"You have many teachers; you do not have many fathers..."
- Paul, 1 Corinthians 4
Instruction is certainly one important dimension of being father, but as Paul notes in his letter to the Corinthians being a father is a whole lot more than being a teacher. Teachers abound; fathers are few.
That comment does not denigrate teaching or teachers, especially in the Household of Faith. It does however elevate fatherhood. It is essential that church members are catechized - instructed - but it is even more vital that this takes place in the context of spiritual fathering (and mothering too). Fathers sacrifice themselves for their children, admonish their unruly behavior, direct their steps towards godliness, and enlarge the scope of their world to see beyond self. Fathers in the Faith set down paths in which future generations can walk, but also apply truth wisely to real-life situations. A teacher may well be able to explain the intricacies of a Christological debate, but a father, while affirming all the teacher says, grounds the teaching in terms of its implication for wise and loving relationships shaped by mercy and grace. Fathers are then both tough as truth tellers and tender as truth appliers. The truth can hurt and so it needs to be spoken in love. Supremely fathers proclaim and live the Gospel.
In the end, a man is a spiritual father because God gives him spiritual sons - Paul became the father of the Corinthians through the Gospel, and he was a father to young Timothy as well. He was acquainted with Timothy's weaknesses, temptations, and suffering; he refused to allow Timothy the luxury of self-pity, placing squarely on Timothy's shoulders the responsibility for how he conducted himself before others and the treatment he received as a result. Paul knew well the sins of the Corinthians but he did not shrink from expressing his pride in them, his love for them, and his devotion to them; in fact, he calls them the seal of his apostleship.
Just as we need older women to teach younger women (titus 2), so also we desperately need ecclesiastical fathers who will shape whole communities in grace and shape the next generation of godly servants in the Gospel. Yes, we need church planters and pioneers; yes, we need teachers; looking around, however, we must have fathers as well to the end that new communities can be shaped by grace, new leaders raised up, and the nations discipled. We need Elijahs for our Elishas; we need Pauls for our Timothys; we need Davids for our Solomons.
This is true of every generation, but I should mention one last matter about our ecclesiastical fathers in closing. After the Apostles came the age of the Fathers - the Patristics - and their astonishing contribution to the life of the Church. That generation of men, from Justin Martyr to John of Damascus, from Athanaisus to Ambrose to Augustine, from Basil and the two Gregorys to Cyril and Cyprian, are fathers to us as well. We would do well to cease our endless prattling about how this new generation can discover new methods for an ancient message, and realize afresh that these men knew not only what they were talking about, but also what they were doing; I'd be fine with John Chrysostom as my father in the House!
Is there a father in the House? Historically speaking, yes, without doubt, and we do well to repent of our youthful pride and go sit down at their feet for a season. Speaking about the contemporary context, however, the answer may appear far less certain; may God grant us more fathers in his House through the Gospel for a generation of orphaned sons desperate for more than any classroom can offer.