Many times I am approached by parishioners and even visitors with questions about faith and the Orthodox Christian way of life. Questions range from how and when to fast, how often to receive Holy Communion, and a large variety of questions about life choices. While I am always ready to have such conversations, I also understand that not everyone understands why we even bother to ask the priest such questions.
The tradition of spiritual father in the Church is as old as the church itself. It has never been the case in the Church in which we choose for ourselves what to believe, or how to live. The choice comes from using our free will to begin a relationship with our spiritual father, to whom will be obedient. Once we enter into this relationship, we trust in God and our spiritual father to lead us to heaven. This too is not new.
St Paul said to the Corinthian Christians, “I became your father.” (1 Corinthians 4.15) He also said, “Therefore, brethren, stand fast and hold the traditions which you were taught, whether by word or our epistle.” (2 Thessalonians 2.15) As a spiritual father to so many, St Paul expected the faithful to live a certain way. Where did St Paul receive this tradition?
Just as St Paul expected the faithful to live as he taught, he too was expected to live based upon how he was taught. When his teachings were not consistent with the teachings of the Holy Apostles, he was expected to change, since it was the Holy Apostles who were promised by Christ to be guided into all truth by the Holy Spirit. You can read about this process in Acts, Chapter 15. “Therefore, when Paul and Barnabas had no small dissension and dispute with them, they determined that Paul and Barnabas and certain others of them should go up to Jerusalem, to the apostles and elders, about this question.” (Acts 15.2)
Such was the beginning of the tradition of spiritual fathers. Christ promised the Holy Spirit would guide the Apostles into the whole truth. The Apostles would hand that teaching down from Apostle to Bishop to Bishop until today, 2000 years later, but there is one final crucial role of our spiritual father. He is also our confessor.
St James said, “Confess your trespasses to one another.” (James 5.16) The Apostles taught, “But every Lord’s day [Sunday] gather yourselves together and break bread, and give thanksgiving [Holy Communion] after having confessed your transgressions, that your sacrifice might be pure.” (Didache) All this after Christ said, “If you forgive the sins of any, they are forgiven them; if you retain the sins of any, they are retained.” (John 20.23)
Christ gave the authority to forgive sins to the Apostles, who gave the authority to the Bishops, who today give the authority to our spiritual father. Following 2000 years of Holy Tradition, our Spiritual Father helps us “stand fast” and “confess” so we can live in Christ without falling victim to the many false teachers Christ warned us about.