Journal of Theology for Southern Africa 92 (September 1995) 46-55


"Like A Father Treats His Own Children"
Paul and the Conversion of the Thessalonians

Charles Wanamaker



Within the field of the sociology of religion over the last twenty-five to thirty years the phenomenon of conversion has proven to be one of the most important subjects for scholarly research. Undoubtedly the rise of the numerous new religious movements, particularly in the United States, during the sixties and the seventies played a crucial role in generating interest in this field. In the early 1980s, Lofland and Skonovd (1981:383-84) maintained that "the topic of religious conversion is among the most active, challenging, and exciting in social science at the present time" Judging from the amount of material written on this theme over the last decade it remains a central concern.

Given the tremendous interest in religious conversion among social scientists, it is perhaps surprising that scholars studying early Christianity by applying social science methods and models have not shown greater interest in contemporary conversion studies as an important resource in extending our knowledge and more especially our understanding of the beginnings of Christianity.[1] This is particularly the case since recruitment and conversion are fundamental to the spread of any new religious movement, and Christianity may be conceived as such a movement in the context of the first century C.E.

Several factors may have led to the relative lack of interest in the phenomenon of conversion in early Christianity among New Testament scholars asking sociological questions and employing social science methods. In the first place the basic understanding of conversion itself has discouraged much attention. The Apostle Paul's Damascus experience as portrayed in Acts of the Apostles 9.1 -19 (cf. 22.6-16; 26.12-18) has long been treated as normative or prototypical of conversion experience.[2] Its sudden, irrational nature, as well as its character as a once and for all experience have discouraged investigation with the possible exception of psychologizing approaches that seek some explanation within Paul's personal life.[3] Other conversion experiences recorded in Acts have led to the impression that in the New Testament "conversion is generally described as a response to preaching, sudden, and possibly emotional and dramatic" (Malherbe 1987:28). Richardson (1985:164-165) terms this conception of conversion as "the old conversion paradigm" in which the "experience is psychological, deterministic, and assumes a passive subject. "With this as the dominant understanding of conversion there seems little need for further investigation because conversion is reduced to a psychological response to the external stimulus of preaching.

A second reason for the lack of interest in conversion even among those scholars like Gager (1975), Meeks (1983), and Jewett (1986) who are interested in sociologically oriented approaches to the phenomenon of early Christianity is their view that Christianity in its earliest stages was a millenarian movement. Most studies of millenarian movements focus on push or propulsion theories of conversion. People convert to religious sects because of social tension or anomie, relative deprivation, or a deep sense of cultural rootlessness and meaninglessness (Aberle 1962; Burridge 1969; Sharot 1982; Talmon 1966; Meeks 1983; Jewett 1986). By doing so they deflect attention away from the phenomenon of conversion itself to its etiologies and assume the relative passivity of converts in the conversion process.

Recent sociological literature devoted specifically to the phenomenon of conversion has begun shifting away from the causes of conversion and the stages of the conversion process which have occupied most researchers' attention (Lofland and Stark 1965; Snow and Philipps 1980; Stark and Bainbridge 1980) to the nature of conversion itself as a personal and interactive social experience (Heirich 1977; Lofland and Skonovd 1981; Snow and Machalek 1983, 1984; Richardson 1985). The problem has been to define precisely what constitutes conversion.

Snow and Machalek (1983:264-65; 1984:169-70) have noted that although almost everyone involved in research on conversion accepts that it entails "a radical change;' considerable imprecision exists conceptually about the degree and kind of change required before we can speak of someone having undergone conversion.[4] It certainly is the case that the beliefs, values, and even behaviour of individuals change when they are converted to a new religion, but such changes are part of a wider phenomenon which Wilson (1982:119) and others (Berger & Luckmann 1967) call resocialization. In the process of resocialization according to Wilson, "the convert learns a language and a life-style which become a part of himself as he takes on a new definition of his own individuality and personality and of the social collectives in which he participates."

In this paper I will first attempt to clarify what is meant by conversion as a resocialization process and then suggest some of the characteristic features which evince successful resocialization. I will then turn to a specific case study from the New Testament to demonstrate the appropriateness of the resocialization model of conversion as a tool for furthering our understanding of what constituted genuine conversion to early Christianity.

