Spiritual Fatherhood

Unto Timothy, my own son in the faith: Grace, mercy, and peace, from God our Father and Jesus Christ our Lord.

1Tim 1:2

I have already written a lot about spiritual fatherhood. It’s time to take another look at this model.

Historical background

Spiritual fatherhood is derived from various stories in the Bible, mainly Elijah and Elisa as well as Paul and Timothy or Titus.

Elijah appoints Elisa as his successor. Later we learn that Elisa poured water over Elia’s hands for 20 years, that is, he served him. Only after Elijah’s death did Elisa receive the double anointing of his predecessor from God. And it wasn’t until years later that we hear that he was recognized by the authorities as a prophet.

Paul gets to know Timothy as a boy on one of his travels and takes him along. Timothy is somewhere between 13 and 30 years old when Paul meets him, probably at the younger end of the spectrum. Paul also attests to the strong faith of Timothy’s mother and grandmother.

At that time, conversion was a matter of the whole household, not of the individual. If the head of the house converted, all became Christians. What does this mean for the statement in our verse that Timothy was Paul’s son in the faith? Several speculative interpretations are possible here:

  • Timothy’s father did not convert. Therefore, not Timothy’s father, but his mother and grandmother were mentioned as role models. But because of his father not being a Christian, Timothy was not considered a Christian by most.
  • Or the verse talks about instilling an independent faith into Timothy, that would also survives far away from the parental home.
  • The phrase “son in the faith” does not speak of an experience of conversion, but of the relationship Paul had with Timothy.

Personally, I tend towards the latter, which is also a good basis for the doctrine of spiritual fatherhood.

It is the case that many people see spiritual fatherhood defined as a relationship with the man, or woman, who led them to faith. Others, however, emphasize–based in part on Paul’s statement, that we have many leaders, but few fathers–that it is about a different relationship.

But first of all, why do I assume that the first two variants are rather unlikely?

The Bible actually knows no dependence of my faith on the family. Right, when the head converted, the household was considered Christian, because this faith was lived in the house from now on. But Jesus himself spoke of his coming to bring the sword. Fathers and children would split up. Timothy was not a heathen just because his father was one.

On the other hand, the concept of the individual was not yet born. You were whatever your community or family was. Therefore, it was necessary for Timothy to be circumsised. He was seen by everyone as a pagan Greek because of his descent, especially by the Jews.

In this respect, Timothy actually took a step towards independence, into his own story of faith, when he left the father’s house, and joined a new community: Paul’s traveling fellowship. And Paul was the patriarch of this community, so he defined their faith.

So it’s all about relationship: Timothy left his partly pagan, partly Jewish home, his religiously divided family, and went with Paul. Paul invested in Timothy like a son from then on.

Titus seems to have been older when he joined Paul, and we know much less about him and his relationship with Paul. We know that Titus was Greek, traveled with Paul, visited him again and again later, and that he did not get circumcised. Titus is also called a son in the faith in the letter Paul wrote to him. In other places, Paul calls him brother.

Child in the faith

But let’s take a closer look at this clause “son in the faith”.

We translate pistis with faith or belief. Each translator, depending on his own theology, makes use of one word or the other in different places. This shows us that the word has already been strongly theologically filled with bias and meaning.

How strong? Could it be that our theology is even shaped by the Old Testament and therefore we immediately think of right and false faith, of the conformity of doctrine and content as well as form and behavior when we here the word faith?

The Old Testament was about complying with the law in external acts that were believed to be an expression of the inner attitude or to form inner attitude in the first place. Thus, community life, the life of the individual, and worship were strongly regulated.

But the story of David shows us that it is not the actions that are important, but the attitude of the heart. Paul also makes us realize that the law has not led us to build a good relationship with God. No one could fulfill it.

One of the best reasonings for the existence of the law that I have heard is this:

God saw that they wanted it that way, and that’s why he allowed it to show them that it doesn’t work like this.

Jesus showed us that it was not the external observance of the law that was important, but the inner motivation behind it.

When we translate pistis with faith, we are in danger of no longer seeing the activity of believing, but the belief system, no longer motivation, but the law.

Thus, in the clause “son in the faith”, we see someone who believed exactly the same as Paul. It is about Paul’s belief system, which was imposed on Timothy and Titus. The two agreed to be determined externally.

But if we see the word pistis as an activity, we discover two aspects that are totally different:

First, the investment that Paul made becomes visible. He believed for the two and in the two. And secondly, they believed in him.

It’s about a trust relationship. Pisteo, the verb from which pistis is derived, means to convince. I can convince by arguments, by trust, by being a living example.

If Jesus says that he is not doing anything he does not see the Father doing, then the motivation for this can be slavish obedience or absolute trust. Which of the two corresponds more with the message of the gospel? And granted, obedience flows from trust–but rarely the other way around.

Now it gets interesting. So if the clause “son in the faith” is better translated as “son of trust” rather than “son of my belief system”, whose trust is paramount?

It is Paul who invests trust. Of course, this trust is nourished or disappointed by the the way Timothy and Titus respond to it. The behavior of Timothy and Titus is therefore important, but the decisive factor is Paul’s investment.

Paul trusts the two because he poured himself into them and because they have proven worthy of his trust. Not because they believed the same as him. Not because they were slavishly obedient and made no mistakes.

Let’s also look at Jesus. He left behind an immature, flawed, anxious, and frightened pack of people. He entrusted them with the future of the church, humanity, even creation. He gave them the Holy Spirit to guide them. Here, too, his trust is shown, because he knew about our difficulties in perceiving and trusting the Holy Spirit among all the other voices.

