1 Thessalonians by Gary DeLashmutt (2001)

Two Elements of Spiritual Parenting

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Gary DeLashmutt

1 Thessalonians 2:17-3:13


Paul explains two aspects of spiritual parenting: 1) prioritizing face to face relating; and 2) a willingness to be affected by another person's spiritual health. Technology is not a replacement for face-to-face relating. It actually can be a hindrance. We should prioritize face-to-face relating with our own children, in our own spiritual development, and in our efforts to impact others for Christ. Being affected by others' spiritual health is different than codependent relationships. Our identity is secure in Christ, not in another person.


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Briefly review the setting—Paul's interrupted relationship with the Thessalonian Christians. We come now to a long section of this letter in which Paul fills them in on what happened after he left Thessalonica. Read 2:17-3:10. Why does he spend so much time on this?

Because he is their spiritual parent (2:7,11), he is concerned that they not interpret his physical absence as proof that he does not care about them. (Maybe Paul's enemies were telling them this.) There were good reasons why he could not come back, and he has been deeply concerned about them the whole time.

But there is another reason. He explains this because he expects them to take up the same loving responsibility (as spiritual parents) toward others. That's why he ends this passage by praying not only that God will direct his way back to them (3:11), but also that they will love others in the same way that he loves them (3:12).

This is one of the key dynamics of the New Testament church that is so different than the traditional church model of today.

In the traditional model, the church is like a PERPETUAL SPIRITUAL DAY-CARE CENTER. There are one or two professional spiritual caregivers who are expected to tend to everyone else's spiritual needs, no matter how long they have been Christians. While it is normal and healthy for spiritual infants to be cared for, it is dysfunctional if this continues (“arrested development”—as in the HOLIDAY INN COMMERCIALS). The alternatives of this model are unacceptable—either stay small or become superficial.

In the New Testament church, the church is like a GROWING & DEVELOPING FAMILY. New children are being born into the family. The parents take care of the young children. But as the children grow older, they are expected to help care for the younger children, and then to get married, have their own children—and teach their children the same model. This is the model we are committed to in Xenos—every Christian is to become a spiritual parent!

If you buy this, then this passage is not merely a historical insight into Paul's relationship with the Thessalonian Christians. It becomes valuable instruction on two of the key elements of spiritual parenting.

The priority of face-to-face relating

Let's re-read some of this passage—see if you can figure out the first element (read 2:17-18a; 3:1-2, 6, 10-11). The first prominent element is the priority Paul placed on face-to-face relating.

There is a great irony here. Because Paul could not see them face-to-face, he wrote them a letter. Because he was an Apostle, this is an inspired letter—and we are very grateful for its contents. But for Paul, a letter (even an inspired one) was a distant second to actually being with them. If he had access to telephone, email, video conferencing, etc., he would undoubtedly have used them—but they would never have replaced face-to-face relating as the primary way of imparting God's truth and love. This is a key issue—and one that we're in danger of losing, both in our culture and in the church.

Why is this? The answer has to do with what it means to be a human being. We are not merely data nodes, needing only “connectivity.” We are not products of time and chance, able to evolve to the point that we transcend the limitations of our physical bodies. We are embodied spirits, made in God's image—so that fully human interaction requires bodily presence.

While Christianity values the written word greatly because of its ability to preserve content, it values personal presence even more. God's fullest revelation of himself to the human race is not a book dropped out of the sky—it is that “the Word became flesh and dwelt among us” (John 1:14). That's why Paul said 2:7-8 (read).

This is one reason why we need to think deeply and carefully about how we use Information Technology. Don't get me wrong. I am no technophobe. I own a cell phone, I access the internet, I send and receive email, I watch cable TV occasionally, etc. But IT is a powerful force that is changing the way we live and interact and think about ourselves—and many of these changes are unhealthy. I am not talking about the obvious things like porn on cable TV and the internet. I am talking about IT's insidious tendency to erode essential human activities like imagination and sustained rational thought, the ability to enjoy being alone to reflect and pray, and the ability to build and maintain close, healthy relationships. For all of the advantages and opportunities afforded by IT, to the extent that we let it crowd out the priority of relating to people face to face, it is dehumanizing and profoundly anti-spiritual in the biblical sense of that term. I want to give two simple warnings in this regard.

“Connectivity” is not fully personal communication—regardless of what IT companies are telling us. I recently saw in commercial in which the IT company asserted that “Soon, it may no longer be necessary to ever have face to face contact with anyone again.” This would not be utopia—it would be a nightmare. The Sprint commercials in which the trench-coat guy liberates people from being tied to their desktop computers by giving them web-linked cell phones is not a true liberation. It is just another way to stay linked to the web instead of relating to people. Commercials like the ones that provide call screening so you can spend quality time with your children or spouse reveal the extent to which IT has intruded into face-to-face human relating. We now have to market IT technology that block the IT technologies we're marketing!

IT may keep you connected to more people, but unless you're careful it tends to hollow out your relational life. Not only does it tend to take time away from face-to-face relating. It also drains us of the energy needed for this activity, and it even conditions us to be aversive to face-to-face relating because it's not stimulating enough.

