19 January 2012


“And call no man your father on earth, for you have one Father, who is in heaven."
(Matthew 23:9)

Anyone who has discussed the Catholic, Anglican, Lutheran or Orthodox churches for about 30 seconds or more, with (or as) a low church protestant, has had this verse come up in conversation. These aforementioned traditions often refer to their priests as “father,” of course. To do so, is obviously a violation of Jesus’ clear teaching in the verse, right?

Well, if that’s the case, Mark, Luke, John, Peter, Stephen, Paul, James and even Jesus himself violated this “clear teaching.” Let us back up, take a deep breath, and actually look at what the New Testament tells us about the use of the title “father.”

First, let’s expand the passage we’re looking at from a single verse to the opening paragraph of Matthew 23:

Then Jesus said to the crowds and to his disciples, “The scribes and the Pharisees sit on Moses' seat, so do and observe whatever they tell you, but not the works they do. For they preach, but do not practice. They tie up heavy burdens, hard to bear, and lay them on people's shoulders, but they themselves are not willing to move them with their finger. They do all their deeds to be seen by others. For they make their phylacteries broad and their fringes long, and they love the place of honor at feasts and the best seats in the synagogues and greetings in the marketplaces and being called rabbi by others. But you are not to be called rabbi, for you have one teacher, and you are all brothers. And call no man your father on earth, for you have one Father, who is in heaven. Neither be called instructors, for you have one instructor, the Christ. The greatest among you shall be your servant. Whoever exalts himself will be humbled, and whoever humbles himself will be exalted. (Matthew 23:1-12 ESV)

Verse 12 seems to me to be the obvious “key verse” of this paragraph. Jesus is speaking against the pride of the scribes and Pharisees. In the midst of this teaching, he mentions three titles; “rabbi”, “father” and “instructor”.

Let’s look at these three words in a bit of detail. The first, “rabbi,” is a straight transliteration of the Greek, which is a transliteration of the Hebrew. Literally translated, it means “my great one.” It was often used for the founder or leader of a rabbinical school in Jesus’ day.1

Rabbi then, much like today, was a title for a Jewish religious teacher. The office of rabbi originated in the inter-testamental period as those who sought to teach and codify the Torah for the Jewish people. As this group became more formalized, it also became more exclusive, ritualized and hierarchical. Less learned rabbis were to stand when a more learned rabbi would enter the room, for example.

The second term, “father,” is our English translation of the Greek πατήρ (pater). It is used over 400 times in the New Testament. A majority of these usages are in reference to God, but about 150 are not referring to our heavenly Father. We will return to look at these momentarily.

Also worth noting, it is not that the biblical authors were without another option. The term γενναο (gennao) is used in Matthew’s genealogy and means “begeter” or “biological father.”

The third term, “instructor,” (καθηγητής) occurs only here in the New Testament. It stands in contrast to the more commonly used term for teacher, which appears about 50 times. I was unable to find any real analysis of this term.

So, back to “father.” In the Gospels, the word is used in/of:

· Referring to the 5th commandment.2
· Teaching on marriage (a man shall leave his father and mother…)3
· Earthly fathers4
· David5
· Ancestors6
· Abraham7
· Jacob.8

In Acts it is used repeatedly as a term to refer to ancestors.9 Of more interest, is Acts 7:2 where Stephen uses it as an honorific title. “And Stephen said: ‘Brothers and fathers, hear me…’” Paul used it in the same manner in chapter 22. “Brothers and fathers, hear the defense that I now make before you.” (Acts 22:1).

In Paul’s writings, we see him using it of Abraham10, the patriarchs11, ancestors12, in teaching on marriage13 and referring to the 5th commandment14. Most interestingly, for our discussion here, is his use of father in 1 Corinthians 4:14-16.

“I do not write these things to make you ashamed, but to admonish you as my beloved children. For though you have countless guides in Christ, you do not have many fathers. For I became your father in Christ Jesus through the gospel. I urge you, then, be imitators of me.”

This is the most “glaring” verse that seems to “contradict” Jesus’ teaching in Matthew 23:9. Is Paul doing that which Jesus said not to do? Another interesting note is I couldn’t find any commentaries that took issue with Paul’s use of “father” in this fashion.15

Let us consider a few other verses in Paul’s epistles before we seek to synthesize an answer to our quandary.

What I mean is that each one of you says, “I follow Paul,” or “I follow Apollos,” or “I follow Cephas,” or “I follow Christ.” Is Christ divided? Was Paul crucified for you? Or were you baptized in the name of Paul? (1 Corinthians 1:12-13)

For while there is jealousy and strife among you, are you not of the flesh and behaving only in a human way? For when one says, “I follow Paul,” and another, “I follow Apollos,” are you not being merely human?

