There are two kinds of “spiritual fathers” mentioned in Scripture. The first one has to do with “spiritual growth” and the second one with “leading souls to Christ and mentoring them.”

In 1st John 2:12-13 we read, “I write to you children, because your sins are forgiven you for His name’s sake. I write to you, FATHERS, because you have known Him who is from the beginning. I write to you, YOUNG MEN, because you have overcome the wicked one. I write to you LITTLE CHILDREN, because you have known the Father” (NKJV). When John speaks of “little children” in verse 12 he is referring to all believers who make up the family of God, regardless of how long they have been saved or how advanced they are in the Christian faith. All believers are “children of God” whose sins are forgiven. But in verse 13 the apostle breaks down the family of God into three different phases of spiritual growth. The FATHERS are the most advanced and are characterized by an intimate knowledge of Christ. The YOUNG MEN haven’t matured to that point yet, but they have grown to the point where they are able to overcome Satan (verse 14 informs us that they do this through the word of God that abides in them). And lastly, the LITTLE CHILDREN, which is a different Greek word that what we saw in verse 12, are the “babes in Christ.” They don’t have a deep knowledge of the Word yet or the experience that this brings, but they do know that God is their heavenly Father. The apostle Paul serves as a good example of a “spiritual father,” for he had come to know Christ in such a way that he could say, “For to me, to live is Christ, and to die is gain” (Philippians 1:21). Christ was the passion of his life and even in death, Christ would be his all in all. That’s why he goes on to say in verse 22, “having a desire to depart and be with Christ, which is far better.”

In 1st Corinthians 4:14-15 we have an example of the other kind of “spiritual father.” Those verses say, “I do not write these things to shame you, but as MY BELOVED CHILDREN I warn you. For though you might have ten thousand instructors in Christ, yet you do not have many FATHERS; for in Christ Jesus I HAVE BEGOTTEN YOU through the gospel.” Paul had a very special relationship with the saints at Corinth, for he had preached the gospel to them resulting in their conversion to Christ. He refers to this has having “begotten you through the gospel,” for they were, in this sense, his “spiritual children.” But this relationship didn’t stop there, for just as an earthly father loves his children and seeks to care for them by providing for their needs, so the apostle loved the saints at Corinth and cared for their spiritual needs. In this chapter we see 3 responsibilities of a spiritual father towards his children:

  1. He WARNS THEM. We saw this in verse 14, “I do not write these things to shame you, but as my beloved children I WARN YOU. There were enemies of the gospel among them that were seeking to do them harm. As a good spiritual father Paul saw their danger and in love he warned them of it.
  2. He EXHORTS THEM. In verse 16 he says, “Therefore I EXHORT YOU, imitate me” (NASB). The word “exhort” means “to urge one to a course of action.” Paul did this very thing with the saints at Thessalonica, as we see in 1st Thessalonians 2:11, “As you know how we exhorted, and comforted, and charged every one of you, as a FATHER DOES HIS OWN CHILDREN.” Paul was “urging them to follow his example” and if they did, they would be rescued from those who sought to do them harm. What did Paul mean by “imitate me?” The answer is found in 1st Corinthians 11:1, “Imitate me, just as I also imitate Christ.”
  3. He DISCIPLINES THEM. Paul closes the chapter by reminding them that he was coming to them shortly (verses 18-19) and he poses the question, “Shall I come to you with a rod, or in love and a spirit of gentleness?” (verse 21). If they responded favorably to his “warning” and “exhortation,” he would come “in love and a spirit of gentleness.” But if they proudly resisted his fatherly admonitions, he would come “with a rod”; that is, he would come to administer discipline among them. This would still be done “in love.” Love takes many forms and just as a father disciplines his disobedient children today out of love, so the apostle would bring the needed correction to his spiritual children if they disobeyed him.

Regarding calling our spiritual mentors fathers, there is no example of this in the Bible. In fact, we are commanded in Matthew 23:9, “Do not call anyone on earth your father; for One is your Father, He who is in heaven.” In the context the Lord was speaking of religious rulers who wanted people to respect them by granting them titles such as Rabbi, or father, or teacher. A true “spiritual father,” such as the apostle Paul, did not seek titles or anything that would elevate him above others. (237.9) (DO)