Spiritual Fathering

Image of Sarah Colyn who is the President of MPC
by Sarah Colyn

Authority exercised with humility and obedience accepted with delight
are the very lines along which our spirits live.
(C. S. Lewis, Weight of Glory, p. 170)

In my meditations on perseverance I was stopped short by a phrase in The Imitation of Christ.  A’Kempis describes the posture Christ desires from those who would follow Him:  disciples are to await the bidding not only of Christ Himself, but also of “him whom God has placed as father over you” (Book III, chapter 32, italics mine). Similarly, in his Rule St. Benedict described our need to walk “by another’s judgment and command,” (Rule of St. Benedict, chapter 5, “On Obedience”).  Spiritual fathering has been a fundamental of Christian formation in both Eastern and Western Christian tradition.  Yet I suspect that for many Western Christians today this picture of Christ placing a father over us is foreign or perhaps even alarming.  You may feel provoked by this suggestion — to have a father over you, to accept the authoritative care of a leader, a teacher, a man.

I believe we will do well to consider our need, if we are to progress in becoming, to seek out and do the bidding of the godly authority He would place over us. Let’s consider what it means to receive spiritual fathering, and why it might be especially valuable in our current climate of extreme autonomy to have fathers over us.  The verb to father describes a profoundly creative action.  Spiritual fathering is a begetting of new life, the guiding and directing of one’s becoming in Christ.



What is Spiritual Fathering?


The Judeo-Christian Scriptures are filled with symbols of fathering and of men and women becoming through obedience to God the Father’s will. Christ Himself is the ultimate exemplar of this begetting.  The Scriptures declare that Christ’s personality was made full through His total yielding of self to do the bidding of His Father, even to death on the cross.  In The Cruciality of the Cross Forsyth helps us understand the profound, identity-begetting process Christ experienced as He followed His Father’s guidance all the way to the cross: “In His death He Himself found Himself fully.  And His expiring groan was also the relieved sigh of self-realisation [sic]” (Forsyth, Cruciality of the Cross, p. 141). Jesus personally testified to His continual following of His Father’s direction:  “For I have come down from heaven not to do my will but to do the will of him who sent me.” (John 6:38, NIV).  He exercised continual obedience through the power of the Holy Spirit. Thomas Smail, the Scottish theologian who authored The Forgotten Father, describes this divine Father-Son relationship:  “There operates in the life of Jesus a secret, commanding and continuous personal guidance that shapes his decisions at every point” (The Forgotten Father, p. 80).  God the Father was over Christ, loving Him by providing this perfect guidance.  He stands poised and eager to do the same for us.

Anthropology proceeds from theology, and clearly this dynamic of begetting through fathering is knit into us as image-bearers.  Jesus teaches us to address God in prayer, “Our Father,” Abba, in His heart-language of Aramaic.  He also teaches that it is through keeping His commandments that we become (John 15:10-11).  Relating to God as Father means doing His will from a heart yielded in obedience.  Smail writes, “Abba is the intimate word of a family circle where that obedient reverence was at the heart of the relationship” (The Forgotten Father, p. 39).  How might we become such reverently obedient sons and daughters?  I believe God has generous provisions by which He intends to draw us into true relationship with Himself as our Father.  First, by giving His only Son for us, we can now celebrate, “Another lives in me.” Christ’s own indwelling presence is at work within, transforming our character into His likeness.  But in addition, I am suggesting that He desires to place godly human spiritual fathers over us to facilitate this reverent relationship of obedience with our Father.  We humans mature as both this inner (mystical) and outer (relational) fathering hold us in The Way.

For many of you, Leanne was one of the important authorities God put in place to guide your becoming. I will remind us that, while human fathers are male, I am speaking here of the spiritual function of fathering that is provided within the Church by both men andwomen.  In his chapter “The Spiritual Guide,” Bishop Kallistos Ware notes that throughout Christian tradition we have had both abbas and ammas — “there are spiritual mothers as well as spiritual fathers” (The Inner Kingdom, p. 129).  In this essay I deliberately use the word fathering because it evokes a deep and powerful symbol that our souls need.  Indeed, relationship with the Father is the motive for and result of all true spiritual progress.  Sometimes the church today uses demythologized words such as “mentoring” or “accountability” when our great need truly is for fathering.  These other words may feel less threatening, but they settle for describing a sterilized function without acknowledging the generative relationship.  And it is relationship that we are called to — relationship with God Himself that is fostered by relationship with spiritual fathers.  Fathering is a word that evokes the creative reality of a seed planted, a begetting of new life.  Thus I will continue to use the word fathering intentionally and deliberately and hope to see us through the resistance and anxieties this symbol provokes.

