Chuck Colson in his book, “How Now Shall We Live, notes the disturbing realities that plague children who grow up without a father.

Crime and substance abuse are strongly linked to fatherless households. Statistics show that 60 percent of rapists grew up in fatherless homes, as did 72 percent of adolescent murderers, and 70 percent of all long-term prison inmates. In fact, most of the social pathologies disrupting American life today can be traced to fatherlessness.[i]

Good fathering is a critical element of a healthy society. Unfortunately, some today have experienced an abusive father, but that does not change the need for healthy fathering in our society. We are living in an age of emasculation. The need for strong but tender, loving fathers is often neglected as we live in an age of irresponsibility and self-fulfillment. What is true of biological fathers is equally true for spiritual fathers. One of the most profound discoveries I came to as a young pastor, was that ‘a pastor is a spiritual father.’ However, spiritual fathering is not reserved for church leaders, but the need for men of God to take on the responsibility to serve others in the church in a loving, nurturing, encouraging and instructive role has never been greater. One of the texts that validates this concept is found in 1 Corinthians 4, where the apostle Paul explains this very idea.

I am writing this not to shame you but to warn you as my dear children.

Even if you had ten thousand guardians in Christ, you do not have many fathers through the gospel.

Therefore I urge you to imitate me.[ii]

In the earlier part of the chapter, Paul had been describing the nature of his ministry among the people. He describes ministers as a ‘servants of Christ’ but the usual word for servant, diakonos, not used here but hyperetes which originally meant those who were an under rower in a large ship.

From this it came to signify service in general, though generally service of a lowly kind (subordinate), and subject to direction.” However, he clarifies that they were entrusted with the mysteries God had revealed. The word entrusted is translated from the Greek term oikonomoi, which was the person “who supervised a large estate (administrator or manager). Unless he was to be a slave to his slaves, a rich landowner had to find someone to do the routine work of running the estate. …He held a responsible position; he was set over others and directed the day-to-day affairs. …Then in relation to the master he was a slave, but in relation to the slaves he was a master.[iii]

What Paul was saying to the Corinthians was that these spiritual leaders or fathers were before God, subject to the direction of the Lord and were entrusted with the message of the gospel. In relationship to the church they were to oversee or manage the church by serving the people but were ultimately responsible to God. Craig Blomberg relates what is happening in this chapter.

Paul is correcting an imbalance in the Corinthians’ approach to leaders. Taken by itself, Paul’s corrective could lead to an equal but opposite imbalance. But in light of the entirety of Scripture, we can see church leaders as servants who nevertheless have authority (vv. 1-5), as examples who deserve to be followed but not placed on a pedestal (vv. 6-7), and as sufferers who also receive relief from affliction (vv.8-13). The parental balance between toughness and tenderness is already amply illustrated within this chapter (vv.14-21).[iv]

In the conclusion of the chapter, we find Paul making an appeal and issuing a warning in these two approaches to the issues that the church in Corinth was facing, but we also learn something of the nature of being a spiritual father. So, what can we learn from Paul regarding the nature of being a spiritual father?


What we say is important, but it can all be negated by how we live. Paul is going to challenge the Corinthians to imitate his manner of life. He starts out by pointing out that though they may have many guardians (NIV), and some translations interpret the Greek term as teachers, Paul says that they do not have many fathers.

Even if you had ten thousand guardians in Christ, you do not have many fathers through the gospel.

Therefore I urge you to imitate me.[v]

A. The Difference between Guardians and Fathers.

Paul begins here by warning about the difference between ‘guardians’ and ‘fathers.’ We don’t have an equivalent idea in our society, but the closest thing would be a nanny.

The Greek word, paidagogos “referred to a slave who had special responsibility for a boy. …he was the personal attendant who accompanied the boy, took him to school and home again, heard him recite his ‘lines,’ taught him good manners and generally looked after him; he was entitled to respect and normally received it.[vi]

Though guardians give some instructions to the child they did not have the vested interested in that child that the father had. David Garland explains the nature of guardians in ancient times.

