Most of you are probably familiar with the term “godparent”, and perhaps you have a godparent, or are one yourself. In today’s society, godparents are typically chosen by a parent upon the birth of their child; someone they trust and feel comfortable giving advice or guidance to their child throughout their life. More often than not, a godparent plays a role in the baptism or christening of the infant child. This may be how godparents are viewed in society today, but the term had a much more significant beginning. Godparents, or spiritual parents and “sponsors” as they were often referred to in the Early Church, was a concept followed strictly by the Church (pre 325AD), ultimately following the pattern throughout established in the Bible. Most of the congregation in the Early Church had a godparent, but the role carried a much weightier responsibility than our typical view of godparents today.
Below is a detailed overview of the role of godparents in the Early Church and the reasons they were necessary:
Christians were cautious and worshipped covertly. Anyone who wanted to join their community was carefully evaluated; in the vernacular of today, they were “vetted.” Each person who came forward, called an inquirer, was always accompanied by someone already Christian, a sponsor, who would vouch for the inquirer. The sponsor specifically attested to the person’s sincerity and moral character. St. Hippolytus (170-237 AD), in his discourse, “Apostolic Tradition” wrote: “New converts to the Faith, who are to be admitted as hearers of the word, shall be brought to the teachers before the people assemble. And they shall be examined as to their reason for embracing the Faith, and those who bring them shall testify that they are competent to hear the word.” Having received the testimony of the sponsor, the Church leaders would further evaluate the one seeking to become a Christian. These persons would be asked about their lifestyle and occupation. . . Assuming the inquirer satisfied the Church leaders, that individual would become known as a catechumen (from a Greek word meaning “instruction”) and started three years of spiritual formation and instruction in Christianity. Several Church fathers have verified the three-year timeframe, including St. Hippolytus: “Let the catechumen be three years hearing the word; but if a man is zealous and perseveres well in the word, it is not time but his character that is decisive.” Throughout the period of instruction the sponsor accompanied the inquirer and offered guidance, direction and, ideally, a model for living the teachings of Christ. . . In addition to preaching and teaching, the early inquirer was exposed to a community of Christians and ideally formed into a follower of Christ. During the three-year period, the catechumens were continuously evaluated as to whether or not they were living a Christian lifestyle. Could the sponsor recognize a spiritual transformation taking place in the catechumen? Was he or she ready for baptism? (1)
In the Early Church, godparents were required not only to prove the sincerity of someone wishing to join the church, but more importantly, they were an integral part of the catechumen’s (student’s) 3 years of training, before being baptised into the faith. A godparent was a guide to the catechumen as to how to live a Christian life, and leading by example, forming the nature of Christ in them.
It was around the 4th century that the word “sponsor” was replaced by “compardre” or “comardre”, meaning someone who is like a father, or like a mother, but isn’t biologically, hence the origin of the term “godparent”. (2)
We see the pattern of godparenting in scripture- the Apostles were regarded as Spiritual parents (godparents) to the Church. The Apostle Paul, writing to the church at Corinth says: “For even if you were to have ten thousand teachers [to guide you] in Christ, yet you would not have many fathers [who led you to Christ and assumed responsibility for you], for I became your father in Christ Jesus through the good news [of salvation]. So I urge you, be imitators of me [just as a child imitates his father]. For this reason I have sent Timothy to you, who is my beloved and faithful child in the Lord, and he will remind you of my way of life in Christ [my conduct and my precepts for godly living], just as I teach everywhere in every church.” (1 Corinthians 4:15-17 Amplified Bible). Also, Paul exhorts the church to follow him as he follows Christ (see 1 Corinthians 11:1). We see here that Paul is instructing the church to become imitators of him, to follow his godly way of life, and raising up spiritual children to carry this on.
John, when writing to Gaius, refers to him as his own son: “For I was greatly pleased when [some of the] brothers came [from time to time] and testified to your [faithfulness to the] truth [of the gospel message], that is, how you are walking in truth. I have no greater joy than this, to hear that my [spiritual] children are living [their lives] in the truth.” (3 John 1:3-4 Amplified Bible). Notice it pleased John that his spiritual children were walking in the truth, in the pattern that he set before them.
In writing to the church of Galatia, lamenting over the lack of change in the body of Christ, Paul addresses the body as his children, saying: “My little children, for whom I labor in birth again until Christ is formed in you.” (Galatians 4:19). Here, Paul not only states that he is the father of the church in Galatia, but he makes an even more significant statement; that it was his role to birth Christ’s nature in them.
There are numerous examples of scripture, in the same vein, where Paul implies that without a godparent/spiritual parent, we cannot be birthed into the kingdom of God. This might be a concept hard to swallow, however, the Early Church was in agreement with this understanding.
Origen, an Early Church Father confirms Paul’s position on the spiritual fathers birthing Christ in the church, and gives us more understanding of the role of a godparent. He wrote:
Who are they “who sow” (cf. Mk 4:14)? Those who proclaim God’s WORD in the church. . . . To souls . . . they should entrust the secret mysteries, to them speak the WORD of God and the mysteries of faith, so that “Christ might be formed” in them through faith. Or don’t you know that from this sowing of the seed of the WORD of God Christ is born in the hearts of the hearers? As the Apostle ex-presses it: “until Christ be formed in you” (Gal 4: 19). . . . This is the child-bearing of saintly souls, this the conceiving and these the holy embraces which are right and fitting for the great high priest, Christ Jesus our Lord. (3)
Here Origen states that the spiritual fathers are those who open the mysteries of scripture to the children of the faith, which is what forms Christ’s nature in them. This is confirmed in scripture when Paul, addressing the gentiles, states that he was endowed by God with the revelation of the mystery of Christ, to furnish them with understanding (see Ephesians 3:1-7).
