One of the unique roles of a father in your life is to provide definition, and to guard you from the wolves that want to define you. When you separate from your father, or if he fails to perform this role, you can become susceptible to false fathers. A false father is someone who gains power over you and takes advantage of you, and then, through this abuse defines who you are. False fathers operate when your real father is not there to guard and define you.
This danger can be especially acute in a church setting. When we get born again we become “sheep” (John 10:27). We start to lose whatever worldly and selfish edge we had. We stop looking out for ourselves and start looking out for others. This allows us to participate in the economy of love. We give and serve, and others give and serve in return. This naturally makes us vulnerable to those who would take advantage of our desire to give and serve. In addition, as we love more and our perspective broadens, our participation in the invisible Kingdom can have the side effect of eliminating natural shrewdness or discernment about the world around us. We may even become influenced by doctrines which block natural discernment. For example, people may start believing the world is going to end very soon, thereby eliminating rational sense of how to properly plan their futures.
All of that is to say that in the church, it can be easy for a wolf to devour the sheep, especially if there is no true shepherd to protect you. Of course we all have the Good Shepherd, but if we are not hearing Him properly for any reason, then we need true shepherds to protect us. Your natural father is the first good and true shepherd given to your life. Many fathers do not know how, or are not equipped to perform this role, however. Some are themselves working through their own lack of fathering, or insecurities, and are unempowered to perform this function.
I am sharing all of this because I have recently become aware of this pattern through ministry situations. When a false father comes into your life, it can be very devastating. You might end up marrying someone that was unwise, or you might end up with your ministry dreams destroyed. Other bad things can happen to you. I’ve walked with so many people with this story, it will just break your heart.
One of the essential marks of a false father is that they “load people with burdens hard to bear, and you yourselves do not touch the burdens with one of your fingers” (Luke 11:46) This can be through their direct personal influence or simply through the impact of their teaching, but they make Christianity impossible, and then they browbeat you for not being able to perform it. Yet they themselves could never live up to that kind of standard.
False fathers can even get exalted in the church. Paul had extensive difficulties with this. He wrote the letter to the Galatians because some people came in teaching scary doctrines and the Galatians believed them. In 2 Corinthians 12, Paul talks about some “super apostles” who people listened to because they were abusive. Sometimes we let these abusive people come in and steal the kindness that God has planned for us. Then the image of their selfish sinfulness replaces the true image of God in our hearts. Even the apostles got intimidated by some people like this and Paul had to confront them.
False fathers victimize nice people, those who serve hardest, who want to please the most. They victimize people who do not have natural fathers or other loving and wise mentors to protect them. And once they get in the door, they destroy the house. What can we do about this?
Be Aware. The best way to be healthy is not to get hurt. We need to protect each other and ourselves from these false fathers. Be aware that Satan always seeks to put wolves in the sheep pen. If you honestly do not believe that your church leader loves you sincerely, you may need to leave. Don’t hang on for many years receiving abuse and think you need it, or that one day it will suddenly turn to love.
If you are a church leader, be watchful of whom you allow a platform in your church, especially outside teachers whose ministry is primarily corrective, or people on your team who clearly lack love. It’s the leadership’s responsibility to provide a healthy place for the sheep to graze.
Find True Fathers. If you do not have a strong father figure in your life, you may be vulnerable to false fathering. If your natural father was unable to perform this role, seek out older mature Christian men you can trust and who can speak into your life. I do not recommend choosing someone your age. And it does not have to be someone very important or on the platform. There are men who God has specially called to fathering spiritual orphans. They may not spend a lot of time in public, but they spend time helping younger men and women develop spiritual confidence. A true spiritual father does not take over your life. A true spiritual father helps you to know the Heavenly Father, and guards you against the father of lies.
Get Healed. If you have been falsely fathered, you have likely experienced significant damage to your relationship with God. You might be in a place of extreme darkness, you might have given up on God (because a false father mars the image of God to you), or you might simply lack confidence. You need to actively pursue healing. Expose the lies deep in your heart to someone else who you can trust, who does not struggle with the same thing, and let the truth they tell you speak to you.