In pictures on Greek vases, he [guardian] frequently has a stick in his hand, and in Greek plays he was often portrayed as harsh and stupid. He was a comic type recognizable by his rod…[vii]

Paul certainly was making a contrast between fathers and guardians here. Fathers here are pictured as being what really matter in a child’s life. Notice how Paul states that there a many guardians but few fathers. The term he uses here is ‘myriads,’ which is an unlimited number. Though they may have had many instructing them, they had few fathers, and in this case Paul certainly was one of them as the founder of the Corinthian church. Paul was their spiritual father. When we think of the difference between teachers and fathers, one of the key differences is that father’s impart life, whereas teachers impart information. Teachers instruct from a different platform in that often a student does not know the lifestyle of the teacher, whereas children which are living at home with their fathers, learn not just from what is said, but from what is done. There is a difference between telling someone and modeling it from their lives.

A number of years ago, Andrea, my eldest daughter, gave me a plaque that meant a lot to me for Father’s Day. It simply says: “Dad, you didn’t tell me how to live, you showed me.” People of integrity do what they say. However, as much as that affirmation means to me, as Paul pointed out to the Corinthians here, human judgment is not ultimately what we ought to be concerned about. I realize that Paul is speaking specifically to ministers of the gospel who are responsible for proclaiming God’s mysteries, but the application finds its way into all areas of our lives as believers including our stewardship of our families and places of work; or any other place where responsibility has been given to us.

This, then, is how you ought to regard us: as servants of Christ and as those entrusted with the mysteries God has revealed.

            Now it is required that those who have been given a trust must prove faithful.[viii]

Gordon Fee describes this as “being trustworthy (in the primary sense of that word: ‘worthy of trust that has been placed in their care’).”[ix] Who then are we ultimately answerable to for our lives?

I care very little if I am judged by you or by any human court; indeed, I do not even judge myself.[x]

In other words, even our own personal evaluation won’t stand the test of God’s judgment. Though, Paul qualifies his remarks by stating that this does not mean that he isn’t self-aware and makes every effort to be trustworthy.

My conscience is clear, but that does not make me innocent. It is the Lord who judges me.[xi]

Here is one of the most powerful texts in light of how we personally are evaluating our lives. Even though we may think all is well, that doesn’t make us so. We will be held to a higher standard. We are not the judges. God is. Gordon Fee expresses this idea of determining our faithfulness in this way.

Only the Lord (kyrios), the master (kyrios) of the house, to whom alone I am accountable, may examine me (anakrino, v. 4) and hand down a verdict (krino, v. 5) as to the faithfulness with which I discharge my duties.[xii]

Therefore judge nothing before the appointed time; wait until the Lord comes. He will bring to light what is hidden in darkness and will expose the motives of the heart. At that time each will receive their praise from God.[xiii]

Here is seems that Paul is saying that we should make no judgments whatsoever, but in the next chapters, he is calling on them to make judgments. So, what does he mean by this statement here? They were to stop making judgments on those who were leading them as God would ultimately address each person’s work as they were ultimately responsible to Him. Only God knows the motives of the human heart, including our own.

All a person’s ways seem pure to them, but motives are weighed by the LORD.[xiv]

B. The need for spiritual models.

Paul then challenges them to imitate his life. Craig Blomberg rightly points out:

To command the Corinthians to ‘imitate me’ (v. 16) either represents the height of presumption or reflects one of the most profound and challenging insights of all time on how to reproduce Christian disciples. In light of the rest of Paul’s life and teaching, the latter is more probable. Progress along the road to sanctification demands new believers have consistent, positive, mature Christian models to imitate in all aspects of daily life.[xv]

We know both from Jesus and Paul that their disciples spent a considerable amount of time with them traveling, eating together, being taught, and doing ministry together. So what were they to imitate? In the context of the Corinthians, these believers who were struggling with contention, divisive behavior, pride and an unhealthy reliance on the ability to speak well, needed correction and be pointed to the right model, which Paul had demonstrated when he had been with them. David Garland points out what it is that Paul expects them to imitate came from his manner of life.

