams of epistolary convention; it teams with rhetorical fervor.
Most commentators will attribute Paul’s intensity — in prayer (e.g., 3:10: hyperekperissou deomenoi, literally, “begging beyond all measure”) as well as parenesis — in this epistle to a heightened eschatological expectation (4:13 ff.), one that offers little resonance for our contemporary contexts following a multi-millennial delay of Christ’s parousia.
Or could it be something else?
I’m not arguing against the scholarly consensus as much as I am suggesting an additional reason for Paul’s intense, and perhaps hyperbolic, discourse. What if Paul writes with such urgency because he deeply loves his congregation? What a concept! Today’s Christian communities are enduring their own forms of adversity. Indeed, history has proven the sword of persecution to be less threatening than the swaddle of apathy.
Recall the pastoral situation into which Paul writes. Under persecution Paul left the congregation abruptly (cf. Acts 17:1-10) with no enduring texts or leadership to supplement his teaching. They were prematurely abandoned after only three weeks of instruction while Paul worked and taught among them (2:8-9). Moreover, in that short time they turned to God from idols (1:9-10), which meant they had forsaken the pagan cult and their ties to the social, political, and economic powers that dominated Thessalonica.
Paul views imitation of his ministerial example as a crucial dimension of discipleship and in his absence he feared they would fall back into their cultural mores. How better for Paul to communicate his explicit desire — “May the Lord cause you to increase and enrich your love for each other and for everyone in the same way as we also love you” (3:12) — than to model the kind of love he desires to see at work among the Thessalonians? It is clear that they learned by imitation when Paul was among them (1:6), and I am suggesting that Paul is continuing the pattern in this letter: practice what I preach!
Paul would likely have failed CPE and if this letter is indicative of his pastoral sensibility it is a wonder that he survived as long as he did as a minister of the Gospel. But what if this is exactly the kind of intensity required of we who serve others in the church. What if we modeled through our preaching, our prayer, our Bible studies, and our home visitations the kind of self-effacing love that Paul displays? What if we strove for greater attachment to our congregants? Then perhaps the overflowing love, love for those both inside and outside of the flock (3:12), love that comes from God the Father through Jesus Christ and the Holy Spirit may transform our communities (3:13).
Pastoral detachment cannot “supply what is lacking” (3:10) for those in our congregations. In an age of pastoral burnout I believe that Paul offers us a vision for pastoral ministry that is not to be missed — I know that it has not been missed on me. The wisdom of CPE notwithstanding, Paul models through his writing a simple yet profound truth: we need to convey more passion through our ministries, more love toward those under our care, and perhaps, more exclamation points.
1For an excellent analysis of the conflict at Thessalonica see Todd D. Still, Conflict at Thessalonica: A Pauline Church and Its Neighbors, JSNTSS 183 (Sheffield: Sheffield Academic Press, 1999).
2See especially Robert Jewett, The Thessalonian Correspondence: Pauline Rhetoric and Millenarian Piety (Minneapolis: Fortress Press, 1986).