Calling Men “Father”: Protestant Church of Christ Proof-Text vs. Catholic Church of Christ Context

This is a Father’s Day collection of my posts about spiritual fatherhood and Fundamentalism’s objections to the Catholic Church’s understanding of the word “father”.
Non-Catholic Christianity is like a shattered mirror; it reflects something that precedes it, it distorts parts of the image of the original object, and it might not reflect parts of the object at all. The image that is seen in the mirror is similar to the object, and those similarities are good, but it is not the full image of the object, and it certainly is not the actual object itself.
The Protestant Church of Christ partially understands spiritual fatherhood, and it utilizes a different vocabulary than that of the Catholic Church of Christ—words that are, in its estimation, more biblically tolerable than the Catholic Church’s use of the respectful address of “father” for her priests. Instead, some portions of the Protestant Churches of Christ use the word “discipler” (which means “teacher”), some use the word “mentor” (which means “teacher”), some use the words “brother” or “sister”, and some use no title or address at all to refer to any fellow believer who helps them on their journey. But the role is similar: spiritual mentorship, spiritual fatherhood.
Your communities exercise the role of spiritual fatherhood primarily by engaging in Bible studies, preaching, and building accountable relationships. These are good things! The Catholic understanding of spiritual fatherhood, however, because it is not a shattered reflection, but the fullness of Christianity, is much more clear; it is catechetical, sacramental, and pastoral.
A priest is not a father in a divine sense; he is a father in a spiritual sense. A priest is not God; God entrusts him with the spiritual welfare of his flock, and a priest exercises his spiritual fatherhood in several ways. The first way, usually, is at a child’s baptism. Like a biological father who witnesses his child’s birth, a priest baptizes the child, and the child is born again.
A priest is a spiritual father when he hears confessions. When a Catholic confesses sin to a priest, he addresses the priest by saying, “Forgive me father, for I have sinned.” Catholics do not believe that the priest is God the Father; they address him as a spiritual father—a man, and that is why the priest refers to any person who comes to confession as, “My child.” At confession, the priest looks upon the repentant sinner with compassion and mercy—as a father.
A priest is a spiritual father when he opens God’s Word and teaches people not what they want to hear, but what they need to hear.
A priest is a spiritual father when he celebrates the Mass, as he stands in persona Christi, when he nourishes Christians with the Bread of Heaven.
A priest is a spiritual father when he witnesses a marriage (the bride and bridegroom “perform” the wedding), and when he blesses the new “one flesh” and looks forward to the lives that the marriage will bring into the world.
A priest is a spiritual father when he anoints the sick to either bring them back to health or prepare them for their new life.
A priest guides, protects, and disciplines all that are under his watch. He stands up for the defenseless, for life, the poor, the marginalized, the ill, and the elderly. The priest’s family is not a wife and biological children; he is married to the Church, and his flock is his family—he is its father; and nowhere, not even Matthew 23:9, does Jesus forbid His children to call such men “father”.
“Call no man father on earth” Explained: The Protestant Church of Christ objects to the Catholic Church’s practice of calling her priests “fathers”. You base your objection not on the full corpus of Scripture, but on a single, isolated verse: And call no man your father on earth, for you have one Father, who is in heaven (Matthew 23:9). As with every objection that I have addressed in this blog thus far, I will illustrate how logic and context should diffuse your group’s objection and also redirect its judgment towards itself.
Your group’s objection, however, is more specific than the verse allows, because your group is not necessarily against calling biological men “fathers”; it is against addressing men who are in places of religious significance as “fathers”—its objection is in regards to religious titles only. However, the proof-text verse provides no limitation as to who, specifically, should not be called “father”—it reads, call no man your father—the passage has no qualifier, no exception, no caveat, no escape clause that exempts certain men from Jesus’ literal prohibition. Your group’s perceived limitation to the limited context of the single verse is not warranted, nor is there any verse, nor collection of verses, that can provide any “Bible-only” rationale to allow the title for some men, and not others. In other words, the Protestant Church of Christ’s proof-text against the Catholic Church of Christ, if read literally and singularly as your group expects Catholics to read it, actually indicts both groups for its varying use of the title “father”; yet your community continues to utilize the “proof” because it evokes a shallow and emotional reaction to a most Catholic identifier: the joyful and enthusiastic address to spiritual fathers as “fathers”.
The context of the verse is one in which Jesus is rebuking the scribes and Pharisees for spiritual pride; His subject was not one of how Christians should address His clergy, but one of self-exaltation:
They do all their deeds to be seen by men; for they make their phylacteries broad and their fringes long, and they love the place of honor at feasts and the best seats in the synagogues, and salutations in the market places, and being called rabbi by men (Matthew 23:5-8).
Jesus often used hyperbole, which is a rhetorical device used to emphasize a point; examples include: It is easier for a camel to go through the eye of a needle than for a rich man to enter the kingdom of God (Mark 10:25), You hypocrite, first take the log out of your own eye, and then you will see clearly to take out the speck that is in your brother’s eye (Luke 6:42), and If anyone comes to me and does not hate his own father and mother and wife and children and brothers and sisters … he cannot be my disciple (14:26). So does Jesus really mean that it is impossible for a rich man to enter the kingdom of God? Was He suggesting that a man could carry a log in his eye, or do the members of your community hate everyone in their families? Why, then, in your group’s judgment, was Jesus not utilizing hyperbole within the isolated verse you have chosen to use against the Catholic Church, when you would agree that He was in fact using hyperbole later in the exact same discourse: You blind guides, straining out a gnat and swallowing a camel! (Matthew 23:24)?