It is possible for both men and women to provide spiritual fathering because God has gifted men and women with the masculine and feminine virtues.  In chapter 5 ofCrisis in Masculinity Leanne writes about God’s design of the polarity and complementarity of the sexes.  In this year of her passing into glory we have heard magnificent testimonies of the way Leanne’s books and pastoral care schools have provided salvific direction to your becoming.  In writing on remedial suffering, Leanne describes how she helped her dear friend Patsy stand in the cross and suffer rightly, thus turning her wounds into healing power (see chapter 13 of The Healing Presence).  This is one small but powerful example of the fathering function in our process of becoming.  Patsy allowed Leanne’s wisdom and compassion to guide her healing in a storm of overwhelming emotion.   Surely in the process of becoming we encounter tricky and overwhelming passages that we won’t find our way through without spiritual fathering.

Perhaps you are warming to the possibility of having a spiritual father over you.  Certainly monks and nuns have fathers and mothers appointed over them. But where is spiritual fathering extended and received outside the walls of monasteries?  God’s intent is for every church to be a body in which spiritual fathering begets new life.  Throughout Heaven‘s Calling Leanne wrote of her need and desire to be under godly authority: “My desire to work under godly, divinely appointed masculine authority stemmed from the fact that the church has always taught that regardless of the gifts and calling God has bestowed on someone, these should be exercised under the oversight of proper spiritual authority” (Heaven‘s Calling, p. 220).  Many churches formally support spiritual fathering via pastoral care, cell groups and counseling.  Wise believers also cultivate prayer partnerships as Leanne exhorts us to do in chapter 12 of Restoring the Christian Soul.  Spiritual directors and Christian counselors offer fathering relationships for those seeking healing and spiritual formation.  And 12-step fellowships follow a formal practice of sponsorship that serves as an essential form of fathering.  Anyone seeking sobriety can have personal, daily guidance from a sponsor who provides oversight for the sternly magnificent work of recovery.  We can see that the Church provides spiritual fathering in many ways, but we must also consider our resistance to engaging in this form of relationship.

Obstacles to Spiritual Fathering



Despite the opportunity for spiritual fathering in many formal and informal structures, my suspicion is that most Christians lack spiritual fathers who function in positions of authority to guide their becoming.  I believe we receive little spiritual fathering because it is optional. The urge for autonomy exists in us all — theologians call it our sin nature. We reject God’s authority in a perverse wish to remove ourselves to a corner of the universe where we can be our own masters.  As Father Reardon has penned, “More deeply than it is comfortable to think, we are all rebels against God” (Christ in the Psalms, p. 69).  We don’t have spiritual fathers because we don’t want them.  The tempter relentlessly attacks our understanding of authority and freedom.  Under sin, we imitate Satan’s own rebellion, rejecting God’s desire to give us “secret, commanding, and continuous personal guidance” (Smail, p. 80).  We exchange the truth for a lie as though structure, law, and authority are the enemies of freedom.  In truth, freedom is the release from bondage — a release that is only granted through a repentant return to our Father’s authority.

When human rebellion builds its camp in the illusory realm of autonomy, we make ourselves easy prey to the wages of sin and death.  Under the vice of acedia, the will serves the purpose of resistance (I won’t become who God made me to be).   And thus we find that we are in a state of rebellion. Add to this universal sinful inclination the particular toxicity of our time.  We live in an age that idolizes an absence of authoritative oversight, misconstruing a poverty of fathering as freedom. The individualism and prizing of autonomy of our day are dangerous to human becoming.

