Do you aspire to be a spiritual leader?
I’ve never been a stranger to ambition. Since childhood I’ve wanted to fix the world and punish fools. Fortunately, since then, the Lord has shown me that I would fall among the fools if I tried.
Yet, the desire to make a difference has lived on. Those of us that aim to spend our days in meaningful Gospel work are looking ahead to life as a spiritual mother or father. Somewhere along the line, you were inspired, cared for, or challenged by the Gospel, and it changed you. We want to be the person that brings that living water, rescue, and growth to new Christians. Of course, the question is how?
What means are most effective? Am I mature enough? How do I know? How do I grow as a leader?
We seem to intuitively know that a goal of spiritual maturity is to become an example to others. If you step back and take a look at that knowledge for a moment, a key to this mystery emerges. In order to become a healthy spiritual parent, we need to ourselves be parented. If we can fall short of our calling by failing to lead others, we fall short of being discipled when we fail to trust those who are leading us.
Now, I know caveats leap up from that statement like fruit flies from the rubbish. Some people don’t bear being trusted. In fact, people in general are kind of dysfunctional. But here’s the sticking place: they’re the option you’ve got. In the resurrection of Christ, God has done away with intermediaries between himself and humankind, and indeed, the Holy Spirit inside of us is our teacher (1 John 2:27). Nevertheless, from the writings of Moses to Paul, God doesn’t waver in affirming his design of how we come to learn: someone tells us. Someone lives out the truth with us.
For all the centuries of speaking through the prophets that God did, it wasn’t enough for him. To bring ultimate transformation to humankind, he sent someone to live with us—his own self, Jesus Christ.
God seems to be in the business of embodied discipleship. In the Old Testament, the manner of this model is very straightforward: parents, teach your children. Psalm 78 gives beautiful language to God’s ancient call for elders to be the mentors of the next generation:
He commanded our fathers
to teach [the laws] to their children,
that the next generation might know them,
the children yet unborn,
and arise and tell them to their children,
so that they should set their hope in God
and not forget the works of God,
but keep his commandments;
(Psalm 78:5-7, ESV)
While God did plenty of speaking through prophets in that day, his chosen pattern was for people to learn through other people. The Lord knows what we are. We live by imitation. He made us that way.
In the New Testament, it’s made clear that neither the absence of natural children nor even of natural parents is an insurmountable impediment to this design. God’s foundational pattern of embodied discipleship has not changed. We are called to be imitators of Christ, acting toward others as models of God’s own fatherhood toward us. The Apostle Paul calls himself the spiritual father of Timothy and Onesimus, and offers us one of the clearest pictures of spiritual parenthood in the scriptures:
“For though you have countless guides in Christ, you do not have many fathers. For I became your father in Christ Jesus through the gospel. I urge you, then, be imitators of me.” (1 Cor. 4:15-16, ESV)
Here’s the deal. As scary as it is to choose to trust someone, limitations and all, if you desire to become a spiritual parent, someone is going to have to do that toward you. It’s probably apparent that you yourself are inadequate for the role of spiritual dad or mom, yet, you know you’re called to be one. Can you trust that God will fill in your gaps? God will also fill in the gaps between you and your leaders. To submit to leaders is not principally an act of trust toward them, but toward your ultimate Father, who gave them to you. Trust him first, and because you trust him, choose to trust them. And grow.
- “For though you have countless guides in Christ, you do not have many fathers” (1 Cor. 4:15a, ESV). Do you have strong leaders in your life that you’re comfortable imitating? Paul admits though we have many guides in our journey with Christ, not everyone qualifies as a spiritual parent. The formative force of imitation is so strong, it’s worth seeking a home where God can set you free to learn and lead.
- “I will be a father to you, and you shall be sons and daughters to me, says the Lord Almighty” (2 Cor. 6:18, ESV).
Remember that to every disciple you have, God is the ultimate father. He is zealous to protect their formation, and he is zealous to protect yours. Because you trust God, ask him to help you trust the place and people he’s asked you to submit to.
- “I urge you, then, be imitators of me” (1 Cor. 4:16, ESV). Will the spiritual mom you’re imitating come with her limits and even dysfunctions? Yes. Will some of those rub off on you? Absolutely. Yet, on the whole, God indicates you’re better in that relationship than out of it. We will absolutely be limited by the spiritual communities we’re discipled in, but, outside of them, our strength dies in isolation. Choose how the Lord urges us. Choose the church.