“As a son with his father”

Motherhood and fatherhood are woven into our DNA as women and men. God’s first command to Adam and Eve was to be fruitful and multiply: i.e., be a father and a mother. It was also the first thing God told Noah and his family when they came out of the ark. Fatherhood is at the core of what is means to be a man. Motherhood is at the core of what it means to be a woman.

For a good number of God’s people, fatherhood and motherhood is experienced in family as we get married and have children. So we spent last month looking at the relationship between the church and the family. We did that for two reasons.

The first reason is that the church is to be a place where God’s people learn to live a life of love in submission to one another out of reverence for Christ. When the love of Christ is flowing through our relationships, husbands and wives will love and respect one another. Parents will encourage, train, and instruct their children in the ways of the Lord; and children will honor and obey their parents. One of the effects of our time together in worship, in small groups, classes, activities, and fellowship should have, is that families move more and more toward this ideal.

The second reason we looked at the relationship between the family and the church is that the church is patterned after the family. The church is the family of God. It is organized like a family. Structured like a family. It is run like a family. So the more we understand family and how it works, the more insight we have into the church and how God designed it to work. While it is true that not every one of us is in a family, or married, or a parent right now, all of us, who are God’s children are called to be spiritual mothers and fathers. This is experienced in discipleship.

Take a look at Philippians 2:19-24 (NIV).

I hope in the Lord Jesus to send Timothy to you soon, that I also may be cheered when I receive news about you. I have no one else like him, who takes a genuine interest in your welfare. For everyone looks out for his own interests, not those of Jesus Christ. But you know that Timothy has proved himself, because as a son with his father he has served with me in the work of the gospel. I hope, therefore, to send him as soon as I see how things go with me. And I am confident in the Lord that I myself will come soon.

This passage gives us some key insights into what a healthy disciple relationship looks like. There are three that I would like to draw your attention to.

Paul saw himself as Timothy’s father. Paul of course was not Timothy’s natural father. In fact we don’t know who his natural father was. Timothy came to faith through the teaching of his mother Eunice and his grandmother Lois. We first hear about Paul and Timothy meeting in the opening verses of Acts 16. Impressed by the life and character of Timothy, Paul invites him to join with him on his journey. From this point on, Paul takes him under his wing as his disciple becoming a spiritual father to him. This is not the only passage where Paul uses parental language to describe his relationship to Timothy. Paul refers to Timothy as his son in 1 Corinthians 4:17, 1 Timothy 1:2, 2 Timothy 1:2, and 2:1. As his spiritual father, Paul took it upon himself to teach him the Scriptures, to model God’s love to him and to guide him in his practice of it, and to reproduce his own faith in Timothy.

Timothy saw himself as Paul’s son. We don’t have any letters written by Timothy that state that he saw Paul as a spiritual father, but we should remember that Timothy was a co-author with Paul of this letter. He knew what was in it and I think it is fair to say that he agreed with how their relationship was described. Timothy acting as a spiritual son to Paul, submitted himself to Paul’s leadership, teaching, and way of life so that he could carry on Paul’s work to the next generation. Paul in fact commissions him to this in 2 Timothy 2:1-2 (NLT), Timothy, my dear son, be strong through the grace that God gives you in Christ Jesus. You have heard me teach things that have been confirmed by many reliable witnesses. Now teach these truths to other trustworthy people who will be able to pass them on to others.

“As a son with his father he has served with me in the work of the gospel.” Discipleship here is pictured as an apprenticeship. In the Greek culture in which Timothy grew up, the faithful service of sons to their fathers in their work was highly valued. In that time, the business or trade of the father was usually passed to his sons. The son would apprentice with his father to learn his trade or business with the goal that one day he would take over. The goal of Paul’s discipleship of Timothy was to apprentice him in the “family business” of building the kingdom of God so that he could take over when Paul was gone.


  1. This topic – well, it’s a bit of a sore spot with me; just like a gaping wound. In so many churches, marriage and parenthood are privileged positions and treated with respect and honor while singleness and childlessness are the opposite of God’s ideal and so are treated markedly inferior and in many cases ignored entirely despite Paul’s high view of singleness. Well, not just ignored, it’s hard to explain what they do, but my experience was that it’s being treated as less important because their favorite teachings don’t apply and it’s my fault that I never got married and so they can’t teach me anything until I do; if I’d just hurry up and marry they could preach so me so that I could really get what it means to be a spouse and exemplify Christ’s relation to the church through either holding authority or intelligently submitting based on my gender’s prescribed role in that equation.
    Jesus meant for the church to be one family, with God as it’s father and everyone else as brothers and sisters (i.e. equal), while they were instructed to treat their elders as ‘mothers’ and ‘fathers’, it wasn’t to confer on them the authority of parents over children. Paul’s culture was an extremely patriarchal one, one that was so devoted to fatherhood, he once used an analogy about being adopted to sonship to explain our relation in the family – I never quite knew if he meant to include women in that. After all, in his day they would use ‘man’ even when referring to women whereas we don’t. Though it was true that in his day, the Bible was primarily written with it’s intended audience as being men as it wasn’t the custom to write to women specifically and in the places where it does, it’s more like “I want the women to dress …” “teach the women that …” etc.
    Now I’ve attended a lot of complementarian churches in my day, the ones that give men headship (they mean authority) over women, husbands headship over their wives, fathers headship over their (even fully-grown) single daughters, male church leaders spiritual headship over women in the flock. They call it’s God’s ideal in all places and times over all cultures by name as “creation order”, the original design. Which means that singles are not walking in God’s design and are not part of the family. It doesn’t sound to me like the Christianity God intended, but when you’re not married you have plenty of time to really sink into the deep questions of theology that you can’t teach because you’re single.

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    1. I know this is a difficult subject for many single Christians. Marriage and parenthood should not be treated as privileged status positions in the church. I know that this is often the case. I agree with you there. The church is often weak in its understanding of the strengths and advantages of singleness. That said, the church is as you said, a family, and families do have roles. However the authority and submission in the church, like a natural family, is more relational than positional. Several times Paul appeals to the people in the churches he planted and mastered to as being their spiritual father, and therefore deserving of love and respect. The lessons of marriage and family in the Scripture apply just as much to spiritual parenting (i.e., discipleship) as they do to husbands and wives, moms and dads, and to children. As to complementarianism, that idea has its pros and cons. I think the ideas they are pulling out sometimes get applied in ways that are much less scripturally clear. In truth many of the great leaders of the church (Calvin, Wesley, Carey, etc) would have done better to never get married and so not spoil their excellent work with their lousy family skills.

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      1. I still can’t believe that God has something like this in mind: “Years ago, when my children were young, my son Mark told my youngest child, Melinda, to take something out of the room. She said, “You’re not my boss.” Mark replied, “Dad is the boss of Mom, Mom is the boss of Matt, Matt is the boss of Marcy, Marcy is the boss of me, and I am the boss of you.” So Melinda obeyed. After that, Melinda decided she was the boss of the dog, and the dog was boss of nobody. No one wants to be on the bottom rung of the ladder!” And that it’s supposed to be copied by the church; always with somebody (or many sombodies) between us as God. That doesn’t seem very discipleship-like to me.

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          1. Since so many other Christians muddy the waters with such bad theology and distasteful messages, it can be difficult to distill a pure and perfectly good message, I think.

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