Conversion as Resocialization

The socialization thesis, as is well-known, goes back to the work of the social-psychologist G.H. Mead (1962) and is now widely accepted with a large body of research literature associated with it. Essentially socialization refers to the social process whereby every individual is inducted into the society of which he or she is a part or into some specific section of it in more complex societies (Berger & Luckmann 1967:130).

The socialization process may be divided into primary and secondary stages. Primary socialization begins at birth and continues until an individual has taken over and understands as his or her own, the world of those to whom he or she relates most intimately. This process is often referred to as internalization. Significant others, in the first instance parents, mediate the objective social world to the child. They give the child his or her universe of discourse, that is, the "system of common or social meanings" to use the terminology of Mead (1962:89-90), which both establishes and constitutes the social world in which the individual participates. The "system of common meanings" which is mediated to the child includes socially established cognitive knowledge, roles, values, and attitudes that taken together give the individual his or her sense of identity as a member and participant in the society of which he or she is a part. Primary socialization may be thought of as complete when a person achieves what Mead (1962:152-64) designates as the "concept of the generalized other. "This refers to the stage when an individual understands both his or her own position and role in society as well as that of the other members of the society and acts upon this as a matter of course. Secondary socialization, which always presupposes primary socialization, transmits "role-specific knowledge" rooted particularly in the division of labour within a society (Berger & Luckmann 1967:138-47).

In sociological literature the term "resocialization" has been used for the most part to describe the process by which social deviants are inducted or re-inducted into the society of which they are a part or must become a part. In other words it is associated with the correction of maladjusted or socially pathological individuals such as criminals or psychopaths, though it might equally well refer to such people as immigrants who must change from one social world to another. Berger and Luckmann (1967:156-63) were, to my knowledge, the first to observe that in genuine conversion experiences such as the conversion to a new religion individuals undergo resocialization because a radical transformation of their subjectively apprehended social reality occurs. The process by which a person is resocialized into a different social world than the one in which he or she was born resembles that of primary socialization except that it is considerably more complex and difficult since the original social world of which the individual was a part must be cognitivitively displaced and destroyed in order to give the person a new social identity. Berger and Luckmann (1967:158) maintain that the "historical prototype" of this type of change, which they call alternation, is religious conversion.

In a religious conversion experience a person becomes engaged with a new set of significant others who possess an alternative understanding of life and participate in an alternative social world with its own distinctive knowledge, roles, values, and attitudes. If conversion is to occur the individual who is an outsider must be inducted into the new social reality through a resocialization process in which his or her old social world is replaced and a new identity emerges for him or her based in the alternative social world. Contemporary research on conversion has made considerable progress in showing how this resocialization process occurs through its examination of the active role of the convert (Richardson 1985), the role of social networks in conversion (Lofland & Stark 1965; Heirich 1977; Bainbridge & Stark 1980; Snow & Phillips 1980), and the significance of intensive interaction between the prospective convert and members of the social movement to which conversion is taking place (Snow & Phillips 1980).

In two very important studies Snow and Machalek (1983; 1984) have proposed that conversion consists in "the displacement of one universe of discourse by another or the ascendance of a formerly peripheral universe of discourse to the status of primary authority" (1984:170). Following Mead (1962:88-90), to whom I have previously referred, they maintain that a universe of discourse "provides a broad interpretive framework in terms of which people live and organize experience" (1983:265). While they do not describe the process by which a person's universe of discourse changes, their appropriation of Mead at this point suggests that they presuppose that conversion constitutes a resocialization process. This conclusion is borne out by their discussion of the properties of conversion (1983:26678) since the four characteristics which they enumerate, when taken together, indicate the adoption of a new identity and social existence based on the displacement of an old understanding of reality by a new one. The four characteristic features of conversion which they discuss are 1) biographical reconstruction in which the past is reinterpreted in light of one's present understanding and state; 2) adoption of a master attribution scheme which is used to explain all causality both internal and external to the individual in terms of one scheme; 3) suspension of analogical reasoning in order to affirm the uniqueness of the group and its world view; and 4) the free embracement of a master role by which the convert represents the movement to outsiders and identify themselves as such in every situation. Because these are clearly identifiable products of a resocialization experience I will employ them in the following section to help demonstrate that the Thessalonian Christians' conversion to the type of Christianity inculcated by Paul constituted at its most basic level a resocialization process.

