By Larry Kreider

One of the most important roles a spiritual leader has is to become a spiritual father or mother. Let me explain.

My friend Don Finto, who served for many years as the senior pastor of Belmont Church in Nashville, Tennessee, has a life-long passion to father younger men in ministry. His relationship with one of his more famous “spiritual sons,” singer and musician Michael W. Smith, is described here:

For several decades before Smith cut any records, Finto had laughed, cried, worshiped, prayed, and traveled together with Smith in a father-son type of relationship. “I could write a book about Finto,” Smith says. “He’s my daddy in the Lord. I don’t think I’d be where I am today if it hadn’t been for Don.”

Finto now serves as a pastor to pastors. “I am an encourager,” Finto admits. “I can often see more in people than they can see in themselves, and I want to call it forth in the name of the Lord.”

The effect on Smith has been profound. “I’ve saved all my letters from him, all the little note cards,” Smith says. “He has encouraged me in so many ways—my self-confidence and who I am in the Lord—pulling stuff out of me that nobody ever was able to pull out.” 1

This is the kind of mentoring of leaders we need in today’s church. The potential for spiritual parenting is enormous.

When leaders practice spiritual parenting, the church begins to function like a family. God’s intention is to empower spiritual parents who are willing to nurture spiritual children and help them grow in their Christian lives. This is a fulfillment of the Lord’s promise to “turn the hearts of the fathers to the children, and the hearts of the children to their fathers” in the last days (Malachi 4:6). The Lord wants to restore harmony among spiritual fathers and mothers and their children so they can freely impart their inheritance to the next generation.

All believers, including potential leaders, need help to grow spiritually. We cannot do it by ourselves, just as natural infants cannot thrive if left on their own. Babies need the care and nurture of parents just as believers need the practical input from loving spiritual fathers and mothers who delight in seeing their children reach their full potential. Spiritual leaders must invest in divinely appointed spiritual parenting relationships to reproduce what God has invested in them and train the next generation of leaders.

It was the lack of mature leadership in the Corinthian church that stunted the believers’ spiritual growth. Unequipped to grow up spiritually, they struggled to find their identity. They did not know who they were in the Lord. When believers lack spiritual fathers and mothers who model God’s fatherhood, they often struggle, feeling spiritually alone and lacking identity.

Because the Corinthians did not have their identity in Christ, they sought it through their favorite leader: “I am of Paul. . . . I am of Apollos” (1 Corinthians 3:4). Paul chides the Corinthian church for its lack of maturity, making it plain that while leaders do have a role to play, it is clearly only God whom they should ultimately follow. He is the source of every good thing. Wise spiritual parents will always direct their spiritual sons and daughters to Jesus.

Deficient of true spiritual fathers to model fatherhood, the Corinthian church was mired in spiritual immaturity. What they really needed were spiritual fathers and mothers to nudge them toward maturity. They needed spiritual parents to sow into their lives, expecting them eventually to become spiritual parents themselves.

Stop and think about how you reached maturity in your Christian walk. Who were the spiritual fathers and mothers in your life? Who were the leaders that took a chance on you as a young, insecure, and inexperienced leader? Someone saw the potential in your life and was willing to take ministry risks with you.

Spiritual Leaders Set the Pace as Spiritual Parents

The church is to function as a family. Ephesians 3:14-15 speaks of His whole family in heaven and earth. The church is not an institution; it is a family. In order for a family to be healthy, parental guidance is needed. Pastors and elders and small group leaders provide this parental guidance.

According to 1 Corinthians 4:15-17, there are “ten thousand instructors, but not many fathers.” Because of the lack of spiritual fathers, many have fallen away. The church has often focused on meetings rather than on parenting. Timothy was “fathered” by Paul. Parenting takes time and effort, but the end result is definitely worth it. Stable spiritual families have spiritual parents. True spiritual leaders are spiritual parents. Small group leaders should be trained to be spiritual parents. Pastors and elders are called by God to be spiritual midwives to prepare and help the church to have spiritual children.

Three Levels of Spiritual Maturity

In Scripture, John identifies three levels of spiritual maturity: children, young men, and fathers. In the church and in every small group, it is important for elders to understand the spiritual maturity level of each person. It is the elders’ passion to encourage everyone to grow toward maturity. They believe that eventually every believer will become a spiritual parent. But how do spiritual children become parents?

We go through life in stages, spiritually—as little children, young men, and fathers. At each point in our journey, we function in a particular way and have distinct tasks to perform. John addresses all three spiritual stages in 1 John 2:12-14:

“I write to you, dear children, because your sins have been forgiven on account of his name. 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 evil one. I write to you, dear children, because you have known the Father. I write to you, fathers, because you have known him who is from the beginning. I write to you, young men, because you are strong, and the word of God lives in you, and you have overcome the evil one.”

