But I trust in the Lord Jesus to send Timothy to you shortly, that I also may be encouraged when I know your state. For I have no one like-minded, who will sincerely care for your state. For all seek their own, not the things which are of Christ Jesus. But you know his proven character, that as a son with his father he served me in the gospel.
It was not until I had been a Christian for several years that one of my friends introduced me to the idea of spiritual parenthood. She was speaking of an older Christian we know, and she referred to him as her spiritual father. Of course, this prompted me to ask her what she meant by that term. It had not occurred to me that perhaps her own father was not able to give her the spiritual guidance that she needed in that relationship. I then began to encounter other brothers and sisters who looked up to adults other than their natural parents as their spiritual parents. What I initially perceived as a strange concept really was just discipleship. The teacher takes the role of headship, and the disciple follows as an obedient child.
Discipleship is not only about learning but also about serving. There is mutual support between the teacher and disciple, but the place of authority in that relationship is clear. It is more than a place of authority but a place of responsibility and trustworthiness. The discipleship relationship is not one of equal peers. When Paul tells the Philippian church of Timothy serving him like a son, he paints a picture of what discipleship should look like. It is about the spiritually mature taking on the responsibility of raising those who are spiritually young. The teacher is to provide the care, support and protection we expect of a parent. The disciple is to honor the teacher as one would honor a parent, the kind of service for which Paul commended Timothy.
We see the picture of spiritual parenthood emerge clearly once Paul approaches the end of his years and writes about passing the torch to Timothy to continue his work. This is akin to a father passing down a legacy or inheritance to his natural son at his death. This model highlights a critical feature of discipleship, which is to keep the spiritual work going and growing. Timothy would have been charged to learn and serve for the purpose of then teaching his own disciple(s). This spiritual relationship existed for the torch of God’s work to be passed from one teacher to the next. That is the importance of Timothy having served Paul like a son. Father, help us to identify and work with our spiritual parents that we would grow through discipleship and then be able to serve as teachers of others.