When Paul wants to talk about their gentleness among the Thessalonians he says, “We were gentle among you, like a nursing mother taking care of her own children” (1 Thessalonians 2:7). It’s a beautiful picture of tenderness and it’s set in contrast to the idea that Paul showed up barking orders and giving commands. That was never his preferred manner of leadership because it was not the way of the Christ who said, “I am gentle and humble in heart” (Matthew 11:29). Both Paul and Jesus could practice tough love when they needed to, but they advocated and practiced the softer side of love whenever possible.
It’s also interesting and instructive that Paul borrows from a nursing mother to talk about the behavior of three men. I’m guessing that if you were to pick any three men today to talk about, “gentle as a nursing mother taking care of her own children” might not be the first descriptor to enter into your mind. An obvious part of what Paul is doing is painting a picture of family to describe their time at Thessalonica (see v. 11). What he says also helps us to see the overlap in gender characteristics which we sorely need to understand.
We live in a world that is confused and unraveling at the seams as it relates to gender. The gender anarchists and every other celebrity are assuring us that there is a continuum and fluidity to gender so that someone can be a female one day, a male the next, and something in between the next day. (Honestly, does anyone really think this is a helpful view—much less a correct one?). The people most susceptible to such talk are the young and inexperienced in life. Adolescence is tough enough without someone pressing the message on you that gender is a cafeteria style arrangement and its up to you to pick and choose.
The One who made us tells us that we have been created as male and female. He made men to be men and women to be women. Christ affirmed all of this in Matthew 19 when He spoke of the marriage relationship. The only exception to this would be the rare instance of those who are born intersex. Man’s sin ushered in a redemptive curse from God (Genesis 3:14ff, Romans 8:19ff) and death, disease, and in rare cases, anatomical sexual abnormality, entered the world. In such instances, we need to be fully supportive and prayerfully mindful of every person and family who has to address such a situation.
While it’s clear that God created us as male and female, we also need to recognize that gender characteristics have considerable range and overlap. We need to be especially careful that we don’t create artificially, rigid categories of what each gender can or can’t do. For example, while it’s true that men are generally not good at recognizing and coordinating colors, that doesn’t mean every man is this way. And, for those who might have this ability, it doesn’t make them any less of a man. Women generally aren’t attracted to trucks like men are, but if a woman is, that doesn’t make her any less female. And on it goes.
This is important because because artificially limiting gender characteristics creates unnecessary tension and confusion. That leads to unhealthy questions and doubts about one’s gender. Look at Jacob and Esau. Esau was a rugged, hairy, hunter and outdoorsman while Jacob was more of an indoors person who liked to cook and wasn’t hairy. Neither was more of a man that the other. So, it shouldn’t surprise us when Paul speaks of himself, Silas and Timothy practicing the gentleness of a nursing mother among the Thessalonians. Many, if not most men, can do this just as women are capable of doing the “encouraging, comforting and urging” that he associates with fathers in v. 11-12.