Since fatherhood is so crucial to God’s divine order, He established a natural training ground consisting of “growth stages.” We grow to fatherhood as we progress through each of these stages. Only then do we receive the heart and revelation of a father.

Our stages as babies in Christ, young men and women, and spiritual fathers and mothers have nothing to do with our chronological age but everything to do with how we progress in spiritual maturity. If we fail to take the steps required to become spiritual parents, we remain spiritual babies—spiritually immature and lacking parenting skills. It is sad, but this is often the case in the church. Many times there is no provision for believers to go on to maturity within our church structures.

Nevertheless, with the restoration of New Testament Christianity, with elders in place and some type of small group ministry, each person in the body is given the opportunity to “do the work of ministry” and connect in vital relationships with others. Through modeling and impartation, spiritual reproduction happens naturally.

Let’s look at these stages and use them as gauges to identify where we are in our spiritual maturity. Let’s discover how we can all come to the place of becoming spiritual parents.

Spiritual Children

According to 1 John 2:12, spiritual children know their sins are forgiven and know the Father. They are alive to what they can receive from their Savior. They freely ask the Father when they have a need. It is exciting to see how the Lord answers children’s prayers even when their prayers may not always be theologically correct, but that is okay because they are babies. Every church should have spiritual babies—brand-new believers.

A new believer will often act like a natural child with the marks of immaturity, including instability and gullibility. They will need constant assurance and care. They often do the unexpected because they are still learning what it means to follow Jesus. They may be self-centered, selfish, and irresponsible. Spiritual parents must help these children learn the basic foundations of the Christian faith and move on to new horizons so as to grow in maturity.

But what happens when spiritual babies do not grow up? Quite simply, they remain babies. The sad thing is, the church can be filled with “children” (some fifty-plus years old) who have never grown up. They live self-centered lifestyles, complaining, fussing, and throwing temper tantrums when things do not go their way. Some do not accept the fact that God loves them for who they are. Others may wallow in self-pity when they fail. Still others may live under an immense cloud of guilt and condemnation.

We expect children to grow up. Church leaders cannot be expected to spoon-feed new believers in their congregation indefinitely. Spiritual babies are expected to learn to feed themselves and grow into spiritual young men and women who eventually become parents themselves.

Spiritual Young Men and Women

Fearless and strong, spiritual young men and women bring zeal to the Body of Christ. They no longer need to be spoon-fed. According to 1 John 2:14, the Word of God abides in them and they have learned to feed on the Word to overcome the wicked one.

They do not need to run constantly to others in the church like babies do, because they have learned to apply the Word in their own lives. When the devil tempts them, they know how to overcome him. Herein is the church’s crop of potential leaders. We need to do everything we can to encourage those who are young. We need to allow them to develop their ministries. While they are young, they learn to use the strength of spiritual discipline, prayer, and the study of the Word.

Both natural and spiritual young men and women can be arrogant and dogmatic and need to be “tempered” by parenting. Church leaders provide opportunities for the young people to use their spiritual energy in evangelism—and in the process, become spiritual parents who will mature even more as they learn the joys and disciplines of training others in the Lord.

Spiritual Parents

How do spiritual young men and women grow up to become spiritual fathers and mothers? There is only one way: to give birth to children! God’s will is for everyone to become a spiritual parent. You become a spiritual parent either by adoption (parenting someone who is already a believer but needs to be mentored) or by natural birth (parenting someone you have personally led to Christ).

Onesimus was a “natural” spiritual son to Paul while Timothy was a spiritual son to Paul by adoption. Paul led Onesimus to Christ while in prison (Philemon 10). Paul met Timothy while in Lystra after Timothy had come to Christ due to the influence of his mother and grandmother (Acts 16:1-3). Paul treated both “adopted son” Timothy and “natural son” Onesimus like spiritual sons. He was committed to helping them mature spiritually.

Spiritual fathers and mothers are mature believers who have grown and become fruitful in their Christian walk; they are called fathers according to 1 John 2:13. They are deeply acquainted with God and have a thorough knowledge of His Word. They are in love with Jesus. They understand what it takes to be a spiritual parent to others and are willing to pay the price to become one.

Lord, may our churches be filled with spiritual fathers and mothers who are focused on training and releasing a new generation of leaders–who will do the same for the next generation after them.

Taken from the book The Biblical Role of Elders for Today’s Church.