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Pastoral Fatherhood: Understanding the Pastor as a Paternal Example

May 23, 2022
By Camden Pulliam

Editor’s note: The following essay appears in the Spring 2022 issue of Eikon.


In 1999, evolutionary paleontologist and Harvard University professor Dr. Stephen Jay Gould coined the phrase “non-overlapping magisteria” to describe the relationship between science and religion. He aimed to show that science and religion are miles apart because they deal with different realms or, “domains of magisterial (teaching) authority.” This article will not debate Gould’s thesis, but will use his taxonomy of magisterial domains as an analogy. The home and the church are two primary domains of spiritual teaching authority in the Scriptures. As such, one must ask, “Do these magisteria overlap? And if so, how?” The definitive answer of this essay, of complementarian theology, and of the Bible, is “absolutely.”

This essay will argue that the magisterial domains of the church and home overlap uniquely in the pastoral office, such that a pastor functions as a paternal example for the people of God.[1] To make this argument, key biblical texts will be explored that depict the pastor in paternal terms, with one “problem text” discussed along the way. After surveying the biblical data, a theological sketch will be given to underpin an evangelical understanding of pastoral fatherhood in the church family. Finally, the practical impact of pastoral fatherhood will be discussed, demonstrating both the positive and negative implications.[2]

Biblical Overview

Throughout the Old Testament, various leaders are given for God’s people. Prophets, priests, kings, sages, and community elders all exercise authoritative roles in the history of Israel, and each of these ministries are depicted in fatherly terms.[3] These paternal patterns in the OT then develop into a motif in the New Testament. Jesus Christ comes as the Son from the Father. His apostolic disciples, on whose testimony the church is built, are twelve men. These men plant churches, who appoint male elders to exercise oversight. But, perhaps the most vivid ecclesial representations of this motif are found in Paul’s ministry and teachings.

First, Paul regularly describes himself as father to individuals — to Timothy (1 Cor 4:7, Phil 2:22, 1 Tim 1:2, 2 Tim 1:2), to Titus (Titus 1:4), and to Onesimus (Philem 12).[4] Lest one surmise this is only an individual-to-individual phenomenon, Paul also describes himself as a father figure to entire churches (1 Cor 4:14–17 and 1 Thess 2:7–12 are the most direct references).[5] This last reference is of particular import because, in this instance, we see that it is not only an apostolic ministry of Paul’s; co-writers Silvanus and Timothy are also included in the collective “we” who related to the Thessalonian church as parents to children. Thus, in the apostolic ministry of Paul and the delegated ministry of his followers, parenthood was a regular metaphor for church leadership.

Second, this example from Paul is only deepened with his teachings on pastoral ministry in the Pastoral Epistles, specifically in 1 Timothy 3 and Titus 1. One of the key qualifications for a pastor is that he “manage his household well . . .for [if not] . . . how will he care for God’s church?” (1 Tim 3:4–5). This sentiment is repeated in Titus 1, where the children of overseers are not to be insubordinate (Titus 1:6). The logic of these qualifications is straightforward: If a man cannot parent at home, he cannot “parent” at church. The work is similar in both magisterial domains.[6] By linking the pastor’s qualification for church office to his parenthood in the home, Paul overlaps the magisterial domains of the church and home directly in the office of the pastor.

How does this relate to Jesus’ teaching in Matthew 23:9, “Call no man your father on earth, for you have one Father, who is in heaven?”

