Mothers in the Church
by Jen Wilkin
One of my favorite books as a child was the classic by P.D. Eastman, Are You My Mother? It’s the story of a baby bird who falls from his nest and goes in search of his mama. I would anxiously turn the pages as he asked a hound dog, an old car, and a host of other creatures and objects his soulful question: “Are you my mother?” As the little bird goes along searching, he passes right near his mother without being aware. The text reads: “He did not know what his mother looked like. He went right by her. He did not see her.” Having met with disappointment and even danger again and again, at last he would find her on the very last page, just as my four-year-old heart was about to break from the suspense. Eastman wrote a book that appealed to an obvious truth: babies need mothers.
I’m now in my forties and a mother to four children who are almost grown. As I’m writing, they are all “out of the nest” for the week, and the unusual quiet orderliness of our house has felt like a foretaste of the next stage of life that is rushing toward me. To be honest, I’m not sure how I feel about it. Being the mama bird of this nest has consumed me for twenty years, and I have loved it. The term “empty nester” feels like an odd fit.
But I know better than to think that my mothering days are drawing to a close. I know this because God calls every believing woman to be a mother. Think about the command given to Adam and Eve in Genesis 1: Be fruitful and multiply. Fill the earth with more image bearers. The command to the first man and woman meant that they were to become parents in the literal sense. But in the New Testament, we find this command expressed also in spiritual terms in the Great Commission: Go to all nations and make disciples. Be fruitful and multiply. Fill the earth with more image bearers. But this time, the call is also to be spiritual parents, raising newborn believers to maturity, helping them conform to the image of Christ.
I know my mothering days are not over because, as long as I draw breath, the call to fill the earth with image bearers will be incumbent on me. Just as my biological children needed me to train them in self-control, industriousness, and obedience, so also do young believers in the church need those who are more mature to train them in godliness. Every believing woman who grows to maturity becomes, in her time, a spiritual mother to those following behind, whether she ever becomes a mom in physical terms. She fulfills that most basic calling of motherhood: nurturing the helpless and weak to maturity and strength. She helps the young believer to nurse on the pure milk of the Word, faithfully teaching basic doctrine and modeling the fruit of the Spirit. She sacrificially makes herself available, like the mother of a newborn infant, allowing her schedule and personal needs to be inconvenienced for the sake of caring for the spiritually young and vulnerable. And she understands the work to be not a trial but a sacred duty, finding deep delight in wobbly first steps of faithfulness and stuttered first words of truth.
But connecting spiritual infants to spiritual mamas is not always a smooth process. Like the baby bird in Eastman’s book, fledgling Christians may not recognize a mama bird even when one is standing right in front of them. They may go right past her. They may ask, “Are you my mother?” of the wrong person and receive the answer, “Yes.” Plenty of false teachers are eager to prey on young Christians not yet established in their faith. Younger men and women in the faith, do you recognize your need for the wisdom of a spiritual mother? Whom could you approach to help you grow to maturity in your relationship with God and others?
Not only may spiritual infants fail to recognize spiritual mamas, but spiritual mamas may fail to recognize themselves as such. We may underestimate the need or question our ability to meet it. Or we may hesitate to extend ourselves out of a fear of commitment. But a motherless church is as tragic as a motherless home. Guiding the spiritually young to maturity is not solely the job of the vocational pastor, the elder, or the Sunday school teacher. The church needs mothers to care for the family of God. We must rise to our responsibility, eagerly searching for whom the Lord would have us nurture. There is no barrenness among believing women. Through the gospel, all become mothers in their maturity. And unlike biological motherhood, spiritual motherhood holds the potential for hundreds, even thousands of descendants. Older women in the faith, do you recognize the vital importance of your in uence and example? Whom could you make room for in your life to guide toward maturity? Who needs the hard-earned wisdom you hold? Spiritual babies need help to open God’s Word, to live at peace with God and others, to be lights in dark places. Babies need mothers.
It is the calling of every believing woman to submit to the command to be fruitful and multiply, to fill the earth with image bearers. This means that for us, the term empty nester can never truly be applied. There is comfort for me in knowing this truth as I watch my biological children grow up and leave home. I suspect and hope there is comfort in this truth for any believing woman, biological mother or not. None of us needs ever to question our usefulness in the household of God. We have only to draw the next searching fledgling under our wing.