What then is Apollos? What is Paul? Servants through whom you believed, as the Lord assigned to each. I planted, Apollos watered, but God gave the growth. So neither he who plants nor he who waters is anything, but only God who gives the growth. He who plants and he who waters are one, and each will receive his wages according to his labor. For we are God's fellow workers. You are God's field, God's building. (1 Corinthians 3:3-9)

Paul is addressing the same issue in 1 Corinthians that Jesus was addressing in Matthew 23—pride and division. The Pharisees’ pride in their position and in their various schools was unhealthy. The Corinthians divisions and squabbles over which “pastor” was the one they “followed” also brought grief to Paul. Paul addressed the issue by calling attention to the common source of grace and the Gospel: Jesus. Paul emphasized that they were “all on the same team.”

Jesus (and the Apostles) freely used the term “father” in numerous ways. But, God is not jealous of conduits, only competition. What I mean is, referring to “father Abraham,” as the scripture does, is not a “violation” of Matthew 23:9. Obviously, Abraham is the father of the Jews, and by spiritual extension, of all who believe in God. Because Abraham is in our "faith lineage," it is appropriate to refer to him as father Abraham.

Paul can call himself the spiritual "father" of the Corinthians because that is what he is. He was the one used to point them to the Heavenly Father. He was the one used of God to instruct and lead them. In that local manifestation of the church, that “family,” he was the head. In the same way that in a biological family, the father is the head. He is still subservient to God. There is no competition. The human father is entrusted with responsibility for his family, and to God for the same.

So it is with a priest. We are given authority from God to teach the word of God and to shepherd his flock. We are held accountable for doing so. To refer to us as “father” is merely one, of many terms, that are appropriate pictures of this relationship. It should be obvious that any term can be a source of pride and clung to in an unhealthy way.

It has been said that, “Anyone who seeks an office in the church is not worthy of it.” There is some kernel of truth to that. If we look to the position because it is a position, we are motivated by pride and a desire for “power.” If we accept a position because it is where God has placed us, we are in a better position to serve. (Though not free of the dangers of pride and power!)

I dare say, that we are in more danger of violating these scriptural teachings by the way we cling to various teachers today. How often do we identify with _______ (name your best-selling author/teacher/pastor) instead of with Christ? How often do we cling to our spiritual tradition as though it were the main thing?

Our distinctions are not insignificant. I do not want to suggest that. I am not advocating for “big tent Christianity” where we lower the bar to such a degree that everyone who does not explicitly deny God is “in.” However, our distinctions should always be secondary. Whether I am Catholic or Protestant. Whether I am clergy or lay. Our pursuit should be of God, not of our own labels.

I look at the labels of the pastoral office the same way I look at my rank in the military. My military rank means that those of lower rank are required to render a salute when we pass each other out of doors. Honestly, it would be easier for all concerned if this were not the case. I am obliged to return each salute.

I do not take offense when a Soldier fails to salute me. It is not a personal affront to me because I try to keep my rank in proper perspective. I do feel a bit of sorrow when I am not afforded the prescribed courtesy, not on account of my pride, but on account of the lack of pride, discipline, or respect exhibited by the other Soldier. It is more telling of the state of his attitude than of the state of my position.

A similar comparison can be made in relation to clerical titles. Father, pastor, reverend…the variety is greater than within the military example. If you choose to address me with one of those, it shows me that you have respect for the office that I fill. It shows me that you have an understanding of the traditions of the church. Rightly received by me, it is a reminder of the responsibility that I have accepted for the nurture and care of you in the Lord.

Call me father all you want. I need the reminder, not that you are a child “under” me, but that I am called to emulate the Father of us both.

1 Some commentators contend that there was a three-fold “level” of the term, “rab,” “rabbi” and “rabboni.” From a linguistic standpoint, this seems doubtful, especially since we do see the later applied to Jesus in John 20:16, though it is explained by John as being the Aramaic version of “rabbi.”
2 Matthew 5:4-6, 19:19, Mark 7:10, 10:19, Luke 18:20
3 Matthew 19:5, Mark 10:7
4 Most common usage after referring to God by this term.
5 Mark 11:10, Luke 1:32
6 Luke 1:55, 1:72, 6:23, 11:47, John 4:20, 6:31, 6:49, 58, 72
7 Luke 1:73, 3:8, 16:24, John 8:39, 53
8 John 4:12
9 As a substitutionary term for ancestors is the most common use in Acts.
10 Romans 4:16
11 Romans 9:5, 15:8
12 Romans 11:28, 1 Corinthians 10:1
13 Ephesians 5:31
14 Ephesians 6:2
15 Nor did it show up on any Internet discussion site that was taking issue with Catholic priests being referred to as father.

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