The Conversion/Resocialization of the Thessalonians

Paul's letters to the Thessalonians were essentially tools for maintaining his readers' new identity as Christians and for ensuring their proper beliefs and behaviour in their new identity (cf. Holmberg 1980:80-81). Put somewhat differently 1 and 2 Thessalonians served to confirm and maintain the Thessalonians' conversion to Christianity. Because of this the letters contain a considerable amount of information relevant to an understanding of the conversion experience of Paul's original readers. In the paragraphs which follow I will try to exploit this information in order to explicate the process and nature of the Thessalon ians' conversion experience in terms of a resocialization model.

When Paul and his colleagues Silvanus and Timothy arrived in Thessalonica sometime around 50 CE they began the process of making converts to the particular type of Christianity which they espoused.[5] Acts 17.1-3 portrays them as making their initial appeal at the Jewish synagogue. This may have been part of Paul's normal missionary strategy. If it was, it would mean that he was able to begin his work by drawing on a pre-existing social network, namely the local Jewish community, which had strong cognitive affinities with the Christianity he proclaimed. Nevertheless, the primary thrust of Paul's activity was towards non-Jews as I Thessalonians 1.9 (not to mention Gal. 2.7-8) indicates. The synagogue provided a stepping stone to this audience through the network of Gentiles who associated with it, the so-called God-fearers.

In contradistinction to the picture which Acts presents of Paul's missionary activity taking place in individual locations often over a very short period of time with an emphasis on public proclamation, 1 Thess. 2.9 suggests a very different approach: "You remember, brethren, our toil and labour. Working at night and during the day in order not to burden any of you we preached to you the Gospel of God Hock (1980) has convincingly argued that the workshop, which Paul alludes to in 1 Thess. 2.9, was one of the primary loci of his proselytizing activity. Stower (1984) has shown that private homes were another because they afforded a venue in which a person like Paul, as an outsider to the community with low social status, could obtain an audience to preach and teach. This method of strategy, whether intentional or necessitated by circumstances, was amenable to the development of social connections with local people which enabled Paul to disseminate his message to significant numbers in a relatively short period of time.

More importantly, however, Paul and his missionary colleagues' work situation and use of private homes for missionary activity provided the context in which to create affective interpersonal bonds with their prospective converts. This in turn enabled them to engage in the intensive interaction with the Thessalonians which Snow and Phillips (1980:442) maintain is essential if conversion is to take place. 1 Thessalonians 2 is rich in evidence that this happened, and in fact it is perhaps our best source in the Pauline corpus for the nature of Paul's interpersonal connection with his converts during his missionary stay.

Although Malherbe (1970) has shown that the language of 1 Thess. 2.1-12 has remarkable similarities to things said by the Cynic philosopher cum-preacher Dio Chrysostom, we may still assume that Paul's missionary approach conformed to the self -description of this text. If it had not, Paul could hardly have hoped to dupe the Thessalonians in the matter since they knew full well what their relation to Paul and his associates had been. What is striking about 1 Thess. 22-12 is the warmth and intimacy of the bond between Paul and the Thessalonians as well as the intensity of their implied interaction. Paul begins by contrasting the authority he and his colleagues might have wielded as apostles of Christ with their gentle motherly concern for the Thessalonians (2.7). The imagery of the trophos or nurse, in this case the nursing mother who cherishes her own children, functions as a description of the missionaries' relationship to their converts. It implies both intimate interaction between them, and a role differentiation between the mother as an agent of primary socialization and the objects of her socializing activity, namely, her children. The socialization role differentiation between Paul and his converts becomes even more explicit in 2.11-12 as we shall see.

