Shortly after my last retreat, I had a conversation with one of my friend’s older sister. Since hearing me talk about mental health struggles she- like many others- seems to have the idea that I am what the bible describes as a ‘baby in faith’. On my part, I don’t deny this. I’ll happily be a baby in faith to everyone including God. Too many people trying to claim spiritual adulthood without considering that true growth requires tons of pain. Whether I am a baby-in-faith or adolescent or whatever stage of the journey I am on however is something I know only God can determine. What she was doing is patronizing judging. But then, most of us are guilty of that. God knows I’ve done my share. So I recognized it and accepted it with a shrug.
With that background, you can understand that when I told her I had taken a retreat and felt the experience really grew me, she still had her misgivings. She asked me “who led you through the retreat, I told her that an older Christian friend of mine ‘held my hand’ through it. She said “Yes, but what man of God?’ and I could sense the judgment so I made it clear that I had received some counseling from my pastor. Then she said: “I really think you would do better with a spiritual father”. Right then, I felt myself go tense, as the one who sought and experienced the retreat, I was wondering what made this other person deem it not good enough and in need of improvement for ‘better’. But when that initial annoyance at the dismissal of my experience not being good enough, passed. I was able to query her on the notion of Spiritual fathers.
Why do you think I need a spiritual father? She responded that I could use with someone stronger in faith to shepherd me. That choice of words and my experience with acquaintances who often speak of their ‘spiritual parents’ left me disturbed. So I’m making this post as a call for public opinion. I may overthink wording as a writer/lover of words. But I think we call all agree that the words one uses matter…
When you say someone is your father, you put them in a position of authority with responsibility. The church encourages the practice of godparents who are to assist parents in raising the children and in some cultures step in when parents pass away. But this is different from the idea behind spiritual fathers/mothers as used today. From talking with this friend and others I have gleaned that one’s spiritual father is deemed their intercessor, the one who helps them become better Christians, the one to whom they confess, who corrects them, who counsels them in making life-changing decisions, who helps them interpret the bible and much more. I once asked a friend who spoke of such what theologians and pastors are for then? Her response? Pastors cannot possibly develop sufficient familiarity with all their church members so spiritual fathers are necessary. That may be the strongest argument I’ve heard for ‘spiritual parents’. It is very true, that as our churches grow in size the connection/fellowship is often watered down and it is hard for pastors to actually shepherd.
Yet given my experience; the things expected of spiritual fathers/mothers, the role-play in the relationships and most importantly, the basis for selection of hints of idolatry. I know we often think of idolatry as worshiping some statue, but one of the greatest lessons I’ve learned in the course of my Christian journey is that idolatry is sneaky and rarely ever that straight forward. It is often as simple as extreme reverence, placing a human on a pedestal they shouldn’t be on, valuing something- anything- more than we value God. It’s a more common sin that we think.
Idolatry is often performed in the church itself; we often put our religious leaders on pedestals forgetting that they too are human. Because ‘the man of God’ said it, it must be true. We don’t try to get to know God for ourselves, content with what the pastor shares on Sunday. This shouldn’t be the case.
The idolizing of church leaders is often accepted (even expected) based on their authority as trained theologians, and recognized leaders of the congregation. With regards to ‘spiritual fathers/mothers’ however, the basis for idolizing is even less substantial because most spiritual fathers/mothers have not really trained in theology, nor even as counselors. They also do not have institutions that can call them to order or reign in their influence. And what is most disturbing, their accreditation is often human judgment. They are spiritual mothers/fathers because they are perceived to be more ‘spiritual’ than the ‘children’, closer to God, more able to interpret the word, more ‘professional’ Christians.
No one should be thought of as ‘spiritually higher’ to the point of being our intercessor- that is Christ’s job as our High Priest. No one should be charged with being an interpreter of the word on our behalf, we have been given the Holy Spirit to enable that for us. Mind you, I do not mean to deny that some people are more spiritually mature than others based on their length of time in the Christian journey, experiences, spiritual gifts and regular study of the world. Yet, as Christians, we ALL have equal access to God. We are all his children. And as, Priscilla Shirer is noted for saying, God doesn’t have grandchildren. We can and should go to those we see as more spiritually mature for mentoring. But we need to also keep in mind that we are not God, and how we measure spiritual maturity may not be how he measures Christianity. A new ‘baby’ Christian can teach a great deal as well.
So let’s talk: what is your take on this? What is a spiritual father/mother to you? What role do they play in your life?