Christian Leaders Should Be Spiritual Parents

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Do you desire to be a pastor or a Christian leader? If so, we need to be good. We need to preach Jesus and live according to his Word. For our charge is a serious one: we must guide people through life into the kingdom of God.

So how can we know whether or not we are (or will be) a good leader or pastor? Here is one way to answer that question: can we see ourselves as a spiritual parent who lovingly and firmly guides others along the Way of Christ? If so, we are a good leader.

Let me fill in the gaps of what I mean by surveying Paul’s pastoral emphases, aspects of God’s nature, and the elder qualifications of 1 Timothy 3.

Paul the Parental Pastor

Paul called Timothy his child numerous times in the New Testament (1 Tim 1:2; 1:18; 2 Tim 1:2; 2:1; 1 Cor 4:17). Their relationship was one of mentor and disciple, of father and son. The love between them approximated a biological family but arguably it was more intimate because Paul’s child Timothy became his child not by blood but by choice.

Timothy seems to have held Paul as a father too, as the apostle himself indicates: “But you know Timothy’s proven worth, how as a son with a father he has served with me in the gospel” (Phil 2:22). So a father-son relationship marked Paul’s connection to Timothy.

Yet Paul not only pastors his disciples as a father figure. He also pastors as a mother. Of the Thessalonians, Paul says, “But we were gentle among you, like a nursing mother taking care of her own children” (1 Thess 2:7). Paul brought his flock to his body, protecting them like a mother protects an infant.

A pastor is a spiritual parent. He manifests the love of a father and the gentleness of a nursing mother to his spiritual children. This nurturing love marks a good pastor.

God the Father or Parent

In Scripture, God is the Father. And he is not a Father by analogy to earthly fathers. Just the opposite. Paul writes, “For this reason I bow my knees before the Father, from whom every family in heaven and on earth is named” (Eph 3:14–15). Families receive their name from the Father. Not the other way around. We have children because God has a child: the Son. God is the archetype; we are the subsequent pattern. God has always been the Father to his Son. And that is where families on earth received their names.

Yet while God properly goes by the name of Father, he sometimes metaphorically bears feminine or motherly traits. For example, God claims. “You were unmindful of the Rock that [birthed you], and you forgot the God [who laboured with you until birth]” (Deut 32:18). Elsewhere, God says, “As one whom his mother comforts, so I will comfort you; you shall be comforted in Jerusalem” (Isa 66:13).

So the heavenly Father whose Fatherhood and Being surpass all being and definition can also enter into the metaphors of childbirth and maternal comfort.

Here’s the point: the particular mark of a pastor is godliness, which is to say, spiritual parentage. God is a parent. That’s who he is. He is Father. And we are his children. Pastors imitate God by making disciples of spiritual children.

Elder Qualifications Show Us How to Spiritually Parent

How can we be good spiritual parents? Look to God the Father of all. All virtues, all ethics, all patterns of imitation in Scripture find their root in God’s nature. He is Good. He is love. He is Holy. So we pursue the Good because in so doing we pursue God.

The elder qualifications of 1 Timothy 3 do not compromise some mysterious attributes of superhumans. They simply verify whether or not a Christian lives his life according to the Gospel of Jesus Christ and the nature of God. And yes: whether or not a person can effectively teach and preach as well as manage God’s church.

Consider Paul’s words:

The saying is trustworthy: If anyone aspires to the office of overseer, he desires a noble task. Therefore an overseer must be above reproach, the husband of one wife, sober-minded, self-controlled, respectable, hospitable, able to teach, not a drunkard, not violent but gentle, not quarrelsome, not a lover of money. He must manage his own household well, with all dignity keeping his children submissive, for if someone does not know how to manage his own household, how will he care for God’s church? He must not be a recent convert, or he may become puffed up with conceit and fall into the condemnation of the devil. Moreover, he must be well thought of by outsiders, so that he may not fall into disgrace, into a snare of the devil. (1 Tim 3:1–7)

First, being an overseer signifies a good desire. And overseers must faithfully commit to their spouses (if they have one) like Christ commits to love the church or like God loves his family faithfully.

Overseers must then exhibit godly behaviour (self-control, etc.) and not fall into patterns of vice, which are unbecoming of God or the man of God. And as a father of a household, an overseer must “manage his own household well.” The point being is that pastors will use the fatherly management of their household in “God’s church.”

He must not be a new convert or someone who is young in the Lord. Lastly, he must not have a bad reputation with outsiders or else he may fall into the trap of the devil.

These characteristics in 1 Timothy 3 show what it looks like to be a good spiritual parent because they are marks of godliness. When we have attained a consistent witness and lifestyle, we will have grown into maturity. So we can parent spiritual children, showing how to walk the Way of Christ.

Is This Like Roman Catholicism?

Roman Catholics call their priests fathers. As I have not advocated calling pastors fathers, the above argument simply amounts the reality that pastors must treat their flock as children; and a good pastor is like a good father—our heavenly Father (cf. Matt 23:9).

So I return to my claim at the beginning: a good pastor (or leader) is like a good parent. Pastors lovingly nurture and firmly lead their children by the hand into the way of godliness, having arrived at the destination before their children. That way, they already know how to walk the Way of Christ. They can give directions to their children.

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