Various interpretations of Matthew 23:9 have been suggested. The verse could be taken as a direct and wooden prohibition, wherein Jesus’ disciples should not treat any other man as a father, period. The problem with this interpretation is the Bible’s blessing elsewhere of natural fatherhood. Jesus’ other teachings in texts like Luke 11:11–13, where Jesus recognizes natural father-child relationships, give a common-sense rebuttal to this wooden and literal interpretation. Some commentators argue instead that Matthew 23:9 is hyperbolic. Jesus does not, in fact, prohibit the language of fatherhood categorically, but he means to caution against the spiritual elevation of human figures to divine-like status. Some perceive this view to accommodate Roman Catholic practice, wherein priests are regarded as “fathers” and the Pope is appointed Father of the Church.[7] Another interpretive option suggests that Jesus restricts spiritual fatherhood but not natural fatherhood. In other words, what Jesus means is to say is something like, “Call no man your spiritual father on earth, for you have one spiritual Father, who is in heaven.” This interpretation aligns well with the context, which cautions against spiritual elitism, and it seems to be the dominant position for many evangelical interpreters.[8] But for those who prefer this view, we are still left with what to do about Paul’s paternal emphasis for the pastorate. On this issue, many evangelicals have no theologically grounded answer.

Theological Sketch

Throughout the Pastoral Epistles, Paul uses the metaphor of household stewardship to describe the pastoral office.[9]This is most obvious in Titus 1:7, where the pastor is described as an “overseer” and “God’s steward.” But this emphasis is seen in numerous other places as well. Paul is “entrusted” with the gospel of the glory of God (1 Tim 1:11). The gospel is a “good deposit” worthy to be “guarded” (1 Tim 6:20; 2 Tim 1:14). The church is the “household of God” (1 Tim 3:15). And directly pertaining to pastoral qualifications, in 1 Timothy 3:4–5 a pastor is described as “managing” his home and “caring” for the church.[10] The language behind each of these verses stems from Greco-Roman household stewardship. The Pauline picture of the church presents a Greco-Roman household where the paterfamilias is away from the homestead, and a “household steward” stands in oversight of his affairs until he returns.[11] In this metaphor, God is the paterfamilias, the church is the entire household, and the pastor is the household steward who stands and acts in the Father’s place. In this office, the pastor is a steward who will give an account for his guidance over the household in physical protection, spiritual guidance, relational trust, emotional care, and even financial guardianship.[12]

This Greco-Roman backdrop creates a theological category for an evangelical understanding of pastoral fatherhood. Is a pastor the father of the church family? No. God alone is Father (Matt 23:9). But is a pastor fatherly? Yes. He stands in the place of the Father, acting as his representative. Within this theological perspective, Matthew 23:9 would allow for spiritual father figures, but these figures should never supplant the Father himself.

This evangelical sketch positions the pastor as a father figure for the church family, with delegated authority to give fatherly provision (“feed my sheep,” John 21:17), protection (“guard the good deposit,” 1 Tim 6:20), leadership (“set the believers an example,” 1 Tim. 4:12), and love (“Pursue . . . love, steadfastness, gentleness,” 1 Tim 6:11). Such fatherly stewardship means that the pastor stands in a unique position between the home and church. His office inhabits the intersection of two overlapping magisteria. His pastorate is dependent on the quality of his home, and the church is dependent on the quality of his pastorate.[13]

Practical Impact

The practical benefits of pastoral fatherhood are impossible to quantify. But for the purpose of this article, one essential benefit should be mentioned. Pastors should be model parents.[14] Their service in the home should be commendable, and their service in the church should be godly, for they are meant to represent God. Natural fathers should be able to watch a pastor with his children and follow his example. Parents should also be able to watch a pastor’s care for the flock and model his pastoring.

Churches should ask of their pastoral candidates, “Do we want our parents to look like him?” “Do we want to treat our children the way he treats us?” “Does he treat church members the way God treats us?” These are sobering questions for pastoral candidates, but they are less sobering than the consequences of unfaithfulness.

Indeed, the consequences of unfaithfulness are devastating. Just as good fathers have an incalculable  impact on the health and wellbeing of their children, so also the impact bad fathers have is disastrous. A church with healthy and godly pastoral fathers will soon have a whole and healthy church family. A church with unhealthy and ungodly pastoral fathers will soon have a broken and unhealthy church family. Just because a pastor executes his office poorly does not mean he is not a father-figure. He is a father-figure, and he brings consequential impact with him. The question is not if a pastor will father his church, but how?