A man I knew was beginning to work with a sponsor in a 12-step program, and his sponsor told him that he wouldn’t be able to continue overseeing his recovery if he did not attend meetings, study his recovery materials, and check in with him daily.  The man found these requirements difficult and complained, “I was hoping for a little more grace.” He was misconstruing grace as a freedom from authority.  In accepting the fathering that his sponsor was offering, he had the opportunity to use his freedom for formation, healing, maturity, and obedience.I believe this is grace — this clear expectation based on what the sponsor believes will enable this man to stand in his battle with the demon of alcohol addiction. We need courage and humility to step into guiding relationships that offer spiritual fathering.




Unforgiveness fuels our resistance to spiritual fathering.  When we have failed to forgive authority figures, we resist acknowledging godly authority.  Unforgiveness will also cause us to resist submission and obedience to any human authority.  Those carrying resentment from past sins of leaders often “throw out the baby with the bathwater,” joining the world’s cynicism toward authority figures. The vice of acedia plays a wicked role here, luring us to hunker down in resentful resistance to much-needed fathering from both God and the men and women He would place over us.  It is a costly fault (spawned by unforgiveness) to reject the structures of authority that God provides for our help.

Perhaps you’ve heard an embittered Christian reject the direction of any pastor based on the sins of some spiritual authority in his past or present.  As C. S. Lewis challenges us, “the misuse of authority may provoke resentment; in this sin both parties share” (italics mine, Christian Reflections, p. 119-120). Adding our own sins of unforgiveness and self-righteousness to the damage inflicted by leaders who have sinned is a grievous response indeed. Christ-followers bear responsibility to acknowledge sins and forgive sinners-in-authority who have wounded us.  For some, such forgiveness will remove a key barrier to progressing in personal maturity.  Those of us most deeply wounded by parents, pastors, or other key spiritual leaders are also most in need of spiritual fathering from fellow humans in order to forgive, receive resymbolization of fathering, and restore right relationship with authority.  Repenting from unforgiveness can open new receptivity to spiritual fathering that will powerfully serve our becoming.



I think I’ve made clear by now that the Father calls His sons and daughters to receive some of His direction through human spiritual fathers.  But we also have fears and resistance to such relationships, in part because we misunderstand what God is asking of us.  Receiving spiritual fathering is not bentness.  Leanne wrote about the many spiritual fathers — both authors and personal mentors — whom God used to guide her ministry.  In fact she made it clear that this receptivity does not supplant our receptivity to Christ, but rather enhances it.  As Leanne wrote, “To be a disciple of a disciple is to be pale indeed.  I do not want to be a pale Christian” (Restoring the Christian Soul, p. 54).  Like the fading we’d see if we made a copy of a copy of a copy of a photograph, bentness instead of fathering would quickly produce such paleness.  While submission and obedience are channels through which we receive fathering, it’s not that we imitate our spiritual fathers and erase ourselves in the process.  To the contrary, under the begetting influence of spiritual fathering, one’s true self actually becomes more vibrant.  Leanne was no disciple of Lewis or Sanford, and their fathering caused her to become more fully the true Leanne.  And you are no disciple of Leanne, your pastor, or any other saint through whom God fathers you.

We must not project a Godlike quality of being onto our spiritual fathers.  We remember that they are men and women with feet of clay, small ones who have heard the call to serve us, and we trust God to work through both their inadequacy and ours.  A practice that keeps one erect even as you accept a spiritual father’s authority is to add those “over” you to your intercessory prayer list.  Pray for your pastor, counselor, spiritual director, sponsor, manager, trainer, landlord, husband, parents — all those God has appointed to bear authority in your life, through whom God works to guide you.  By praying for them you take an active, mature position in the relationship that allows you to receive their judgment without bending into it.

Spiritual fathering is also not coercion or punishment.  The abbas of our wealthy Christian heritage never arrived on a believer’s doorstep saying, “Christ has placed me over you — come now and do my bidding.”  Those who were spiritually fathered in the Egyptian desert or in St. Benedict’s monastery chose to place themselves in these fathering relationships.  To seek out those whom Christ would appoint as father over us is an act of the will that connotes great dignity. Those who choose to follow the command of spiritual fathers demonstrate an awareness of the infinite riches God desires for His children.

