“Ten Thousand Teachers, One Spiritual Father”
Please read 1 Corinthians 4:14-21 in your Bible. I used the NLT to prepare these remarks.
Here’s somethings we all need to understand. One, age and maturity are not the same thing. Age just happens, maturity must be cultivated intentionally.
Two, about half of human beings are born male. Being male and being a man are not the same thing. Manhood is something that must be cultivated intentionally.
Three, God made a man and a woman and put them together in a garden and called it GOOD. Shame on anyone who tells you they can improve on that.
Four, just as biology requires a male and a female to create children, so do children require a father and a mother to have the best chance of maturing, not just growing older. (We recognize there are exceptional situations, but remember, the exceptions prove the rule, they don’t make the rules. Our culture has that exactly backwards.
In our Men’s Bible Study we’ve been reading and discussing the book “It’s Good to be a Man” by Michael Foster and Dominic Bnonn Tennant. Let me share with you some of the statistics of the cost of the scarcity of fathers. (pp. 112-113)
CONTEXT – An unhealthy rivalry had developed in the church in Corinth between factions that claimed to follow different teachers, Paul, Apollos, Peter, and Jesus. None of these men encouraged that nonsense, but people were falling into opposing camps allegedly out of loyalty to their favorite (see 1 Corinthians 3:1-4). Paul spent chapter three discouraging the formation of cliques and competing against one another. In chapter four he reminded them of two things. One, that He had endured many hardships for the sake of the church. He had a right to expect better treatment from them. Two, that he was the founder of the work there and he was prepared to bring the authority of their Founding Father – to discipline them if necessary to restore them to good order.
We need to be spiritual children and raise spiritual children.
1. Paul established himself as the Corinthians’ SPIRITUAL FATHER.
Even if they accumulated TEN THOUSAND TEACHERS, they only ever had one SPIRITUAL FATHER. In verse fourteen, Paul wants them to know his purpose is to WARN them, not SHAME them. Later in the letter (6:5; 15:34) he admits to shaming them over other issues in the church. Shaming people is admittedly a disciplinary tool that can only be done out of love. It is counter-productive when done with any other motive. The Greek word (entrepo) literally means “to turn inward.” It is a natural response to shame to turn one’s attention inward. Matters of honor and shame were much more important in that culture than in ours.
At this point in First Corinthians, Paul wrote to warn them instead of shaming them. He warned that his next visit would be a disciplinary one. Paul referred to TEN THOUSAND TEACHERS as an exaggeration, perhaps out of frustration with the church’s tendency to blindly allow these “experts” to lead them around. (These days we might accuse them of being “sheeples.”) The number is only used again in 14:19 in reference to tongues, another exaggeration, clearly. Paul’s point is simply this; “You can have all the teachers you want, but you will only, ever, have one father.”
The word TEACHERS could also be translated as “tutors” or “guardians.” In ancient Roman society, this was the name given to slaves who were responsible for their master’s sons. These TEACHERS would escort the sons to and from their classes and supervise their moral and social education. These slaves were highly educated and valued members of a household, entrusted with the responsibility of raising up the next generation
Having made his point about the exclusivity of their spiritual parentage with a rhetorical flourish, Paul urged the Corinthians to respond to their SPIRITUAL FATHER with respect. In the original manuscripts, the word here is simply FATHER; the New Living Translation has paraphrased, adding the word SPIRITUAL to make clear Paul’s intended use of a figure of speech. Paul explained he was their SPIRITUAL FATHER when he PREACHED THE GOOD NEWS to them. (15) That is, when he founded the church there in Corinth (see Acts 18:1-17). In that culture, fatherhood was more revered than it is in our culture (even on Father’s Day). For example, students referred to their teachers as “father” and the Romans thought of Caesar as their father.
2. As their SPIRITUAL FATHER, Paul gave them an example to follow and a warning to heed.
Paul sent Timothy ahead to prepare for his coming. (17) Timothy was one of Paul’s most faithful associates. They met when Paul visited Lystra and Derbe (Acts 16:1-5). Timothy was at hand when Paul wrote seven of his NT letters and was the recipient of two others. The Corinthian church knew Timothy; he’d been with Paul in Corinth for at least part of the 18 months Paul spent there. (Acts 18:5)
In keeping with the theme of SPIRITUAL FATHERHOOD, Paul described Timothy as MY BELOVED AND FAITHFUL CHILD IN THE LORD. Paul trusted Timothy to REMIND the Corinthians that their SPIRITUAL FATHER follows CHRIST JESUS, just as Paul had done in all the churches where he had taught.