Furthermore, Ignatius, the disciple of John the Revelator, wrote the following regarding Paul’s gospel:
You are initiated into the mysteries of the Gospel with Paul, the holy, the martyred, inasmuch as he was “a chosen vessel”. (4)
Ignatius confirms the position of the Early Church, that it is through a spiritual father who understands the revelation of the mysteries of Christ, that the Church, or children of God are also initiated.
The Constitution of the Apostles teaches us just how greatly our spiritual parents are to be reverenced:
For if the divine oracle says, concerning our parents according to the flesh, “Honour thy father and thy mother, that it may be well with thee;” (Exo 20:12) and, “He that curseth his father or his mother, let him die the death;” (Exo 21:17) how much more should the word exhort you to honour your spiritual parents, and to love them as your benefactors and ambassadors with God, who have regenerated you by water, and endued you with the fulness of the Holy Spirit, who have fed you with the word as with milk, who have nourished you with doctrine, who have confirmed you by their admonitions, who have imparted to you the saving body and precious blood of Christ, who have loosed you from your sins, who have made you partakers of the holy and sacred eucharist, who have admitted you to be partakers and fellow-heirs of the promise of God! Reverence these, and honour them with all kinds of honour; for they have obtained from God the power of life and death, in their judging of sinners, and condemning them to the death of eternal fire, as also of loosing returning sinners from their sins, and of restoring them to a new life. (5)
Godparents receive the power of life and death from God, and the ability to free their spiritual children from bondage, because they have first gone through the process of denying self, allowing Christ’s nature to rise in them. Just as in the Gospel of Matthew Jesus tells His disciples if anyone wishes to come after Him, he must deny himself and take up his cross daily (Matthew 16:24). Later, in 1 Corinthians 15:31 Paul says “I die daily”. Because of his obedience to the Word, Apostle Paul was able to take his spiritual children through the death and resurrection process, through the pattern set by Jesus. Just as in everyday life, we cannot teach someone something that we have not first learned and experienced ourselves.
Clement, a first-century Early Church Father, writes the following:
Wherefore it is by all means necessary for thee, who art pompous, and powerful, and rich, to set over thyself some man of God as a trainer and governor. Reverence, though it be but one man; fear, though it be but one man. Give yourself to hearing, though it be but one speaking freely, using harshness, and at the same time healing. For it is good for the eyes not to continue always wanton, but to weep and smart sometimes, for greater health. So also nothing is more pernicious to the soul than uninterrupted pleasure. For it is blinded by melting away, if it remain unmoved by bold speech. Fear this man when angry; be pained at his groaning; and reverence him when making his anger to cease; and anticipate him when he is deprecating punishment. Let him pass many sleepless nights for thee, interceding for thee with God, influencing the Father with the magic of familiar litanies [petitions]. For He does not hold out against His children when they beg His pity. And for you he will pray purely, held in high honour as an angel of God, and grieved not by you, but for you. This is sincere repentance. “God is not mocked,” (Gal_6:7) nor does He give heed to vain words. For He alone searches the marrow and reins of the heart, and hears those that are in the fire, and listens to those who supplicate in the whale’s belly; and is near to all who believe, and far from the ungodly if they repent not.’ (6)
Clement outlines the process of godparents being set over people and how they are to be reverenced and rightly feared. Although they may bring rebukes that feel harsh, they are actually bringing healing, as without the rebuke we may not recognise our sinful ways and repent (see Proverbs 9:8-9 and Hebrews 12:6). Clement also states how this person is viewed as an angel of God, just as in Paul says that despite his spiritual children seeing him going through his trials and tribulation, they still received him as an angel of God, even as Jesus himself (Galatians 4:14).
Just as Jesus taught His disciples by example, so too did the Apostles and spiritual parents (godparents) teach their spiritual children, through their experience and obedience to the Word. Through the leading of a godparent, those who are less mature are able to be raised up into the nature of Christ, and they can continue the pattern established, to then raise up others through their own spiritual transformation.
1) Meadows, Chris. “Understanding The Essential Role Of Godparents And Sponsors”. 2018, https://www.osvnews.com/amp/2018/07/29/understanding-the-essential-role-of-godparents-and-sponsors/.
2) Moldovan, Alice. “Godparents Date Back To Ancient Christian Times, But They’ve Come A Long Way Since Then”. 2019, https://www.abc.net.au/news/2019-08-18/changing-role-of-godparents-since-ancient-christian-times/11400580.
3) Origen- Spirit & Fire
4) Ignatius- Epistle to the Ephesians Ch XII Vol 1
5) ANF Vol 7, Constitution of the Apostles, Book 2, Pt 2, Ch XXXIII
6) Clement- Rich Man, Ch XLI
All scripture references from The Holy Bible: New King James Version: NKJV. Thomas Nelson, 2010, unless stated otherwise.