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Call No Man Father?

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Page 24: Revised 03/21/2000

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On this page: | Jesus' Prohibition | My Confession | What Does Father Mean? | Literal vs Figurative Meaning | The Verse in Context | Reluctance to Use the Title | Conclusions |

Jesus' Prohibition

1Then spake Jesus to the multitude, and to his disciples, 2Saying, The scribes and the Pharisees sit in Moses' seat: 3All therefore whatsoever they bid you observe, that observe and do; but do not ye after their works: for they say, and do not. 4For they bind heavy burdens and grievous to be borne, and lay them on men's shoulders; but they themselves will not move them with one of their fingers. 5But all their works they do for to be seen of men: they make broad their phylacteries, and enlarge the borders of their garments, 6And love the uppermost rooms at feasts, and the chief seats in the synagogues, 7And greetings in the markets, and to be called of men, Rabbi, Rabbi. 8But be not ye called Rabbi: for one is your Master, even Christ; and all ye are brethren. 9And call no man your father upon the earth: for one is your Father, which is in heaven. 10Neither be ye called masters: for one is your Master, even Christ. 11But he that is greatest among you shall be your servant. 12And whosoever shall exalt himself shall be abased; and he that shall humble himself shall be exalted.

My Confession

In Matthew 23:9 Jesus says "call no man your father..." For many years I applied this verse to the title, "father" as it applies to Roman Catholic priests. In the Roman Catholic religion, priests are called "father" and, in some cases, they become quite indignant when you refuse to use the title. It was such demands (which I encountered more often than not) that made my back go up, and drove me to an unreasonable conclusion about the use of the title father.

I was wrong. It never occurred to me that I was taking this verse out-of-context (and thereby violating a cardinal rule of Scriptural interpretation). Lately I have had to re-think the whole thing in light of these questions:

  1. What does the term "father" mean?
  2. Is Jesus' instruction literal or figurative?
  3. Does the verse, by itself (out of context) make sense?
  4. What does to verse say when viewed in its immediate context?
  5. What does the verse say when viewed in the context of all Scripture?

What Does the Term "Father" Mean?

Seldom does the intended meaning of a word arise from the word by itself. For example, what would you tell me if I asked you to define the word strike? Is a strike:

You can only tell what the word means by seeing it in the context in which it is used.

Jesus cautions us to avoid not one title, but three: Rabbi, Master, and father. I never had a problem calling a Jewish leader Rabbi. I never had a problem calling my karate teacher master. Come to think of it, I never had a problem using the titles revered or pastor, either. Taken together, all these titles mean more or less the same thing, do they not? Each term applies to a religious leader, a minister if you will. It stack up like this:

All of which makes me wonder if I failed to rightly discern Jesus' intention and meaning in this passage. The word father, by itself, allows but four meanings:

  1. your biological father (Dad, Pop, etc.)
  2. a man who is your spiritual father (reverend, pastor, father, etc.)
  3. a man who is founder of a group, of a new science, etc. ("father of radio" etc.)
  4. God.

Literal or Figurative Language?

One thing we have to do when studying Scripture is discern the difference between what is meant literally, and what is meant figuratively. To find out, we have to examine the passage not just in its immediate context, but in light of other Scriptures that deal with the same topic.

If Jesus meant his warning to be taken literally, I would be duty-bound to not call my bio-dad father. But that would be absurd, and I don't think Jesus wants His followers to do absurd things. So, in immediate context, a literal meaning does not make sense at all.

Also, we have the evidence of St. Paul who identified himself as a spiritual father to Timothy (1 Tim 1:2; 2 Tim 1:2) and to Titus (Titus 1:4). Again we have Paul saying to many believers,

For though ye have ten thousand instructors in Christ, yet have ye not many fathers: for in Christ Jesus I have begotten you through the gospel. 16Wherefore I beseech you, be ye followers of me. (1 Cor 4:15)

Certainly the Apostle Paul would not violate a command from Jesus, would he? Much less make it a part of Scripture, which is inerrant? Hardly. Yet he claims to be the "father" of Timothy, of Titus, and of a number of other believers. Since Scripture is inerrant, and since we have a number of Scriptures in which the term father is used of men in a spiritual sense, I can only conclude that Jesus did not intend to be taken literally, but figuratively.

Understanding the Verse in its Immediate Context

If we then examine the passage in its immediate context, with the idea that Jesus was speaking figuratively about the titles Father/Rabbi/Master, what do we find?

The verse, "9And call no man your father upon the earth: for one is your Father, which is in heaven," appears in the middle of a scathing indictment of the Pharisees. Jesus point out that those religious leaders are hypocrites (v2) do their works to be seen (and honored) by others (v5), love to be in first place (v6), seek important titles (v7)... all things of great pride.

