One of the best fathers in the Bible is a man who had no children of his own. No biological children, that is.
The apostle Paul lived and died an “unmarried man,” always “anxious about the things of the Lord, how to please the Lord” (1 Corinthians 7:32). A frontier missionary; a restless church planter; a once-stoned, thrice-shipwrecked, five-times-lashed man — he had little room in his life for a stable home and a growing family. But he was, even still, a father. One of the best fathers the Scriptures offer.
“One of the best human fathers in the Bible is a man who had no children of his own.”
In fact, we find no other man so often associated with fatherhood in the New Testament. He called men like Timothy and Titus “my true child” (1 Timothy 1:2; Titus 1:4) and his churches “my beloved children” (1 Corinthians 4:14). He saw himself not simply as missionary or apostle or teacher, but also as “parent,” as “father” (2 Corinthians 12:14–15; 1 Thessalonians 2:11). Paul seemed to gather children wherever he went — even in prison (Philemon 10). He was a single man with many sons.
And in Christ, God calls any man, single or married, into the same kind of fatherhood.
Fathers Without Children
For long ages, the robust fatherhood we find in Paul was limited to, well, fathers — men with biological children. The Old Testament sometimes suggests a kind of spiritual fatherhood, as when Elisha refers to Elijah as “my father” (2 Kings 2:12). But for the most part, men who had no children of their own would have been tempted to say, “Behold, I am a dry tree” (Isaiah 56:3). The family line ends with me.
But then Jesus came: single, yes, and also the most fruitful and multiplying man who ever lived. Without marriage or children, without even a home where he might lay his head, he still surrounded himself with “his offspring” (Isaiah 53:10), “the children God has given me” (Hebrews 2:13). He was a dry tree in terms of biological lineage, yet his branches now cover the world.
In Jesus, then, we find a new kind of fatherhood alongside the old: a fatherhood not of the flesh, but of the spirit; not of the home, but of the church. Where once a father’s family tree required biological descent, now a single man like Paul can pass the gospel’s inheritance from one faithful son to the next (2 Timothy 2:2). Any man can be a father who will preach the gospel and disciple.
And more than that, Christian men are made for such fatherhood. We are made to be not only sons who follow behind, and not only brothers who walk alongside, but also fathers who chart the course ahead.
Four Paths to Spiritual Fatherhood
For a number of reasons, however, spiritual fatherhood may feel beyond reach. Some younger, struggling men may wonder how they could ever lead others. Others may wish they first had a spiritual father themselves, so that they had some example to follow. And then even older Christian men may look around, notice the lack of sons in their life, and feel unsure where to find them.
How then does a man in Christ become a father in Christ — young or old, single or married? Consider four paths to spiritual fatherhood from the life and letters of Paul.
1. Live worthy of imitation.
For Paul, two words lay near the heart of faithful fatherhood: “Imitate me.” He called his children not simply to listen or learn from him, but to follow him as he followed Christ. “I became your father in Christ Jesus through the gospel,” he tells the Corinthians. “I urge you, then, be imitators of me” (1 Corinthians 4:15–16). The first step to spiritual fatherhood, then, is leading a life worthy of imitation. Spiritual fathers are farther along on the journey of faith and Christian maturity.
Saying, “Imitate me” does not require perfection, of course. This side of heaven, any man worthy of imitation will wish he were more worthy of imitation. But saying “Imitate me” does require integrity. It requires an all-of-life pursuit of Christ. In other words, the house of a father’s life doesn’t need to be fully renovated, but there can’t be any secret rooms.
“The first step to spiritual fatherhood is leading a life worthy of imitation.”
By the transforming grace of Jesus, spiritual fathers are increasingly able to point to any area of life and say, “Follow me here as I follow Christ.” Follow my spending habits and my entertainment choices. Follow my spiritual disciplines and my work ethic. Follow, as Paul says elsewhere, “my teaching, my conduct, my aim in life, my faith” (2 Timothy 3:10). And when I fail in any of these areas, follow my repentance.
Regardless of whether anyone is following you closely right now, what if you lived expecting to be imitated? What if you awoke and worked and spoke and ate with the question in your head, “Could I call someone to follow me here?” Maybe, like a new biological father, you would begin to feel yourself freshly responsible for more than yourself, watched by more eyes than your own.
And when you discover some area where others should not follow you, don’t give up or despair. Most men, at most times, have some area that needs renewed attention and resolve. Focus on following Jesus there today, and then again tomorrow, and a life worthy of imitation will increasingly emerge.
