Spiritual Fathers and Sons
Spiritual fathers and sons is one of the most powerful truths in the Bible. It can be a source of great blessing if done properly by the Spirit of God. However, if done in the flesh, it can be one of the most damaging doctrines taught in the church. This article will explore the healthy aspects of the subject, and address the error in the church that has great potential to hurt believers.
The terms spiritual fathers and spiritual sons are grounded in scripture. Paul referred to both Timothy and Titus as his "spiritual" sons (2 Tomothy 1:2, Titus 1:4). Paul also spoke in the spiritual sense of having fathers in the faith (1 Corinthians 4:15, Philippians 2:19-22). We will examine other scriptures throughout this article, but these will be sufficient to prove that this subject is completely Biblical.
The Function of a Spiritual Father
The role of a spiritual father is to raise up a son spiritually. A father will nurture and protect a son. The spiritual father will pour out knowledge, understanding, wisdom, counsel, and blessing to the son. A father's primary goal is to make the son successful in knowing the Lord, and fulfilling the call of God on the son's life. Spiritual father's enjoy spending time with their sons not out of obligation, but because they are truly family. Father's who are controlling are not fit to be spiritual fathers. We will discuss this issue later in the article.
Jesus the Spiritual Father
We must always look to Jesus as our example of how to do things. Jesus is the perfect example of a spiritual father. Jesus even calls Himself a father (Hebrews 2:13).
Jesus called to Himself those sons who God ordained for Him, and appointed them to be with Him (Mark 3:13-15). He gave His spiritual sons access to Him everyday. His sons didn't have to go through his secretary in order to schedule a time to talk to Jesus. They had direct access to Him whenever they wanted, as true family does. Jesus' sons never felt like they were bothering him with questions for they had a open door to communicate with Him. Some leaders who claim to be spiritual fathers do not respond to emails or phone calls for days or weeks. This can be very damaging to a spiritual son, and Jesus understood this. Jesus cared about His sons and spent time with them. Any "father" who does not spend time with his sons, is not a real spiritual father. Many desire to call themselves fathers, but there are very few that actually are fathers.
Jesus cared greatly about the spiritual needs of His sons. He invested time into them so they would be successful. He gave them wisdom, understanding, knowledge, and He taught them about God. He demonstrated to His sons how to do ministry. He trained them, and then He raised them up and empowered them. Then He gave them power and authority to do ministry, and His platform to preach (Luke 9:1-6). True spiritual fathers empower their sons and give them their platform.
False spiritual fathers rarely, if ever, share their platform. If they do, it's always controlled. They may require a "son" to give them a detailed account of the message before they are allowed to preach it. The want-to-be spiritual father may tell the son what to preach, instead of allowing the son to hear from the Lord and preach whatever the Lord desires. When Jesus sent His sons out, He did not tell them what to preach. He simply said, “And as you go, preach, saying, ‘The kingdom of heaven is at hand.’” (Matthew 10:7 NKJV). False spiritual fathers may allow a son to take their platform on a rare occasion, but they will never fully give their sons an inheritance. They do this more out of obligation than of genuine love and wanting their sons to succeed.
Jesus believed in the ones who no one else believed in. He took the ones who didn't make the cut for formal ministry training, and transformed them into some of the greatest ministers in history. A true father believes in his sons, and gets the best out of them. He gets the best out of them because he treats them the best. One of Jesus' main priorities was not building His own ministry, but building others. He worked diligently to see the life of God established in others. This could only be done out of a deep and intimate personal relationship. Any father that is unwilling to spend time with his sons like Jesus did, is not a father at all. Fathers who don't put forth the effort to spend time with their sons are nothing more than fakes, who simply desire the title of father like the Pharisees did (Matthew 23:1-12). Jesus clearly warns us in the scripture not to call leaders by the "title" of father, who simply desire to be titled as a form of honor before men.
