There is a popular practice among charismatic Christians in my country and elsewhere on the continent. It is the practice of having a spiritual father (or mother.) I came across this trend when I was in secondary school and I have directly witnessed what sort of relationship it is. Now are these the kind of relationships that Christians should form or actively pursue?
There is a wide range of criteria for assessing who a spiritual parent is. Some take it as just a label to associate themselves with a popular minister. Other take it far more seriously and put themselves permanently under the spiritual authority of a more senior minister. Whatever the spectrum of belief and practice regarding it, it is something I strongly disagree with. Now I have friends who think this type of spiritual relationship is valid, some of them even participate in it. Some of these relationships are sincere and aim for mentorship, accountability, and discipline. These are all good things which are especially important for young upcoming ministers who want to learn and grow under an experienced hand. However, I have seen the gross abuse of this type of relationship since it requires a considerable amount of trust. I know the abuse of something does not make it bad but I think there are inherent problems in having a spiritual father which can be exploited. There are bugs in the programme so to speak. I am not just talking about the pros and cons of something but rather that it has some foundational flaws.
Spiritual father/son relationships are basically an alternative form of Christian discipleship in Charismatic circles that is supported by an alternative read of the Bible. I mentioned there are those who have a healthy form of that relationship. However, a person does not need a spiritual parent to have spiritual guidance or mentorship. God has designed the Church in such a way we can have such things without exclusive treatment. Discipleship has been a part of the Church from the very beginning.
Most spiritual father/son relationships are chosen and are not natural like a biological family. Because of this when pastors or leaders in a church have these sort of exclusive relationships it is easily perceived as favouritism and breeds competition. I have seen this first hand where people are all trying to impress the leader and outdo one another all hankering to belong to the in clique. Some would say that has nothing to do with the practice but rather bad leadership or some maturing that has to still go on in the church. We must acknowledge a spiritual father is meant to be an analogue to a natural parent. A parent doting on a child is expected but in a church setting where everybody is seen as equal in Christ and you all share the same leaders, singling certain individuals out to have an exclusive relationship with the leader cannot be seen as fair. Make no mistake it is an exclusive relationship because you are either someone’s child or not. There is no middle ground. The church family is not structured to have such types of relationship since there is one God, there is also one people of God. Any type of relationship that threatens Christian unity is not something that should be pursued even if with sincere intentions.
Speaking of God’s design for the Church there is really no scriptural support for such a relationship. Perhaps one of the commonly used examples is the phrase “sons of the prophets” found in the Old Testament. The expression seems to mean young prophetically gifted people who were being trained in a prophetic guild or school as people like to call it. Such schools emerged under the leadership of Samuel as a response to a new status quo. Israel’s monarchy had just begun so there had to be at least a semiformal relationship between prophets and the crown. For it to work some order had to be brought to the practice of the prophetic which in the period of Judges before was pretty independent and could be pretty reckless. Historically we can see there were religious, social and political reasons for forming schools of prophets during the monarchy. This does not match directly to our current situation so they cannot say there are explicitly following the Bible and carrying on an ancient tradition. Anyway the phrase did not imply a literal spiritual father/son relationship. .The expression does not have the counterpart “father of the prophets” so we can safely say it was an idiom in use at that time. Beyond using “father” as an honorific among other possible meanings, which is something we even do today (sometimes indiscriminately), there were no implicit responsibilities you could compare to or construe as a father/son relationship among the prophets.
Now some point to Elisha as the spiritual son of Elijah. One piece of evidence that is offered is when Elijah was being taken up to heaven he cried, “My father, my father, the chariots of Israel and the horsemen thereof.” King Jehoash in 2 Kings 13:14 said the same thing when Elisha was on his death bed. Beyond the exclamation being addressed to mentors Jehoash did not have the same type of relationship Elisha had with Elijah. The phrase therefore did not mean a literal spiritual father. What he said was simply another figure of speech.
As I mentioned earlier the word “father” is not used univocally in the Bible neither do we have only one use of it today. Why then did the Israelites not go down the route of having spiritual fathers as we do today? Moses and Joshua enjoyed a very close long lasting relationship but Moses was never described as a “spiritual father?” One of the Ten Commandments given by Moses himself was “honour thy father and thy mother, so that you shall prosper in the land that I shall give you.” This wasn’t just a cultural expectation for children to be humble and submissive to parents. Attaching the promise of the land meant it had covenant significance. The promise of God to Abraham was to raise a family through the patriarch to rescue the human family and then put the earth to rights through a renewed humanity. The family has an important role in the cosmic plans of God and anything that usurps it is wrong in God eyes. Paul in Ephesians 6 also observes that it is the only commandment with a promise. Some think Paul’s phrase “parents in the Lord” includes “spiritual parents” but from the perspective of a Jew he would of understood it as ones “physical” family. Given the context of Ephesians 6 where from 5:21 he addresses how different levels and types of church relationships are supposed to work, he was addressing a Christian family, that is, how a believing child is meant to relate to a believing father. He also addresses how the father should also behave towards his ward. It is therefore not an excuse to disobey your parent if you think their instruction is not “in the Lord.” It also certainly means you cannot give the honour due your parents to anyone else.