Accepting spiritual fathering also does not permit us to displace responsibility for our becoming onto others.  It is a temptation of immaturity to passively depend on human authority.  It is also a temptation, at least in America, to adopt a consumer mentality that projects responsibility for our spiritual progress onto the programs the church offers or the charisma of those in leadership.  When I stand before Christ on that great day, I very much doubt that He will allow me to speak about the actions of my spiritual fathers as an excuse for my failures in discipleship.  We need to eat in order to remain alive, but we do not make the crops and weather responsible for our survival.  It is possible to accept our genuine need for spiritual fathering, seek it out, and receive from those He appoints over us while yet remaining fully responsible before God.

The Good Fruit of Spiritual Fathering


Restored Relationship


God desires to provide us with good spiritual fathering to beget more of His life in us.  One hugely transforming fruit of spiritual fathering is that it answers our fallen condition:  what Leanne calls our crisis in separation.  God never intended us to make this steep ascent alone.  He does not agree with the inner voice that is disappointed when one is too weak to keep on track without help. He does not agree with the sense of self-loathing when one discovers that he or she is genuinely dependent on the encouragement and correction of spiritual fathers.  Many of us are plagued with a wrong soul-symbol of a “strong” human who cleans up his or her inner mess alone with the Lord.  Often we try to engage in healing and transformation in isolation because shame tells us we are not worthy of the attention and care of another who would be over us.  We dread exposing our needs, our feelings, and our smallness to another.  But these “by myself” attempts at wholeness are untrue and unbiblical, and usually yield disastrous results.

The entire arc of Scripture tells the story of God’s commands, hope, and guidance coming to us through men and women He appoints to minister to His people.  God offers each one of us a unique place in this story and desires to set us into the body of Christ.  Yet pride and shame seduce us into isolation and lock us in a vicious cycle.  “By myself” attempts at becoming inevitably fail, inciting further shame and self-hatred and filling the soul with evil words: “I am pathetic; I should have more faith; I should just be able to do it.”  Godly spiritual fathering stands with us against these lies and gives us the truth in their place.  Perhaps a loving spiritual father has given you such a drink of living water: “Of course you can’t do this alone.  Let me help you.”

Rescue from Subjectivism


I learned from the opening of Dallas Willard’s wonderful book The Divine Conspiracy that a pilot can be flying a plane upside down while her own senses tell her that she is right-side up.  We see the same danger when an individual tries to pilot her own soul — she is likely to be self-abusive where she needs gentle mercy, and self-pitying where she needs stern truth.  If we reject fathering in favor of the illusion of autonomy, we are left defenseless against our worst inclinations and caught in the subjectivism the world preaches: “Listen to your heart,” “Find your own path,” as though the fallen self can serve as its own guide.

In wonderful contrast, spiritual fathering offers us a guide who is other-yet-with-us.  A spiritual father or mother stands outside the cloud of the soul’s emotions, perceptions and habits and brings divine objectivity to the process of becoming.  Jesus taught us to pray, “lead us not into temptation,” or as Eugene Peterson has paraphrased, “Keep us safe from ourselves” (Matt. 5:13a, NIV and MSG).  I am convinced that spiritual fathering is God’s answer to this prayer as He offers us relational, human help with the inner temptations of the wounded human soul. St. Teresa of Avila addresses this vulnerability to temptation in her masterpiece, Interior Castle, and expresses her own wish that all Christ-followers would be spiritually fathered:  “Even though they be not in a religious Order, it would be a great thing for them to have someone to whom they could go, as many people do, so that they might not be following their own will in anything, for it is in this way that we usually do ourselves harm” (Interior Castle, p. 44, italics mine).

It’s interesting to me that American culture, the champion of personal autonomy, does grasp the need for fathering when it comes to physical fitness.  Americans spend $10 billion annually for personal fitness training.  Many of these dollars are paid by people who will only reach their fitness goals with the assistance of a trainer. Imagine what might happen if Christians would make this level of investment in seeking out spiritual fathering for the fitness of their souls.  For those alone in subjectivism, “I don’t feel like it,” soon becomes our boss.  It can be painful to face our sin and weakness, and persevering with daily spiritual practices isn’t constantly gratifying.  But fleeing discomfort will not bring consolation, and we will not find life by seeking our own way.  Loving spiritual fathering urges us to obey even when it hurts, and we will receive our Father’s blessings and affirmations to sustain us.  By doing another’s bidding over time, we are able to internalize the firm, clear, and wise guidance of a spiritual father.  Good spiritual fathering not only holds us in the place where God is at work, but over time also begets wholesome structures within our souls.  We come to know the goodness of the extravagant Father: “all that is mine is yours” (Luke 15:31b, ESV).

