“I do not write these things to make you ashamed, but to admonish you as my beloved children. 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. That is why I sent you Timothy, my beloved and faithful child in the Lord, to remind you of my ways in Christ, as I teach them everywhere in every church.” (1 Cor. 4:14-17, cf. 1 Thess. 2:11-12)
At the center of the brokenness of this world is the deep ache of fatherlessness – what is often called father-hunger. This is because the central and most fundamental dislocation in all the universe is the division between God and man. We have rebelled against God our Father. So Jesus, the perfect Son, came to die in the place of all the rebel sons in order to rescue us and bring us home to the Father. But having done that, Jesus sent His Spirit into the world, and that Spirit fills some of those rescued sons and turns them into fathers. Many of them become biological fathers, but many of them also become spiritual fathers – fathers in the faith.
And here, Paul laments the fact that even though the Corinthians have many guides in Christ, they do not have many fathers yet. Guides may be able to teach true things, but fathers admonish the people of God like their own children. Guides can instruct people about the Bible, but fathers urge the people of God to imitate them as they follow Christ. Notice how Paul says that he sent Timothy to remind them of his ways in Christ. Guides have students, but fathers in the faith have spiritual children who look up to them, love them, and fear them, like Paul had Timothy.
Now, it stands to reason that if father hunger is at the core of human sinfulness and brokenness, then fatherhood – and fatherhood exercised particularly in the Christian Church – is both one of the greatest needs of the world and will simultaneously engender the most hatred from the world. We live in such an anti-authoritarian world that the exercise of almost all authority is considered tyrannical and oppressive. Of course you can also gauge where the gods of a culture are by where the fathers are. If a group of nine men in black robes say babies must be murdered and everyone shrugs and obeys – they are the fathers and represent particular gods. But God our Father has made elders the fathers of His people. Men who embrace this calling to be fathers to the people of God will simultaneously be the most helpful and loved and the most hated for it.
I was in a meeting recently with another elder who gave this wonderful sketch of fatherhood. He recalled a situation when his son was just a little two year old tike, and at that time the stereo was the big ‘no-touch’ for him. And there had been many spanks and instructions related to the stereo. One day, the elder watched while his son toddled into the room and began touching the stereo knobs. The elder called his son’s name, and the little boy turned around white as a sheet and ran to his dad and said, “Father, I’m scared.” My elder pointed out that the wonderful thing about that moment was the fact that his son was afraid and he ran to his father. And that’s a wonderful picture of God our Father. He must be feared and loved. He is just and holy, and Jesus says, He is able to cast our bodies and souls into Hell – fear Him! And our only hope is to run directly to Him, to love Him.
And this is what faithful fatherhood always looks like, and elders are called to embody this same fatherhood in the church. Elders should be feared and loved. Our people do not merely need guides, they need fathers. They do not merely need to be taught, they need to be admonished. They do not merely need abstract lessons, they need to be reminded to imitate us and our ways in Christ. This is a terrifying task, just as having biological children is a terrifying task. But the thing to realize is this: if you felt a little sick to your stomach when you held your firstborn child in your arms, just multiply that terror by a few hundred when it comes to fatherhood in the church.
At the same time, we must not forget the promises of the covenant. Those promises are not merely to biological families, they are to the people of God in covenant with God, which includes the fathers of the churches, the elders and pastors of the people of God. And what has He promised? He has promised to turn the hearts of the fathers to the children and the hearts of the children to the fathers (Mal. 4:6). He has promised to be our God and the God of our children after us to a thousand generations (Gen. 17:7, Acts 2:39, Gal. 3:7-14ff). And this means that as we look to God in faith, we can minister to our many children in the faith, expecting to see these children grow up faithful in the Lord. In some ways this takes a bigger faith, but it’s not a different faith. It’s the same faith we need to be fathers to our own children (cf. 1 Tim. 3:5). It’s that same faith that we need to be fathers to the people in our congregations, who by the power of the Holy Spirit have become our children in the gospel. Of course we must not be domineering fathers, but we must not be passive fathers either. We must be diligent and attentive fathers, admonishing, rebuking, correcting, encouraging, praising, and blessing. We are responsible for the souls of our people. We will give an account to God for His sheep. He has made us their fathers.