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. – 1 Corinthians 4:14-16
This passage grabbed me this morning. Paul is writing to the young, Corinthian church, guiding them further knowledge of the Gospel and what its consequences should look like in the life of the church. In chapter 4 he admonishes the church for not suffering alongside the Apostles, but still maintaining comfortable, luxurious lifestyles while the apostles and the other churches in the area are struggling. But what is being displayed here I think is really important: Paul is saying it is possible to have “guides in Christ” but what we really need are “Fathers”.
He doesn’t go much more into detail as to what these “guides” are like, but he doesn’t seem to condemn them, but rather points to their insufficiency. I’m guessing these guides are probably fellow friends of the Corinthians or maybe even people claiming to have more knowledge about the Scriptures, maybe trying to give some insights to the church or help in other ways (lead bible studies? I don’t know). But what is obvious is that these guides lack the maturity and spiritual depth to be enough. Having friends walking alongside us, encouraging us and spurning us onwards in our faith is so important to our growth as Christians. If Paul wanted to discredit these guides totally, he would not have added the “in Christ” to the title, so he obviously thinks they matter and are beneficial – but, Paul is arguing, you need more than that. You need spiritual Fathers.
In the context of the passage, Paul is using the example of him admonishing the church as a reason for why “guides” won’t cut it. Friends who are wrapped up in the same patterns of sin that you are in, will have a hard time admonishing you when you begin succumbing to the same kind of sin. You need a father who can step in. You need someone who has walked the path, fought his sin, repented of his idolatry and clung to Christ through it all. You need a man who has loved his wife and served his family well, in good and bad times. You need a man who doesn’t just consist of words, but is brimming with integrity and action; he does what he says he will do. You need someone who is so astonished at grace that his pride and ego have been drowned in sheer wonder of the Gospel. You need someone who isn’t afraid to offend you with truth or tell you that you are flat out wrong, because they love you dearly. You need someone who is as open about their current struggles with sin as Paul (Rom. 7) but confident enough in their war on sin and trust in Christ that they can look you square in the eye and say “imitate me.”
The church could use more men like that.
Dear young men, if you do not have a spiritual father like this, I would encourage you to seek one out. Go talk to your pastor, an elder, a deacon, or your own father; ask around the church for a men’s accountability group of older men who would be willing to a young guy sit in with them. Act like a sponge. Soak in the years of wisdom and mistakes that they have walked in. Act like an open book. Be open about your struggles, your habits, your goals, your relationship problems.
Now, as an aside, I am not saying that any man who has some grey hair and wrinkly knuckles will be this for you – there are plenty of older men who would be terrible examples, and age doesn’t necessarily equate to maturity in Christ. We should still be discerning when receiving wisdom from anyone, taking every thought captive under Christ (2 Cor. 10:5). But if you can find someone older than you who loves Jesus, is willing to get to know you, and speak wisdom into your life, you will benefit greatly.