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I’m sitting, staring at a verse I’ve read dozens of times before. “For though you have countless guides in Christ, you do not have many fathers. For I became your father in Christ Jesus through the gospel,” writes Paul in 1 Corinthians 4:15.

Interesting. Paul speaks of two kinds of spiritual leaders. One is plentiful; the other is rare. Which leader, I wonder, am I?

Some Pastors Punch the Clock

The Corinthians had plenty of the first kind: guides. The word guides refers to someone — usually a slave — who’s appointed to watch over a young child, keeping them safe in public, perhaps even tutoring them. A guide is someone who supervises a child when the parent is absent. When Paul wrote the letter, guides were sometimes caricatured as stern, harsh, and even stupid.

We need to be careful here. It’s easy to slam guides as unimportant. Not so. Every parent is grateful for those who come alongside and assist them in the exhausting task of raising children. Fathers and mothers can’t be everywhere at once. I don’t know how we would have survived our early years with children without the help of others.

Parents need help from guardians, babysitters, and teachers, but these helpers are very different from the parents. They fulfill a role, but they go home at night and forget the children when the job is done. They aren’t invested in the children in the same way as a parent.

According to Paul, the Corinthians have ten thousand guides, a term meaning that their number is countless. Guides are good, but nobody needs too many.

Who were these guides in the Corinthian church? I agree with David Garland: “They are unlikely to be other apostles or Apollos, since that would introduce an element of competitiveness that Paul has just renounced … Instead, they are likely to be the local leaders of the competitive factions.”

One way of leading within the church is to provide care for the church like a daycare worker looks after a child: professional, diligent, and even loving, but on the clock, with some professional distance. In the end, it’s a job.

Some Pastors are Parents

Parenting is more than a job. Parenting involves an emotional investment that never punches the clock. Babysitters, daycare workers, teachers, and guardians come and go. Parents stay for the long haul, even when it costs.

That’s the kind of Christian leader Paul claims to be. He admonishes them as his “beloved children” and claims to be their father in Christ Jesus through the gospel (1 Corinthians 4:14-15). To another church, he said in 1 Thessalonians 2:7-8, “But we were gentle among you, like a nursing mother taking care of her own children. So, being affectionately desirous of you, we were ready to share with you not only the gospel of God but also our own selves, because you had become very dear to us.”

Paul uses this image for himself in every one of his epistles except for one to the church in Rome, a church he’d never visited in person. Paul was part of how they got started, and he loved them with a sacrificial love that wouldn’t let go. When he admonished them, he admonished them with the love of a parent.

A pastor is not a CEO. A pastor is not somebody who looks after God’s people on the clock. That kind of ministry is necessary sometimes — a guest speaker or interim pastor, for instance — but it’s not the norm. The norm is parenthood. “The whole creation does not afford a sublimer image than this,” observed Charles Simeon, “yet this fitly represents the conduct of St. Paul towards the Church of Christ, and consequently, the conduct of every faithful minister, in proportion as he resembles St. Paul.” It’s what every pastor is called to be.

Sounds great, but it’s not always easy, as Paul himself experienced with the Corinthian church. Sometimes churches prefer the hired hand. This kind of ministry comes at a cost.

Pastors: ask God to help you love your church like this. Expect that it will give you as much joy and pain as a parent experiences. Don’t punch the clock. Parent the church with love.