I was converted at age 22. As my father did not share my faith, it was difficult to go to him for spiritual advice. He disciplined and loved me. For that, I will be eternally grateful. He is now dead, and I miss him. He was my biological father, but he was not a spiritual father.
A local pastor reached out to me, spent time with me, and discipled me in the Christian life. Today, I think of him with fondness and gratitude. Although he was not my biological father, he was a spiritual father for me.
Even as believers, it is possible to be a biological father but not a spiritual father to one’s children. This is not the biblical ideal. If born again, we want to be both the biological and spiritual fathers of our children. I hope, by God’s grace, to equip and motivate biological fathers to gladly assume the responsibility and privilege of being their children’s spiritual fathers.
Son First, Then Father
God is preeminently a father. “Blessed be the God and Father of our Lord, Jesus Christ” (Ephesians 1:3). “Pray then like this: Our Father in heaven, hallowed be your name” (Matthew 6:9). Through the miracle of new birth, God adopts us into his family. We become his children, and he becomes our Father.
“Discipline without affection can be tyrannical. Affection without discipline will spoil children.”
God created fathers and families to glorify this eternal reality, and biological fathers become spiritual fathers by knowing and imitating him. “I write to you, fathers, because you have known him who is from the beginning” (1 John 2:13). This “knowing” is more than academic. It is also experiential. There is no shortcut to this knowledge. It is the byproduct of a lifetime of spiritual, mental sweat.
Fathers, Imitate a Heavenly One
The Holy Spirit is our heavenly Father’s agent. He unveils the Father to us. To the degree that he does this, we become spiritual fathers. Elijah, Elisha, John the Baptist, and Paul are examples. Each was filled with the Holy Spirit. Each was single. None had biological children, and yet ironically God’s people called them “father.”
What made these men prototypical spiritual fathers? They “knew” God the Father and imitated him. Here are three dimensions of God’s fatherhood that these men saw and imitated.
First, God the Father is an affectionate disciplinarian, and so are the spiritual fathers who imitate him. It is never either one or the other. It is always both. They do this because this is what our Heavenly Father does. He disciplines the children that he loves.
God is treating you as sons. For what son is there whom his father does not discipline? If you are left without discipline, in which all have participated, then you are illegitimate children and not sons. (Hebrews 12:7–8)
In the same way, Elijah disciplined Israel. As a consequence of their idolatry, he called down drought on Israel (1 Kings 17). Through his disciple, Elisha, God judged Gehazzi’s greed. John the Baptist preached God’s coming judgment (Matthew 3:8–12), and Paul repeatedly warned his spiritual children that, if necessary, he would use his power to discipline the unrepentant (1 Corinthians 4:18; 5:5; 2 Corinthians 1:23–24).
But our heavenly Father is also affectionate. God called himself a father to the fatherless (Psalm 68:5). He is “merciful and gracious, slow to anger, abounding in steadfast love and faithfulness” (Exodus 34:6). Therefore, although single and childless, Elijah and Elisha raised children from the dead (1 Kings 17:17–24; 2 Kings 4).
“Even as believers, it is possible to be a biological father but not a spiritual father to one’s children.”
In fact, God sent John the Baptist “in the spirit and power of Elijah, to turn the hearts of the fathers to the children” (Luke 1:17). The spirit and power of Elijah cares for widows, orphans, and children. In the same way, Paul spoke eloquently of his affection for the churches he planted (Philippians 1:8).
Discipline without affection can be tyrannical. Affection without discipline will spoil children. But combine these two virtues in the same man and he is on the road to spiritual fatherhood.
Teach, Then Model
God taught and then modeled in his Son. We look through Jesus to see God the Father (John 14:9). So extensive was the Son’s teaching that the apostle John called him the Word of God, and Jesus modeled in flesh and blood everything he taught. Elijah, Elisha, John the Baptist, and the apostle Paul did the same.
I’m not suggesting that spiritual fathers model perfectly. Far from it. I am suggesting that they effectively teach their children from the Bible, and then sincerely attempt to walk it out. For most dads, the best time to do this is the dinner hour. In the presence of your wife and children, you can open the Bible for ten or fifteen minutes each night, explaining and applying what you’ve read, and then walk the talk.
Genuine faith and sincerity will manifest itself when a man is willing to admit that he is wrong. If you treat your wife disrespectfully, apologize to her in front of your children. If you discipline unjustly, ask that child to forgive you. Your apologies will communicate to them that you are in deadly earnest about obedience, that you are not content to continue in sin, and that you are attempting to walk out what you teach.
Combine Initiative with Humility
God the Father is a combination of humility and initiative. Humility is the ability to see myself as I really am apart from gospel-grace. In the words of Revelation 3:18, “wretched, pitiable, poor, blind, and naked.” A humble man has no illusions about this. He knows he has fallen short of the glory of God, and he does not expect his performance to merit his relationship with God. He joyfully lives by grace, not his virtues. He is at peace with his God and his circumstances. Despite his weaknesses, he rejoices in an unearnable love gifted to him by a gracious Father.
“Genuine faith and sincerity will manifest itself when a man is willing to admit that he is wrong.”
Many think humble people are weak and passive. The truth is the exact opposite. Humility is a byproduct of great faith, and faith always acts. This means it initiates! C.S. Lewis suggested that masculinity is the willingness to initiate. God is the great initiator. He initiated creation, redemption, and our salvation. In the same way, spiritual fathers initiate. This is especially important in spiritual things like family prayer, Bible study, church attendance, and discussions about spiritual things.
All of this needs to be applied with grace. A father might do everything right, and yet despite this, one of his children never relates to him as a spiritual father. Here we need to rest in the mystery of God’s sovereignty. Neither should faithful single mothers be discouraged. God is a Father to the fatherless. This means he will compensate for the absence of a biological father. Cast yourself upon his infinite mercies. Trust him, and he will act.
The effect of these three dimensions — discipline coupled with affection, teaching modeled with sincerity, and humility that initiates — is magnetic. It turns biological fathers into spiritual fathers, and like fillings to a magnet, children are attracted.
This principle is also crucial to leadership in local churches. It starts at home. To the degree that pastors and elders become spiritual fathers to their biological children, their churches, like their biological families, will become spiritual families. “For if someone does not know how to manage his own household, how will he care for God’s church?” (1 Timothy 3:5). Capable elders begin by becoming spiritual fathers to their children. Then they become spiritual fathers to the local church.
One result of the gospel in man’s life is that a biological father will also be his children’s spiritual father. Even though we live in a fallen world, and we often fall short of this ideal, let us labor wholeheartedly toward this end.