Jesus released His sons into ministry even though they were not fully mature, as they were still arguing over who was the greatest. Character and Christ-likeness are extremely important, and necessary for heathy ministry. A certain level of maturity must be attained before a son is ready for ministry. However, Jesus understood that if one had to be perfect to be in ministry, then no one would be in ministry. He knew that this group of sons would abide in God until they attained to spiritual maturity, and therefore He trusted them with ministry. Controlling leaders can never trust sons with ministry. These fathers will always overlook their own faults and see clearly the faults of their sons. They will justify that their spiritual sons are not ready for ministry. Of course if these fathers have a son in the natural, that son will be ready for ministry in their eyes (even if he really isn't). This is because false spiritual fathers do things according to the flesh, rather than the Spirit.
Jesus treated His sons as though they were more mature than they really were, and by doing this; He brought them into greater levels of maturity. They matured rapidly because He treated them with respect and trusted them. Controlling or false spiritual fathers do not have the ability to treat their sons as though they are mature. These "fathers" talk down to their sons and make them feel low and insignificant. Sons can never get it right in their eyes. False fathers do not have the capacity to treat their sons with much respect. They do however require the son to honor them and treat them with respect. They don't know how to be a father, because they don't know how to be a son.
Jesus trusted His sons. He gave Judas the responsibility of overseeing the money. Jesus could have placed two of His sons in charge of collecting, counting, and distributing the ministry funds; but He did not. He put trust in Judas, even though He knew that Judas would betray Him. This is remarkable leadership that is extremely hard for us to understand. The controlling spiritual father will have a hard time trusting even the most honest spiritual son. This kind of father will need to be there to make sure the son "gets it right."
One of Jesus' focuses was to see God's destiny come to pass through His spiritual sons. He believed in and supported His sons, so God's will could be accomplished through them. The controlling false spiritual father will only be concerned about his own vision. He may say he cares about the vision that God wants to accomplish through his sons, but he really does not. This kind of father is only interested in getting sons to serve his vision and ministry. The controlling father does not want to release spiritual sons into their own ministries, because he needs slaves to serve his own ministry. This of course is because his calling and ministry are more important.
Jesus counseled His sons to be leaders and spiritual fathers themselves: “Now there was also a dispute among them, as to which of them should be considered the greatest. And He said to them, “The kings of the Gentiles exercise lordship over them, and those who exercise authority over them are called ‘benefactors.’ But not so among you; on the contrary, he who is greatest among you, let him be as the younger, and he who governs as he who serves. For who is greater, he who sits at the table, or he who serves? Is it not he who sits at the table? Yet I am among you as the One who serves.” (Luke 22:24-27 NKJV).
According to Jesus, the greatest leader (or spiritual father) will be servant of all. Jesus came serving His sons. His sons did serve Him, but He served them in a far greater capacity than they could ever serve Him. Jesus gave them everything. As we have already discussed, He gave them power, authority, knowledge, anointing, a platform, and released them into ministry. Compared to how much Jesus served them, His sons served Him very little. The greatest among them was servant of all, and the greatest among them was clearly Jesus. He is the example and He led by example.
Many false leaders (spiritual fathers) exercise the seat of authority in a "lordship" type position. They may never openly say this, but the air in their congregation is permeated with a sense of "everyone needs to serve the leader...it's all about the leaders vision...sons need to serve their father's vision." The problem with this line of thinking is that it is the opposite of what Jesus taught. Jesus said that those leaders who are considered great, are those who serve everyone else. Jesus said that the one who governs the church must become the servant. This does not mean that the governor should require everyone to serve him and build his ministry. It means that the governor uses his power and authority to empower people into their God given callings. The leader is to perfect/equip the saints for the work of ministry (Ephesians 4:11-13). The scripture does not say that the leader is to perfect/equip the saints for the building up of and work of his own ministry. The saint may be called to be apart of that leaders ministry or the saint may not. That is not the leader's job to worry about. The leader's job is to obey Christ and the scripture. Serve, perfect, train, empower, and release. True fathers simply want their sons to succeed, and to go further than themselves.
