Back in my seminary days, I did some Spanish/English court interpreting. An older Mennonite pastor named Ron got me into it. I filled in on the days he wasn’t available, and I remember a Catholic lawyer once asking where “Father Ron” was. And since I was a seminarian, then I must be “Father Brad.” But no, just Brad will do. “Father” seemed above my pay grade–and I had a vague sense that it violated a command of Jesus to call me “father.”
After all, hadn’t Jesus said that his students shall call no one “your father on earth, for you have one Father–the one in heaven” (Matthew 23:9)? I assumed that he wasn’t talking about our biological fathers. But did he mean it was wrong to have a spiritual father (or mother)?
I’ve certainly had people in my life who have been spiritual fathers and mothers to me, godly men and women who have taught me what it means to walk the walk and talk the talk. They’ve been folks who have been willing to listen, patient for signs of progress, aware of the ways that “Christ in [me], the hope of glory” shines through in blinks and glimmers (Colossians 1:27). They’ve known that the path we take to “grow up in every way into…Christ” is often one step forward, twenty steps back (Ephesians 4:15).
Many of my spiritual fathers’ names have been lost to me in the long-ago swirl of adolescence: that one camp counselor, or that teacher who took us fishing. Others were my spiritual father without me realizing it, like Julio Caesar, the Salvadorian Jesuit seminarian who I met in Greek class. He took the time over the next year to regularly talk life, faith, and vocation with me–this callow Anabaptist with no framework for understanding his Catholic faith and commitment to the priesthood. But there I was, invited to join him and the other brothers around the supper table at the Jesuit house, or riding with him to the airport to pick up my soon-to-be wife for a family visit. We were both so nervous that we missed the terminal my fiancée was arriving into and had to drive around again. Twice. Where would I be without men like that? Who would I be?
The Apostle Paul, that apprentice to the ever-living Christ and lover of God’s people, understood himself as a spiritual father. He said he worked alongside the younger Timothy “like a son with a father” (Philippians 2:22). He told the Corinthians that “in Christ Jesus I became your father through the gospel” (1 Corinthians 4:15). He called Titus his “loyal child in the faith we share” (Titus 1:4). In Galatians 4:19, Paul even referred to himself as a mother giving birth to new believers.
Other apostles employed similar themes. Peter spoke of believers as “newborn infants” (1 Peter 2:2). John spoke of “children of God” and the church as a family of “little children,” “fathers,” and “young men” growing into maturity in their faith (1 John 3:1; ch.2).
All of this is language that hearkens back to Elisha’s cry to his spiritual mentor. As Elijah was wound up into the clouds on the flaming chariot, Elisha ran along on earth saying, “My father, my father!”–language that would later be echoed by king Joash as Elisha himself reached the end of his earthly journey (2 Kings 2:12; 13:14).
The overall angle of Jesus’ teaching seems to be that we are not to settle for a secondhand encounter with God. We’re all students (Matthew 23:8). We all have Christ as our instructor (Matthew 23:10). We’re all children of the good, good Father (Matthew 23:9).
But it’s hard to see Jesus’ teaching as ruling out the reality that we need each other–especially those more mature in the faith who can show us the way. Christian faith is not so much taught as caught. It’s relationships, not just ideas. The ancient church was called “the Way” because it’s meant to be walked–and it’s impossible to walk it alone (Acts 9:2). We need spiritual fathers and mothers.
I wonder: who has been a spiritual father or mother to you, someone who has encouraged and taught and made Christian faith credible with his or her life?
And where’s God calling you to be a spiritual father or mother to someone else?