Paul urged them to use him as an EXAMPLE to be followed in their spiritual maturity. (16) Paul elsewhere exhorted believers to imitate his example = Galatians 4:12; 1 Thessalonians 1:6; 2:14; 2 Thessalonians 3:7-9. It was customary in the ancient world for students to learn by imitating their teachers. There were no points for individuality, originality, or for creativity as we encourage in our culture. You were expected to first master what the master knew and to follow his example exactly.
There are advantages to learning by imitation. It is the easiest way to learn and apply their teaching, especially in moral and spiritual matters. The student will quickly see whether the teacher’s behavior validates his teaching or denies it.
Paul warned them when he came, Paul would do as any loving Father should – bring discipline to his children. (18-21) He would confront the ARROGANT people. These are the false teachers that have enflamed divisions within the church, motivating people to sort themselves into opposing camps. It is exactly the strategy used by Marxists in America today.
He would come to PUNISH them or correct them with gentle instruction. In v. 21, Paul left the decision up to the Corinthians as to how he would approach them. He could come with a ROD, a tool of punishment, the use of which is advocated in the Old Testament (2 Samuel 7:14; Proverbs 10:13; 22:15). Or he could come with a loving and gentle spirit. Their response to Timothy would go a long way to determining Paul’s demeanor when they were reunited.
This comparison is not to designed to set love at odds with discipline (Hebrews 12:7-10 shows they are two sides of the same coin), merely to give them a choice of whether Paul would approach them in a punitive or celebrative way. In other words, Paul is told them, “You can get your act together now on your own or later I will come along and make you get your act together.” The purpose of discipline is always to teach; it isn’t the opposite of love. In this case, Paul wanted to teach them that THE KINGDOM OF GOD IS NOT JUST A LOT OF TALK; IT IS LIVING BY GOD’S POWER. The KINGDOM OF GOD is more than just words; it is also expressed in righteous actions that validate one’s words.
3. We all need Spiritual Fathers.
There is most definitely a place for book-learning as a means of spiritual maturity. We need to study the Bible primarily, and there are tens of thousands of teachers who have written to help us become more biblically literate and more biblically responsive.
However, book learning is not the only way we mature in our faith. Discipleship is more like apprenticeship than professorship. What do I mean by that?
There is more of an emphasis on learning by example.
There is more discussion than lecture.
There is more on-the-job training than there is for-the-job preparing.
We need more discipleship in the Church. We’ve got all kinds of teachers on all kinds of media. What we need are people who will do the hard work of entering into personal relationships in order to use the Bible to make disciples (as Jesus commanded in Matthew 28:19-20). Each of us needs to have three disciplining relationships. Using Paul’s life of faith as an example, we all need three intentional relationships:
An “Ananias;” a more mature Christian who can guide us into deeper understanding and better practice of our faith. (Ananias was the first to mentor Paul after his conversion to Christianity.)
A “Barnabas;” a peer in faith who will be our partner in ministry and in seeking more of Christ. (Barnabas was Paul’s first and arguably greatest partner in ministry.)
A “Timothy;” someone who is less experienced in the faith; a believer who needs our experience and insight to help them mature.
You will have to seek out, establish, and nurture these three kinds of relationships. The familiar pressure of time and competing interests will easily crowd out the practice of these relationships.
We need to be spiritual children and raise spiritual children.
There are three mistakes the American Church has made in the last century regarding our relationship to culture. First, trying to leave the culture. (Think Amish, Amanas.) Culture is like the water a fish swims in. To avoid it is to die. Then both the believer and the unbeliever suffers loss.
Two, trying to copy the culture so that people more naturally feel “at home” or welcome in church. This was supposed to make people more likely to attend. This has worked only in the 0.5% of churches, the “megachurches.”
Three, trying to compete with the culture on its own terms. When the Church becomes politically correct, technology driven, trendy, and/or places a premium on being entertaining, we’ve given up without a fight.
I see nothing in the Bible about being at war with the culture. An adversarial relationship with the world around us is something the world wages against us. We do not fight worldly institutions; we fight the spiritual evil that energizes and directs their antagonism of the Church.
Let me offer a biblical model for relating to the culture around us: do what the culture cannot do – show people Jesus. One person or one group at a time, show them Jesus in words and deeds that match. Personal relationships are the place where the Church enjoys an advantage over the mass media-driven corrupt culture in which we find ourselves.
All of that to say this: Find someone to whom you can be a spiritual father (or mother). They may have ten thousand “social influencers” feeding them garbage. It is your job to share the word of God with them, pointing them to the true life. This is a relationship like apprenticeship. We must be intentional about having at least one relationship like this. Get personal and give them Jesus.
Cornerstone Biblical Commentary, Vol. 15, 1 Corinthians, 2009, William Baker
It’s Good to Be a Man, A Handbook for Godly Masculinity, 2022, Michael Foster and Dominic Bnonn Tennant