Needed: Spiritual Fathers & Mothers

The relational model of ministry as exemplified by Paul, the apostle.

Needed: Spiritual Fathers & Mothers
Photo by Sabine Ojeil / Unsplash

The Lord has put in my heart to teach about the need for spiritual fathers and mothers in the body of Christ. A few months ago, I wrote about the Bridegroom love of Jesus and since I am not married, I did not talk about husbands and marriage, but about the spiritual love of Jesus for the church, His bride. In the same way, I want to make the disclaimer at the outset itself, that I am not a parent in the natural sense and so I am not preaching on earthly parenting. However, as we find so many single men - be it Elijah, Jesus, or Paul - being spiritual fathers, I want to, and I think I as a single man can speak on being a spiritual parent to the body of Christ. From these examples, I want to also highlight that when it comes to spiritual parenting, all Christians, even single young people, and childless married people are all welcome. So this is a message for all of you. Let me also highlight that both genders - fathers and mothers - are needed. I believe an apostolic movement is all about fathers and mothers who spiritually parent the body of Christ for the advancement of the kingdom of God.

Now, for this study, we will look at Paul, the apostle and his heart for the church. To make our study practical, I am organising it by asking four questions about spiritual parenting and answering them from the life of Paul.

  1. Who is a Spiritual parent?

Consider 2 Corinthians 11:28-29 -

Then, besides all this, I have the daily burden of my concern for all the churches. "Who is weak without my feeling that weakness? "Who is led astray, and I do not burn with anger?

In chapter 11 of 2 Corinthians, Paul is listing all his sufferings for Christ, but then there is something he says at the end pertaining to his daily pressure for churches which he calls his burden. He says, he felt the weakness of those who were weak and felt indignant for those who were falling into sin. In other words, he felt empathy and indignation for the church.

Empathy is very much a motherly trait. I remember that day in school when I learned the difference between empathy and sympathy. Our principal once came to my class and was teaching us English when he asked this question on the difference between empathy and sympathy. Typically, we say that sympathy is feeling sorry for someone from your own perspective and empathy is feeling sorry for someone by putting yourself in their shoes and understanding it from their own perspective. However, my principal explained it in such a telling manner. He said, when you go through a particular pain, everyone else can sympathise, but only your mother can empathise. It is so true that only mothers feel our pain as if it is their own pain. Similarly, Paul felt the weakness or lack of health of his children in his own heart. It burdened him and arrested his own soul like a mother would take upon herself the anxieties over the health of her own children.

Paul says this empathy was a daily burden that attended his heart for the church. In addition to empathy, Paul daily had a burden for the churches which manifested in him having indignation for those who were falling into sin. Righteous or jealous anger is very much a fatherly trait. It is common for fathers to be jealous of their children’s purity and protection.  The root Greek word here means “burning” with grief and zeal for the children.

So having seen Paul’s heart, let us answer, Who is a spiritual parent? A spiritual parent is one who is burdened by the LORD to empathise like a mother and be zealous like a father for the health and holiness of the body of Christ. So the way to find out if you are called to spiritually parent somebody is by checking your heart’s burden? Is the LORD burdening you to empathise with someone in the church? Do you also feel a strong zeal for their holiness and growth in the LORD?

2. How do you become a spiritual parent?

Just like in the natural world, we can become parents either by natural generation or by adopting children, it is the same when it comes to spiritual parenting. We become spiritual parents either by birthing spiritual children through the gospel like Paul was to Onesimus by leading him to faith (Philemon. 1:10) or by adopting those who are already believers to your mentorship like Paul was to Timothy who was already a disciple when Paul met him (Acts 16:1).

3. Who can be a spiritual parent?

(i) Both men and women can do it

We have no doubt about men doing it as we see the apostles doing it, be it Paul and his many sons like Timothy, Titus, Onesimus, Corinthians, Galatians, etc., or Peter and his son, Mark (1 Pet. 5:13) or John and his children in Ephesus (3Jn.1:4)