The practical significance of pastoral fathers should be clear. Pastors must be men of the highest character. If they are to lead the church, they must be “family men,” able to “set the believers an example in speech, in conduct, in love, in faith, in purity” (1 Tim 4:12).


The domains of the church and home overlap uniquely in the pastoral office, such that a pastor functions as a paternal example for the people of God. When the OT themes of fatherly leadership are sustained through Paul’s emphasis on pastoral fatherhood (yet cautioned with Jesus’ teaching in Matthew 23), it becomes clear that the pastor is a representative father figure in the church family. As such, he demonstrates for God’s people what parenthood ought to be, both in his home and in the church. Indeed, the magisterial domains of home and church overlap in this one office.

Accordingly, there is both delight and danger. As parents steer the course of the home, so pastors steer the course of the church, for good or for ill. Indeed, healthy families blossom in the culture of a healthy church, and a healthy church blossoms under healthy church fathers. May God the Father grant more pastoral father figures to represent him well, for his glory and the good of our families and churches.

Camden Pulliam (Ph.D.) serves as VP of Enrollment Management and Associate Professor of Christian Studies at Midwestern Baptist Theological Seminary. He and his wife, Mallory, have three children, and he serves as an elder at Northside Fellowship in Kansas City, MO.

[1] This is not to argue that the magisterial domains of church and home only overlap in the pastor. One may also consider the ways in which the church and home overlap in church members broadly, parents and children, husbands and wives, doctrinal catechesis, etc. Nevertheless, this essay submits that a proper pastoral theology serves as a compass for these other areas of focus. For a broader look at the familialnature of the church and various ways in which the church and home overlap, see the following: Vern Sheridan Poythress, “The Church as Family: Why Male Leadership in the Family Requires Male Leadership in the Church,” in Recovering Biblical Manhood and Womanhood, ed. John Piper and Wayne Grudem, Revised. (Wheaton: Crossway, 2021), 307–328; David C. Verner, The Household of God: The Social World of the Pastoral Epistles, SBL Dissertation Series (Chico, CA: Scholars, 1983); Andreas J. Köstenberger and Terry L. Wilder, eds., Entrusted with the Gospel: Paul’s Theology in the Pastoral Epistles (Nashville: B&H Academic, 2010); Malcolm B. Yarnell III, “Οἰκος Θεού: A Theologically Neglected but Important Ecclesiological Metaphor,” Midwestern Journal of Theology 2.1 (Fall 2003), 53–65.

[2] This article serves as a distillation of my doctoral dissertation. Camden Pulliam, “Paternal Pastors: An Evangelical Approach” (Midwestern Baptist Theological Seminary, 2020).

[3] For prophets, see 2 Kgs 2:12; 13:14; for priests, see Exod 12:1–28 or Jdg 17:10; 18:19; for kings, see Deut 17:14–20 and the similarities with parental responsibilities in Deut 6:1–9; for sages, see Prov 1:1; 4:1; for elders, see Num 11:1–30, in addition to the inherent nature of community eldership. For a fuller treatment of each OT ministry, see Pulliam, “Paternal Pastors,” 44–70.

[4] Peter also describes himself as a father to Mark (1 Pet. 5:13).

[5] See also 1 Cor 3:1-3; Gal 4:18-19; 1 John 2–4; 2 John 1, 4, 13; 3 John 4; 2 Cor 6:11–12, 12:14–15. More could also be said about 1 Thess 2, since Paul and his apostolic delegation are depicted in both paternal (vs. 11-12) and maternal terms (vs. 7). It cannot be missed, however, that both parental metaphors are assigned to men. Some may view this text as a challenge to complementarian theology. In this author’s perspective, it instead bolsters the belief that male pastors (or in Paul’s case, the apostle and his delegates) serve as parental — not merely paternal — examples.

