Call no man Father?
"Do not call anyone on earth your father; for One is your Father, He who is in Heaven." ~Jesus
The passage above from Matthew 23:9 is one of the several verses found in the fundamentalist tool bag used to justify a perceived inconsistency of a certain customary practice found in Catholic ,Orthodox and Anglican churches as it pertains to Scripture. They accuse their brethren of engaging in unbiblical practices when addressing their priests/pastors as "father". But is this really the case? Was Jesus instituting a new doctrine that forbade any future use of titles or honorifics? I could think of no better time to discuss this topic than on this special day, we Americans have designated as Father's Day. Knowing Christ and common sense tells us that Jesus was not forbidding a little boy or girl from calling their earthly father "Daddy" or "Papa" or even "Father". Eliminating the idea of an earthly father would likewise dismantle the concept of Divine Fatherhood. There would be no default image or icon for the Christian convert or child to relate to in a paternal sense. And because the Scripture, both Old and New Testaments are filled with parental references, we can safely deduce that this was not Christ's intention in the above command to "call no one on earth your father". So what was Jesus trying to communicate to his hearers? Let's look at the context of this passage to gain a better understanding of the message that our Heavenly Father wants to communicate to us through the words of His Son.
"Then Jesus spoke to the multitudes and the His disciples, saying: "The scribes and Pharisees sit in Moses' seat. Therefore whatever they tell you to observe, that observe and do, but do not do according to their works; for they say, and do not do. For they bind heavy burdens, hard to bear, and lay them on men's shoulders; but they themselves will not move them with one of their shoulders. But all their works they do to be seen by men...They love the best places at feasts, the best seats in the synagogue, greetings in the marketplaces, and to be called by men, 'Rabbi, Rabbi.' But you, do not be called 'Rabbi'; for One is your Teacher, the Christ, and you are all brethren. Do not call anyone on earth your father; for One is your Father, He who is in heaven. And do not be called teachers; for One is your Teacher, the Christ. But he who is greatest among you shall be your servant. And whoever exalts himself will be humbled, and he who humbles himself will be exalted." 1. Jesus was addressing his disciples and the multitude gathered around Him in Jerusalem during the preparation for the Passover Feast. Jerusalem was the spiritual hub of all of Israel and the location of the Jewish Temple as well as the highest court of Jewish law and teaching called the Sanhedrin. This was the place and these were the people responsible for leading and teaching God's people in the ways they should go.
2. Jesus was not instructing his disciples to disobey the law of Moses. On the contrary, he explicitly tells them to observe whatever they tell you to do. So he was not inciting a rebellion or introducing a new doctrine to the church. He was simply exposing the corruption and hypocrisy of the Jewish leadership in Jerusalem at that time who were not practicing what they were preaching. 3. How did He choose to do this? He did it through the customary eastern practice of hyperbole, which is an exaggeration to make a point, a shock-statement to draw attention to the more important underlying issue of the heart. We can also see this use of hyperbole when Jesus warns his followers of the dangers of the lusts of the flesh and the lust of the eyes in Matt. 5:29, cf. 18:9; Mark 9:47, when he instructs them to pluck out their eyes or cut of their hands and feet. Since we are all subject to such struggles, we can infer that Jesus was using hyperbole to emphasize the seriousness of our battle against the flesh, otherwise all Christians would be blind, amputees. 4. So what was His message? The spirit of Jesus' message was to expose the corruption of the religious leaders. He was addressing the error of honoring or esteeming someone simply because they held a title. He was implying that we can honor others through a title, but not because of a title. There would have been no need for Jesus to make this statement, had the leaders in Jerusalem truly been acting as fathers and teachers.
We see this same trend in evangelical and charismatic circles today. Congregations who that elevate the role of their pastor, holding him or her to an almost superstar status. Pastors who demand their congregants call them Pastor Bob or Prophet Tammy or Apostle Louis. His message was not only to expose the Pharisees and scribes, but to rebuke the people for falling into their religious trap. He warned His followers not to put too much stock in men, because unlike the Heavenly Father, man is fallible. In essence, we are not to put any man on the throne of our hearts to idolize them as if they were God. It is a warning against looking to man as the supreme source of spiritual sustenance. This is precisely why many Protestant, Evangelical churches experience splits and schisms; their eyes are on the man instead of on God. The people become unhappy with leadership because they are putting too much stock in the man running the show! Congregants become disgruntled or discontented if they are not being "fed" by the pastor as if he or she is to do their eating for them.