They are to give up their hankering for high status and accept lowliness that Paul models. They are to welcome being regarded as fools for Christ, and as weak and dishonored. They are to return abuse with blessing, slander with conciliation, and to endure persecution (4:1–13). They are to recognize that all that they are and have comes to them as a grace-gift from God (3:10) and that they are not inherently extraordinary (4:7). They are to think of themselves as no better than field hands (3:5) and servants (4:5). They are to rid themselves of all resentments and rivalries with co-workers so that they can toil together in God’s field (3:5-9). …The ultimate aim is not to be Paul-like, but Christlike (11:1). The Corinthians are to imitate him only insofar as his behavior corresponds to the gospel…[xvi]

How many realize that investing our lives is costly, difficult and often unappreciated? We live under a microscope and are often criticized. Many people today do not want the hassle and challenge to invest their lives in others. However, negligence of God’s calling is seen as a serious and problematic position to find ourselves in at that day when we stand before our Lord. One of the most haunting parables is the parable of the talents where one of the servants buries what Master has given. The last servant in the parable had an improper view of both the master and what needed to be done in this life. The concluding words to the negligent servant is chilling   

For whoever has will be given more, and they will have an abundance. Whoever does not have, even what they have will be taken from them.

And throw that worthless servant outside, into the darkness, where there will be weeping and gnashing of teeth.[xvii]

We find that earlier the moment of accountability came and the faithful servants gave their report, to which the Master responded.

His master replied, ‘Well done, good and faithful servant! You have been faithful with a few things; I will put you in charge of many things. Come and share your master’s happiness!’[xviii]

May we all take our calling and stewardship seriously and give due diligence toward it. To those who God has called as fathers, may we joyfully assume this responsibility and serve humbly those who have been entrusted to our care.


Fathering is not for the faint of heart, the self-centered or the lazy individual. Immaturity in any arena in life, be it physical, emotional, or spiritual can create moments of tension, difficulty, frustrations, and even heartache for those who are caring for those God has entrusted to them. 

Here at Corinth, rather than the people being humble, appreciative, respectful, and eager to learn; they were arrogant, filled with pride, and defiant. Paul speaks to those issues by contrasting their pride with his weaknesses.

Now, brothers and sisters, I have applied these things to myself and Apollos for your benefit, so that you may learn from us the meaning of the saying, ‘Do not go beyond what is written.’ Then you will not be puffed up in being a follower of one of us over against the other.

For who makes you different from anyone else? What do you have that you did not receive? And if you did receive it, why do you boast as though you did not?[xix]

Exactly what verse 6 means is disputed by New Testament scholars, but what is agreed upon is the concluding challenge of ‘not being puffed up’ by selecting one leader over another. The issue Paul is addressing is pride, which breeds divisiveness and exclusion. Gordon Fee rightly explains the problem of pride.

Pride generally results from an improper perspective, both about oneself (whether achievement or status) and about one’s true stance before God (deserving rather than nearly helpless).[xx]   

It is so tragic that one of the results of sin is that we are blind to our true condition and have a higher view of ourselves than we ought to, and often a lower view of others, rather than valuing others in our lives as God’s special gifts to us. Paul now uses irony and some sarcasm to show them how unwise their attitude really is and to challenge them to walk in humility.

Already you have all you want! Already you have become rich! You have begun to reign – and that without us! How I wish that you really had begun to reign so that we also might reign with you![xxi]

They were acting like they didn’t need them. We know that Paul doesn’t believe that because he says, how I wish you were where you think you are. He now contrasts their attitudes and explains the challenges that await those who are really spiritually mature, by giving some powerful metaphors and imagery to make his point.