Mortifying the Flesh and Healing the Will


“Walking by another’s judgment” also offers the vital, albeit painful benefit of mortifying the old man.  As C. S. Lewis describes our fallen state, “human nature . . .  wants to keep well away from anything better or stronger or higher than itself” (from Mere Christianity, in The Complete C. S. Lewis Signature Classics, p. 97).  I have shared at MPC schools about my transforming experience of mortification when I sought out a 12-step fellowship.  In taking my seat in the circle, I added my voice to the profession of faith: “we came to believe that a Power greater than ourselves could restore us to sanity; and made a decision to turn our will and lives over to the care of God” (from the Twelve Steps of Alcoholics Anonymous).  But perhaps even more important than this declaration was the admission that I needed authoritative fellowship in order to abide in that decision.  In joining their circle I crucified the old man who refused to need, to depend, to receive.  Week after week I drew on Christ’s own strength and put to death my wish to keep well away from anything higher than my self.  The fathering of that group guided me into fellowship with that which is better and stronger and higher than my rebellious aloneness.

Healing of the will is one of those wonderful Christian paradoxes:  by finally using the will to submit to fathering, our sacred power to choose can become healthy and strong.  “It is when we try to make our will conform with God’s that we begin to use it rightly. To all of us, this was a most wonderful revelation” (AA Twelve Steps and Twelve Traditions, p. 40).  As a good friend recently wrote to me about those of us who have trespassed into addiction and codependency, “The real truth is that we have always possessed plenty of willpower; we just mis-used our will so long that we crossed over some spiritual boundary into slavery.”  Through the act of confessing our need, of asking for help, and of setting ourselves to follow direction, we are choosing this day whom we will serve.  Refusing to serve the old man, we reckon ourselves dead to sin and alive to God in Christ Jesus.  Through this turn from death to life the human will is strengthened and healed, thanks be unto God!

Setting Us into the Body:  Return to Inequality


The final benefit of spiritual fathering that I will call attention to is what C. S. Lewis calls the “return to inequality.”  His essay “Membership” considers our call, “not to individualism but to membership in the mystical body” of Christ (Weight of Glory and Other Addresses, p. 163).  In this wonderful sermon (which I highly encourage you to read), Lewis reminds us that even the word membership has lost its Christian roots and meaning.   Always the consummate apologist, Lewis contrasts life in the body of Christ with the harsh conditions of this sin-ruined world.  Lewis clarifies that, although equality is needed medicine for sin-sick humankind, it is not food.  Equality then is a protective concept, needed in this fallen world.  Because sin has mis-created the possibility of exploitation and oppression, “equality under the law” is a principle that serves the virtue of justice, giving each person his or her due.  But while assertion of equality is needed in the world of sin and death, it has no power to usher us into the kingdom of God.

God created humanity for something more dynamic and brilliant than a monotonous sameness.  We catch a hint of the richness God has in mind by looking at the human family.  The various members are different kinds of persons, not at all interchangeable, who together form a rich unity.  The life of the family would be in no way enlivened by an insistence that the family’s members are symmetrical, interchangeable, the same.  To properly understand the body of Christ and find our place in it, we need a return to inequality.  Like members of a family, members of the body of Christ are “essentially different from, and complementary to, one another . . . differing not only in structure and function but also in dignity” (p. 163-164).  In this essay we are focusing on one aspect of this complementarity, which is the blessed inequality of spiritual fathering.