The imagery of the nursing mother in vs. 7b leads Paul to a further point. The missionaries' strong emotional ties with the Thessalonians caused them to share not only the Gospel of God with them, but also their own lives, because the Thessalonians had become beloved to them. In the context the phrase "tas heauton psuchas" means more than the "time, energy, and health" suggested by Schweizer (1974:648); it probably includes their inner emotional life as the strongly affectional language which follows implies. Thus Paul indicates that an affective bond, or a strong emotional tie, developed between himself as the agent of conversion and his prospective converts among the Thessalonians, and this undoubtedly gave rise to the intensive interaction necessary to convert them. In the words of Berger and Luckman (1967) Paul and his colleagues became "significant others" and this gave them the opportunity to draw their prospective converts into a Christian world of experience with its own knowledge, roles values, attitudes and social meaning. 1 Thess. 2:11-12 has fundamental importance in this regard.

In these verses Paul reminds his readers how he and his associates treated them "like a father treats his own children" (cf. Gal. 4:19-20; 1 Cor. 4.14-21; 2 Cor. 6:11-13). The father in the ancient world took responsibility for the moral instruction and behaviour of his offspring (cf. 1 Cor. 4:14) and in theory at least, assumed the leading role in socializing his children into the socio-economic and cultural way of life to which they were born. Paul claims here to have played just such a role towards the Thessalonians with regard to the new beliefs, the new way of life, and the new social world of Christian existence. Verse 12 states that the readers had been called by God into his kingdom, into the social world where God's will and rule operate. By implication they had been called out of their previous social world where God's authority was not accepted. The three participles parakalountes, paramuthoumenoi, and marturomenoi which Paul uses in vs. 11 to describe his fatherly activity refer respectively to his exhorting them to adopt the Christian way of life in which he had instructed them and which he had exhibited to them, to his comforting them in their tribulation by explaining its significance and purpose within the framework of the Christian world view, and to his insisting that they think and act like Christians at all times. By doing these things as a father would for his own children Paul and his fellow missionaries socialized, or rather resocialized the pagan Thessalonians into the Christian understanding and world of experience.

If Paul and his colleagues self-consciously functioned as agents of resocialization, what evidence can be adduced for the nature of the resocialization which the Thessalonians underwent? As I suggested above, the four characteristics of conversion which Snow and Machalek (1983) discuss provide a framework with which to assess whether resocialization had taken place and what its nature was.

In the first place Snow and Machalek (1983:266-69) argue that conversion involves "biographical reconstruction." The phenomenon of biographical re-interpretation has long been associated with conversion and explains why converts' accounts of their conversion are of dubious value for explaining the reasons for their conversion. The change, however, from one world of social meanings and experience to another inevitably necessitates biographical reinterpretation in order to explain what was wrong with the social world which was abandoned and why a new one was adopted. But equally important it is part of the process whereby an individual assumes a new identity in the new social world which he or she is coming to inhabit. We do not have access to direct information about the Thessalonians biographical reconstruction, but we may infer the nature of their biographical revision from what Paul writes to them.

The clearest evidence is found 1 Thess. 1.9-10 where Paul describes the induction of his readers to the new religion for which he proselytized: "You turned to God from idols to serve the living and true God and to await his son from heaven, whom he raised from the dead, Jesus who saves us from the coming wrath . " Although many scholars have claimed that this passage constitutes a traditional formulation which summarized the missionary preaching to gentiles, (e.g. Best 1977:85-87; Wengst 1972:30) the manner in which Paul addresses it to his readers indicates that both they and he understood it to be an accurate representation of their past. From the perspective of their new faith, the Thessalonians, under the guidance of Paul, interpreted their past as existence under the sway of dead and false idols which would have led to their being subjected to divine wrath if they had not changed. At the same time they were taught to conceive of their new life as a turn ing from their past to now serve the living and true God. The end of this transformation would be their deliverance from judgment and destruction.