True sons will serve their father, but service should always be based on relationship; not requirement. Required service is burdensome, while service done out of friendship is an easy yoke to bear. Jesus called His sons to be in relationship with Him before He expected them to serve Him. Some pastors or leaders will not even consider spending time with someone unless they serve their ministry first. Some leaders will not even allow you to "fit in" at their church until you prove that you are willing to serve. We must ask ourselves, is that how Jesus operates? Is that the love of God? Jesus got His sons to serve Him faithfully by establishing relationship with them. Whether it's sons serving fathers or fathers serving sons; relationship must be our foundation. That is Kingdom.
John the Father
“Again, the next day, John stood with two of his disciples. And looking at Jesus as He walked, he said, “Behold the Lamb of God!” The two disciples heard him speak, and they followed Jesus.” John 1:35-37 NKJV
Real spiritual fathers will always point to Jesus. Even if it means that their own sons will begin following Jesus more than they follow them. The goal of a true father is for Jesus' influence to increase in the life of a spiritual son, and their own influence to decrease. A fathers main desire is to see his son in an intimate relationship with Christ, in which the son is walking in complete obedience to the Lord. A father's goal should be to see his son transformed into the image and maturity of Christ, where the son can be a father and raise healthy spiritual children himself.
A real father will encourage a son to follow another ministry if it will be beneficial to the son. The father will point to Jesus in another ministry, and freely allow the son to be apart of that ministry. Controlling fathers will never do this, because they do not want to give up any of their influence in a son's life. These fathers grab a hold of a son and keep him confined in their own ministry or church.
False Spiritual Fathers
Some leaders are currently teaching on the father/son relationship, and should not be doing so. These are leaders who do not have a full revelation of sonship, and thus cannot be spiritual fathers. Some of these leaders are deceived in their hearts in believing that they really are spiritual fathers. After teaching on this subject in their congregations, believers begin to grab ahold of this revelation and call their leaders "dad" or "papa". The false spiritual father will accept the name that the believer calls them, but the leader may not return the term of endearment to the believer. Most people in these congregations are not treated as sons, but rather slaves. I have personally witnessed a precious believer who took this doctrine whole-heartedly, and called a leader "papa". The leader continued on like the believer didn't even say anything to him. He continued to give the believer instructs like he would a servant, and did not return any kind of affection whatsoever. It was one of the most heartbreaking and sickening things I have ever witnessed. My heart sank when I saw this display of hurtfulness, and it almost makes me want to weep.
The revelation of spiritual fathers and sons can be one of the most powerful understandings in God's Kingdom, and it also has the potential to be one of the most damaging. If leaders who are not spiritually mature, and spiritually whole; teach this message, they can damage believers. If these leaders are not willing to truly treat people like spiritual sons, they will severely hurt people. The Lord has high requirements for His leadership. To whom much is given, much is required. Leaders will be held accountable before the throne of judgment for every believer that they have hurt or damaged. ““Whoever causes one of these little ones who believe in Me to sin, it would be better for him if a millstone were hung around his neck, and he were drowned in the depth of the sea. Woe to the world because of offenses! For offenses must come, but woe to that man by whom the offense comes!” Matthew 18:6-7 NKJV
I have personally heard a pastor's son teaching on sonship and explaining to a congregation that they needed to become spiritual sons. At that time, a number of believers in the congregation were already attempting to be spiritual sons to this pastor, but were not being treated like sons. It was such a damaging message to the congregation because the people were already doing what they had been taught, but the very leadership that was teaching the message was unable to fulfill their own teaching. The pastors son went on to tell the congregation about all the privileges he had because he was a "spiritual son" to his natural father. What he could not see, was that the only reason he was given these special benefits is because he was the pastor's natural son. Everyone else in the congregation that wanted to be the pastor's spiritual sons, were not given benefits like a spiritual son. The pastor's son basically "beat the sheep" with this message, and it was obvious that he did not have the proper authority to preach it.
