Question: "What is a spiritual father?"
Answer: The phrase spiritual father is not found in the Bible. There are passages that do imply a form of spiritual fatherhood between individuals and over churches. Peter called Mark “my son” (1 Peter 5:13). Paul refers to Timothy as “my true son in the faith,” thus indicating his close relationship to Timothy (1 Timothy 1:2). Elsewhere in Paul’s letters, he also refers to Onesimus as his son, indicating that he was a spiritual father to the former slave (Philemon 1:10).
The apostles also imply that they are “spiritual fathers” in relationship to various congregations. The apostle John referred to members of a church he was overseeing as his children (1 John 2:1, 12–13). Paul’s relationship with the Corinthian church is likened to that of a father to his children (2 Corinthians 12:14–15). Elsewhere, Paul writes, “I am writing this not to shame you but to warn you as my dear children. Even if you had ten thousand guardians in Christ, you do not have many fathers, for in Christ Jesus I became your father through the gospel” (1 Corinthians 4:14–15). In each case, it could be that these apostles had led their “spiritual children” to faith in Christ; even if they did not, the apostles loved, protected, and led those under their spiritual care as a father would his own children. We note that, although Paul calls Timothy his “son in the faith,” nowhere are any of the apostles addressed as “father” by other believers.
Father (abbreviated as Fr.) is a title used by Catholics to designate priests and even the Pope, whose title means “father.” Just as a father works at raising his children to maturity, so Catholic priests claim that their job as spiritual fathers is to raise their congregations to spiritual maturity. They liken their job as spiritual fathers to that of physical fathers, claiming they wash the children at birth with infant baptism, feed them with the Eucharist, and guide them by interpreting the Bible. Roman Catholics use verses such as 1 Corinthians 4:14–15 and 2 Corinthians 12:14–15 as support for their priests being called “fathers,” but nowhere in Scripture are overseers or pastors called spiritual fathers. Rather, they are called shepherds (John 21:15–17; 1 Peter 5:1–3). Just as Jesus is the Good Shepherd (John 10:11), so are pastors to be shepherds of the flock of believers that Christ entrusts to them (1 Peter 5:2).
The idea of a spiritual father is often used more generically of any Christian man who is discipling or mentoring a younger Christian in the faith. Jesus has commanded His followers to “make disciples,” which involves creating spiritual relationships that in some ways resemble father/son and mother/daughter relationships (Matthew 28:19). In Paul’s letter to Titus, he discusses how older women should teach younger Christian women in the faith (Titus 2:4).
As Timothy’s spiritual father, Paul taught doctrine and modeled Christian living to his young friend by taking him along on mission trips (2 Timothy 1:13; Acts 16:1–3; 2 Corinthians 1:19). After a while, Timothy took on a leadership role of his own, and he in turn discipled other believers in a “spiritual father”-type of relationship (1 Thessalonians 3:2; 1 Timothy 4:11–16).
In Matthew 23, Jesus forbids the use of the title father as a sign of superiority: “Do not call anyone on earth ‘father,’ for you have one Father, and he is in heaven” (verse 9). In that same context, Jesus also forbids the titles rabbi (“teacher”) and instructor (“master” or “leader”). John MacArthur comments: “Here Jesus condemns pride and pretense, not titles per se. . . . Christ is merely forbidding the use of such names as spiritual titles, or in an ostentatious sense that accords undue spiritual authority to a human being, as if he were the source of truth rather than God” (The MacArthur Study Bible).