For it seems to me that God has put us apostles on display at the end of the procession, like those condemned to die in the arena. We have been made a spectacle to the whole universe, to angels as well as to human beings.[xxii]

What is Paul talking about here? That when the Romans defeated other peoples, they would take captives and lead them into Rome in chains as a display of Rome’s power and might and then execute many of them. Rather than reigning, they were going to death, rather than sitting in the box seats of honor in the arena (cf. Fee, 190). What we need to understand about the Corinthians is that they were embarrassed by Paul, his lack of eloquence and worldly wisdom when he spoke. How many children are embarrassed by their parents’ simple faith, and lack of social status? This then is an issue of the wrong value system. Rather than esteeming the right things, they were critical. How often do worldly values collide with the biblical ones? One generation arises to negate what was considered sacred and upright. Paul is stating in dramatic form that those who are spiritual fathers are giving their lives for those they are ministering to. He goes on to speak with biting irony.

We are fools for Christ, but you are so wise in Christ! We are weak, but you are strong! You are honored, we are dishonored!

To this very hour we go hungry and thirsty, we are in rags, we are brutally treated, we are homeless.

We work hard with our own hands. When we are cursed, we bless; when we are slandered, we answer kindly. We have become the scum of the earth, the garbage of the world – right up to this moment.[xxiii]

Why is Paul speaking like this? Because this is what it means to grow up spiritually. You end up suffering for the sake of others, just like Jesus and the apostle did. Parents give their lives for their children. Yet, this is what needs also to be imparted to them. They need to understand that it is not about them, but about Christ and serving Him, by serving others.  

Paul’s point is singular. In contrast to the Corinthians, who are ‘filled, rich, ruling, wise, powerful, honored,’ he and his fellow apostle look far more like their Lord, who fits well the picture of Isaiah’s Suffering Servant (53:2b-3): ‘He had no beauty or majesty to attract us to him, nothing in his appearance that we should desire him. He was despised and rejected by mankind, a man of suffering, and familiar with pain. Like one from whom people hide their faces, he was despised, and we held him in low esteem.’[xxiv]

Servants are generally held in low regard, but not by God. Why are we shocked when those who have so much often disregard or even despise those who serve them. No wonder that in Scriptures it commands children to ‘honor their mother and father.’ To have to be told suggests to me that there may be a temptation to take for granted the sacrifices parents make for their children.    


We cannot be indifferent to the behavior of those God has entrusted to our care.

A. The great challenge of being a father or a parent is the right balance between toughness and tenderness, between discipline and tolerance.

I am writing this not to shame you but to warn you as my dear children.[xxv]

We need to avoid trying to manipulate by shaming those we are fathering. Yet, we need to address sinful and deviant behavior and attitudes.

David Garland points out a very significant but subtle difference that we need to understand in correcting people.

But the shame Paul wishes to avoid causing the Corinthians is their losing face. Although he does not shy away from speaking openly about shameful behavior (cf. 5:1-13), he wants to communicate that it is their values and behavior, not their personhoods, that are unacceptable. He may intuit that their hunger for status is attributable to core feelings of shame that lead them to crave some external, compensating validation of who they are. Addressing them as ‘beloved [my dear children] expresses respect as much as affection. He wants to instill in them a sense of self-worth that comes from God’s grace and power in their lives, which is able to eradicate any hunger for the mercurial, inconsequential honor bestowed by the world.[xxvi]

Paul is trying to convey to Christian fathers or parents the need to have this kind of a balance in his letter to the Ephesians.

Fathers, do not exasperate your children; instead, bring them up in the training and instruction of the Lord.[xxvii]

The guidebook of instruction is obviously the Scriptures, from which we need to instruct and model to our children. This then would imply that we first must learn it and then practice it, in order to teach, model and explain it to those whom God is calling us to be a spiritual parent of. This would include both our biological children and our spiritual children (those we have led to Christ and those needing help in their growth in their faith).

B. One of the areas that must be addressed is attitude.

Attitude precedes behavior. We need to address destructive attitudes. One of the first signs of turning away from God is the lack of a grateful and thankful heart. When we hear complaining within ourselves or those we are responsible for, we need to remind ourselves and others of God’s graces and tender mercies in our lives. This reflects that deep issue of pride and self-will.

Some of you have become arrogant, as if I were not coming to you.

