Pastor's Blog

Call No Man “Father”?

Many Protestants claim that when Catholics address priests as “father,” they are engaging in an unbiblical practice that Jesus forbade: “Call no man your father on earth, for you have one Father, who is in heaven” (Matt. 23:9).

In his tract 10 Reasons Why I Am Not a Roman Catholic, fundamentalist anti-Catholic writer Donald Maconaghie quotes this passage as support for his charge that “the papacy is a hoax.”

Bill Jackson, another fundamentalist who runs a full-time anti-Catholic organisation, says in his book Christian’s Guide To Roman Catholicism that a “study of Matthew 23:9 reveals that Jesus was talking about being called father as a title of religious superiority . . . [which is] the basis for the [Catholic] hierarchy” (53).

How should Catholics respond to such objections?

The Answer

To understand why the charge does not work, one must first understand the use of the word “father” in reference to our earthly fathers. No one would deny a little girl the opportunity to tell someone that she loves her father. Common sense tells us that Jesus wasn’t forbidding this type of use of the word “father.”

In fact, to forbid it would rob the address “Father” of its meaning when applied to God, for there would no longer be any earthly counterpart for the analogy of divine Fatherhood. The concept of God’s role as Father would be meaningless if we obliterated the concept of earthly fatherhood.

But in the Bible the concept of fatherhood is not restricted to just our earthly fathers and God. It is used to refer to people, other than biological or legal fathers, and is used as a sign of respect to those with whom we have a special relationship.

For example, Joseph tells his brothers of a special fatherly relationship God had given him with the king of Egypt: “So it was not you who sent me here, but God; and he has made me a father to Pharaoh, and lord of all his house and ruler over all the land of Egypt” (Gen. 45:8). Job indicates he played a fatherly role with the less fortunate: “I was a father to the poor, and I searched out the cause of him whom I did not know” (Job 29:16). And God himself declares that he will give a fatherly role to Eliakim, the steward of the house of David: “In that day I will call my servant Eliakim, the son of Hilkiah … and I will clothe him with [a] robe, and will bind [a] girdle on him, and will commit . . . authority to his hand; and he shall be a father to the inhabitants of Jerusalem and to the house of Judah” (Is. 22:20-21).

This type of fatherhood not only applies to those who are wise counsellors (like Joseph) or benefactors (like Job) or both (like Eliakim), it also applies to those who have a fatherly spiritual relationship with one. For example, Elisha cries, “My father, my father!” to Elijah as the latter is carried up to heaven in a whirlwind (2 Kgs. 2:12]. Later, Elisha himself is called a father by the king of Israel (2 Kgs. 6:21),

A Change with the New Testament?

Some fundamentalists argue that this usage changed with the New Testament—that while it may have been permissible to call certain men “father” in the Old Testament, since the time of Christ, it’s no longer allowed. This argument fails for several reasons.

First, as we’ve seen, the imperative “call no man father” does not apply to one’s biological father. It also doesn’t exclude calling one’s ancestors “father,” as is shown in Acts 7:2, where Stephen refers to “our father Abraham,” or in Romans 9:10, where Paul speaks of “our father Isaac.”

Second, there are numerous examples in the New Testament of the term “father” being used as a form of address and reference, even for men who are not biologically related to the speaker. There are, in fact, so many uses of “father” in the New Testament, that the Fundamentalist interpretation of Matthew 23 (and the objection to Catholics calling priests “father”) must be wrong, as we shall see.

Third, a careful examination of the context of Matthew 23 shows that Jesus didn’t intend for his words here to be understood literally. The whole passage reads, “But you are not to be called ‘rabbi,’ for you have one teacher, and you are all brethren. And call no man your father on earth, for you have one Father, who is in heaven. Neither be called ‘masters,’ for you have one master, the  Christ” (Matt. 23:8-10).

The first problem is that although Jesus seems to prohibit the use of the term “teacher,” in Matthew 28:19-20, Christ himself appointed certain men to be teachers in his Church: “Go therefore and make disciples of all nations . . . teaching them to observe all that I have commanded you” Paul speaks of his commission as a teacher: “For this I was appointed a preacher and apostle … a teacher of the Gentiles in faith and truth” (1 Tim. 2:7); “For this gospel I was appointed a preacher and apostle and teacher” (2 Tim. 1:11). He also reminds us that the Church has an office of teacher: “God has appointed in the church first apostles, second prophets, third teachers” (1 Cor. 12:28); and “his gifts were that some should be apostles, some prophets, some evangelists, some pastors and teachers” (Eph. 4:11). There is no doubt that Paul was not violating Christ’s teaching in Matthew 23 by referring so often to others as “teachers.”

Fundamentalists themselves slip up on this point by calling all sorts of people “doctor,” for example, medical doctors, as well as professors and scientists who have Ph.D. degrees (i.e., doctorates). What they fail to realize is that “doctor” is simply the Latin word for “teacher.” Even “Mister” and “Mistress” (“Mrs.”) are forms of the word “master,” also mentioned by Jesus. So if his words in Matthew 23 were meant to be taken literally, Fundamentalists would be just as guilty for using the word “teacher” and “doctor” and “mister” as Catholics for saying “father.” But clearly, that would be a misunderstanding of Christ’s words.

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