And call no man your father on earth, for you have one Father, who is in heaven. – Matthew 23:9
Ah, yes, here’s the classic Protestant prooftext to show that all those silly Roman Catholics are committing idolatry in revering their clergy as if equal to God! If only they’d read their Bibles, they’d see how simple it is: don’t call anyone ‘Father.’ But, of course, there is more to the story.
Misuse: blind literalism & eisegesis
The problem here is that people try to take this verse at face value without discerning its purpose. It is good to read the Bible literally, but “literalism” is what happens when you take it too far.
For example, the Song of Songs are poetry, so when we read them, we don’t expect their romantic images to be taken to be physical descriptions. When they say “Oh may your breasts be like clusters of the vine,” we don’t immediately worry that the bride has a bad case of breast cancer, but recognize that the literal meaning of this verse is a description of beauty. It’s a simile, not a direct description.
Similarly, what Jesus is doing in this week’s Frequently Misused Verse is making a classic style of argument based on exaggeration. “Call no man father.” Really? What about your own biological father? Are we to cease calling our fathers ‘father?’ Should we tell our dads that our real dad is God? There is no evidence in Scripture (let alone the history of Christian practice) to support such a literalistic reading of this verse.
The other problem going on here is eisegesis, or “reading one’s own agenda into the text.” When a Protestant reads this verse with an anti-Catholic bias, he or she will quickly jump to a strange application of the text. There’s a quest to debunk someone else’s tradition going on, rather than a quest to understand the words of our Lord Jesus Christ.
Context is Key
As usual, it’s critical to look at the verses around this quote to get a better sense of what it’s saying. Verses 8 and 10 say:
But you are not to be called rabbi, for you have one teacher, and you are all brothers. – Matthew 23:8
Neither be called instructors, for you have one instructor, the Christ. – Matthew 23:10
Do we have teachers and call them teachers? Yes. Does that mean we’re violating these verses too? No. Why? Take a look at the whole section where these verses come from. There, Jesus is dealing with the hypocrisy of the scribes and pharisees of his day. He’s pointing out that they don’t ‘practice what they preach,’ and that they love the honorifics afforded to them. They fail to understand that leadership is service, and that the greatest leader therefore must be the greatest servant. The final verse of the paragraph says it all:
Whoever exalts himself will be humbled, and whoever humbles himself will be exalted. – Matthew 23:12
So what about people calling priests ‘father?’
Now that we’ve got the main point of the verse worked out, let’s go back to the classic issue that many people like to raise with it: why do many Catholics (and a number of Anglicans) refer to their clergy as ‘father?’
In St. Paul’s shortest letter, he spoke of Philemon’s slave as follows: “I appeal to you for my child, Onesimus, whose father I became in my imprisonment.” From the context of the letter, it seems that while Onesimus was on the run from his master, Paul converted him to the Christian faith, and on that basis now has a relationship with him as a sort of spiritual father. And, despite Jesus’ warnings about entitlement in Matthew 23, Paul isn’t afraid to call himself a father. After all, he isn’t boasting; he’s pointing out the familial relationship that he has with this new disciple in Christ.
St. Peter did something similar. At the end of his first letter, he wrote, “She who is at Babylon, who is likewise chosen, sends you greetings, and so does Mark, my son.” Mark, here, is commonly understood to be John Mark, the author of the second Gospel book, who had traveled with Paul for part of his first church-planting tour in Acts 13 or so. Unlike Paul and Onesimus, Peter did not lead Mark to Christ; Mark was likely one of the many disciples of Jesus outside the number of the Twelve. Nevertheless, Peter calls Mark his son, again likely referring to an “in Christ” familial relationship wherein Peter is an elder, (or bishop, or apostle), and Mark is his student, or assistant.
No matter what denomination, all pastors have a sort of fatherly role in their congregation. In many ways it is a more personal and love-driven attitude than thinking of ourselves as Shepherds. After all, ‘pastor’ means ‘shepherd.’ Would you rather think of your pastor as a shepherd or a spiritual father? Different situations perhaps tend toward different relational needs, but in general it is more endearing to think of one’s pastor as a Father than a Shepherd. It is also a classic way of showing respect. When Elijah was taken up into heaven, Elisha cried out after him “my father, my father!”
It is my prayer this day that all Christian pastors would love their congregations with a fatherly love, and that all Christians would be able to love their pastors as spiritual fathers.