Jesus is also called Eternal Father. And yet he calls us brothers, sisters, mothers. He says that the father entrusted him with the disciples. And again we find the word trust.

Children are entrusted to us. They are not ours. The relationship between parents and children is a relationship of trust in which God is the first to invest by entrusting his children to us. It’s not primarily about possession or obedience. It’s about trust.

Because God trusts us, we invest trust into others, especially our children. Of course, this is about a vigilant, step-by-step trust.

Growing trust

I became a grandfather for the second time a few days ago. After our grandson Caleb, we now have a beloved princess Amaeya Zadie.

Even compared to her brother, this little one is absolutely helpless. Unlike some animal children, she needs the care and support of her parents for a long time. During this time, she learns more and more to face life herself and becomes more, but never completely independent.

What does a child, a person learn in its life?

During the first period of her development, Amaeya is very vulnerable. She needs a safe environment of people who love her unconditionally: the family and the extended tribe. She can only communicate rudimentarily–mainly crying–and it takes a lot of time and closeness for communication to develop. First gestures, behaviors and expressions require a deep relationship so that they are understood at all.

In addition, Amaeya cannot yet conquer the world, since she is not yet able to move around.

But first of all, it is important that she even learns that there are different things. She must learn that Mommy is not an extension of herself, and that a toy is not an integral part of her body. If a toy is taken away from children, they may well feel like they are losing a part of themselves.

In this first phase of development, the child builds trust in a small environment and learns to survive in the family, to find its place.

Caleb is already further along. He speaks, walks, runs, recognizes people, and gets used to conquering the world from the security of his home. He knows that he is safe where his parents allow him to go–and sometimes he tries the limits.

Mommy and Daddy, but also other authorities in his life, such as the heads of the nursery, have already started to ingrain rules and moral feelings into him. Caleb learns to integrate into communities that are larger than his own family. In this phase, Caleb learns obedience, integration into a hierarchy, and to distinguish right from wrong.

Later he will realize that although he cannot selfishly pursue his own goals only, he is valuable as an individual, also outside his community and beyond the role that the community gives him. He learns to express himself. He becomes more than a member of the community. He becomes an individual.

As an individual, he may work for the community as a whole, for humanity, take on a social commitment far beyond the boundaries of the family or the community of interests. He will discover and appreciate the divine spark in every human being and in creation.

And then he realizes how important all this is and how each situation demands all his learned skills.

So what about the trust that his parents invest in him?

Initially, they mainly trust that this little person loves them. They won’t entrust Amaeya with anything for a while or leave her alone where they cannot hear her.

Later, this trust will grow. The reactions of Amaeya and Caleb determine the speed of growth and the extent of trust just as the personalities of their parents do. Incidentally, this also applies the other way around from a certain point on.

Rules, morality, obedience are tools in this process, and not goals. The goal is a trustworthy, viable, mature, self-determined, community-friendly person.

Spiritual fatherhood

That’s exactly how it is in the spiritual realm. The relationship of trust should be of a growing nature.

Spiritual fatherhood is defined differently in different denominations and churches. This ranges from “this is the person through whom you came to faith” to hierarchical models such as in the Catholic Church, where every priest and monk is called father, or in the Shepherding Movement, where a spiritual father had almost absolute authority over his spiritual children.

In the church sphere, another problem arises: we can only live relationships such as fatherhood in the model, in the worldview, at the level of development into which we ourselves have evolved. Because like the individual, communities and societies also have an interpretation model of the world.

If a community has not grown beyond the level at which it defines morality, ethics, hierarchy, order and obedience as the most important learning objective and sees faith as belonging to a belief system, then relationships are also lived under these guidelines and points of view. The father-son relationship will therefore not grow beyond the system of obedience and common doctrine, as hierarchically determined by the father.

As a result, sons who want to go further than their fathers can only do so in a way that the fathers understand as rebellion and betrayal. Unfortunately, this destroys mutual trust.

In the Old Testament, Elisa did not mature until Elijah died. Paul could already lead Timothy and Titus to maturity while he was still alive. Today, this only succeeds in a few cases. Why?

In the Old Testament, the Israelites lived under the law. Their society was on the way to learning morality, ethics, rules and order. The leaders were often quite autocratic, and so were the prophets. A next growth step was only possible when the old generation had become extinct.

Paul lived in a society in which morality, ethics, rules and order had prevailed, albeit not totally. The advantages Paul had, therefore, laid with himself, not with his sons. He had learned that he was not the measure of all things. His sons, however, did not grow beyond the level into which Paul himself had grown. That’s why they could coexist with Paul. They not only had the same values, but also the same worldview. Obedience, morality, and hierarchy were important to them. They couldn’t go any further in their time.

Today we humans continue to grow. We are children of the enlightenment, science, technology, and their respective consequences. We know the consequences of so-called God-given hierarchies with all the effects. We want to continue to grow. But as long as neither the systems nor the fathers allow for this growth to happen, we have a problem.

Elisa was led by God into a new system. It included knowing one’s place in the hierarchy, subordination, morality and ethics, rules and order. That’s why he served Elijah for a lifetime.

We will be introduced to new systems. They include independent thinking, science, striving for success, inclusive thinking, subjective concepts of truth, integral thinking and an aperspectiveal worldview. Growth has accelerated. While Elisa learned the next step of growth by waiting, we learn by continuing.

Unfortunately, the old worldview perceives this as betrayal, what holds many back from taking the next step. Thus, systems petrify, people give up, church becomes irrelevant. This results in thousands of denominations. It leaves a system that should bring growth as a system of separation.

If we learn to equate faith not with a system, a doctrine, but with mutual trust, then it is possible to overcome this limitation.