Tuesday, May 30, 2006

Call No Man Father

In Matthew 23:9 our Lord Jesus Christ plainly states, “And call no man your father on earth; for one is your Father, which is in heaven.”

Despite this single verse proving their error, Roman Catholic, Eastern Orthodox and Anglican/Episcopalian Christians for the most part still arrogantly continue to address their pastors by the warmly affectionate title of “Father”. Many people of Protestant persuasion have come to see this as a clear violation of scripture and proof that these groups have laid aside the teaching of the bible in preference to their own traditions. Now really! Is that truly the case here, or is the problem simply one of disagreement over interpretation?

All reasonable Christians will agree that no individual verse of scripture should simply be yanked out of the bible and applied arbitrarily without regard to its original context. Thus, although it would certainly be a literal interpretation of Matthew 23:9 to insist that you cannot even call your own Dad “Father”, it would be absurd to try to make a case for such an application. To properly understand the meaning of a single verse of scripture, at least three principles of biblical interpretation should be applied: 1) Reading the verse in the context of the original passage from which it was taken, 2) Interpreting the verse in context with the whole of the scriptures, and 3) Seeing the verse in context with how it has been interpreted and understood by the mainstream of historic Christian orthodoxy throughout time. The three guidelines therefore (Perhaps strangely familiar to those in Real Estate) are context, context, and context.

What is the context of the original passage? In reading the entire chapter of Matthew 23, it becomes clear that our Lord is addressing the problem of pride and hypocrisy among the leaders of the Jews. He said to His disciples, “The scribes and the 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…all their works they do to be seen by men…they love the best places at feasts, and the best seats in the synagogues, greetings in the marketplaces, and to be called by men, ‘Rabbi, Rabbi’…”

What is going on here? The problem was not that these men sat in the seat of Moses; God had obviously appointed them to this role. The problem was not even that they were called “Rabbi” (meaning “Teacher”) by the people, for they were indeed to be teachers of the Law of Moses. The problem was that these men came to love what they saw as their highly exalted position, together with the all the many privileges they received, even as they themselves disregarded, disgraced, and violated everything that they taught others to observe and do. They were prideful and hypocritical.

In another place, Jesus warned His disciples, “It is not to be so among you, for whoever would be first among you, must become the servant of all”. According to Jesus, the proper role of a Christian leader is to be a servant, following the example of Christ. Pride has no place in such a calling. Christian pastors must not be obsessed with leading “great movements of the Spirit” or amassing mega memberships in their churches, but with the much simpler duty of “feeding the sheep” and caring for whatever souls God has entrusted to them. They must not become enamored of their own teaching or status, or allow denominations to be formed around themselves, but humbly follow that which has been believed “everywhere, always, by all” and not divide from the teaching of those before them. Their lives must be transparent, and clearly demonstrate to all that they are truly making their best effort to follow the very same things that they teach to others. Finally, they must not seek their own honor, but in all things honor Christ and put even His humblest disciple above themselves, willingly sacrificing all for the least of these, His brethren.

In short, a Christian pastor must live and act exactly as a father of a family, not putting himself ahead of his children, but doing all and sacrificing all for their sakes. To call such a man “Father” in this case is not to exalt him beyond reason, but to actually remind him of his calling and his responsibility to his spiritual children.

What do the rest of the holy scriptures suggest about this term “Father”? Throughout the scriptures, the term “fathers” is used close to a zillion times to describe those faithful believers who have gone on before us into heaven and which provide us with their own examples of faith. John the Baptist upbraided the multitudes who came out to see him for thinking they could call Abraham their father when they did not live as children of Abraham. He had no quarrel with the title of “Father Abraham”, but with the multitudes’ hypocrisy in thinking they were his children when they were not (See a pattern forming?). In the parable of Rich Man and Lazarus, Jesus openly uses the term “Father Abraham” without, apparently, Abraham correcting Him for its use. In writing to the church in Corinth, St. Paul reminds them, “For though you might have ten thousand instructors in Christ, yet you do not have many fathers; for in Christ Jesus, I have begotten you through the gospel” (I Corinthians 4:15). In other words, Paul used the title “Father” to describe his own unique relationship to the Corinthian church, as opposed to all the others who were merely “instructors” of them. Further, from earliest times Christians have traditionally referred to the saints and teachers of the faith who preceded them as “Church Fathers” in keeping with the precedent set in both the OT and NT scriptures themselves.

