7. Fathers and children (4:14–21)
In verse 14 Paul seems to recognize that he has been verging on sarcasm in the previous paragraph, and he pulls himself up by assuring the Corinthians that he is not trying to make you ashamed, not in any wrong way. He is not averse to arousing in them a proper sense of shame,21 but here he emphasizes that he is speaking as a father to his beloved children (14).
Before we trace the way in which Paul sees himself as a father to the Christians at Corinth, it is necessary to stress that he does not see it as an authority-position, let alone as one invested with status. He would have known the words of Jesus himself: ‘Call no man your father on earth, for you have one Father, who is in heaven … He who is greatest among you shall be your servant.’22 The way the title ‘Father’ is given to, and accepted by, the ordained ministers of certain denominations flies in the face of this teaching. Indeed, many other sections of the church often manifest a paternalistic, over-dominant style of leadership, even if they do not use the title ‘Father’. The folk-religion which lies behind this is not nearly so serious as the unbiblical theology which gave rise to and still endorses such an understanding of status and authority in the church. This false teaching is arguably the strongest barrier to the growth and health of the church in our day. It affects church unity, evangelism, worship, lay ministry, the ministry of women, theological training. Indeed, virtually every aspect of the mission of God’s church is hampered, so long as this anti-Christian view of leadership in the church is perpetuated.
Positively, Paul sees himself as father to the Christians at Corinth (and particularly to Timothy, my beloved and faithful child in the Lord, verse 17) in the sense that he proclaimed the gospel to them and was, therefore, responsible on a human level for their faith in Christ. Like any father, and because children always copy their father, he has striven to set them an example in daily life of the behaviour expected of Christians; I urge you, then, be imitators of me (16). Timothy’s task was to remind them of Paul’s ways in Christ (17). This consistent example was number one priority for Paul wherever he went (as I teach them everywhere in every church, 17). It underlines the vital importance of exemplary behaviour in the daily lives of all called to leadership in the church. The Corinthians had not seen Jesus in the flesh: they had no Bible; but they had seen Paul (cf. 11:1). Many others had pointed the way to Christ,23 but he was the first to come all the way to them with the gospel: I became your father in Christ Jesus through the gospel (15).
It is, then, as their father that Paul now promises to come to them. When the father has been absent from his family for some time, he wants to come home with love in a spirit of gentleness (21), not with a rod. Many of those in Corinth whom he had brought to faith in Christ were now behaving in an arrogant and boastful way, writing off him and his ministry and causing great trouble and division in the church. Paul’s fatherly heart was deeply hurt by this behaviour and something of that pain can be gauged by his comments elsewhere: ‘My little children, with whom I am again in travail until Christ be formed in you!’24
Children often make loud claims in a boastful way: it is a reflection of their immaturity. There is a lot of talk, and not very much power to put the big words into action. So Paul ends these two chapters in the same mood as he began—with a strong (and strongly-felt) plea to the Corinthians to stop boasting and to grow up: the kingdom of God does not consist in talk but in power (20). He does not often use this phrase the kingdom of God, so common in the Synoptic Gospels; but, when he does, it always refers to fundamentals. He does not ever explain its meaning; he accepted it as the heart of the gospel—and proclaimed it day by day.25
David Prior, The Message of 1 Corinthians, The Bible Speaks Today; ed. John R. W. Stott; Accordance electronic ed. (Downers Grove.: InterVarsity Press, 1985), 67-69.