If my father is dead, or if he was absent and cold, or if he was a tyrant, or if he abused me, or if he was wonderful but is not there for me now, then who is my father now? Where do I get those feelings of protection, authority, confidence, know-how, and wisdom that I need in order to live my life?

Thomas Moore

It is said that when both your parents pass on you find yourself at a different chapter in your life journey. Dad has gone for some time now and mum passed away recently, and the word that seems to be coming to mind is “spiritual father”. The Lord may be telling me that it is time that I embrace the role of spiritual father more seriously. This sentiment seems to be reinforced by the growing number of younger leaders, especially those in their 40s, who are asking for time to process some aspect of their lives and ministry. I have been practising and teaching on spiritual mentoring for many years now, but spiritual parenting seems to hint at something with more authority.

There is a lot of material on spiritual parenting out there. I reflect on Paul’s thinking on spiritual parenting in 1 Corinthians 4:14–21:

I am writing this not to shame you but to warn you as my dear children. Even if you had ten thousand guardians in Christ, you do not have many fathers, for in Christ Jesus I became your father through the gospel. Therefore I urge you to imitate me. For this reason I have sent to you Timothy, my son whom I love, who is faithful in the Lord. He will remind you of my way of life in Christ Jesus, which agrees with what I teach everywhere in every church.

Some of you have become arrogant, as if I were not coming to you. But I will come to you very soon, if the Lord is willing, and then I will find out not only how these arrogant people are talking, but what power they have. For the kingdom of God is not a matter of talk but of power. What do you prefer? Shall I come to you with a rod of discipline, or shall I come in love and with a gentle spirit?

There are two things that Paul does as a spiritual father in this passage.

1.   Modelling

Paul asks his spiritual children to imitate him. We shouldn’t be surprised here. The first thing a spiritual father must do is to show what it means to reflect the character of the heavenly Father. Hence Paul would point out to his spiritual son Timothy, his teachings and his way of life (2 Timothy 3:10a). To be a spiritual father then is to have a life worth emulating. To be a spiritual father is not just about telling people what to do. It is showing them by your own life. Therefore, I am long overdue to grow up and get my act together as a disciple of Jesus.

2.   Admonishing

The second thing Paul talks about doing is to admonish the Corinthian Christians for arrogantly living lives that are not according to God’s teaching. Here Paul is probably addressing the ring leaders of a group that rejects his apostolic authority and theology, but it is also for the church as a whole since they seem to have taken the side of the rebels. Part of a spiritual parent’s duty is to discipline when needed. I have never found this easy; wanting very much to be an encourager but needing to come to terms with the fact that there may be times when admonishment is called for.

What is clear is that a spiritual father is, first and foremost, called to love his children in the faith. This is modelled in Paul’s relationship with his spiritual child, Timothy. He loves him. It seems then being a good spiritual father is not first and foremost a mastery of new techniques. It is a commitment to grow in Christ-likeness and to grow in love for people.

I wasn’t that hot as a father. I am still working on that. Now I also need to work at becoming a better spiritual father. I guess it’s about time.