Too Hierarchical?

Posted in: Spirituality by bill-o on August 01, 2009

A small but growing movement of followers of Christ are beginning to form themselves into discipleship relationships known as spiritual fathers and spiritual sons. With these relationships, more mature men agree for some indefinite period of time to personally mentor and instruct less mature men, and even to provide discipline to them, in a loving and private way. These relationships usually exist outside of officially recognized church or denominational structures or organizations.

Those who favor this movement support it by saying:

  1. In the New Testament, the apostle Paul (St. Paul) called himself the father of the believers in Corinth and of Timothy. This was in spite of the fact that he apparently had had no natural children.
  2. Collections of spiritual fathers and sons demonstrate a picture (symbol) for the world around us: The relationship between God the Father and his son Jesus Christ. Yes, this can never be a perfect symbol. Yet marriage is also cited as being a symbol of the relationship between Jesus Christ and his bride, the Church. The heart-cry of the world around us is: “Show us the Father”. The invisible God cannot be seen. Yet his goodness and graciousness can be seen through spiritual fathers loving their spiritual sons.
  3. Only a trusted mentor (spiritual father) can provide loving discipline and spiritual direction to a protege (spiritual son) in a way that a committee or a formal church leader could not.
  4. When Jesus said to “call no man father”, he was only speaking of our ultimate progenitor, God the Father.
  5. The greatest issues of the world today all come down to one underlying issue: fatherlessness. What better way to address this issue than by having more mature men mentor younger men in groupings of spiritual fathers and spiritual sons.
  6. Spiritual fathers with their spiritual sons most closely matches the discipleship pattern of Jesus with his disciples. With Jesus, discipleship was not a class but a way of life. Jesus instructed his disciples gradually through time and circumstances and by living and traveling with them.
  7. Spiritual fathers with their spiritual sons is one of the most common patterns in all of human society, across all times and parts of the world.

Those who oppose or who question this movement as being too hierarchical say (and this is not an exhaustive list, by the way):

  1. “The ground is level at the foot of the Cross.”
  2. The priesthood of all believers. The New Testament only mentions one high priest, Jesus Christ. There is no ordering of leadership for this priesthood except for the headship of Jesus Christ himself.
  3. For Protestant Christians: One of the main things we were protesting about Roman Catholicism at the start of the Reformation was its hierarchy. How could we then countenance going back to anything that looks like a hierarchical system?
  4. Also for Protestant Christians: Jesus said to call no man father. So how can we have “spiritual fathers” or anything else like that?
  5. For Catholic and Orthodox Christians: We already have officially recognized spiritual fathers and they are our priests. Anyone else who calls themselves a spiritual father is clearly outside the teaching of the true Church.
  6. God has already designed natural, intact families for this purpose. Natural fathers should, where appropriate, provide spiritual care in their households for their children. After that, formal church structures should provide a measure of spiritual discipline.
  7. Spiritual fathers could abuse their positions of spiritual authority over their spiritual sons.
  8. God expresses himself through all of his children. How can any one of them be greater than any other?
  9. This movement is, on its face, anti-feminine because it only speaks of the male gender: fathers and sons.
  10. We need no earthly spiritual father because God the Father can now deal with each of us directly, including as per disciplinary issues.

Is this a movement that is too hierarchical or is it both a natural expression of human communities and of Christian theology?

I invite your comments.


Posted in: history by bill-o on May 09, 2009

Today, Shadows and Symbols is pleased to introduce a new category: history. With this new category for posts, we’ll be able to explore shadows and symbols of the past.


The military and political structure of the empire had evolved into a governmental system where the western and eastern halves of the empire each had one or two emperors. These emperors, at least in theory, ruled over supreme military commanders. The eastern side of the empire had multiple military commanders, and the emperors there managed to maintain control over these military leaders. In the west, however, there was only one military commander, and successively weaker emperors began to lose control over them.

By the mid-470s, the last remnants of the Western Roman Empire were decaying to the point of disappearance. The last western emperor to be approved by the eastern leadership, Julius Nepos, made a mistake that cost him his throne: He appointed a military commander named Orestes who would soon overthrow him.

The usurpation of a ruler by military generals is an old story in history throughout the world, and there is nothing remarkable about it. Yet, what Orestes did next after deposing Julius Nepos was unusual.

Instead of taking the imperial throne for himself or appointing his brother or another adult, Orestes decided to appoint his teenage son, Romulus, as emperor. The reasons for Orestes’s action are not clear, yet it does appear that this was a way for this commanding general to maintain his military office while filling the imperial throne with someone whom he could control. Finally, the western empire had changed to the point where the emperor was a complete figurehead.

Through his actions, Orestes had involved his own son, Romulus, within his own political machinations in at least three different harmful ways:

1.  Rebellion. The father had made his own son into a usurper. The western and eastern emperors had by custom concurred on the imperial succession of the other half of the empire. Since Julius Nepos had been deposed without the permission of the east, Orestes had undertaken the illegal overthrow of a legitimate emperor.

