Eli T. Evans
Before assembly lines, computer-aided drafting and universal public education, replication was the accepted way to produce crafts and craftsmen. Without a blueprint, the best way for a carpenter to build a certain kind of bench would be to reproduce an example. Likewise, the best way to build a certain kind of carpenter was to emulate a master carpenter by working at his side. Tradesmen didn’t go to college; they apprenticed. Nor were there any Bible colleges to mass-produce Christians.
Unlike the debate societies of the Greek philosophers or the Torah schools of the Jewish synagogues (from which they were cast out), early Christians were trained through direct contact with other Christians. Indeed, discipleship is nothing more than apprenticeship extended into all areas of life and worship: behavior, speech and thought.
The Thessalonians were such good apprentices of Paul that their reputation spread among the other churches (1 Thess 1:7–8; 2 Thess 1:3–4; see also 1 Tim 5:10). This fact brings Paul great joy, even in the midst of personal hardship (1 Thess 1:6; 2:19–20; 3:9). He knows that through them, the church will branch out and grow—beyond him, and if necessary, without him (1 Thess 4:9; 5:1).
Each branch of a tree is a smaller copy of the one it sprouted from, all the way back to the trunk. If all the branches follow the right pattern, the tree will be well-formed, but if a branch is deformed, it will break the chain of healthy replication, and any branches that grow from it will be malformed.
In this regard, Paul commends Thessalonian believers for being good, healthy branches in the Christian tree, and he encourages them to continue to grow as “imitators” of himself, Christ and other churches (1 Thess 1:6; 2:14). He encourages them to repeat the pattern of living that he showed them (1 Thess 4:1–2, 11–12; 2 Thess 3:7–9). In this way, they would “become an example” for other churches and even the world (1 Thess 1:7; 4:12).
Thus, Paul’s main ongoing concern for the Thessalonians is not that they recall his best sermons while he was with them, or even that they read and disseminate his letters, but rather that they remember how he treated them and how he worked and lived when he was among them. In addressing the problem of some lazy members of the community, he doesn’t appeal to the Thessalonians’ intellect through reasoned argumentation, but to their memory: “You yourselves know how you ought to imitate us, because we were not idle when we were with you” (2 Thess 3:6–9). Having been shown the pattern, they should have no need for further teaching on this point. Nor did they have any “need for anyone to write” to them about brotherly love or the timing of the second coming of Christ (1 Thess 4:9; 5:1).
In general, Paul harbored deep suspicion of teachers and “super-apostles” who made their appeal through “smooth words and flattery” rather than by aspiring to “live quietly [among their disciples] and to mind [their] own affairs” (1 Thess 2:5; 1 Thess 4:11; see also Rom 16:18; 1 Cor 1:17; 2:1–5; 2 Cor 11:5–6). It isn’t a know-nothing bias against learning as such—Paul was well-educated and could hold his own in a debate (just ask Peter or the Galatians)—but he had no patience for “unhealthy craving for controversy and for quarrels about words,” nor endless discussions of “myths” and “speculations” (1 Tim 1:4; 4:7; 6:4; 2 Tim 4:4; Titus 1:14). It’s worth noting that every time Paul uses the word “doctrine,” it is in the context of a whole-life pattern of ministry, where followers speak and act the way their leaders do. For Paul, the point of Christian learning is sanctification and growth in personal holiness, not to gain ammunition for theological turf wars.
It’s tempting to think of Paul as having a purely rhetorical bent. All that remains of his teachings are his letters, which of necessity were written when he was far away from his audience. Being even further away ourselves, it is comfortable to view him through the lens of the theological treatise he wrote to the members of the Roman church—whom he had never met in person, either. Nevertheless, the letters to the Thessalonians show that Paul preferred an incarnational style of ministry whenever possible, a hands-on method in which he reared his spiritual children like a nursing mother or an admonishing father would (1 Thess 2:7, 11–12). Even when he was unable to be with them in person—or as he puts it, when he was “torn away” and could “bear it no longer” (1 Thess 2:17; 3:1)—he was still “with them in heart” (1 Thess 2:17; compare 1 Cor 5:3; Phil 1:27; Col 2:5). Whether present or absent, Paul was always expecting (and praying) that each brother and sister would be sanctified, that is, conformed to the image of the Son of God—copies of copies, never flawless, but nevertheless true and faithful reproductions of the perfect original, Jesus Christ.
Biblical references are from the English Standard Version (ESV).