Friday, May 21, 2010

Q&A: Call no one “Father”

Question: Why do Catholics call their priests “Father”? It seems clear that the Bible forbids this, as Jesus Himself stated: “And do not call anyone on earth 'father,' for you have one Father, and he is in heaven.” (Matthew 23:9) When Catholics call their ordained clergy “Father” it is in direct violation of Christ’s command.

As with many criticisms concerning Catholic practices and teachings, this common misunderstanding stems from a poor interpretation of Scripture. Here we have an isolated verse that is ripped from its context and used to (supposedly) “prove” that Catholics are an unbiblical people who willfully disobey God’s Word. I suggest we examine the surrounding verses so that the original meaning is not lost:

“But you are not to be called 'Rabbi,' for you have only one Master and you are all brothers. And do not call anyone on earth 'father,' for you have one Father, and he is in heaven. Nor are you to be called 'teacher,' for you have one Teacher, the Christ. The greatest among you will be your servant. For whoever exalts himself will be humbled, and whoever humbles himself will be exalted.” (Matthew 23:8-11)

The Protestant argument, as stated in our question above, proposes that Jesus meant these words literally. When He said, call no one on earth ‘father,’ that means you should call absolutely no one on earth ‘father’ – (period) – end of story. Thus Jesus instituted an outright ban on the use of this title among Christians. Catholics are obviously in disobedience to Jesus’ clear command.

A few problems arise from this literalist interpretation. It would mean that Jesus also forbade anyone to be called “teacher” (in vs. 10, above). If we take this verse literally, then Jesus breaks his own command just a few verses later by calling someone other than the Christ “teacher”: "Woe to you, teachers of the law and Pharisees…” (Matthew 23:13) Note that the word “teacher” is never avoided by Jesus after making this command; He uses it freely as a title for people other than Himself. Nor does the average Protestant avoid the use of this word. How many non-Catholic Christians – the very ones who criticize Catholics for calling their priests “Father” - call their Sunday school instructors “teacher”? This would seem to violate Jesus’ command every bit as much as Catholics calling their priests “Father.”

Surely there must be some other way to interpret this text. Jesus must not have meant to ban the word “teacher” since He Himself used it immediately after saying not to do so. He would not have made such a strict rule only to break it in His next breath.

Furthermore, notice in verse 8 of our passage from Matthew above: Jesus forbids the use of the word “master” (a form of which is “Rabbi”). But we all use a form of the word “master” whenever we say Mister or Misses. So do we violate this command of Jesus anytime we attach the word “master” to our own names? If Catholics are unbiblical then so are
Mr. Protestant and Mrs. Evangelical.

But what about father? Are there any biblical examples of this title being used? The answer is a resounding, yes:

Paul calls himself a “father” in the same spiritual sense that Catholics use the term: “For if you were to have countless tutors [also rendered “teachers” – notice Paul uses this forbidden term] in Christ, yet you would not have many fathers, for in Christ Jesus I became your father [‘I have begotten you’] through the gospel.” (1Corinthians 4:15) He even goes on to say in the very next verse, “Therefore I exhort you, be imitators of me.” (4:16) In his fatherhood, Paul is worthy of imitation. Paul often called those who were under his spiritual care his “children” implying his spiritual fatherhood.

In Acts, as Stephen is about to be martyred he calls the Jewish leaders “fathers”: “Hear me, brethren and fathers!” (Acts 7:2)

Also in Acts, we find a reference to “our father David” (Acts 4:25).
Not all Jews were directly descended from David; nonetheless the title “father” is applied to David because of his spiritual fatherhood rather than a direct biological connection.

Jesus calls Abraham “father”: “Your father Abraham rejoiced to see My day, and he saw it and was glad.” (John 8:56) Often the Patriarchs (which is from the Latin for father – “pater”) of the Old Testament were referred to as “fathers” because of their great importance in the Jewish faith. Hebrews 1:1 does this as well: “God, after He spoke long ago to the fathers in the prophets in many portions and in many ways…”

Shockingly, Jesus even calls the devil a “father”: "You are of your father the devil, and you want to do the desires of your father. He was a murderer from the beginning, and does not stand in the truth.” (John 8:44)

And of course, apart from the Bible, we cannot neglect to mention our everyday usage of the term. We all call our own male parent “father” and we use terms like “father of the country” or “founding fathers” for our secular heroes.

