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.
— 1 Corinthians 4:15
As I get older, I think more and more about this claim from Paul — and the concept of “spiritual fatherhood” generally — and it seems a pressing issue to me, not just “culturally,” but personally. I won’t say I’ve done a great job of being a spiritual father, but by God’s grace, I want to be. And I’ve certainly benefited from spiritual fatherhood. These are some thoughts on what this practice looks like that I’ve been kicking around for some time and thought might be worth sharing.
1. Spiritual fatherhood is fatherhood, not guru-dom.
In other words, it does not consist in handing down spiritual proverbs from on high like some kind of authoritative oracle, but rather leads from alongside, encourages through relationship, coaches as one invested. By “guides,” I take Paul to mean theological and moral influences — both good and bad, perhaps — and these kinds of voices are of course many, especially in our day of talking head religious media and Internet know-it-alls. There is of course wisdom and positive influence to be found in these arenas. But nothing beats the wisdom of one who knows you and speaks into your growth and can even tailor and customize guidance according to one’s personality, giftedness, experience, and calling. Just as a father may speak to his own children in different ways according to their capacities, a spiritual father, unlike so many of our self-appointed gurus, knows how to relate to different believers in different ways. And while a guru only knows how to dispense all the right information, the spiritual father is honest about his own sin and struggles, transparent about his own mistakes and misunderstandings, and doesn’t claim to have all the answers. He just keeps pointing you to the One who does.
2. Spiritual fatherhood is spiritual, not fleshly.
I’m thinking of spiritual guidance of young men here especially, though this is an equally important point for those discipling young women as well. So much of the guidance Christian young men receive, even from Christian guides, is bound up in baptizing their baser instincts. They are led by many talking heads to equate belligerence with boldness and quarrelsomeness with courage. Their unchecked aggression is celebrated and their unkindness treated as a virtue. This is all packaged as some kind of un-squishining of the male wiring, when what it really is an affront to the fruit of the Spirit. Of course, spiritual maturity must be worked out practically — enfleshed, if you will — and for men in particular we want to home in on what male headship in the home and church looks like. But this work is so much more than simply “manning up;” it is growing up into Christlikeness. And this work inevitably orients around self-control, gentleness, patience, etc.
3. Spiritual fatherhood is about a legacy of faithfulness, not a record of successes.
I know some folks will say it’s wrong to think about one’s legacy, but I think it depends more on how one thinks about it. If a man getting older is focusing primarily on making his own name great, making sure everybody remembers him, and how he might connect himself to greater visibility via books, speaking engagements, market share, building placards, etc., then, yes, this is a prideful exaltation. However, it’s not wrong to want to leave behind something that lasts. And this is why spiritual fatherhood is more invested in leaving behind practices, commitments, and habits that will continue in the exaltation of Christ. Whether they remember our names is not the point; remembering what we are “passing down” is. Spiritual fathers begin passing the baton to the next generation, giving them the stewardship not of their own name but of fidelity to God’s word, commitment to the local church, and so on.
4. Spiritual fatherhood is local, not distant.
Similar to my thoughts from point 1, I just want to make the case that real spiritual growth — of all kinds — comes from the Holy Spirit normatively through the discipleship of the local church. Undoubtedly the people we read, go to hear at conferences, follow online, etc. can edify us and positively shape and influence us. But there’s no substitute for a dad. I think about this in terms of my own father quite a bit these days. I’ve had numerous Christian men speak into my life, including one or two who I would say have fathered me spiritually, and I’ve benefited from countless theologians and other ministry leaders, but the single greatest impact on my commitment to Christ’s church, I’m convinced, was having a dad and mom who were undeterred churchfolk. My dad was not a pastor. He did not come from a family of pastors. He was a school teacher, then worked retail most of his life until retirement. But no matter where we lived, no matter the stage of life or the state of the family finances or the work schedule or their marriage, we went to church. Up close faithfulness over a long period of time will have much more of an impact than an endless number of fire tweets.
Spiritual fathers speaking into the lives of young men realize that accountability comes with access, that authority comes with availability, that ambition must come with authenticity — and that lasting, formative influence comes from closeness. You cannot be a spiritual father simply by monitoring someone’s intellectual progress. You have to get up in someone’s business. Spiritual fatherhood is local.