What about women? In Romans 16:13, Paul says Rufus’s mother was also a mother to him as well. In Romans 16:2, while commending Phoebe a deaconess (trans. as a servant in many of your translations) of the church in Cenchrea, Paul uses the Greek word prostatis which is the feminine form of the Greek word proistémi that he uses elsewhere in Romans 12:8 for the gift of leadership or rule, in 1 Thessalonians 5:12 of leaders who are over you, and in 1 Timothy 5:17 of elders who rule well, to name a few. So this word is commonly used by Paul for leaders who rule well over others and mentor them in the Lord. Hence what Paul is saying in Romans 16:2 is that not only was Phoebe a deaconess, but also she was a spiritual mother even to the great apostle Paul. We also know from Acts 18 that Priscilla and Aquila (notice the order) spiritually mentored and invested in the great preacher, Apollos regarding his doctrinal understanding. Similarly in our day and age, we have Billy Graham in his autobiography speaking of his mentor, Miss Henrietta Mears in the following words: “Henrietta Mears, the great Christian educator and Bible teacher who had been so instrumental in my spiritual growth while at Los Angeles” and “I had times of prayer and private discussion with Miss Mears at her cottage. Rarely had I witnessed such Christian love and compassion as she had for those students. She had faith in the integrity of the Scriptures and an understanding of Bible truth as well as modern scholarship. I was desperate for every insight she could give me.”

(ii) Both young and old can do it

Not only the older Paul but also younger Timothy and Titus are sent by Paul to mentor these churches. More on this later in this study.

(iii) Both married and single can do it

When it comes to spiritual parenting, in the Bible, we have wonderful couples like Priscilla and Aquila, Junia and Andronicus (all found in Romans 16) who were spiritual parents to the church. We also see single men like Paul and Timothy, and also single women like the ones mentioned in Romans 16 again - be it Mary (v.6), beloved Persis, both commended by Paul as having worked hard in the Lord (v.12), along with Tryphaena and Tryphosa, who are called the Lord’s workers (v.12) - also fulfilling this ministry.

So whether you are male or female, young or old, single or married, all of us can be used by the LORD to work hard for mentoring or spiritually parenting others in the body of Christ.

4. What are the marks of a spiritual father or mother?

(i) Model Lifestyle

Paul says in 1 Corinthians 4:14-20:

I am not writing these things to shame you, but to warn you as my beloved children. For even if you had ten thousand others to teach you about Christ, you have only one spiritual father. For I became your father in Christ Jesus when I preached the Good News to you. So I urge you to imitate me. That’s why I have sent Timothy, my beloved and faithful child in the Lord. He will remind you of how I follow Christ Jesus, just as I teach in all the churches wherever I go. Some of you have become arrogant, thinking I will not visit you again. But I will come—and soon—if the Lord lets me, and then I’ll find out whether these arrogant people just give pretentious speeches or whether they really have God’s power. For the Kingdom of God is not just a lot of talk; it is living by God’s power. 

Fathers and mothers are those who can say like Paul: Be imitators of me (v.16). Hence the primary mark of a spiritual parent is a model lifestyle. Notice when Paul sent Timothy to teach Corinthians, Timothy was to teach them Paul’s ways which are in Christ, which is what He taught in every church everywhere. Paul’s ways speak of how he modelled the Christian life. When I teach as a spiritual parent, what I should teach others is how I practically follow the Lord - how I pray, how I overcome sin, how I lead, how I witness, how I love others, how I worship, how I obey the word of God, how I follow the Spirit, how I serve the Lord, etc. We find Paul speaks like this in other parts of Scripture also (2 Tim. 3:10-11; Acts 20:18-21) and so this was his consistent pattern of discipling others. True teaching, as Paul says here is not ultimately about words, but about life, for the kingdom of God is not found in mere words or rhetoric but in power (1 Cor. 4:20). More than just information on the Christian faith, we need role models that others can imitate.

(ii) Sacrificial Love

The second mark of a spiritual parent is sacrificial love for the children. In 1 Thessalonians 2:6-8, Paul likens his ministry to that of a nursing mother. He says,

Nor did we seek glory from people, whether from you or from others, though we could have made demands as apostles of Christ. But we were gentle among you, like a nursing mother taking care of her own children. So, being affectionately desirous of you, we were ready to share with you not only the gospel of God but also our own selves, because you had become very dear to us.

Instead of asserting his ecclesiastical authority as an apostle, Paul rather humbled himself and approached the church relationally as a nursing mother to them. Therefore his leadership was marked with gentleness, tenderness, care, and affection. In motherly care, Paul wanted to share not just the gospel, but even his own life for they were so dear to him. Out of genuine affection, Paul was willing to undergo any sacrifice to love his children. Hence he became like a mother who wants to nurture and love her children. We read the same heart of Paul in 2 Corinthians 12:14-15 when he says,

Here for the third time, I am ready to come to you. And I will not be a burden, for 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.

