Where are the Fathers?
As recipients of the grace of God, our greatest pleasure lies in being a child of God. This is both an issue of identity and relationship. Our identity is anchored in the Father-heart of God and all essence flows from the relationship we have with Him as a functional father in our lives.
As a child of God, our supreme privilege then is to reveal our Father’s heart. This brings up both the matter of ministry and leadership. As Paul explained, without the Father’s love as our motivation and reference point, all ministry is just a lot of noise (1 Corinthians 13:1-3). And without the context of the Father’s heart, leadership inevitably becomes inverted; that is, we end up boss-ing others as directors instead of serving others as spiritual fathers or mothers.
Continue reading as we explore what spiritual fathering is and offer some practical suggestions to serve others as a spiritual parent.
So, where are the fathers?
This article follows on from the blog-article, What is an Elder?1 in which I suggested that the crying need of our day—mirroring the crying need of Jesus’ day—is shepherd-leaders or spiritual fathers2; men and women who, through their mature and robust relationship with Father God, know how to parent others in His ways3.
Biblically then, leadership is spiritual parenthood; mature believers who first and foremost reveal the Father-heart of God. This is not so much a special calling or spiritual gift; rather it is the privilege and responsibility of every believer, irrespective of their calling or gifts. For example, one of Jesus’ two-fold aims was to demonstrate the Father-heart of God4. Paul, an apostle, served the churches using the metaphor of a spiritual parent as his prime backdrop (1 Corinthians 4:15; Galatians 4:19; 1 Thessalonians 2:7, 11). He then went on to teach that all leaders ought to serve as spiritual parents (1 Timothy 3:1-7, 15; 2 Timothy 2:2; Titus 1:5-9; Acts 20:28)5.
Regardless of what our gift-mix is, our objective is to impart God’s Fatherhood6. Without this tempering, people are used in my attempt to get my gifts activated or my ministry established. Nothing could be further from the heart of God than this flagrant pursuit of self-advancement.
Thus, the challenge in the title of this article: “Where are the fathers?”7
If every believer would lay aside their ministry or leadership aspirations and give themselves to the noble task of being a spiritual parent, embracing the vigorous process of character growth involved, I am fully convinced that two things would happen. On the one hand, they would actually tap into life-giving, fruitful ministry and leadership to a degree otherwise not possible; and, on the other hand, we would unleash an unprecedented advance of the Kingdom of God on this earth8. This is how important this issue is.
So what does being a spiritual parent involve?
First, spiritual fathering involves inspiring others to be like Christ, not turning them into clones.
The task of a spiritual parent is to model Christ to others. Forgive me for sounding like a stuck record, but a spiritual parent’s brief is to help others to grasp the great pleasure of being a child of God, secure in their identity and relationship with God as a functional father. True spiritual fathers do not draw people to themselves9; they direct people to God’s Fatherhood.
Paul wrote, “Imitate me, just as I also imitate Christ” (1 Corinthians 11:1). The word “imitate” literally means to “mimic, or “act like”. As a spiritual father to the believers in Corinth, Paul was urging them to follow the example, or pattern, of his life as he had followed Christ. Obviously, the point is to follow Christ not man. And the role of a spiritual parent is to simply yet powerfully live in such a manner that directs or points others to Christ.
A spiritual father is a mature servant who provides experiential encouragement that God’s grace is sufficient; that spiritual growth and victory are possible in His all-sufficiency which he, the spiritual parent, has tasted first-hand. Without Biblical parenting, people get stuck at various steps in their journey of faith. With spiritual fathering people are encouraged to continue to pursue Christ by those who have overcome (more than likely with the support of spiritual fathers) the obstacles that are in their way.
The third chapter of Paul’s second epistle to Timothy is mind-boggling. First, Paul stresses the challenging days ahead of his young protégé, predicting a tsunami of opposition (vv. 1-9), but then he expresses his confidence in Timothy’s ability to weather the storm. What did Timothy have in his favour?
“But you have carefully followed my doctrine, manner of life, purpose, faith, longsuffering, love, perseverance, persecutions, afflictions …” (2 Timothy 3:10)
Anchored in the Word of God (vv. 16, 17), Paul attributed Timothy’s storm-proof life to the investment Timothy had made in imitating him as a spiritual father.
Secondly, spiritual fathering involves an inclusive, supportive relationship – not an exclusive, controlling one.
