Posted by: Gregory Linton | 08/18/2009

Professors as Spiritual Parents

NOTE TO READER: This post is a devotion that I presented to the faculty of Johnson Bible College on August 18, 2009.

One aspect of higher education that I have always appreciated as both a student and professor is the way that the academic calendar provides the opportunity for two fresh starts each year. Starting a semester provides the opportunity to put the past behind us and look ahead with anticipation to the new experiences and new relationships that await us. The start of the academic year is an especially opportune time to reflect on the big picture of what we are doing and why we are doing it before we get caught up in the daily and weekly grind of preparing lessons, taking attendance, grading assignments, scolding students for texting during class, and reviewing absence appeals.

Reminding ourselves of why we do what we do will help ward off a condition that has been identified by David Machell as “professorial melancholia” (Machell, 1988). The primary characteristic of professorial melancholia is resentment of students. In its advanced stages, it can result in verbal and grade abuse of students, viewing students as enemies, burnout, and dropping out of the profession. To sustain ourselves through the drudgery and the long hours and the competing demands on our time and attention that can result in professorial melancholia, we need to remind ourselves during August–while we are still somewhat energetic and optimistic–why we are engaged in this profession of teaching rather than selling insurance or real estate.

So let’s step back and ask the most general or basic question we can ask: What is the essence or core of educational practice? I agree with Robert Leamnson (1999) that the core is the personal interaction of the teacher and student. People can learn on their own. Anything you want to know about anything in the universe is available on Wikipedia. A person can sit all day, reading Wikipedia and gaining new knowledge, but that is not education. It can be called “learning” but not “education.” Education is based on the dynamic of the teacher-student relationship. If that relationship lies at the core of education, then we need to reflect on how we interact with students and build relationships with them.

Educational theorists have proposed various images to describe the role of the teacher in this teacher-student dynamic (Weimer, 2002). The traditional view has been that of the “sage on the stage,” the knowledgeable and theatrical performer who eloquently dispenses the riches of human wisdom to the empty and receptive minds of eager students. Others have preferred the image of the “gardener” who prepares the ground but leaves it to the plants to grow. Another image is that of the “midwife” who pushes and pulls but expects the students to perform and produce. Some have preferred the image of the “guide on the side” who points students in the direction of knowledge and then gets out of the way. Others view the professor as a “coach” who designs the game plan but expects the students to carry it out on the field of learning. Those with a more artistic bent may prefer the image of “maestro” who draws together students of varying abilities and experience so that they form a harmonious whole.

Each of these images provides interesting and valid insights into the teacher-student dynamic, but as a Christian educator I prefer to focus on an image that is drawn from the Bible. When I think about examples of the teacher-student relationship in the Bible, I am immediately drawn to the experience of the Apostle Paul. Paul was an educator, and his teaching is recorded for us in his thirteen letters that are contained in the New Testament. As a teacher, Paul was continually imparting new knowledge to his readers, reiterating and reinforcing prior teaching, clearing up confusion, correcting misunderstandings, and refuting criticisms and challenges to his teaching. So I would ask us to consider, What image did Paul use to describe his own relationship with his readers? And can this image inform our own identity and practice as Christian educators?

When we examine Paul’s letters for a useful image, we are surprised to find that Paul never described his relationship with his readers as that of teacher and disciples. Paul never used the term “disciple” to describe how his readers should relate to him. Paul, in contrast to Jesus, never had disciples. Why does Paul avoid this term? Especially in light of the fact that he clearly adopted the role of a teacher in his letters, why did he avoid describing his readers and associates as his “disciples”? Most likely, he wanted to avoid the kind of relationship that existed between teachers and their disciples in the philosophical schools of the day.

The relationship between teacher and student in Paul’s day was authoritarian and hierarchical, at times even abusive. Paul did not view his relationship with his readers in that way. As he emphasized three times in 2 Corinthians, the authority that he received from God was for building up, not for tearing down (10:8; 12:19; 13:10). Paul did not relate to his readers by imposing his views on them or commanding and coercing them to adopt his ways. Paul explicitly rejected that style of relationship in 2 Corinthians 1:24 when he said: “I do not mean to imply that we lord it over your faith.” Instead, he sought to appeal to them, persuade them, encourage them, and motivate them. He also wanted to direct the attention of his readers to Christ, unlike the teachers of his day who drew attention to their own deeds and words.

If the imagery of teacher-disciple will not work, then perhaps we might expect that the imagery of shepherd or pastor and sheep would describe Paul’s relationship with his readers. But Paul never used the term “pastor” to refer to himself. He used it only once, in Ephesians 4:11, to describe others in the church. Once again this image may imply more authoritarianism on his part and more passivity on the part of his readers than Paul wanted to convey.

Then what image did Paul draw upon to describe how he interacted with his readers? His favorite image was that of parent and child (Beasley-Murray, 1993). Again and again, Paul applied parental imagery to his relationship with his readers. In 1 Corinthians 4:15, Paul reminded his rebellious children: “For though you might have ten thousand guardians in Christ, you do not have many fathers. Indeed, in Christ Jesus I became your father through the gospel.” First of all, this imagery emphasizes responsibility for birth. Paul was responsible for the founding of the church in Corinth, and he was responsible for giving spiritual birth to certain individuals. That is why he could say that he was a “father” to Onesimus (Phlm 10), and he often referred to Timothy as his “son” (1 Cor 4:17; Phil 2:22; 1 Tim 1:2, 18; 2 Tim 1:2; 2:1). He also described Titus as his “loyal child” (Titus 1:4).

