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Cultural Engagement and Critical Thinking

June 27, 2022 • Life for Leaders

Scripture – 1 Thessalonians 2:7 (NRSV)

. . . though we might have made demands as apostles of Christ. But we were gentle among you, like a nurse tenderly caring for her own children.

Focus

When describing their leadership among the Christians in Thessalonica, Paul and his colleagues used imagery common to their secular philosophical counterparts. But they didn’t borrow this imagery uncritically. They didn’t simply mimic secular conversations. Rather, they set themselves apart in their distinctiveness. They described themselves in a way no popular philosopher in their day would have done. So, as we engage with popular writings about life and leadership, we too should learn to think critically and thoughtfully, making sure that our perspectives are consistent with the gospel.

Today’s devotion is part of the series Encouragement from 1 Thessalonians.

Devotion

In yesterday’s Life for Leaders devotion, we began to examine the surprising way in which Paul and his colleagues describe their relationship with the Thessalonian Christians. They talk about themselves as being “gentle among you, like a nurse tenderly caring for her own children” (2:7). It is striking that Paul, Silvanus, and Timothy would describe themselves with such a tender and intimate image, not to mention an image of a woman, a mother nursing her baby. We wonder what inspired the letter writers to speak in this way.

It turns out that popular philosophers in first-century Hellenistic culture did sometimes use the imagery of wet nursing as they discussed their philosophical efforts. There was a time, some philosophers said, when it was appropriate for a teacher to show concern for their students in the mode of a nurse. Paul and his colleagues seemed to be well aware of and to interact with this philosophical conversation.

But they didn’t do it uncritically. They didn’t simply mimic what they heard from their secular peers. Years ago, when I was doing research for my doctoral dissertation, I read all the original passages I could find in which a first-century philosopher used the imagery of a nurse (hat tip to Prof. Abraham Malherbe). I found quite a few instances of this usage. But I noticed that the popular philosophers always qualified their application of the nurse image. Yes, they believed, sometimes a teacher should be like a nurse, but that teacher should also be harsh and demanding at other times. The philosophers criticized students for wanting teachers to be too much like their nurses. Never did a secular philosopher in the first-century Greco-Roman world say about himself, “In my philosophical work, I am gentle like a nursing mother.” If anything, such gentleness was thought to be contrary to the best interests of the student.

So, Paul and his colleagues were aware of and conversant with contemporary cultural conversations about how to be a philosopher/teacher/leader. They used language common to those conversations. But, and this is crucial, they borrowed from them critically, intentionally choosing to present themselves both as consistent with and in contrast to their secular counterparts.

The example of Paul and Co. encourages us to be similarly thoughtful when we draw from the ideas of others. As we think about our leadership, for example, whether in business, education, church, family, or you name it, we will also interact with current conversations. We’ll likely buy a book (or two or ten) on leadership. New ones are coming out every week, it seems. We will surely listen to the way successful leaders describe themselves and their work. It’s likely that we will borrow some of their ideas and images.

I know Christians who are negative about such borrowing. But I don’t believe it is necessarily wrong. Surely we can learn something from the common good. But the example of Paul and his colleagues encourages us to think critically about the way others talk about leadership. It would not be wise simply to borrow uncritically what we hear from people like Bill Gates, Colin Powell, Sheryl Sandberg, Brené Brown, Sun Tzu, Simon Sinek, or Jim Collins, to name a few well-known commentators on leadership. I need to think critically even about what my colleagues and friends, folks like Scott Cormode or Tod Bolsinger, say about leadership. You may not be surprised to learn that my understanding of leadership has been shaped significantly by Max De Pree, after whom the center where I work is named. His classic book on leadership, Leadership is an Art, was one of the first leadership books I ever read. It had a profound influence on my life and work. But, even given my respect and affection for Max, I should read his work with a critical eye, and so should you.

From what perspective, you might wonder, should we be thinking critically about leadership? That question can be answered in many, many ways of course. But let me offer a concise answer here. As Christians, we need to weigh everything in light of Scripture. We need, in particular, to think about all of life in terms of what God has done in Jesus Christ. The gospel isn’t a way for individuals to go to heaven. It is also a window into a new panorama by which we see all of life in a new light. When it comes to thinking critically about anything, it’s never wrong to start with this question: What light does the gospel shed upon this issue?

In future devotions, I’ll consider how the gospel informed the leadership of Paul and his colleagues. For now, however, I’d invite you to reflect upon the following questions.

Reflect

Who are people (writers, bloggers, TED-talkers, mentors, heroes, etc.) who have had the most influence on the way you think about and act as a leader? In what ways have they influenced you?

What helps you to think critically about new ideas? (Note: Thinking critically does not mean criticizing, necessarily. Rather, it’s thinking carefully about something, being willing to ask hard questions, identifying places of disagreement in addition to agreement, developing reasons for what you think, and so on.)

How would you complete this statement: “I want to be a leader like __________ because __________.” (It’s fine to start with God or Jesus, but go ahead and name at least one other leader.)

Act

Take some time to think about your leadership in light of the gospel. You may want to talk about this with a wise friend or your small group.

Pray

Gracious God, thank you for the thoughtfulness of Paul and his colleagues. Thank you for their awareness of their cultural setting and for their ability to engage critically with the ideas that were common in their culture.

Help me, Lord, to be like this. As I am exposed to so many ideas about so many things – including leadership – teach me to think carefully about what I see and hear. Help me to weigh all things in the scales of your truth. May I see clearly how the gospel affects whatever it is I’m thinking about. Amen.

Find all Life for Leaders devotions here. Explore what the Bible has to say about work at the unique website of our partners, the High Calling archive, hosted by the Theology of Work Project. Audio on today’s Life for Leaders theme can be found here: Integrity


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