Those leaders who are not willing to walk in the example of Jesus the spiritual father, should not be teaching this doctrine. Some believers have enough discernment to see that their leaders are not true spiritual fathers and mothers, yet they submit to the doctrine anyway. These believers will be more damaged in the end than the rest of the believers who could not discern properly. The Lord will hold these believers accountable for submitting to the false spiritual father, since these believers knew better. It will at best, cost believers years of delay in a spiritual wilderness. At worst, it could entangle believers so much that they miss their opportunity to enter their promise land, just as Israel did. This is a serious matter.
Submitting to a controlling spiritual father will damage believers. Spiritual fathers should be free, releasing, and empowering. However, fathers who have control issues, are deeply wounded themselves and have no business fathering spiritual sons. These fathers will simply poison the hearts of pure sons with the same things that have their own hearts polluted with. Believers who submit to control will take on the control spirit, and become controlling themselves (possibly with their wives or anyone else they have authority over).
The Shepherding Movement
The doctrine of spiritual sons and fathers (in its pure form) is completely of the Lord. However there is a great danger in the church. Some of the errors of the shepherding movement have been rising in the church, and are being mixed with the spiritual father/son message. This is beginning to pollute the pure doctrine that the Lord desires to release. The enemy has used a back door to gain access to God's people. His goal is to come in under the appearance of righteous doctrine, and entangle believers once again. Satan's purpose in doing this is to hurt and embitter believers.
Satan has been attempting to reintroduce the shepherding movement into the father and son doctrine. In congregations where he is successful, sons will feel that they must get permission from there spiritual father before they can make decisions. It's not wrong for a son to seek counsel from his father, but a son finding it necessary to get permission is another issue altogether. Sons who are bound in control will feel it necessary to run there decisions by their spiritual father in order to get their approval or permission. The Lord's permission or approval will not be enough. These sons have submitted to the control of the shepherd, so they must have his approval before moving forward. Moving forward on a decision without the approval of the spiritual father could put the son in bad standing with the father. The son desires to fit in so he cannot risk this. The son is controlled.
A pure and good spiritual father will give advice, and counsel the son to obey the Lord in whatever the son feels the Lord is saying. A controlling shepherding style father will cast confusion into the process. He may muddy the waters with his own opinions, will, or what he feels the Lord is saying to the son. In more severe scenarios, the controlling father can even become a mediator between the spiritual son and God. Pure spiritual fathers will always leave the decision to the son without trying to manipulate their decision. This takes maturity and discipline, but is one of the hallmarks of a true father. Real spiritual fathers are characterized by their openness and freedom.
Precaution in Teaching this Doctrine
The doctrine of spiritual fathers and sons should not be taught to everyone in a general sense. If a pastor teaches it to an entire congregation, then the whole congregation desires to enter into an intimate spiritual relationship with their leader. The believers desire to be sons to their spiritual father, the pastor. Then things began to unravel. The pastor will only be able to spend time with a few of the believers in the congregation under the role of a spiritual father. The majority of the congregation gets left out and feels undervalued. The believers just got a message preached to them about being spiritual sons to a father. Then they take a hold of the revelation and want to spend time with their spiritual father. However, their "father" does not make time for them and they are hurt.
We must be very careful how we preach this message, and who we preach it to. It can absolutely devastate precious believers. We must explain in greater detail about how these spiritual matters work. If we cannot communicate clearly, then we should not be communicating the message at all.
The Lord has a spiritual match for most believers in marriage. He also has a match for most spiritual fathers and sons. Just like it is not alright for a believer to marry any woman he chooses to, it is not okay for a believer to become a son of any spiritual father. It could certainly be called "spiritual," but it may be completely of the flesh. If a father and son enter into a relationship that is not of the Holy Spirit, then it will be of the flesh. With so much teaching on spiritual fathers and sons, there are many believers who are understandably excited to enter into one of these relationships. Therefore when a pastor teaches on the subject, believers commit whole-heartedly. Many times the believer does not have the spiritual understanding or maturity to know any better. Most of the blame should then fall on the leader for not explaining the doctrine properly.