The scriptures do not seem to have a problem with using the term “Father” to describe those for whom it is appropriate, nor do they impose a pious restriction of the title to God alone. Even St. John refers to the elder members of the church as “Fathers” in his first epistle. Shouldn’t John, the beloved disciple of the Lord, have known better than to call any man father? Wouldn’t he have known that the others would look up to such elders and seek to emulate their faith and victory in the knowledge of Christ? Oh, well, yeah…I guess that was the point.

Historically then, the normal and reasonable human term of “Father” was used by the people of God to describe those in the faith whom they respected, from the time of ancient Judaism all the way into the Christian era. In this context it seems ludicrous indeed that Jesus possessed an unnatural fear of the word or felt that its use by His disciples would somehow diminish the Fatherhood of God. His own apostles used the word frequently in descriptions of men, even as faithful Christians continued to use it to address their beloved ancestors in the faith, or even their own beloved pastors.

It is not until we come fairly far into the period of the Reformation that we see Matthew 23:9 being applied to Christian pastors for the very first time. This is a significant development. Following the Reformation and subsequent failed attempts at reconciliation, there arose mountains of debate and rhetoric between Roman Catholic and Reformation theologians, with each devising new condemnations of the other almost daily. For every condemnation of schism or heresy leveled by the Catholic Church against the Protestants, the Protestants came up with some new bludgeon to use against the “Papists.” Since some Reformers chose to abandon the idea of an ordained priesthood altogether, some bright brain somewhere latched on to this idea that calling priests “Father” could be condemned as unscriptural because of what Jesus appears to say in Matthew 23:9. Not surprisingly, Protestants overall were slow to accept this rather embarrassing innovation, since many still followed the traditional practice of calling their own pastors “father”. This new idea seemed so unnatural and was so obviously contrary to the longstanding Christian tradition that most felt it was “a step too far” and—not to put too fine a point on it—rather a stupid argument.

Apparently it was only an idea just slightly ahead of its time.

Eventually, this strange and novel interpretation of Matthew 23:9 gained dominance in the more extreme elements of Protestantism, and eventually migrated into the mainstream as the accepted meaning of the verse. Jesus, you see, was aware that Catholics and… What are those other guys? Help me here. Oh yeah, Eastern Orthodox! …would one day use the term “Father” to address their pastors, and so He wanted to give His chosen people, the Protestants, a killer verse to nail them with! As ridiculous as that may seem, what other understanding can we come to if the verse indeed means what many Protestants today insist that it does?

It is curious that so many of the Protestants who would object strenuously to calling their pastors “Father” seem to have no problem with calling them “Teacher” as in, “By Golly, Pastor Billy Bob is one mighty good bible teacher!”. They sure as heck don’t object to having Sunday School “teachers” in their churches. But, wait a minute…wasn’t the term “Teacher” also condemned in the very next verse, Matthew 23:10? (The KJV has it as “Master” but the word means instructor or teacher, as in “master” or teacher vs. “disciple” or student). In addition to this, Protestants don’t generally object to hanging around at ecumenical breakfasts with “Rabbi Schwartz” from the local synagogue, nor even object to calling him “Rabbi”, even though the word "Rabbi" seems to be comdemned by Matthew 23:8. Heck, as good Zionists they practically fall over themselves in giving honor to the Jews to show how much they love Israel. What are you going to do anyway, call him “Pastor” Schwartz??

It would seem that their interpretation of Matthew 23:9 and its accompanying verses, besides being historically incorrect and not jiving with the rest of the scriptures, is also rather unevenly applied. Apparently the contemporary Protestant criteria of biblical interpretation regarding this passage is that it must never be applied to themselves or to people they respect, but only to those who differ from them substantially enough that such an absurd and inconsistent interpretation is warranted.