2. Pursue specific sons.
Physical fatherhood is, at times, unintentional: a man can get a son without wanting one. Spiritual fatherhood, however, begins and continues only with careful intention. These fathers go and find their sons.
Of course, some men’s lives are so worthy of imitation that sons go and find them. But in each of Paul’s own father-son relationships, he initiated. Often, he had to initiate because the children in question were not yet in Christ. So, he became a father to churches like the Corinthians and to men like Onesimus by first winning them to Jesus (1 Corinthians 4:15; Philemon 10). Yet even when he didn’t have to initiate (when the son was already a Christian), we still find him doing so.
When Paul came to Derbe and Lystra and heard a good report there about a young man named Timothy, we read, “Paul wanted Timothy to accompany him, and he took him” (Acts 16:3). Paul wanted Timothy. He wanted this young man to serve with him “as a son with a father” (Philippians 2:22). And so, he took him. Thus was born the deepest, most enduring father-son relationship in the apostle’s life.
When I compare my own intentionality to Paul’s, I realize that I often expect spiritual fatherhood to happen on accident. But if a man has a relationship with a spiritual son, in all likelihood that relationship has come because he saw a man, befriended him, and then invited him to come along — to read along, pray along, eat along, evangelize along, rest along.
As you think of the younger men around you — younger in either age or faith — whom might you take intentional steps toward? Whom might you fold into your life in meaningful ways? Whose gifts might you “fan into flame” (2 Timothy 1:6), even at the cost of much time and attention? If we wait for spiritual fatherhood to happen on its own, it probably won’t.
3. Develop discipleship patience.
Any man who pursues younger men will realize (and often quickly) his need for patience. Much patience. Disciples tend to grow slowly, just like children (and just like us). But through every advance and setback, rise and fall, breakthrough victory and miserable retreat, spiritual fathers remain faithful. Steady. Patient.
“Discipling a spiritual son in Christ takes time, creative thought, precious energy, and lots of heart.”
Paul’s patience may appear most clearly in his fatherly heart toward the Corinthians. Only a forbearing father would remain loyal to such a church. And loyal Paul remained. He not only planted the church, but taught there a year and a half (Acts 18:11). He not only taught there, but wrote letters after he left, often addressing deep immaturity. And he not only wrote letters, but laced his words “with love in a spirit of gentleness” — the patience of a father (1 Corinthians 4:21).
Where did such patience come from? It came, in part, from Paul’s ability to look at immature sons and see an image of their future glory. Like Jesus with the twelve, Paul could trace a line between what is and what could be — and in Christ, what will be. He could see the possibility of purity in those struggling with lust, the hope of contentment in bitter hearts, the grace of diligence in sluggish hands.
And so, despite his incredible patience, he refused to lower the high bar of holiness, and instead raised his sons up to the bar. “Like a father with his children,” he wrote to the Thessalonians, “we exhorted each one of you and encouraged you and charged you to walk in a manner worthy of God” (1 Thessalonians 2:11–12). There could be no higher standard of conduct than walking “in a manner worthy of God.”
When you consider the younger, more immature men around you, do you see them with the dogged, deep-down hope that they, however weak or wandering, could walk increasingly worthy of God? As you see their weaknesses, do you see also their potential in Christ? And might your words — patient yet believing and bold — become one of the means God uses to call them higher?
4. Embrace the greater blessedness.
As we consider the intentional pursuit and patient investment of spiritual fatherhood, perhaps the cost looms large. Discipling a spiritual son in Christ takes time, creative thought, precious energy, and lots of heart. If we run the commitment through a relational calculator of profit and loss, we may well decide to remain childless. Jesus, however, would have us use a different calculator altogether: “It is more blessed to give than to receive” (Acts 20:35).
Paul models what it looks like to embrace this greater blessedness. As he writes to the Corinthians,
I seek not what is yours but you. For children are not obligated to save up for their parents, but parents for their children. I will most gladly spend and be spent for your souls. (2 Corinthians 12:14–15)
Hear the father’s heartbeat: “I seek not what is yours but you.” I do not seek your fast growth, your tit-for-tat repayment, your easy ego affirmations, or even your recognition of all that I do for you. Rather, I seek you. From the depths of my new heart in Christ, I seek the good of your heart in Christ. And therefore, every sacrifice and service, every hard word spoken and burden borne carries the unmistakable aroma of Christian gladness.
Or as another spiritual father put it, “I have no greater joy than to hear that my children are walking in the truth” (3 John 4). Behold the secret of spiritual fatherhood: under the sun, there is no greater joy than to see spiritual children walking in the truth. And those who taste such joy will be on their way to becoming a father, single or married, with many sons.