Another text which alludes to the general theme of 1 Thess. 1.9-10 is 1 Thess. 5.1-11. Without explicitly stating that a biographical transformation had taken place, the passage clearly implies it. The apocalyptic imagery of the sons of day who behave accordingly with soberness, faith, love, and hope, and who expect to obtain salvation through their Lord Jesus Christ refers to the Thessalonians' present existence as the people of God. This contrasts with their former existence when they too were people of darkness whom God had destined to wrath. The Thessalonian Christians undoubtedly only came to understand their past in terms of the darkness and destruction to which Paul refers as a result of their conversion to Christianity.

While we might wish for more evidence in 1 and 2 Thessalonians concerning the nature of the biographical reconstruction which was necessary to become a Christian, the other letters of Paul leave no question about the fact that it happened and fill out our knowledge of the nature of this reconstruction (cf. Rom. 5.8-11; 6.1 ff; 7.13; 8.1 Gal. 2.19-20; 4.1-9; Col. 1.21; 2 Cor. 5.17). Among other things the reconstruction was connected with the new identity which converts assumed as the people and family of God who became brothers and sisters of one another, a metaphor which Paul employs often in 1 and 2 Thessalonians. Their new identity as the people of God led to the ethical demand found in 1 Thessalonians 4-5 and 2 Thessalonians 3 that they behave according to their new self-understanding (cf. 1 Thess. 4.1-11).

A second mark of the resocialization process or conversion which the Thessalonian Christians had undergone was the adoption of the Christian master attribution scheme. According to Snow and Machalek (1983:269), "Attribution refers to the cognitive process by which people form causal interpretations of the behaviour of self and others and the events in the world around them " Conversion necessitates the transition from one scheme of attribution to another since one of the key differences between one world of meaning and another is the way in which individual and corporate behaviour and events within the world are explained. As Beker (1980) and others have shown, Paul operated with an apocalyptic outlook which recognized God to be in control of history and all human destiny. From this perspective Paul explained everything. Part of his Christianizing of his converts was to inculcate the apocalyptic attribution scheme. I and 2 Thessalonians do not tell us as much as some of Paul's other letters about this subject, but there can be little doubt that the Thessalonians had adopted Paul's basic apocalyptic attribution system in which they recognized that God was sovereign over each individual and over the course of history (1 Thess. 4.13-18; 5.1 ff). A good example of the master attribution scheme is the way in which Paul had taught the Thessalonians to expect affliction as a result of becoming Christians. It was, as Paul himself said, the Christian's lot to suffer affliction for the Gospel of Christ, a point which Paul insists the Thessalonians knew (1 Thess. 33-4). By means of the apocalyptic master attribution scheme adversity was turned into a confirmation of the Christian world view and of the faith itself. Another example of this same phenomenon can be found in 2 Thess. 1.5-12 which interprets the present affliction of the Thessalonians in terms of God's plan to make them worthy of his Kingdom. At the same time the seeming impunity of their oppressors is also explained as part of the divine plan which will lead to their suffering eternal destruction.

A third aspect of conversion which results from resocialization is the suspension of analogical reasoning in which the foundational beliefs and conceptions of the new movement are related to other systems of meaning which are potential rivals. The uniqueness of the new religion to which the individual is converting precludes the possibility of explaining or interpreting it in terms of already existing categories and systems of meaning. As Snow and Machalek (1983:275) observe:

  • By removing other belief systems from the status of eligible competition, a virtually impermeable boundary is established around the convert's world-view. The convert's sacred commodity is thereby exempted from the pressures of the free market. Thus the convert is protected from the profaning effects of analogical comparison.
  • This is what Berger and Luckmann (1967) refer to as the nihilation of the old system of meanings and of potential new rivals. At no point in 1 and 2 Thessalonians does Paul give any indication that he or the Thessalonians used analogical reasoning or metaphors based on competing systems to understand the Christian world. Instead we find analogies drawn from the Christian world itself. Thus the Thessalonians experience of suffering is described as analogous to Paul's (1 Thess. 1.6) or of the Christian community in Judea (1 Thess. 2.14. Gal. 1.6-1A 0). Perhaps the clearest expression of this phenomenon is found in 1 Thess. 2.13. Paul reminds the Thessalonians that when they received the system of meanings which he designates as the word of God, they accepted it "not as a human word but as what it really is, the word of God, which is at work in you believers." A definite qualitative distinction existed for the Thessalonians between their Christian world of meaning and all others which were mere human constructions and would lead to destruction. This is what lies behind the imagery of the sons of light and the people of darkness in 1 Thess. 5.1 -11. By understanding the Christian faith as divine in origin and unique, the Thessalonians rendered all of its competitors as meaningless human productions.