For the Corinthians, Paul is willing to spend himself and be spent for their sake. It is imperative that a spiritual parent be driven by such a loving commitment to their children. He or she should desire nothing in return from the children, except that the children be made mature in Christ and be able to say like Paul, “I seek not what is yours, but you.”

(iii) Faithful Ownership

Paul was not only a sacrificial nurturing mother, he goes on to say in the same chapter that he was also like a father to the church in 1 Thessalonians 2:10-12,

You are witnesses, and God also, how holy and righteous and blameless was our conduct toward you believers. For you know how, like a father with his children, we exhorted each one of you and encouraged you and charged you to walk in a manner worthy of God, who calls you into his own kingdom and glory.

Not burdening or lording upon them, Paul again speaks of his conduct towards believers as one marked with holiness, righteousness, and blamelessness. He was like a father to them and therefore he was exhorting, encouraging, and imploring them to walk in a manner worthy of their calling from God. In other words, Paul was doing both teaching doctrine and modelling for them how to maintain a righteous walk. He owned them as his own children and desired they grow in holy conduct.

But his faithful ownership of his children extended even when they were disobedient. In 2 Cor. 12:20-21, we read of Paul not disowning his children who have ethically fallen behind the standard of holiness. Paul bears the shame of their disobedience and humbles himself before God when he says,  

I fear that when I come again my God may humble me before you, and I may have to mourn over many of those who sinned earlier and have not repented of the impurity, sexual immorality, and sensuality that they have practiced.

Rather than disowning them, Paul was a true father who mourned for his disobedient children. In Galatians 4:19, we see Paul similarly in travail for his children who have fallen doctrinally below the standard of God’s word. Either way - whether ethically or doctrinally - a spiritual parent is one who does not disown his fallen children, but faithfully bears them always.

(iv) Purposeful Delegation

The aim of all good parenting is to raise children who are responsible adults who can live their lives without being dependent on us. Paul’s parenting model always had this mark of releasing others in ministry with delegated authority and responsibility.

Take the example of Timothy. Paul met this young man in Acts 16 at Lystra. In the very next chapter, a year later, they are in Berea, where we read in Acts 17:13-14, the Jews from Thessalonica came and stirred up an opposition against Paul. However, Paul left Timothy and Silas to remain with the brethren there. Paul trusted young Timothy to handle things on his own. He treated him like an adult, not as a child. Later on, when Paul had to deal with the Corinthian church, he sent Timothy to handle those issues with Paul’s authority (1Cor.4:17). Paul sent him to Philippi (Phil.2:19) to learn of their condition; to Thessalonians to strengthen them and encourage their faith (1Thess. 3:2); and also to Ephesus (1Tim.1:3) to set things in order and silence false teachers. In all these places, we see Paul entrusting Timothy with delegated or commissioned responsibility and authority.

So the aim of parenting is not to keep the children always under us and dependent on us but to release them as adult children who can father their own children. Hence Paul told Timothy to pass on what he had received from Paul to others (2 Tim. 2:2).

Therefore a spiritual father or mother will delegate authority and responsibility to their children for their own growth in maturity.  Any pastor or leader who holds on to all authority and responsibility of ministry in a church and never delegates it to anyone else in the church is merely an ecclesiastical professional and not a spiritual father.


An apostolic movement is all about fathers and mothers who spiritually parent the body of Christ for the advancement of the kingdom of God. Regarding spiritual parents, we asked four questions.

  1. Who is a spiritual parent? A spiritual parent is one who is burdened by the Lord to empathise like a mother and be zealous like a father for the health and holiness of the body of Christ.
  2. How do you become a spiritual parent? Either by evangelism or by adopting a believer.
  3. Who can be a spiritual parent? Both male and female, young and old, single and married, all of us can be used by the LORD to mentor or spiritually parent others in the body of Christ.
  4. What are the marks of a spiritual parent? Model lifestyle that can be imitated by others to follow Christ; Sacrificial love that pays any price to nurture others; Faithful ownership of others that never disowns them, and Purposeful delegation that aims to release them with authority and responsibility for further multiplication of the family.

If you ask, how can we become such fathers and mothers? Draw near to the Father and seek Him to burden your heart with the love with which He loves the body of Christ. May the love of the Father, the sacrifice of the Lord Jesus, and the power of the Holy Spirit raise up many spiritual fathers and mothers in the church. Amen.