Elijah had a spiritual son and his name was Elisha. This relationship was ordained by God. If Elijah would have spoken to someone else and gotten a different person to become be his spiritual son; Elijah would have drifted off into the flesh. The Lord had a specific son for Elijah, and that relationship was of the Spirit of God. The same was true for Jesus, Paul, and Peter. Not any son could of had Peter for a spiritual father, but only those sons who the Lord ordained. The spiritual father and sonship revelation must be done by the Spirit. If not, it will continue to hurt and crush believers in the church.
Leaders need to explain clearly that only the Lord can place a spiritual father and a son together. It must not be done by our will or our desire, so that we do not get off into the flesh. Leaders need to teach that the Lord will make it happen in His timing and in His way. When it happens it will feel peaceful and natural. It will not be forced, because it will be from Him.
A whole congregation should not be taught that their pastor or leader is their spiritual father/mother. How could the leader know for sure that they are called of God to be a spiritual father to every single person in the congregation? It could be that some believers in a congregation are only called by God to be in that congregation for a certain period of time, and after that season is complete; the Lord moves them to another congregation where they meet their God appointed spiritual father and mother. We must not assume that we know the will of the Lord for a whole congregation of people.
Remember that the model for being a spiritual father is Jesus. Even He could only effectively father a limited number of sons. We must protect believers in the church as Jesus would. Let us repent from any error so that no more saints are spiritually wrecked.
Fathers in a General Sense
Paul indicates to the church in Corith in 1 Corinthians 4:14-17, that because they came to the Lord through his ministry; they were (in a general sense) children to him through the gospel. They were born again through his ministry, so in a way, he was a father to them. However, Paul says of Timothy that he is a "beloved son." So there is a difference between being a father to someone in the gospel ( in a general sense as some pastors may be to certain congregations), and walking in a true father/son relationship as Timothy and Paul did. Some pastors may only be one of the ten thousand instructors which Paul refers to. The Lord does things differently with different people in different locations and in different congregations. We must follow the guiding of the Holy Spirit if we desire to stay out of error. Copying other ministries or ministers can lead to disaster. We need the Spirit.
Sons and Orphans
I once heard a pastor (who was promoting the spiritual father teaching) take up an offering for a guest speaker (his spiritual father). The pastor said, "Sons know how to give, but orphans don't give." My wife and I couldn't believe the manipulation that was coming forth from this man. He was basically saying that you are only a son if you give money. If you do not give then you are just an orphan. This manipulation caused people in the meeting to feel a heavy pressure to give in the offering so they didn't look like orphans (even if they had already given a decent amount of money in prior meetings). It was extremely sad.
It was clear that the pastor who used this manipulation was not a real son himself. No real son would ever say that, but only an orphan. Sonship is not something you teach because you understand it as a doctrine. It is something you become, because the revelation is living inside you.
Congregations throughout a city or region should be "spiritual family." This may begin with one individual congregation becoming a spiritual family. Once one congregation has "got it," it has the potential of spreading to other congregations. This is the Kingdom of God. One congregation cannot be a "family" apart from the rest of the body of Christ in a city or region. Each congregation is a part of the body of Christ, and only when all the parts are in relationship is the family or body complete.
Believers will not want to leave a real spiritual family. Just because leaders of a church are confidently saying that their church is a spiritual family, does not make it so. Spiritual families are not determined by the words of leadership. They are determined by the actions of leadership that create an atmosphere for the congregation.