The parental imagery also emphasizes Paul’s role of nurturing. To describe this role, Paul even drew on the metaphor of “mother.” In 1 Corinthians 3:1-2, Paul described himself as breast-feeding his readers, who were infants in Christ, stunted in their growth, and therefore not ready for solid food. In Galatians 4:19, Paul says that he experienced the pain of childbirth until Christ was formed in his converts. In 1 Thessalonians 2:7, Paul asserted that he did not make demands on his converts in his role as apostle but instead was gentle among them, “like a nurse tenderly caring for her own children.”

This parental imagery lies behind Paul’s descriptions of his attitude toward his readers. It explains why he experienced the daily pressure of anxiety for all the churches and why he burned with indignation when someone else caused his children to stumble (2 Cor 11:28, 29). It explains why he was able to work among his children with patience (2 Cor 12:12). It explains why his heart was open wide toward them and why there was not restriction in his affection for them. And it explains why he wanted his readers to reciprocate by opening wide their heart to him (2 Cor 6:11-13). It explains why he expected his readers to imitate him (1 Cor 4:14-16) and to boast about him so that he would not have to boast about himself (2 Cor 5:11-12). It explains why he longed so much to be with his readers when he was apart from them (1 Thess 2:17; Phil 4:1). It explains why he so frequently refers to his readers as “beloved (1 Cor 4:14; 15:58; Phil 2:12; Phlm 16; 2 Tim 1:2) and why he devoted himself to praying for his readers (1 Thess 3:10; Phil 1:4). And it explains why, when Paul was pushed to the limits of his patience, he admonished his readers (1 Cor 4:14) and threatened to administer discipline to his wayward children (1 Cor 4:21; 2 Cor 13:10).

So then, can we apply this parental imagery to our own relationship with our students? In one sense, the parallel does not fit exactly, for we are not the ones who gave spiritual birth to our students. In that sense, the spiritual father or mother might be the student’s youth minister or preacher or a parent or friend. However, there is a sense in which we have become the substitute spiritual parent of the student. By encouraging the student to attend this college, the spiritual parent of that student has entrusted his or her nurture and care to us.

Before the 1960s, the term in loco parentis was used to describe how faculty and staff took on the responsibilities of the parent when a student went to college. In the 1960s, the fact that 18-year-olds were going to Vietnam and dying for their country caused college students to argue that they should be treated as adults. Consequently, the concept fell out of favor since it was viewed as denying students their freedom and independence. But in a Christian setting, perhaps the phrase in loco parentis spiritūs (“in place of the spiritual parent”) may be appropriate. Those who have guided the spiritual development of their child in Christ hand off that responsibility to us when the spiritual child enters our community.

Even secular writers on teaching recognize the parental role of the professor. In his classic work on Mastering the Techniques of Teaching, Joseph Lowman (1995) says: “Primarily because they are human, but secondarily because they are late adolescents, college students need affection and approval from others, especially authority figures…. Foremost among these affectional needs is the desire for a personal relationship with a college teacher…. In addition to a personal relationship, students desire to have their instructor think well of them. Students need affection from college teachers, not as parents or lovers, but as adults who approve of them as learners and persons. Students find learning much more satisfying when they believe that their instructor likes and trusts them” (pp. 53-54). In line with the current mood of higher education, Lowman wants to avoid explicit language about professors acting as parents, but his language implies a parent-child relationship with the student, a relationship initiated by affection and care on the part of the professor.

I would propose then that we think about how the imagery of parent can shape our interactions with students. What will be our demeanor toward them in the classroom? How will we treat their immature and incomplete attempts at mastering and expressing the core concepts of our discipline? How will we respond to their sometimes inappropriate responses and actions? How will we communicate approval and praise to them when they perform well and meet or exceed our expectations? How will we let them know that we care for them, that we love them, that we desire to lead them into maturity in Christ? How can we get involved in their lives in ways that will open their hearts toward us so that we can have greater influence over them?

I would suggest that, throughout the academic year, we keep always before us the description of Paul’s relationship with his readers that he expressed in 1 Thessalonians 2:3-12:

“For our appeal does not spring from deceit or impure motives or trickery, but just as we have been approved by God to be entrusted with the message of the gospel, even so we speak, not to please mortals, but to please God who tests our hearts. As you know and as God is our witness, we never came with words of flattery or with a pretext for greed; nor did we seek praise from mortals, whether from you or from others, though we might have made demands as apostles of Christ [or as professors]. But we were gentle among you, like a nurse tenderly caring for her own children. So deeply do we care for you that we are determined to share with you not only the gospel of God but also our own selves, because you have become very dear to us. You remember our labor and toil, brothers and sisters; we worked night and day, so that we might not burden any of you while we proclaimed to you the gospel of God. You are witnesses, and God also, how pure, upright, and blameless our conduct was toward you believers. As you know, we dealt with each one of you like a father with his children, urging and encouraging you and pleading that you lead a life worthy of God, who calls you into his own kingdom and glory.”


Beasley-Murray, P. (1993). Pastor, Paul as. In Dictionary of Paul and His Letters (pp. 654-658). Downers Grove, IL: InterVarsity Press.

Leamnson, R. (1999). Thinking about teaching and learning: Developing habits of learning with first year college and university students. Sterling, VA: Stylus.

Lowman, J. (1995). Mastering the techniques of teaching (2nd ed.) San Francisco: Jossey-Bass.

Machell, D. F. (1988). A discourse on professorial melancholia. (ERIC Document Reproduction Service No. ED304063).

Weimer, M. (2002). Learner-centered teaching: Five key changes to practice. San Francisco: Jossey-Bass.

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