2.  Hypocrisy. The father, Orestes, nominally was serving his son but, in reality, the father was controlling his son for his own political purposes.

3.  Endangerment. Orestes was himself deposed and executed within a year of his own coup against Julius Nepos by Odoacer, a Germanic king. For some reason, Odoacer decided not to kill Romulus but merely to depose him. Still, the young son had been placed into a position of danger and risk-of-life by his father.

The life of Jesus presents a different picture of fathers and sons. It demonstrates to us a heavenly father and his love for his adopted children on earth. The Lord’s Prayer itself begins with an affirmation of our relationship to God, when it says, “Our Father”. Consider what Jesus and his original followers said that runs directly counter to the three items above:

1.  Legitimacy. Adopted sons and daughters have a full share of the inheritance of their heavenly father. The children are legitimate because they are of the same house (family) as their father. They are also privileged to call upon him in order to see his will done on earth as it is in heaven, and then to participate in his plans to make that will a reality.

2.  Truth and Reality. Rather than seeking to use us for selfish purposes, our heavenly father earnestly seeks to bring his children into a full measure of maturity. Those who are faithful with a little are then given much more to be faithful over. Authority in the kingdom of heaven is given to us those who are clothed in humility.

3.  Protection. The shepherd lays down his life for his sheep. The children of God have no need for “bargained-for exchanges”, where a weaker person lays claims on higher authorities through legal processes. The hairs on their heads are numbered, and they are fully entitled to all of the provision and protection of heaven.

Dr. Sam Soleyn mentioned three key symbols in Jesus’s story of the prodigal son in his recent teaching sessions entitled “The Mindset of the Orphan” (please see

When the prodigal son returned to his father, the father gave him three things. Each of these gifts were symbols of status in the ancient world.

1.  A robe. The robe is a symbol of identity. To put on the robe of another was tantamount to identifying yourself with that person. (Consider the custom in Latin American countries of a president wearing the national sash over his or her right shoulder. Here, the president is identifying his or her self with the nation and accepting the responsibility of representing it.) In the times of Jesus, a slave or household servant could not wear a decorative robe; only an honored son could wear the robe of his father. It was a mark of distinction and privilege.

2.  A ring. A ring is a symbol of authority. As with the robe, only a privileged son could wear the ring of his father. This was not the authority of self-will; rather, it was authority given freely from a father to his son. It was the type of authority where the son could show the ring and rightfullly say, “I’m doing this in the name of my father”.

3.  Shoes (Sandals). Shoes were the sign of ability and purpose. Only slaves would go barefoot. A son of a wealthy house must be given shoes. Shoes provide the ability to walk about in relative comfort.

Please notice also in the story that not only did the father give these gifts freely to his son, but he had ordered that these gifts be given quickly, without any delay. The status of the returned son was restored immediately and without any conditions.

In the story, therefore, we see a restoration of identity, authority, and purpose without any conditions when a lost son returned to his father. And it is these three symbols that tell us that story of restoration in a deeper, richer way than words alone could.


For a comparison of Jesus’s story of the prodigal son and a similar story in Mahayana Buddhism, please see:


From Apprentice to Master

Posted in: Popular Culture by bill-o on July 03, 2008

What is the biggest difference between the original three Star Wars films and latest three? Well, … besides the newer special effects, the many Jedi instead of one, and Jar Jar Binks.

What makes Episodes I through III unique is the relationship between master and apprentice. (And, interestingly, that applies to both the Sith and the Jedi Knights.) While largely lost to modern Western culture, this type of relationship has ancient roots: the passing of wisdom, knowledge, and experience from spiritual parents to spiritual children through living and working together over a significant length of time. Many spiritual traditions call this discipleship.

A spiritual father must make himself available to his sons. Likewise, in Star Wars, a master could have only one apprentice. In this way, their attention would be undivided upon one another and upon their common mission.

There are three stages of spiritual development, each of one of which is reflected in the first three episodes of Star Wars:

1. Beginner
2. Apprentice
3. Master

The young beginners in Episode II assist Yoda in finding a missing planet. Here, the relationship between teacher and students is still one to many. Jedi Initiate training is based on remote control devices and is centered in a classroom. Likewise, spiritual beginners concentrate on the basics. The concept of spiritual beginners is seen at monasteries, where new members are known as novices.

Apprentices are known as Padawan learners. The Padawan learner leaves the classroom and learns directly from his master. The master teaches the apprentice through real-life missions. As time progresses, the relationship moves from a father-son dynamic to one more akin to brothers. (A Padawan was physically distinguished from his master by a piece of braided hair.)

Finally, an apprentice becomes fully-qualified to become a master. Spiritual masters are fully trained and competent to perform any action called upon them according to their order. (In Star Wars, it is the Jedi order). Then, in turn, they take apprentices (disciples) for themselves and pass on what they have learned from their masters before them.