Paul’s familial language as the guiding principle of ministry

“A reading from the letter of St. Paul the Apostle, to the Romans. Brethren…”

How many times have we heard these words in a Byzantine Catholic parish? In a way, this may be the Rosetta Stone undergirding St. Paul the Apostle’s basic approach to ministry, as I will try to argue here. While there have been many discussions on what it means to serve the Church in terms of whether one should be mostly loving, mostly firm, or something else, in reading St. Paul I have come to believe that the most important lens through which one can understand ministry as Paul sees it is to think of family. By investigating the ways in which familial language predominates the writings of St. Paul, I believe that the rest of one’s perspective on Paul and ministry in general can be guided to strike a balance between seeing Paul as harsh or seeing Paul as inconsistent, and it will guide one’s view of ministry. When the perspective that we are a family in Christ is the core relation, we will not only understand Paul but ministry in general.

As stated above, the traditional way that one begins a reading of an Apostolic writing in the Byzantine Catholic tradition is to let one know what is being read, and then a salutation is given. With letters of St. Paul it would be normally “Brethren/Brothers and Sisters” or if a letter to Timothy, Titus or Philemon it would be “‘Name’, my Son.” This is not a superfluous addition that has been placed to introduce readings, in my opinion. A simple look at the language of Paul’s writings through a website such as shows that the word ‘brethren’ occurs 96 times in the Pauline letters, in the RSV translation. This terminology of calling one another brothers and sisters could be said to just be a rhetorical device. However, it is clear that Paul’s use of calling his fellow Christians brothers and sisters runs deeper than mere rhetoric.

Paul writes with tenderness and love throughout much of his writing, closing letters very often with an admonition to greet one another with a holy kiss, as one example. As another example of familial connection, he often writes to churches and individuals to let them know that he is in another sense a father to those individuals. Thus, as stated above when the letters to individuals like Titus are read liturgically the introduction of “Titus my son” is added. This is of course in keeping with the actual text of those letters directed to individuals. Paul’s fundamental perspective of who his fellow Christians are is familial in nature whether he calls them brothers or sons. Our Byzantine Catholic tradition only augments this reality in support of the Biblical texts. It makes me wonder if Byzantine Catholics should meditate more deeply on these salutations to grow in this understanding. Perhaps that would help us grow as a family in Christ?

After establishing the deep familial link to the words used by Paul, it is important to then reflect on passages that may seem harsh or difficult to understand. First, among his brethren who struggled with sin, it is clear that at times Paul’s fatherly position places him in a world where he said some things that may sound harsh. In the first letter to the Corinthians, St. Paul deals with a very troubled congregation. As such, if anything he uses the word brethren even more than usual. In fact, he uses this word 26 times in first Corinthians versus 13 times in his letter to the Romans which is larger than first Corinthians, or 8 times in second Corinthians which is slightly shorter than first Corinthians. He deals with a Church that is very divided over who baptized whom (chapter 3), serious sexual sin (chapter 5), and more. As he considers their divisions he also invokes the fatherly perspective. In chapter 4 this fatherly voice could be considered a threat, as he even asks in verse 21 if he should come to them with either a rod or with love? So the question is posed. Has his familial tone been lost in this section when he threatens with the rod? Or is he a tyrannical father who is abusive to his children? Perhaps, I would argue, we should look instead at his words here as being an indication of his belief in being a family. There is a sense of familiarity that speaks to the etymology of the word familiarity. If Paul is truly family with this Church in Corinth, it stands to reason that he would view them and speak to them in manners that he would not with someone not so close to him.

We can also see harshness when Paul speaks in Galatians of the Judaizers who were calling Gentile Christians to circumcision despite being in Christ, which for Paul transcends being a Jew or a Gentile (Galatians 3:28). Paul states in Galatians 5:12 that he wishes that the Judaizers should be emasculated! This is more harsh than any rod, that is clear. It should also be noted that he is not somehow speaking only of non-Christians advocating for circumcision because a) those would be less able to compel Gentile Christians and b) it is clear from just a few chapters back that Paul had this argument with Peter himself (Galatians 2:14). In addition to not being a conversation aimed at non-Christians, this other passage regarding Peter also is showing that two brothers who are apostles can stand each other to the face, as the passage states. Overall, at this point Paul has spoken of using a rod and of wishing someone would become emasculated. Has he lost his senses and forgotten the familial perspective? If we return to what it means to really believe that we are family in Christ, I would argue that that is not the case. Instead, Paul is so open with his brothers and sisters, his sons and daughters, that he is being far more open than we tend to think we can or should be among those at Church. In fact, he is likely going over from familial care to sinful anger against those who are trying to hurt his family!