In short, the relatively recent innovation of interpreting Matthew 23:9 as meaning that Christians should not call their pastors “Father” is both out of accord with the rest of the scriptures and with Christian history as a whole. Seeing the influences that work on the Evangelical/Charismatic world today, wouldn’t it be better if Christian pastors acted as nothing more than simple fathers to their respective church families and were regarded as such, rather than viewing a successful ministry as an open door leading to book deals and hopefully a TBN contract and national fame? Which of these two is more in keeping with the spirit of early Christianity?


At 5/30/2006 7:19 PM , Blogger fixer30 said...


Bluster does not cover error, you know that. Did not Jesus tell the disciples that "we are friends now" after washing there feet?

Not to mention perhaps the island that Bible floated to me on was there for a reason.

My Church traditons is "zero" I have no knowledge of it. Just like I have no real knowledge of Icons nor Fathers in the Faith.

Does that mean that a Church that has a ledaer thatnames himself "Father" is somehow Anethema? Of course not we are Brothers!!!! In Faith in Christ and His return.

May he return soon.

to myself, if a leader chooses to anme himself Father, there is little harm in that.

"You all are kings and priests of a new and better covenant"

So if parishoner names you as Father, do reciprocate by naming them "King or Priest or Saint"?

In the Faith that binds us


At 5/30/2006 7:43 PM , Blogger fixer30 said...

This comment has been removed by a blog administrator.

At 5/31/2006 6:04 AM , Anonymous bruce said...

Father, Thank you for these comments. You have stated this far better than I could have.

Andrew, I do understand where you are! It was the precise spot I stood for over 30 years. I would have quoted the same verses you now quote.

I'm curious. I'm sure your position represents many in the area you live. Have you been able to embed yourself in a fellowship of believers? Forget Orthodoxy for the moment.

I know you are sola scriptura. What I'm wondering is if you are just sola?

At 6/01/2006 5:30 PM , Blogger fixer30 said...

Perhaps Bruce,

I do not have a "axe to grind" against the Orthodox Church in general or Fr Micaheal (by love) in particular.

I find "Religion" fascinating. Read the Scriptures and see what has become of them in Churches so to speak.

Theologia Crucis BTW.

At 6/02/2006 11:40 AM , Anonymous Kevin said...


I love "Religion" too! What do you mean: "Read the Scriptures and see what has become of those in Churches so to speak"...is there some "secret wisdom" I'm missing (in my reading)? Or are you saying that church doesn't matter? What?

At 6/04/2006 9:44 AM , Blogger fixer30 said...


No, there is no "Secret Wisdom" so to speak. The bible is all inclusive and useful for..you know.

Rather I have no religious tradition to speak of, so in studying the various relgions it is fascinating to see how the Bible has been applied in thses institutions. From Communion, to Ordinations to Baptisms, from the Word to application it is just interesting to myself.

For myself, minmalism is the best course. If a tradition dictates something else, then great! It is there for a reason. And it is a part of one's communion in a Religion that one is loyal too. So to go against that radition would seem to be dishonest to oneself.

At 6/04/2006 3:07 PM , Anonymous Kevin said...

Thanks for clarifying. Fair enough!

At 7/16/2006 8:56 PM , Blogger Zeph said...

This is a great exposition of a very clear, yet blatantly misused passage. I greatly appreciate what you have said.

I hail from the Evangelical tradition, and though I am quite familiar with the Catholic tradition, I must confess that I am very uneducated in the Orthodox traditions and practices.

A question that I need to ask Father Eremitike:
In your opinion, are there genuine Christians in the evangelical and protestant churches?

I hear and understand your problems with the Protestant churches, but my question goes beyond disagreements with organizational structure and theological roots to the individual person on the pew.

I simply would like to hear your answer as to your view of the individual member of a Protestant church, coming from a Father in the Orthodox tradition.


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