A Word of Caution to the Spiritual Fathers of this World

Being called a Spiritual Son or hearing someone call themselves my Spiritual Father (or mother) was something I wasn’t used to growing up in the Southern Baptist Church. Which is odd, because there is certainly this type of relationship displayed throughout the Bible.

After all, one of the most prolific of this sort of relationship in the Bible was between Paul and Timothy. We know this was a special relationship because Paul called attention to it in 1 Timothy 1:2 when he said, “To Timothy, my true child in the faith”.

This is just in Paul’s first letter to Timothy. Paul refers to Timothy in a similar manner in other areas of scripture (1 Timothy 1:18, 2 Timothy 1:2, 2 Timothy 2:1, and 1 Corinthians 4:17).

Interestingly, Timothy was not the only Spiritual Son that Paul referred to. He also spoke of Onesiumus (Philemon 1:10) and even Titus (Titus 1:4).

My point, though, is simply that the concept of being a Spiritual family to others who are not in fact blood related, is a very biblical concept.

Paul the father and timothy the son

I have been called a Spiritual Son before by various people. Especially in the charismatic church circles I ran with over the last several years.

But as I examined the relationship between Paul and his Spiritual Son and the relationship I have had with my Spiritual Father’s, I couldn’t help but notice there was something amiss. There was something missing.

Before I speak of what was missing, let’s first take a moment and look at the ways Paul referred to Timothy:

  • “Timothy, my child…” (1 Tim. 1:18)
  • “Timothy, my beloved child…” (2 Tim. 1:2)
  • “My child…” (2 Tim. 2:1)
  • “Timothy, my beloved and faithful child in the Lord…” (1 Cor. 4:17)

As you read those phrases, I’m certain some words stand out to you. Words like child, beloved, and faithful. They evoke feelings of a fondness of Timothy by Paul. They imply a familial level of relationship that you don’t have with just anyone. They give us a peak behind Paul’s chest and directly into his heart as it relates to Timothy.

I read these phrases, and my heart leaps at the thought that one person could mean so much to another to be called a son. It was obvious that Paul thought highly of Timothy, and it showed in not only his words, but also his actions.

  • Paul took Timothy under his wing and mentored him.
  • Paul stayed connected with Timothy in both letter and in person.
  • Paul corrected Timothy when necessary.
  • Paul trusted Timothy with the ministry.
  • Paul’s love for Timothy wasn’t restricted by geographic location.
  • Paul mentored Timothy long after he was already serving in ministry.

I’m sure a lot more could be said, but you get the general idea here. Paul and Timothy truly exemplified the meaning of Spiritual Family.

WHAT WAS MISSING

I mentioned earlier that I have been called a Spiritual Son in the past.

Truth-be-told, there were a lot of great moments in those relationships. I cannot deny that at all. Times when I truly felt loved, mentored, and embraced as a Spiritual Son. But at some point, in every single instance, something changed or was missing from the beginning that perhaps I just didn’t catch in the midst of it.

In some cases it was one thing or two things, in other cases a whole lot was missing.

But something that was missing, that they all had in common, was this:

Their relationship to me was restricted by geographic location.

I’m not just talking about where I lived, but also restricted by where we attended church gatherings.

When I read about Paul and Timothy, as I pointed out above, this was simply not the case. Paul was never in the same place very long. But even as he was on the move, heading to another location to preach the gospel and establish the Church in a new country or city…he ALWAYS stayed connected to Timothy. Be it in person or through hand written letters.

In a day and age where there was no internet or telephone, Paul kept their relationship alive and growing no matter where he was on the earth. Even from behind the bars of a prison!

Imagine how Timothy must’ve felt? That Paul would even think of him behind bars? Timothy knew that he truly meant something to Paul. There was no mistaking it. No matter where he was on the earth, Timothy knew.

And yet, in the age we live in where connecting with someone is literally a text or phone call away, it seems the ones who have called me a Spiritual Son have had a hard time keeping their connection to me.

I haven’t walked away from the faith.

I haven’t walked away from ministry.

But it is painfully clear, or at the very least appears to be, that our connection didn’t mean as much as was initially portrayed. Perhaps it is because I no longer serve a purpose for them. Or perhaps its because they no longer feel we have anything in common. Perhaps they still see me as a Spiritual Son, but just have a funny way of showing it.

I still love them all. Everyone of them.

But no one knows for sure why the connection seemed to end, except them.

A WORD OF CAUTION

I do not believe anyone enters into a relationship expecting to hurt the other person, or to see a relationship crumble. But I think greater care must be taken when establishing such relationships that merit terms like Spiritual Father and Spiritual Son.

This is what I do know, and what I have learned in these experiences:

Be careful of who you call a Spiritual Son. Not because they may be evil or something, but because who you call a Son will ultimately become a person who will commit to you a loyalty that no other person will give. And should you take that step, you are opening the door for a relationship that is deep, fierce, and meaningful to the Son. Don’t violate it when it becomes a burden to you.

If you take that step to call someone a Spiritual Son, understand that you were the one who opened the door for a relationship that you must now pursue as a father pursues a son. If you feel the relationship may be changing, be man enough and godly enough to communicate that. Understand that how you choose to handle it going forward could potentially have a serious impact on their ability to trust future men who may call them a Spiritual Son.

Instead, as the Bible instructs us, go the extra mile as you would for your own flesh and blood son. Don’t just walk away from it because you simply “assume” it doesn’t matter to them. After all, would you walk away from your biological son?

In other words, the very act of calling someone a Spiritual Son is something that ought to be treated with great care. This isn’t just another member of the Body that you may or may not have to keep a connection with.

You have opened a door and invited a person into a place that others are not privileged to be part of.

Steward it well.

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