This puts an undue amount of pressure on the pastor by the congregation and often results in isolation, distress, and depression for the spiritual leader which becomes a recipe for disaster for everyone involved. If a "super-pastor" dies or falls into sin, the church often experiences crisis or falls into disarray.
Jesus provides the prescription for this nonsense by clearly instructing us not to entrust our means of salvation and sanctification to men, but rather to God. This does not however dismiss us from having leaders and/or authority in the church; Scripture clearly shows us otherwise. 5. How can we make the assumption that Jesus was not speaking literally in this passage? Because we can interpret Scripture with Scripture. In 1st Thessalonians 5:12-13, Scripture commands us to "recognize those who labor among you, and are over you in the Lord and admonish you, and to esteem them very highly in love for their work's sake." God has no problem with titles or honoring others. In fact, it is integral to the Heavenly culture. Throughout Old and New Testaments, titles or honorifics are used. In Genesis 45 Joseph refers to himself as a father to Pharaoh. Job refers to himself as a "father to the poor" in Job 29:16, and who can forget Elisha calling out to Elijah, "My Father, my Father!" in 2 Kings 2:12. The New Testament offers even more examples of the use of the words "father" and "teachers". Steven in Acts 7:2 calls out to his "brethren and fathers". Paul, in Romans 9:10 indicates that Isaac was his "father". In Hebrews 12, the author uses the example of earthly fathers to demonstrate how our Heavenly father chastises us for our own good, "If you endure chastening, God deals with you as sons; for what father does not chasten? Furthermore, we have had human fathers who corrected us and we paid them respect. Shall we not much more readily be in subjection to the Father of spirits and live?" And again in the Epistles, the Apostle Paul continually addresses himself as a "father" to his children Timothy, Titus, and Onesimus. (see 1 Cor. 4:17, 1 Timothy1:2,18, 2 Timothy 1:2, 2:1, Philippians 2:22, Philemon 10, Titus 1:4). Other apostles are also "guilty" of using such titles for themselves, including Peter (1 Peter 5:13) and John (1 John 2:1,13-14 and 3 John 4). In the title passage above, Jesus also addressed not calling people teachers. However, later in the Scripture we find that when Christ ascended he "gave gifts to men". In Ephesians 4:11 the Bible says, "And He gave some to be apostles, some prophets, some evangelists, and some pastors and teachers." In 1 Corinthians 12:28 Scripture states, "And God has appointed these in the church: first apostles, second prophets, third teachers..." If God cannot contradict himself, then we must imply a deeper meaning of Christ's command to "call no one father or teacher or master". If we were to take His hyperbole literally, then most of us would be in sin each time we addressed our earthly parents, or called someone doctor, for the Greek word used in Scripture for teacher is the same word we use for Doctor. And the words Mr. and Mrs. are derived from the Greek words for Master or Mistress. One of the most compelling New Testament verses for the argument of using honorifics such as "father" or "teacher" might be found in 1 Corinthians 4:14-15 when Paul states, "I do not write these things to shame you, but as my beloved children I warn you. For though you might have ten thousand teachers in Christ, yet you have not many fathers; for in Christ I have begotten you through the gospel."
Paul was obviously giving credence to the reality that people can serve as and be called such, so long as they do so in love and service to the Gospel! It is from this Scripture and others that numerous Evangelical/Charismatic believers derive the concept of "spiritual fathers and mothers".
Why then are our brethren of more ancient expressions of the faith ridiculed for honoring their shepherds and leaders as "father"? We might ask ourselves if we should not be doing the same thing as a sign of esteem for those who labor among us!
May God grant us a more mature understanding of His Word and Spirit as we celebrate this special time with all of those we have come to call "Father".