Then, following the injunction about titles, Jesus offers the contrasting view that those who would truly serve God must be humble, and not seek personal recognition and honor (v11-12).

Appearing as it does in the midst of the contrast between pride and humility, the statement "call no man your father upon the earth..." is a warning to avoid the pitfall of pride by seeking titles of honor among men. It is a warning against taking pride in titles assigned to us by others... of thinking too highly of ourselves. This is the intent when seen from the viewpoint of religious leaders themselves.

Equally true, from the viewpoint of the laity, of the ordinary person, It is also a warning to never elevate another human being to some spiritually superior status. That is, when it comes to our position before God, we all play on a level field... no priest, minister, or rabbi is in any way spiritually superior, even if their knowledge of Scripture and spiritual matters is greater... even if their teaching position is a valid one. ( and all ye are brethren-V8). Certainly we are to respect those who fill the role of priest, minister, or rabbi as people of dedication, commitment, education and knowledge. One way we show that respect is the use of titles. But we must never consider them above us, or superior to us in a spiritual sense. A priest, minister or rabbi is a fallible human being who can make mistakes, and who has no special powers to distinguish them as being better or above others.

Our Reluctance to Use the Title Father

It is, I think, this latter point that gives rise to a reluctance by Protestants to use the title father of a Roman Catholic priest. You see, in Catholic dogma and doctrine, the Catholic priest is said to have such special powers. Catholic are taught that the priest:

The Roman Catholic Church teaches that her priests are to be called father. She also teaches that the above "powers" are held by those priests. Thus, to call a priest father may be seen as being tantamount to acknowledging those "powers" to be true. Yet there is no clear linkage between Jesus' statement to "call no man your father upon the earth:" and those supposed powers of Roman Catholic priests. They are separate issues. Here we must remember that the Roman Catholic Church also teaches things that Protestants do agree with, such as the divinity of Christ, the virgin birth, the Trinity, the existence and role of the Holy Spirit, and so forth. Thus, the Protestant can readily repeat the "Apostles Creed" of Catholicism without ever linking that to the other teachings of the Roman Catholic Church with which it strongly disagrees as being either un-biblical, extra-biblical or even anti-biblical.

Some Conclusions

I suggest that the linkage of Jesus' instruction in Matthew 23:9 with other issues is not a valid, or even a reasonable argument. Both its immediate context, and the evidence of a number of other Scriptures reveal Him to be speaking figuratively, not literally. Of course there is also a literal sense to it. There would have to be because the statement occurs in the midst of an otherwise completely literal indictment of the Pharisees in particular, and of spiritual pride in general. To paraphrase, the literal intent says, "Do not, in your pride, seek after exalted titles as do the Pharisees. Neither should you permit such titles to give rise to spiritual pride, because you are no better than anyone else, regardless of your job description."

I believe it is possible, even permissible to address a Roman Catholic priest as father, as a sign of respect for his job description, without such use being an admission that other, false teachings of the Roman Catholic Church are true.

I believe there is a danger to priests who demand the title, father that being a sign of spiritual pride. Yet the same can be said of Protestant ministers and Jewish rabbis who make similar demands for titular recognition. I further believe that we have a duty to speak out when we encounter any person who demonstrates spiritual pride in such a manner, be it priest, minister or rabbi.

Beyond this, I am convinced that Jesus has no objection to the use of titles insofar as they are simply a recognition on one's job description. When it comes to Roman Catholics, the title father implies that the priest is a sort of spiritual father to his parishioners, in the same way that Paul was a spiritual father to such as Timothy and Titus. Only when the use, or demand for such titles goes beyond this limit does it become the sin of pride, and a thing for us to admonish rather than simply reject the use of the title out-of-hand.

Can you see the witnessing opportunity here? Can you see the chance to help others with their relationship to God?

When you encounter a priest, minister or rabbi who demands the title, you have the chance to read and discuss this Scripture with them. (Well, the rabbi might not listen because rabbis tend to disregard the New Testament, but who knows?) You can help them see the element of spiritual pride in their demands, and perhaps to get past that pride.

When you encounter a Roman Catholic priest whom you call father, you may see some surprise, or even hear a comment or two about you, a Protestant, calling him father. Here too, you have the chance to share this Scripture with him, and to show that you respect his position even if you disagree with his theology. Who knows where such a discussion of Scripture may lead?

Finally, in light of the modern ecumenical spirit, I have to say that, despite the areas of common agreement Protestants have with the Roman Catholic Church, the areas of difference remain, and they are quite large and significant. While many urge us to do so, we must never forget those differences, or ignore them in the name of "unity" or "tolerance." To do so would be akin to the mouse ignoring the differences between it and the cat just because both have four legs, teeth, claws and fur.

'Nuff said!

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