Jesus battled with this issue among the Pharisees and teachers of his day. In Mark 7:9-12 he severely criticised them for offering what they should give to their parents as gifts in the temple. He said they had completely disobeyed God’s word given by Moses. In another situation he criticises the rabbis for being called father by their students again citing obedience to the Law of Moses. When he said “call no earthly man father because you have one father in heaven” he was clearly not referring to biological parents. This is something Jesus practiced. It was not peculiar for Jews to refer to God as father but scholars tells us it seems it was a peculiar practice characteristic of Jesus to regularly address God as “Abba.” Jesus did not want to sully God’s commandment and he certainly did not encourage anyone to do so. From Paul’s writings we can see the early church continued faithfully following this commandment. In the fellowship I was in, initially they taught that no one should be called father because Jesus said so. After a while things started changing and it got to a point where the leader point blank said “call me father.” Apart from changing his tune what was ironic is that children do not need to be told who their parents are unless someone has not been a good parent. (Luke Skywalker can tell you a thing or two about how good a parent someone is if they have to inform you that you you’re related.)
Jesus said we have only one heavenly father so why is that we do not call God our spiritual father? Hebrews after all describes him as the father of spirits or do there happen to be spiritual bastards in the Church? Sometimes when I hear the term being used it reminds me of the confessions of the formerly possessed who claimed to have spiritual husbands wives and other demonic family members. The way the phrase is sometimes used just sounds too ocultic for my liking.
Now in the Bible they had the vocabulary to come up with phrase “spiritual father” but they never did. The closest thing we have to that phrase in Hebrews 12:9 is a name for God. Even there it still maintains obeying your natural parents and much more God our heavenly father. There is no room for a “spiritual relationship.” The term not ever appearing in the Bible is an important indicator. Just because a word or a phrase does not appear in the Bible does not necessarily mean it is unbiblical. However, the way people use language is often a window into their culture and how they think. The fact they could but never did for the specific reasons we just mentioned tells us it is not something to be encouraged in the Church at all.
The best example you could possibly offer of a “spiritual father” in the Bible is Paul. Paul describes himself as a parent in addressing different churches. In Corinthians he describes himself as a father but in Galatians he describes as a pregnant mother (1 Corinthians 4:15; Galatians 4:19.) He is simply using parenting metaphors to describe the intimate relationship he has with them and the sense of responsibility he has towards them. There is no place where he demands parental privileges besides, that was not Paul’s style anyway. 1 John also uses the word “fathers” but not as some people are spiritual fathers to others. He was addressing different generations or age groups of Christians using it as an analogy for different stages of Christian maturity among the recipients of letter.
Now Timothy and Titus are cited as Paul’s spiritual sons but is it the same kind of spiritual father relationship we have today? We know Paul as a devout Jew and believer would have been very wary of such a title. We must take note that he did not call them spiritual children (yep, that sounds creepy) but calls them his children in the faith (1 Timothy 1:2; Titus 1:4.) Spiritual father is never used. Now when Christians described themselves as a family it was not a nuclear or an extended family picture they were going for. They thought of themselves as a new a nation. This meant in the faith they could form a new community with new relationships not determined by birth. This did not exclude the previous relationships they had, Paul for instance was a proud and faithful Jew, but it rather meant bringing these relationship under the kingship of the Lord Jesus.
When we look at Timothy for instance, Paul had a very close relationship with his family stretching all the way back to his grandmother Lois. He had probably known him since infancy and they worked closely together as partners in ministry through thick and thin. You can see the letters to Timothy were very personal. The length of time they had known each other and their level of personal and professional intimacy fostered a unique relationship. Adding the age difference, Paul was old enough to be a father to Timothy and Titus and they truly had become family to him in the Lord. This is quite different from the artificial spiritual father/son relationships we form today. It was completely organic and unforced. People can become so close that they see themselves as family and in the body of Christ and especially in Paul’s case this was completely reasonable. Paul did not only have children in the faith. He also had a mother in the faith (Romans 16:13.) In places like Romans 16 we can observe the extensive network of friends and relationships Paul had cultivated over the years through his ministry and life in the Church. Again none of these relationships were deliberately engineered.
Do not rebuke an older man but encourage him as you would a father, younger men as brothers, older women as mothers, younger women as sisters, in all purity – 1 Titus 5:1-2 ESV
Paul taught and encouraged familial relationships because the Gospel he preached was both Jews and Gentiles were one family in the Messiah. Apart from holiness, unity was the other main objective of Paul in the Church. Any sort of exclusive relationship that could threaten unity, no matter how sincerely intentioned it was, was something he would have opposed. However things that nurtured true love, honour and care among each other he was a hundred percent behind. We need to be more concerned with being a real family to one another than determining whose anointing we want. After all we are one people under one God.