Some of the abuses around spiritual sonship stem from insecure leaders who tag people with a patronising “you are my disciple” label. We are, of course, only called to be one Man’s disciple, and that is, lest we forget, Jesus Christ!
While there is much value in seeking the perspective of a broad range of people in various arenas of life: from career to family to even hobby advice – and thus, live in the power and safety of a “multitude of counsellors” (Proverbs 11:14) – when it comes to our faith walk, having a few close spiritual parents is more effective than trying to develop (and maintain) several. Having said this, the relationship(s) ought to be inclusive; that is, inclusive of the counsel of others. Even when Paul was reminding the Corinthian church of his spiritual fatherhood to them, he did not coerce them into an exclusive relationship.
He reminded them that, although they had many “instructors” to benefit from, they did not have “many fathers” (1 Corinthians 4:15). Although Paul himself had literally brought them into their faith—“I have begotten you through the gospel” (v. 15)—he still suggested an inclusive relationship; he used the word “fathers” (plural) not “father” (singular). Yes, while he appealed to them: “Therefore … imitate me” (v. 16); he made his counsel, and thus his relationship to them, subject to other “fathers” in the faith.
For clarity sake then: spiritual parenting is not an exclusive, controlling relationship. Although fathering is most effective with a few spiritual parents, these relationships are inclusive and accountable to others.
Along this line, it should be obvious that being a spiritual father is a functional, mutually enriching relationship not a hierarchical position or title. Jesus confronted the religious system of His day, rebuking them for corrupting this precious relationship by turning it into a title or office (Matthew 23:8-10).
The insidious problem with turning the word “father”—or “apostle”, “pastor” and “elder” for that matter—into a position and title is that it transfers authority from the character of a person to the title or office a person is deemed to hold. Rather than a true respect for spiritual authority, borne in a sense of God’s grace, and carried through righteous character; people have to relate to a hierarchical office or title that is empty of both grace and character.
Permit me to make some suggestions if the holy desire to parent others is awakened (or refreshed) in you.
First, invite spiritual fathers into your own life.
This should be immediately obvious. Even the Gentile centurion understood that to have a place of influence in another’s life, we have to give another a place of influence in our life (Matthew 8:5-13).
Notice the centurion said, “I also am a man under authority, having soldiers under me. And I say this one, ‘Go,’ and he goes…” (Matthew 8:9). He did not say, “I also am a man of authority”; he said “I also am a man under authority”. He had authority because he submitted to authority. Jesus “marvelled” at this man’s understanding and faith (v. 10).
We cannot, with integrity, expect someone to be transparent and teachable with us, if we have not first understood what this requires in doing so with another. Otherwise, we play the hypocrite! (Certainly not the way to empower the next generation!)
Nurture the godly desire to parent others.
There are many ungodly reasons why one may desire to father or lead others. We see these ungodly motives in our world just about every day. Some, to fill the deep hole in their own heart, need to be needed. This is a sad state of affairs: to use others to fill the void in one’s own heart in the name of serving them. It is a sure recipe for disaster, and only an unhealthy, co-dependent (and terribly controlling) relationship can result.
Still others desire to lead people to advance their own cause. Again this is as selfish as it is common. While this is often the unapologetic goal in business and industry, it ought not to be so among God’s people. We, according to the Master, are to live by a different ethos; one where we prioritise people, and who they are, over what they can do for us. Jesus made it clear that the world would always confuse this Kingdom priority, but was emphatic: “Yet it shall not be so among you” (Matthew 20:26).
We must honestly evaluate our motives and nurture the godly desire to parent others; to, in the pure joy of bringing the Father pleasure, reveal Christ. There is no greater privilege than the honour of revealing the One we so passionately follow. Our reward is in giving freely what we have freely received.
Paul’s words capture so well the joy of fathering: “For what is our hope, or joy, or crown of rejoicing? Is it not even you in the presence of our Lord Jesus Christ at His coming? For you are our glory and joy” (1 Thessalonians 2:19, 20).
This issue of our heart-motives is even more important than we first imagine. Not only must we yank the ungodly motives from our heart for our own sake (and sanity), but we must do so for the sake of those who entrust themselves (and their sanity) into our hands.
The age in which we live is filled with hurt, burnt and wounded people. If we encourage someone to take the risk of dismantling their self-imprisoned protective walls, and then abuse it, we will ensure that they never trust again! If we help someone to remove the masks they wear, and then deface them, we make sure that those masks will again be bolted down … this time, forever.
Understand the heart dynamics of spiritual parenting.