So why is it that Catholics are singled out, when clearly the Biblical and historical evidence shows that this passage from Matthew was never meant to be taken literally? Or more to the point, why did Jesus speak in such stark terms if He did not mean exactly what He said? How are we to interpret this passage from Matthew?

In Matthew 23:8-11, Jesus is using a rhetorical device called hyperbole – which means to exaggerate in an extreme way in order to make a point. We do this when we say things like, “I had to wait forever in line…” or “I’ve done this a million times…” No one takes you literally when you say these things, because everyone knows that you are overstating the truth in order to make a point. You are speaking in hyperbole.

So Jesus did not mean to forbid the use of certain words. Rather He intended to emphasize that our earthly experience of teachers and masters and fathers pales in comparison to the Teacher/Master/Father that is God.

Thus regarding teachers, Jesus’ point is this: Christ is the Ultimate Teacher. He is THE Teacher - above all other teachers. Just as Jesus is the most perfect of all human beings and deserves to be called Son of Man more than any of us do, so too does He deserve the name Teacher more than any earthly teacher does. Likewise, the word “Father” describes God as the Ultimate Father above all others. Anything we experience of fatherhood here on earth (even our own biological father) is an imperfect reflection of the divine paternity of God. The two are miles apart. And the same can be said of masters.

The reason Jesus is stressing this difference is not to ban these words from usage. The real reason is found in the final lines of our passage above: “The greatest among you will be your servant. For whoever exalts himself will be humbled, and whoever humbles himself will be exalted.”

Jesus is telling us to avoid puffing ourselves up with pride concerning titles and official names. We may be father, master, or teacher to our fellow Christians, but these titles bear with them a humble acceptance of servitude, not a grand air of superiority. Catholics call their priests “Father” because as priests they accept the role of service and self-giving that is a reflection of God’s own gift of Self as Father to us all.


  1. So, your whole argument is "Jesus was just exaggerating"?
    Get real please!

  2. No, actually that is not my WHOLE argument. There are also the examples I gave of other Christian leaders being called "father" (such as Paul), and other uses of the word "father" in Scripture. It is also clear that the word "teacher" was not prohibited by Jesus, since Christians freely use that term even though Jesus seems to be banning its use in the same passage. So yes, Jesus was "exaggerating", so to speak. If you study Scripture at all in depth, it's a fairly common occurrence in his preaching. Did you have a specific counter-argument? You told me to "get real" - but frankly I don't see any "real" challenge from you.

  3. I am a priest in the Charismatic Episcopal Church and uses the title "father" to address us as well. But I grew up as an evangelical and for a time was in the Mennonite church, both of which avoid the title.

    I do not remember ever being explicitly being taught it was wrong, but the lack of exposure and teaching about the role of clergy and laity certainly have caused me to reflect on the change in my own life now being called Fr Jon. I appreciate the Mennonite stress on servant leadership I experienced while with them and my Methodist roots while Anglican origins have helped me process the meaning of my new title. I must admit I still wear it lightly, not in the sense that I am not pastoral, but with the sense that I am aware of the danger Jesus was addressing in Matthew 23 that anyone in leadership faces, especially as a spiritual leadership. I will be judged by a higher standard.

    The gospel lectionary reading for today was from Matthew 23, and I attempted to take on the subject directly. I tried to help those attending question a literal interpretation with many of the arguments stated above. In my opinion, it has to be a firmer interpretation given the woes that follow and other biblical passages as mentioned above. It does not follow that people who don't will now call me father, but it invites a more careful reflection on any text.

    Also in context Jesus affirms the "seat of Moses" as a legitimate role, so he cannot be arguing against any rightful spiritual leadership and titles that may be attached to them, including I conclude the title father rightly understood as one privileged to birth and nurture new believers. In that sense, a lay person can be a spiritual father or mother to another.

    In addressing the wider audience which opposes the term father, what about "Reverend" which means "revered one"? Is that more in keeping with the plain meaning (literal) of Jesus if father is offensive because it contains a nuance of exaltedness?