[6] How a pastor addresses an adult congregant is quite different than how he would address a toddler in the home. Yet, the underlying parental will and work of each is the same, even if the way they are expressed is different. A pastor’s desire for his congregants should be no less than those for his children, and his work to present them blameless before the judgment throne should be no less taxing than the toil at home.

[7] See Pablo Gadenz, “The Priest as Spiritual Father,” in Catholic for a Reason: Scripture and the Mystery of the Family of God, ed. Scott Hahn and Leon J. Suprenant (Steubenville, OH: Emmaus Road Publishing, 1998), 216. The hypocrisy of this Catholic interpretation and practice should not be lost on evangelicals. Even if Jesus’ teaching is hyperbolic, it is difficult to imagine a worse violation of the spirit of the text than the elevated authority and status of the Pope, the Vicar of Christ. For, Catholic doctrine states the Pope has “full, supreme, and universal power over the whole Church, a power which he can always exercise unhindered.” Catechism of the Catholic Church, 882.

[8] W. D. Davies and Dale C. Allison Jr, Matthew 19-28, , 3 vols., International Critical Commentary (London: T&T Clark, 2004), 3:277; David W. Bennett, Metaphors of Ministry: Biblical Images for Leaders and Followers, Revised ed. (Grand Rapids: Baker, 1996), 83; R. T. France, The Gospel According to Matthew, Tyndale New Testament Commentaries (Downers Grove: Eerdmans, 1985), 328–29; Leon Morris, The Gospel According to Matthew, Pillar New Testament Commentary (Grand Rapids: Eerdmans, 1992), 577; John Nolland, The Gospel of Matthew, New International Greek Testament Commentary (Grand Rapids: Eerdmans, 2005), 927–28; John Stott, The Preacher’s Portrait: Five New Testament Word Studies (Eerdmans, 1961), 82–83.

[9] For a more extensive analysis of stewardship language in the Pastoral Epistles, see F. Alan Tomlinson, “The Purpose and Stewardship Theme in the Pastoral Epistles,” in Entrusted with the Gospel: Paul’s Theology in the Pastoral Epistles, ed. Andreas J. Köstenberger and Terry L. Wilder (Nashville: B&H Academic, 2010), 52–83.

[10] See Abraham J. Malherbe, “Overseers as Household Managers in the Pastoral Epistles,” in Text, Image, and Christians in the Graeco-Roman World: A Festschrift in Honor of David Lee Balch, ed. Aliou Cissé Niang and Carolyn Osiek (Eugene: Wipf & Stock, 2011), 78.

[11] Tomlinson, “The Purpose and Stewardship Theme within the Pastoral Epistles,” 69–70.

[12] The “representative” pastoral fatherhood described here must be distinguished from “ontological” fatherhood, as described by the Catholic Church. The Roman Catholic Catechism states that a priest, upon ordination, is conferred an “indelible spiritual character” and becomes an icon of the Father as a representative of Christ. Catechism of the Catholic Church, 1582. While the Catechism also affirms a form of representation and instrumentality (1581), the priest’s ontological change of character is an essential distinction. The representative fatherhood presented in this essay maintains that an ordained pastor serves as a father-figure instrumentally, but he is not changed ontologically.

[13] Pastoral paternity should not eliminate the possibility of an unmarried pastor. But the assumed norm of the biblical text is a married pastor. See R. Albert Mohler, “Must a Pastor Be Married? The New York Times Asks the Question,” Albert Mohler, March 25, 2011, accessed January 17, 2020, times-asks-the-question/.

[14] The variegated ways that the Bible uses family imagery cannot be explored here. Let it be stated, though, that the pastor is not the only parental example in the church. Of course, women should learn how to mother from other women, and men should learn how to father from older men in the church (Titus 2:1–8). What’s more, pastors should also learn from their congregants, treating older women as mothers and older men as fathers (1 Tim 5:1–2). The Bible’s economy of parental help is vast and complex, for the task of parenting is very vast, and very complex. Nonetheless, the pastor is the primary model of God’s parenthood for his people.

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