As we seek to nurture the good desire to parent others, I have found the following four keys helpful in grasping the dynamics of parenting.
As parents delight in their children, so the Father delights in us, His children. Nothing captures the heart of parenting more than the word “delight”. This word expresses the willingness of one to unconditionally support another and the pure pleasure that they gain in this sacrificial giving of themselves.
This word captures where the focus is directed in the relationship. It is the person being fathered who is the subject of attention; the parent is curious to explore his world and most importantly, to encourage him in the adventure of discovering himself in the light of God’s truth and in making the appropriate responses to His revealed leading.
Nothing communicates value to another better than listening to them. If we truly listen to others, we communicate—in ways that words cannot express—that what they have to say, and thus who they are, is important to us. In fact, it is through the art of genuine listening to another that people actually walk into truth for themselves. What a joy it is, when a spiritual father can honestly say, “Do you realise that you just came to that conclusion through your own prayer, your own honesty, and your quest for truth?”
The task of a parent, though, is not to merely listen to those they father, but to likewise tune into the most reliable Voice present in any relationship, the Spirit of God’s gentle whisper. The gifts of the Spirit are not just reserved for the celebration-worship meeting but are available, in a pure and powerful way, when even just “two or three are gathered together in [His] name” – for He is in our midst by His Spirit (Matthew 18:20).
Just as nothing communicates value to another better than listening to them, nothing is more destructive than, after listening to them, we do not follow through on the verbal and non-verbal cues provided. If the person we are parenting shares an intimate struggle or need and we forget, or do not do what we can – what may be realistically expected – we are failing them in our role as a spiritual father.
Yes, of course we cannot do that which is unrealistic, and while we “bear [their] burden” we should not “bear [their] load” (Galatians 6:2, 5); we ought to help them stand on their own feet more assured, not become reliant on us as a crutch. But fathering is not just about passive listening; it is about helping people become more Christlike, and this requires that we be true and faithful with what is shared in our confidence10.
While the importance of the “son” pursuing the “father” is outlined in the article Where are the sons?11, a spiritual parent ought to also give due attention to those they parent. In fact, since fathering is more than just a friendship that can meander and take a course of its own, we must be intentional in thinking through a strategy to aid this relationship. If a person has asked you to father them, and you’ve agreed, then there is inbuilt in their request, a purpose or goal they are seeking to attain by interacting with you. Clarity of intent must be discerned, expectations elucidated and commitments such as frequency and setting of meeting together agreed upon.
A word of caution is worth making at this point.
I believe there should also be times when the relationship is evaluated with the option to redefine the relationship if necessary. While some father-son relationships may last a life time, many may last for a season of time. Ensuring that people do not feel trapped in a relationship is important to everyone’s health and sanity.
Paul taught, “owe no man anything except to love them” (Romans 13:8). While the context is money, the principle is valid in a whole host of settings. First, the exception is monumental: “except to love them” refers to a covenant, sacrificial commitment on our part to others. Yet the advice is ingenious. In giving myself to others, it is easy to develop a sense of entitlement or give into a spirit of obligation. In giving myself sacrificially, I may feel I’m owed something in return; or the recipient may feel indebted to me. But the counsel here empowers us to avoid either of these ditches without short-changing others.
As a spiritual father, I do not own those I parent nor am I owned by them. I’m not obliged by them nor am I entitled to something from them. In giving myself freely to another, they are at liberty to respond as the Spirit prompts them—and I also remain free. Should we sense that the relationship requires redefinition, even if we discern that the father-son relationship has come to an end, then we are both free to walk into the future grateful for the blessings derived out of the season we spent together.
Use life as the “course material”.
While a spiritual father may suggest articles and books to read, Biblical passages to study, and even courses to do, these ought to supplement the journey the person is on. This is critically important. The goal of parenting is to participate with what path God is leading the person down, not in trying to create alternate paths. If you end up creating alternate paths—you will have plenty of work on your plate, trying to play “god”!
Using life—their life, not yours—as the primary backdrop for fathering involves cooperating with the activity of the Holy Spirit as He shapes and moulds them into the image of Christ. True joy and fruitfulness lies in highlighting what God is doing, partnering with His perfecting work in another, suggesting appropriate responses to His gentle yet firm Fatherhood.
Where are the fathers?
My prayer is that reading this article may kindle the desire in you to parent-lead others. Come on … join the revolution.
If you’re already blazing a trail, more power to you!