    The fourth and final characteristic of conversion which Snow and Machalek (1983: 275-78) have isolated is the "embracement of a master role" by which they mean that an individual conceives of him or herself as acting in the role of the convert at all times. Converts perceive that they represent the movement to others at all times and therefore they must identify themselves as converts in every situation. The need to do this is necessitated by the fact that converts almost inevitably remain in contact with the world of meanings which they have rejected and abandoned. For this reason, they must act to assert their new identity in order to preserve it against the claims of the world which they have rejected. In addition they inevitably feel compelled to further the aims of the new movement of which they have become a part to legitimate it in their own eyes and the eyes of others. In a very real sense the adoption of the all determining conversion role, both in terms of rhetoric and behaviour, is the final evidence that resocialization has occurred because the convert role is the product of the resocialization process. That the Thessalonians had done so is clear from the fact that Paul comments positively about their 'Work of faith,"labour of love," and "steadfastness of hope in the Lord Jesus Christ" (1 Thess. 1.3). They had assumed the role of Christians in a difficult situation, which is why Paul can say that they had become "an example to all the believers in Macedonian and Achaia" (1 Thess. 1.7-8). So deep was their commitment to maintaining their new Christian identity that they endured considerable opposition and affliction from their fellow countrymen in order to persevere in it (1 Thess. 2:14). In light of this fact, it is clear that they had embraced the master role of Christian converts and had demonstrated their commitment to it, to their non-Christian neighbours.


    In this paper I have attempted to demonstrate the appropriateness of a resocialization model for understanding Christian conversion. In doing so I have drawn on the recent trends and findings in conversion studies within the sociology of religion. My own view is that the resocialization model which is implied in this paper offers the best explanation for the nature of the conversion process as well as for explaining the subjective products of the conversion experience in the life of the individual. What is needed from the sociology of religion is the explication of a fullyfledged working model of conversion as a resocialization process which can then be applied to early Christianity to help clarify the way in which individuals and households were inducted into Christianity or Christianized and to help us understand the way in which Christianity spread so dynamically and rapidly in the ancient world.


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    [1] Somewhat symptomatic of this lack of interest is the study of Gaventa (1986). She offers a brief discussing of conversion from the perspective of the social sciences in her study of conversing in the New Testament (1986:4-8), and then proceeds to ignore the subject in the remainder of her work. Since this paper was completed the important work by Segal (1990) has come to my attention. He looks at conversion in Paul's world with the use of the social sciences and then applies his findings to understanding Paul and his mission.

    [2] Not only has this been true of the Western Christian tradition, but Richardson (1985:165) suggests that certain Eastern oriented religious cults like Hare Krishna hold a view of conversion which is "similar in important ways to the Pauline experience."

    [3] For a recent example of this type of approach see Gundry (1980). A notable exception to this tendency is the study of Gager (1981) who uses recent studies into the process of conversion to examine the structure of Paul's conversion and its after-effects from a social science perspective.

    [4] This tendency has its parallel in Biblical studies to the extent that scholars debate whether Paul actually underwent a conversion experience or simply was called to his apostolic mission which was essentially in continuity with his Jewish identity. See Stendahl (1976).

    [5] Brown and Meier 1983:1 -9) have argued that in its earliest phases there were at least four types of Jewish Christianity. They differed in terms of their understanding of the validity and role of the Jewish law for converts to Christianity. While not all of their four types are equally cogent, the basic point which they ar ernking is correct: those who claimed to be followers of Jesus after his death held a variety of beliefs and maintained distinct practices. Pauline Christianity simply represented one of the major alternatives within the wider context of early Christianity.

    Charles A Wanamaker ( is Associate Professor of New Testament Studies in the Department of Religious Studies in the University of Cape Town.