“In the Church [when]we strip off [the disguise of artificial equality], we recover our real inequalities, and are thereby refreshed and quickened” (Weight of Glory, p. 168).  The inequality within the body of Christ is a haven from the strife of the world that is continually bogged down in the muck of sin and grievous responses to sin.  Christian inequality creates a haven where we can lay down the defenses that relentlessly strive to assert, “I am as good as you. ” “It is like turning from a march to a dance. It is like taking off our clothes. We become, as Chesterton said, taller when we bow; we become lowlier when we instruct. It delights me that there should be moments in the services of my own Church when the priest stands and I kneel” (p. 171).  By putting ourselves in the care of spiritual fathers, we choose to accept their offer of service as priest, mentor, pastor, counselor, or sponsor and open ourselves to the immeasurable benefits of obedience to our Father.

In current parlance, to say that someone “put me in my place” has a shaming connotation.  But in the context of our life in Christ, we hear this differently. It is Good News that there is a place for each one.  As Lewis makes clear, being put in our place by God Himself is the only real deliverance from shame and into healthy identity: “We shall then first be true persons when we have suffered ourselves to be fitted into our places” (p. 173).  God has made a way for every man and woman to belong in the body of Christ, and His begetting aims to fit each into his or her particular place.  I would suggest that we experience the blessing of this return to inequality when we take our place in relation to those God has appointed over us.  No matter who you are, what your talents or station in life are, you were made for some relationships with spiritual fathers God appoints over you.  Receiving the ministration of a spiritual father is a most beautiful choice made by a free man or woman, restoring us to an inequality our souls need and long for.  The soul that chooses to be fathered has won a battle against its own fleshly fear and resistance, gaining a sanctified will in the bargain. Our Father calls His sons and daughters to return to inequality for the sake of becoming, for there is more begetting He yet desires in and through each one.

We latch onto egalitarian models because we are trying to stop bad leaders from hurting people.  We say, “I am as good as you” and “every person has equal value” as a way to draw ourselves up, “stand up for ourselves.”  This is necessary at times, to say, “I don’t have to take that from you.”  In these moments we are asserting the concept of equality as a way to push out wrong uses of authority that try to name us destructively or control us for purposes that serve the ego of the leader.  The concept of equality then serves a needed remedial purpose in our sin-torn world.  But we must not stop there.

My concern is that, even in popular Christian thinking, we have embraced the concept of equality as an absolute good and made it our model for relationships, which is a costly mistake. When we make equality an absolute good, we end up with an assertion of sameness that then goes on to erase differences.  This leads to bizarre assertions such as the fruit we are now seeing of the sexual revolution — feminism asserting that there are no real differences between men and women but only damaging cultural inventions about gender, or the growing movement to promote all sexual “orientations” as equally valid that has even begun to legitimize pedophilia.  Equality has remedial value in this fallen world but makes for a perverse religion.  Equality is no guide to eternal life and does not usher us in as living members of a body with Christ as its head.

God gives us much richer symbols for relationship:  a family, a body, a vine.  God’s symbols of His people allow for the startling variety, the infinite uniqueness He is capable of, and delights in, as Creator.  An important aspect of finding our wholeness in Christ is to confess the refreshing truth that I am not just the same as you or even just as good as you. The body of Christ offers us relationships that affirm a holy inequality. You may serve me as confessor, for I am the penitent.  You may serve me as celebrant, for I need the Bread of Heaven.  You may serve me as father, for I am a child of God.  One of the mysteries of the body is that even our fathers are not only fathers — they too are sons and brothers.  All of us need relationships in which we kneel while another stands, in which we trust another to be taller, to see further, to extend wisdom to us, because God has appointed and anointed them to do so.  Jesus did not consider equality something to be grasped.   Christ is formed in our midst as His members take their places.  Somehow, as I assent to be just one member — the unique and particular member I am — the body of Christ becomes, and I take my place in it.  I am not all things but just one thing, one small and priceless member of the perfect, eternal, infinite body of Christ.  May God grant us this refreshing return to inequality, this receptivity to fathering, for the health of His body and bride.



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Photo credits:


Marco Alvise Pitteri (Italy, Venice, 1702-1786), Pietro Longhi (Italy, Venice, 1702-1785),Ordination [Public domain], via Wikimedia Commons.

Rembrandt, The Return of the Prodigal Son, 1668 [Public domain], via Wikimedia Commons.