Let’s see an uprising of selfless spiritual fathers who lift people onto their shoulders rather than keep people in their shadows; who remove the curse from this planet as we, whose hearts are turned towards the children, turn the hearts of the children back to their Father in heaven.
Let’s turn the curse into God’s intended blessing.
2 Referring to spiritual fatherhood and sonship are, of course, gender neutral phrases. I have both men and women in mind when I use these phrases. Ladies, if I can be the bride of Christ I trust you can be a spiritual son or father?
3 In a related article—Hebrew Thinking Vs. Greek Thinking—we discovered that Biblically “church” is essentially “spiritual family” (not an organisation) and “leadership” is essentially “spiritual parenthood” (not directorship).
4 Jesus’ second aim was to reveal the Kingdom of God. I make this statement—that Jesus’ primary aim was to reveal God’s Fatherhood and Kingdom—by virtue of the frequency of these concepts in His teachings. Jesus consistently revealed God as Father, more than any other name or picture of the nature of God, and used the word “Kingdom” more than any other word or phrase. Few would argue that these two juggernaut truths represent His central message. And few statements from Jesus capture it better than this: “Do not fear, little flock, for it is your Father’s good pleasure to give you the Kingdom” (Luke 12:32).
5 When Paul outlines the characteristics required for leadership, he stresses the importance of mature and proven character; in fact, there is not a single mention of the necessity of any spiritual gift or special call. Even the phrase “able to teach” (1 Timothy 3:2) does not refer to the spiritual gift of teaching but the ability to counsel others as a father would his son; the maturity required to disciple/parent others in God’s truth.
While being an “elder”—the subject of Paul’s attention in these referenced passages—refers to the God-appointed spiritual parents of a church, the foundational principle of maturity is the basis of all spiritual parenting. In the rest of this article, I refer to spiritual fathering in general; in the article, What is an Elder? we look specifically at eldership.
6 I’m persuaded that if we make our primary brief revealing God’s Father-heart, He will nurture and deploy our spiritual gifts. An over-focus on “discovering one’s gifts” often, in my opinion, makes it all about “me” and blurs my privilege and responsibility to reveal His nature.
7 This is not a negative sentiment as if I’m saying there is a dearth of spiritual fathers. On the contrary there are many, many spiritual fathers in the Body of Christ and many, many more being shaped by the Father to become mature spiritual parents. I am continually amazed at how God is putting His finger on men and women of all ages, bringing them to a greater understanding of the privilege and responsibility of spiritual parenthood. This article, and its provocative title, aims then to rouse greater purity in pursuing this noble desire; a holy aspiration that all are invited to embrace (1 Timothy 3:1).
Actually, Where are the sons? is probably the greater question and the one I address in the article referenced by this question.
8 This world has lived under the curse declared in Malachi 4:6 for too long. It is time we live in the blessing of restored fatherhood, where “the hearts of the fathers [are turned] to the children, and the hearts of the children to their fathers”. Could this be the hour in which leaders lay aside their ministry trivial-pursuits and empire-building initiatives, unwrapping the holy privilege and delightful responsibility of being a spiritual parent, thus releasing God’s blessing on the earth?
9 It is interesting, if not frightening, that in warning the Ephesian elders against “wolves” who would “savage” the flock, the only distinguishing wolfish-trait Paul cautions against, is that they “draw away the disciples after themselves” (Acts 20:30). This is profound. He is not warning us against a new age guru or some seedy televangelist who promises 100-fold blessings if we buy his anointed socks but against the temptation to use our leadership influence for self-promotion and self-advancement. He explained to these leaders, people he loved and cherished (vv. 36, 37), that the wolves would “come in among you” (v. 29); that is, from amongst them. While, I doubt he intended to spark some witch-hunting introspection, Paul surely intended the fear of the Lord to grab their hearts and slay any ego-driven tendencies within them. It ought to do the same to us today.
10 One word on confidentiality. It is my opinion that one should not promise absolute confidentiality in any discipleship or counsel-giving situation. We obviously must keep in confidence what is shared, but must always reserve the right to seek further counsel should we need, or have, to. Some may contend that if absolute confidentiality is not guaranteed, then people will not be honest. This is not true. People will be honest if they trust you to be wise with what they share with you, and know that you too are accountable to others for counsel when you need it. People who are hesitant to be honest unless absolute confidence is assured can be encouraged, through your faithfulness, to trust your discretion in the matter … or else they may indeed be carrying a dark secret that will only trap you in guilt or worse, should you be bound by absolute confidentiality.