It seems that so often Church is where we put on our best airs and make sure everything (physically and metaphorically) is polished in our lives. Familial perspective allows us not only to be tender to one another, but to be more open about our own weaknesses as well as those weaknesses that we may see among others. It may be harsh seeming at a time, but that expression of care and concern that parents have for children (and vice versa) can lead to very serious words being said that would not be spoken to strangers.

What speaks to me most of this familial terminology is yet another perspective beyond that of brotherly or fatherly relation. In 1 Thessalonians 2:7 Paul uses maternal and feminine imagery when he speaks of treating them as a nurse cares for his own children. That harshness that may be more stereotypical of fathers is subsumed here under care and nurturing that is more maternal as he describes it. Furthermore, in 1 Thessalonians 2:17 Paul speaks of ministry in a fourth perspective that is arguably the most important. The first part of the verse uses the phrase brothers and sisters as is done so often, but as he speaks to being separated from them he describes his separation from them as being orphaned. Like the passages above where he switches from a brotherly to a fatherly role, there is a verbal flexibility in 1 Thessalonians 2:17 where Paul has become the orphaned son of the Church to which he writes. We tend to look at our spiritual leaders as those who only give us care and guidance, but this perspective shows that the life of ministry is one where we are ourselves nurtured by being in service. Ministry is not a gift bestowed from on high down to those who are “down there” receiving it. When we see ourselves as orphaned when we are separated from those that we can serve, we are acknowledging, I would argue, the life giving and nurturing that comes to those who are living a life of service.

As such, when authors such as Reverend Richard Lischer speak of ministry as opposed to outcomes of work, as well as the joy and response to the outcomes of work in ministry, the familial framework of Paul has been a guiding principle to me as I consider the potential of ministry as a Byzantine Catholic deacon. First, if ministry is not a mere metric of outcomes of work but a familial endeavor, there will be work that is worth doing even when the outcomes are not appreciably beneficial. In fact, a strict calculus of benefit may even consider some familial activities detrimental to one’s productivity. Take, for example, babies. Does changing diapers and feeding the most recalcitrant of eaters “add up” to any benefit for us? Sure there is the long term prospect of that infant becoming a productive member of society, but there is the very real chance that that infant may not grow up and succeed. The same is true with ministry. However, if the love that comes from a familial understanding is seen in ministry, the time and words spent with our brothers, sisters, sons, daughters, fathers and mothers are not placed into a sheet in which costs and benefits are tabulated. Familial love transcends those formulas and exists instead in the ineffable. The love and care will be there very often when it is not reciprocated, and when it does not seem “worth it”.

Practically speaking, the familial perspective to ministry means that when I am offering something to my community, the lack of interest does not mean it is not worth doing. The rebuffs and missteps that I will see made towards me will not be a reason to quit or give up. The fact that someone has taken “too much” of my time becomes meaningless, in a very real sense. All of the service itself is something worth doing no matter the “success” because if we are family this is the only thing we can really do. Returning to the point of harshness, it is very likely we may both give and receive love that is extreme and may feel or actually be harsh. And considering Paul’s comparison to a nursing mother, if I am well balanced I must also be nurturing as well. This deep closeness is a special acknowledgment of how close we are. There are serious exceptions to this general rule on both an earthly and spiritual level, but to me those exceptions prove the rule and ideal of familial love. Some earthly family may be so opposed to giving or receiving love that family gatherings become strained and pained by the distances placed. So too with spiritual family, when there is no openness to giving or receiving love from the new parishioners or new ministers. The fact that this tragic situation hurts so deeply speaks to the deep importance of having that familial perspective.

Returning to Paul’s unique use of the phrase ‘orphaned’ in 1 Thessalonians, I think a very important aspect to add to ministry is that deep sense in which if I am called to ministry I must realize that my life of service is one where I am orphaned in a real sense when I cannot reach out and exercise that ministry. If I am to be ordained into a life of ministry, I am not only obliged to serve as a caring brother or a father or a mother, as a leader or even a peer of my familial community. I am also in a real sense a son, who is nurtured and cared for by those whom I serve, in the very act of service!

This speaks precisely to the words of Christ who spoke of finding one’s life by losing it, and becoming a leader by serving. Through studying Paul’s writings, this is acted out in words like those in 1 Thessalonians 2:17 in a very beautiful way. The life of giving and receiving love is what ministry is, and it is truly a family affair if we are family in Christ. Paul’s writings show us that this is the case on so many levels, and this brings not only meaning and joy, but life itself.