Church leaders may actually believe that their church is a spiritual family, when in reality they are not. If believers are consistently leaving a congregation, it is a clear sign that it is not a spiritual family. If believers who have been apart of a ministry or a church for many years begin leaving, it is a sign that the leadership has not created an atmosphere of family. Words are cheap, actions are what demonstrate reality.
A spiritual father, may at times, need to bring correction or discipline to a son. If a son is in error or has fallen into sin, then this may be necessary.
A true spiritual son must be willing to receive correction as Peter did from Jesus in Matthew 16:23. Any true son will be open to discipline if they have erred or sinned, because real spiritual sons are obedient to the word (Hebrew 12:5-11). Mature spiritual fathers will always correct sons with love and gentleness, knowing that they themselves are far from perfect. Restoration must be done in humility as the scripture commands (Galatians 6:1-3).
The Spirit and Power of Elijah
“Behold, I will send you Elijah the prophet Before the coming of the great and dreadful day of the LORD. And he will turn The hearts of the fathers to the children, And the hearts of the children to their fathers, Lest I come and strike the earth with a curse.”” Malachi 4:5-6 NKJV
John the Baptist ministered in the spirit and power of Elijah before the Lord's first coming (Luke 1:16). The Lord stated in Malachi that the spirit and power of Elijah would be released again before His second coming. It was given to John for one nation, and now it is being released to a select company of people for the nations. Some Elijah-like ministries will carry this anointing. Part of their calling is to restore the hearts of fathers to the children, and the hearts of the children to the fathers.
These ministries will lay a proper foundation for the doctrine of fathers and sons. They will be tearing down improper teaching and bringing correction in this area to the body of Christ. These ministries will be distinct and noticeable because they carry the same confrontational DNA as Elijah, Elisha, and John the Baptist. Other ministries will not carry the same authority to release and implement the father and son revelation. The scripture is very clear. It says He will send Elijah the prophet. It does not say He will send Daniel the prophet or John the apostle. I am not saying that other ministries are not important. I am saying, however, that the Lord has chosen Elijah-like ministries for a certain function and it is important that we listen to the Lord. It's about His will, not our own.
Much of the current mess in the church is because other ministries have taken the lead on releasing the doctrine of fathers and sons. Believers will continue to get hurt until we yield to the Lord's timing and the Lord's ways. Those who walk in the spirit and power of Elijah have authority to lay the foundations of this doctrine. Certain churches are ready for this doctrine to be released, and certain churches are not. Those operating in the spirit and power of Elijah can discern more accurately which ministries are ready for this understanding to be revealed. Ministries who are not ready for this understanding will damage believers.
Not all Have Fathers
The Lord may assign a believer a spiritual father, or He may not. This is His choice, and we must abide in His will. If we choose our own will, spiritual messes will be the result. Elijah did not have a spiritual father; rather the Lord was his Father. If the Lord chooses this for any of us, then He will be completely sufficient. He can do whatever He desires, and He may have a reason for not giving us a spiritual father. We should never try and force believers or ministers to have a spiritual father and mother. This is not a rigid doctrine, but a life-based relationship given by the Lord. If the Lord does choose to put two people together in a father/son relationship; it will be by His Spirit. The Lord will speak to both people about the relationship, and His peace will be there to confirm it.
If done properly, the father/son relationship can be extremely rich, whole, and spiritually beneficial. If done in the flesh, it can destroy lives; for it is the Spirit who gives life, the flesh profits nothing (John 6:63). We must be extremely careful as we progress in this revelation. We must grab a hold of the grace of God and only move forward in Him. True fathers and sons bless one another abundantly. They serve one another, respect one another, and love one another. Real fathers and sons want the other to be fully successful in whatever the Lord has called them to. They give to each other so that they can both prosper. They come together in unity because they realize that it is not about their own personal kingdoms, it's about their Heavenly Father's Kingdom. True fathers and sons are about their Father's business. When fathers and sons are walking together in truth, freedom, and wholeness; it truly is a manifestation of the Kingdom of God on the earth.
- Ty Unruh (2015)