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What is a spiritual father?

The Bible doesn't use the phrase "spiritual father." There are parts of the Bible that do suggest a spiritual fatherhood between people and between churches. Peter said, "My son is Mark" (1 Peter 5:13). Paul calls Timothy "my true son in the faith," which shows how close he was to Timothy (1 Timothy 1:2). Paul calls Onesimus his son in other letters, showing that he was a spiritual father to the former slave (Philemon 1:10).

The apostles also give the impression that they are "spiritual fathers" to different churches. The church members that the apostle John was in charge of were called his children (1 John 2:1, 12–13). Paul's relationship with the church in Corinth is like a father's relationship with his children (2 Corinthians 12:14–15). Paul writes elsewhere, "I'm not telling you this to shame you, but to warn you as my dear children. Even if you had 10,000 guardians in Christ, you wouldn't have that many fathers, because I became your father through Christ Jesus and the gospel (1 Corinthians 4:14–15). In each case, it's possible that these apostles led their "spiritual children" to faith in Christ. But even if they didn't, the apostles loved, protected, and led those in their spiritual care like a father would his own children. We notice that even though Paul calls Timothy his "son in the faith," other Christians never call any of the apostles "father."

Catholics call priests and the Pope, whose name means "father," "Father" (abbreviated as "Fr."). Just as a father works to raise his children to adulthood, Catholic priests say that their job as spiritual fathers is to raise their congregations to spiritual adulthood. They say that their job as spiritual fathers is like that of a physical father because they wash the babies at birth with infant baptism, feed them with the Eucharist, and guide them by figuring out what the Bible means. Roman Catholics use 1 Corinthians 4:14–15 and 2 Corinthians 12:14–15 to explain why their priests are called "fathers," but overseers and pastors are never called spiritual fathers in the Bible. They are called shepherds instead (John 21:15–17; 1 Peter 5:1–3). Just as Jesus is called "the Good Shepherd" in John 10:11, pastors are to be "shepherds" of the group of Christians that Christ gives them (1 Peter 5:2).

People often use the term "spiritual father" to refer to any Christian man who trains or guides a younger Christian in the faith. Jesus told His followers to "make disciples," which means to build spiritual relationships that are similar to father-son and mother-daughter relationships in some ways (Matthew 28:19). Paul talks about how older Christian women should teach younger Christian women about the faith in his letter to Titus (Titus 2:4).

As Timothy's spiritual father, Paul took him on mission trips to teach him the Bible and show him how to live as a Christian (2 Timothy 1:13; Acts 16:1–3; 2 Corinthians 1:19). After a while, Timothy took on his own leadership role, and he taught other Christians in a "spiritual father"-like way (1 Thessalonians 3:2; 1 Timothy 4:11–16).

In Matthew 23, Jesus says, "Don't call anyone on earth 'father,' because you only have one Father, and he's in heaven" (verse 9). In the same situation, Jesus forbids the names rabbi (which means "teacher") and instructor (which means "master" or "leader"). John MacArthur comments: "Here Jesus condemns pride and pretence, not titles per se. . . . Christ is only telling us not to use these names as spiritual titles or in a way that gives a person too much spiritual power, as if they were the source of truth instead of God.


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