father

True discipleship is nurtured within the context of a faith relationship.
(John Lathrop)

Jesus commanded the church to make disciples (Matt. 28:19-20), that is, those who are rooted and growing in their Christian faith. This involves the cultivation of various spiritual disciplines such as Bible study, prayer, and fellowship.

However, discipleship involves more than the transfer of information from one person to another or participation in certain religious practices. It involves personal care. True discipleship is nurtured within the context of a faith relationship.

One indication of this is the apostle Paul’s use of the word “son.” This word speaks of relationship, specifically of a family relationship. This family relationship need not be biological, it can also be spiritual. All Christians are part of “the family of believers” (Gal. 6:10 NIV). Paul at times referred to whole churches as his children (Gal. 4:19; 1 Cor. 4:14).

There are, however, also special relationships that exist in the Body of Christ. It was true in the days of the first century church and it is true today. Paul used the word “son” to describe the personal relationships he had with a number of individuals that he ministered to, or with.

He used the word “son” in reference to three individuals that he mentioned in his letters. These three men are Timothy, Titus, and Onesimus. We will look at Onesimus first. Paul referred to him as his son only once, in Philemon 10.

The apostle did not met him in a church service, Paul met him during one of his imprisonments! We do not have all the details about how that meeting came about. It seems that when they met Paul led him to the Lord. This is not the only time that Paul referred to those he led to the Lord as his son or children.

He used the word son with reference to Onesimus, because he was an individual, but he used the plural word, children, in other places. For example, Paul, planted the church in Corinth and he referred to the whole church as his children (1 Cor. 4:14) in addition he referred to himself as their father (1 Cor. 4:15).

He brought the gospel to them. Paul’s interaction with Onesimus created a strong bond between the two of them. Paul called him “my very heart” (Philemon 12 NIV) and acted on behalf of the slave (Philemon 16) to reconcile him to his master, Philemon, whom Paul also knew. Paul’s involvement in Onesimus’ life was not limited to imparting sound doctrine to him, he also helped him to live in accordance with the truth.

Paul also refers to Titus as his son (Titus 1:4). He wrote one letter to him and put him in charge of dealing with issues related to the churches in Crete. One of Titus’ responsibilities was to appoint elders in the churches there (Titus 1:5).

Paul referred to Titus a number of times in his letters. He mentioned him nine times in the book of 2 Corinthians (2:13; 7:6, 13,14; 8:6, 16, 23; 12:18-twice in this last verse), twice in the book of Galatians (2:1,3), once in 2 Timothy (4:10) and once in the book of Titus (1:4). It is clear from these references that Titus was one of Paul’s ministry associates. In fact, in 2 Corinthians 8:23 he refers to him as “my partner and fellow worker” (NIV).

Paul was his spiritual leader, or mentor. Titus took direction from him. In one sense, in the context of the first century church, it is amazing that Titus was such a close associate of Paul’s because Paul was Jewish (Acts 22:3; Phil. 3:5) and Titus was a Greek, that is a Gentile (Gal. 2:3).

Of the three men that Paul calls sons Timothy is mentioned the most in the New Testament. Luke mentions him six times in Acts, Paul mentions him seventeen times in his letters, and the writer of the letter to the Hebrews mentions him once.

Paul had a long history with Timothy. It began in Acts 16 when Paul invited him to join his missionary team. The two of them traveled and worked together for years. Paul wrote two letters to him, 1 & 2 Timothy, the latter of which is believed to be the last letter Paul wrote before his death.

Paul called Timothy his son six times (1 Cor. 4:17; Phil. 2:22; 1 Tim. 1:2, 18; 2 Tim. 1:2, 2:1). Like Titus Timothy was also one of Paul’s ministry associates, in Romans 16:21 he refers to him as his “fellow worker” (NIV).

Timothy also took direction from Paul who sent him to various places to minister. Paul had very high regard for him, in Philippians 2:20 he wrote that “I have no one else like him” (NIV). Timothy, like Titus, is another co-worker of Paul’s who was ethnically different than Paul.

In Acts 16:1 we are told that Timothy’s mother was Jewish and his father was a Greek, a Gentile. Timothy was born of mixed blood. Paul was able to work with, and invest in, others who were different than he was. We as believers today should be able to do the same thing.

There were clearly strong bonds between Paul and all of these men. He viewed them as his sons, which would also mean that he saw himself as their father. He cared for them as a father would. He was apparently a father to Onesimus in bringing him to spiritual birth by leading him to the Lord.

He was a father to Titus and Timothy in that he instructed, encouraged, equipped, directed, and released them for ministry. We need spiritual fathers in the church today. Those who will take the time and make the effort to invest in the lives of younger Christians and ministers. This investment includes sharing not only knowledge but also wisdom and example.

The examples I cited in this article all concerned men. However, this does not mean that we do not need spiritual mothers in the church, nor does it mean that women should not minister in this way. Eunice, Timothy’s mother, apparently had a part in his spiritual foundation and growth.

Timothy was a third generation believer (2 Tim. 1:5). Some commentators also believe that Eunice was among those referred to in 2 Timothy 3:14-15 who poured Scripture into Timothy’s life.

In order for the church to be strong and grow it needs committed disciples and leaders. This is true for every generation. Part of the way that this happens is through the influence and investment of spiritual fathers and mothers.

Unfortunately, not everyone comes from a Christian family where they might receive the help they need to be grounded and grow in their faith. The need for spiritual fathers and mothers is real. Will you help fill it?

 


John P. Lathrop - United States

John P. Lathrop is a graduate of Western Connecticut State University, Zion Bible Institute, and Gordon-Conwell Theological Seminary’s Center for Urban Ministerial Education (CUME). He is an ordained minister with the International Fellowship of Christian Assemblies and has twenty years of pastoral experience.

 

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