But I will come to you very soon, if the Lord is willing, and then I will find out not only how these arrogant people are talking, but what power they have.

For the kingdom of God is not a matter of talk but of power.

What do you prefer? Shall I come to you with a rod of discipline, or shall I come in love and with a gentle spirit?[xxviii]

Here Paul is challenging them to respond to the coming of Timothy with his letter addressing the underlying issue of pride.

For this reason I have sent to you Timothy, my son whom I love, who is faithful to the Lord. He will remind you of my way of life in Christ Jesus, which agrees with what I teach everywhere in every church.[xxix]

We notice from this text that Paul was a spiritual father not only to the church at Corinth, but also to Timothy, whom he had developed and was developing as a minister of the gospel and who knew Paul’s life, message and heart. Paul had every confidence in him as Timothy reflected the values that Paul had expressed earlier in this chapter as a true servant of God.

So, who has God called you to father? Or, if you’re a lady, who has He called you to nurture as a spiritual mother? God is calling us to take our responsibilities toward others seriously. It starts with our own understanding of our need for God’s constant work of grace in our own souls. We need to recognize that we can only convey what God has made real to us and have applied into our own lives. We have seen that lives must conform to God’s word before we have credibility to speak into the lives of others. We must accept the difficulties and challenges that being a spiritual model for others brings into our lives. This calling begins firstly in our own children but extends to those God brings into our lives in which we are to mentor and disciple. We also need to be aware of the need for correction and discipline as part of genuine love. This must be done with grace, compassion and tenderness on one hand, and a firm resolve to address issues that otherwise would prove disastrous in the lives of those God has called us to care for. Who are you investing your life into? If we are burying our talents, may we ask God’s forgiveness and direction in pouring our lives out for others.


[i]       Charles Colson, How Now Shall We Live (Tyndale, 1999); U.S. Department of Health and Human Services, National Center for Health Statistics.

[ii]       1 Corinthians 4:14-16, The New International Version of the Bible, 2011.

[iii]      Leon Morris, 1 Corinthians, Revised Edition, Tyndale New Testament Commentaries, (Grand Rapids, MI: William B. Eerdmans Publishing Company, 1989), 72.

[iv]      Craig Blomberg, 1 Corinthians, The NIV Application Commentary, (Grand Rapids, MI: Zondervan 1994),92-93.

[v]       1 Corinthians 4:15-16.

[vi]      Leon Morris, 1 Corinthians, 80.

[vii]     David E. Garland, 1 Corinthians, Baker Exegetical Commentary on the New Testament, (Grand Rapids, MI: Baker Academic, 2003), 145-146.

[viii]     1 Corinthians 4:1-2.

[ix]      Gordon Fee, The First Epistle To The Corinthians, Revised Edition, The New International Commentary on the New Testament, (Grand Rapids, MI: William B. Eerdmans Publishing Company, 2014), 175.

[x]       1 Corinthians 4:3.

[xi]      1 Corinthians 4:4.

[xii]     Gordon Fee, The First Epistle To The Corinthians, Revised Edition, 177.

[xiii]     1 Corinthians 4:5.

[xiv]     Proverbs 16:2.

[xv]     Craig Blomberg, 1 Corinthians, 96.

[xvi]     David E. Garland, 1 Corinthians, 146-147.

[xvii]    Matthew 25:29-30.

[xviii]   Matthew 25:21.

[xix]     1 Corinthians 4:6-7.

[xx]     Gordon Fee, The First Epistle To The Corinthians, Revised Edition, 185.

[xxi]     1 Corinthians 4:8.

[xxii]    1 Corinthians 4:9.

[xxiii]   1 Corinthians 4:10-13.

[xxiv]   Gordon Fee, The First Epistle To The Corinthians, Revised Edition, 197.

[xxv]    1 Corinthians 4:14.

[xxvi]   David E. Garland, 1 Corinthians, 145.

[xxvii]   Ephesians 6:4.

[xxviii] 1 Corinthians 4:18-21.

[xxix]   1 Corinthians 4:17.

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