“Human interaction at the deepest level involves at least two participants who acknowledge and respond to each other's spoken questions, comments, and exclamations as well as the nonverbal language of embodied articulation—the raised eyebrow, the squinting eye, the furrowed brow, the misty eyes, the nodding or shaking of the head. These irreducibly personal factors and many others—such as spontaneity and humor—make up a conversation, a dialogue, in which no machine can participate.”1

In the same way, in-depth spiritual instruction and transfer of spiritual values requires close relationship—which requires personal presence. This is what Paul says in 3:2, 10 and Rom. 1:11-12, and John says that same thing in 3 John 1:13-14.

“ . . . the kind of community required for the resuscitation of (spiritual) life requires the grace that comes through the human touch, the human voice, the human gaze. Genuine community shines through the human presence of truth expressed personally. Cyberspace can only mimic or mirror these things (however convincingly); it cannot create them. It can, however, beguile us into mistaking connectivity for community, data for wisdom, and efficiency for excellence. If cyberspace is kept closely fastened to the real world, and if we refuse its temptations to exchange the virtual for the literal, it can be our servant. Otherwise it will become a demanding and all-consuming media monster.”2

What does all this have to do with being a spiritual parent? Lots! Here are just a few:

Are you prioritizing this with your children (REGULAR ALONE TIME; FOCUSED LISTENING; EYE-CONTACT; MEANINGFUL TOUCH)? Are you modeling it in your relationship with your spouse? Or are you letting TV, internet, video games, etc. crowd this out? My kids have asked many times for cable TV and unlimited internet access. I always tell them I'll do it if they can refute this logic: If we get it and don't use it a lot, we're wasting our money; if we get it and do use it a lot, we're wasting our time. This is why I have opted for the 3-hour-per-month AOL internet access.

Do you prioritize this in your own efforts to grow spiritually (HOME GROUP INVOLVEMENT; CORPORATE PRAYER; ONE-ON-ONE TIME)? Or are you trying to get by on chat-rooms, web-sites, tapes, books, email, etc.? While these things can augment spiritual instruction, the notion of online churches or cyber-seminaries is a contradiction in terms.

Do you prioritize this in your efforts to impact others for Christ (FRIENDSHIP EVANGELISM; PERSONAL DISCIPLESHIP)? Or are you trying to get by on chat-rooms, phone calls, tapes, videos, email, etc.?

I think this is going to become a bigger and bigger challenge to us, as the world speeds up and the tidal wave of information continues to crash over us. But it will also be one of our greatest witnesses to the world . . .

Willingness to be emotionally affected by others' spiritual health

Let's look at another aspect of Paul's spiritual parenting. See if you can identify it from these verses (re-read 2:19-20; 3:5-9). Notice the way that Paul's emotional state is affected by their spiritual state.

What was his emotional state while their spiritual welfare was imperiled? He was so anguished that he “could endure it no longer” without sending someone to check on them (3:5). He speaks of this same kind of anguish for his spiritual children in 2 Corinthians 11:28-29 and Galatians 4:19-20—and agony (agwn) even for Christians whom he has never met (Colossians 2:1)!

Conversely, what was his emotional state when he learned that they were safe and moving forward spiritually? He was comforted in spite of the persecution he was experiencing, he “really lives,” he is overflowing with thanks and rejoicing to God.

How different this is from our models of spiritual and emotional health today! We are caught between two equally errant and damaging extremes.

We talk a lot about our need for psychological "space"--by which we mean we don't want to let others get close enough to us that that they can affect us emotionally.

People talk increasingly about relationships as similar to financial investments—stick when the emotional benefit is good, sell when the emotional cost is too high. This “commodification of relationships” is horrible!

We have TV models like Jerry Seinfeld, who is completely cynical and detached. He is “together” because he is never emotionally affected by the defeats and victories of his friends. Even his “empathy” is bemused mockery.

I have talked with many senior pastors who tell me that they can't afford to get close to any of the people in their churches, that their best friends are people they went to seminary with, now hundreds of miles away. How would Paul respond to this?

“This is neurotic! This is codependency!” Neurotic, codependent relationships (parenting as well as romantic) are unhealthy—but there are crucial differences between codependency and what Paul is describing.

In codependent relationships, my identity and security are based on whether you like me, how you make me look. In Christ-centered relationships, my identity and security are rooted ultimately in how Christ views me and in his unwavering love for me. This is why a better word for codependent relationships is “idolatrous.”

In codependent relationships, I am completely dependent emotionally on how you treat me. Thus the extreme “roller-coaster” effect. In Christ-centered relationships, I can lay hold of his comfort and peace even in the midst of relational pain.

In codependent relationships, I am unable to discipline because I am dependent on the above. In Christ-centered relationships, I may weep while I do it—but I am willing and able to take a stand for truth and even jeopardize the relationship over what God says is true and right and therefore for your good.

How about you? Are you involved and invested enough in other people's spiritual lives that your emotional life is affected by them? When was the last time you wept over someone's choice to turn away from the Lord? When was the last time you felt great joy over someone's choice to come to Christ and/or grow in him? I have to regularly ask God to give me this heart . . .

Don't get the cart before the horse! Progress here begins with establishing a personal relationship with God by receiving Christ (Revelations 3:20) . . .


1 Douglas Grootuis, The Soul in Cyberspace (Grand Rapids: Baker Book House Co., 1997), p. 152.

2 Douglas Grootuis, The Soul in Cyberspace (Grand Rapids: Baker Book House Co., 1997), p. 143.

Copyright 2000 Gary DeLashmutt