The full passage, not the isolated proof-text, reveals Jesus’ meaning. He communicated that God the Father is the ultimate source for all authority—He is our ultimate Teacher and Master. In other words, Jesus had no intention to bind Christians to the literal meaning of His words in this case, as the remainder of the text reveals:
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. He who is greatest among you shall be your servant; whoever exalts himself will be humbled, and whoever humbles himself will be exalted (Matthew 23:8-12).
Please consider each sentence of the last portion of this passage. Verse 8 reads: But you are not to be called rabbi, for you have one teacher, and you are all brethren. Did Jesus not appoint teachers when He said Go therefore and make disciples … teaching them to observe all that I have commanded you (Matthew 28:19,20)? St. Paul was a teacher who taught, For this gospel I was appointed a preacher and apostle and teacher (2 Timothy 1:11), and he taught that there is in fact an office of teacher in the Church: And God has appointed in the Church first apostles, second prophets, third teachers … (1 Corinthians 12:28). Is it not clear, then, that there are indeed many authorized teachers (not one teacher, as the verse literally reads), yet there is still One Un-usurped ultimate Teacher who is the source of all authoritative teachings? Why does your group not read and mind the eighth verse as literally as you expect Catholics to read and mind the ninth verse?
Do many of your congregations not include Bible teachers even over their children? (A sub-sect of the Protestant Church of Christ does not have classes; this particular argument is for the majority of its congregations.) Do your bulletins not make aware your groups’ need for Sunday school teachers? Are your Bible colleges not staffed by teachers, some of whom have Ph.D. degrees (doctorates)? Are not some of your elders and preachers (clergy) addressed as “doctor”? Are not some of your members medical doctors? Are you aware that “doctor” is simply the Latin word for “teacher”?
Do your members interpret Jesus’ words literally and refrain from calling your professors “doctors” and your physicians “doctors”? No, they interpret Jesus’ words, at least here in verse eight, as how they are meant: a presentation of the gulf between man and God, and although there are teachers on earth, there is also a Great Teacher and a Great Physician.
Verse 10 reads: Neither be called masters, for you have one master, the Christ. Did Jesus sin when He referred to men other than himself as “masters”, of which there are dozens of examples throughout the Gospels? Jesus is not condemning the literal usage of the word, but rather, he is drawing a distinction between two different kinds of masters, which is precisely what St. Paul meant when he wrote, Masters, treat your slaves justly and fairly, knowing that you also have a Master in heaven (Colossians 4:1). Did St. Paul sin when he called men “masters”?
Do members of your group call others humans “mister” (“Mr.”) or “mistress” (“Mrs.”)? According to Jesus’ literal words, those who call others “mister” or “mistress”, and those who expect to be called “mister” or “mistress”, sin because those words are simply forms of the word “master”. Do your members object to the Catholic Church’s use of calling men “mister” as much as they object to her calling men “father”?
Verse 9 reads: And call no man your father on earth, for you have one Father, who is in heaven. Jesus is not forbidding His followers to call men “fathers” because we would have no analogous meaning for a proper understanding of God the Father. Ancestral/biological fatherhood is an important theme throughout the Bible, but Spiritual fatherhood is a rich theme throughout the Bible and all of Christian history as well.
Recall Joseph who told his brothers that God had given him a fatherly relationship 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 … (Genesis 45:8). Recall Eli’akim; he was a father to the inhabitants of Jerusalem (Isaiah 22:21). Eli’akim’s position was a type of the papacy, who would hold the key to the house of David (v. 22). Job was a father to the poor (Job 26:16), Eli’sha cried My father, my father as Eli’jah was carried to heaven (2 Kings 2:12), and the king of Israel then addressed Eli’sha as My father (2 Kings 6:21). In other words, throughout salvation history, fatherhood is not restricted for only earthly fathers and God; fatherhood is a concept that indicates a special, spiritual relationship.
Does the New Covenant change how God’s people must use the word “father”? Was Jesus’ lesson intended to un-do all of the familiar Scriptures that taught His audience about the respectful address of “father”? Is the address no longer respectful, but rather, somehow idolatrous? St. Paul did not think so. He referred to our forefather Isaac (Romans 9:10), which indicates that Jesus was not condemning, at least, the practice of calling men “fathers” in an ancestral/biological sense.
It is also clear that Jesus did not prohibit the title’s use for people who were not literal fathers, because St. Paul addressed the crowd in front of the Temple as brethren and fathers (Acts 22:1). Like St. Paul, St. Stephen referred to his ancestors as fathers (7:44) and our Father Abraham specifically (7:2). But St. Stephen not only referred to his ancestors as “fathers”; he addressed current Jewish spiritual leaders as “fathers” in the exact same verse: Brethren and fathers [the Sanhedrin], hear me. Should not a “Bible only” Christian, if such a person could have even existed, have rebuked St. Paul and St. Stephen and demand they answer, “What part of call no man your father do you not understand!” Where, in the Bible, is a “Bible only” Christian shown to rebuke St. Paul and St. Stephen for calling spiritual leaders “fathers”—where is the outrage? The outrage is not in Scripture; the outrage is within your group, which of course, presents a glaring reality: the Scriptures and your group do not agree.
St. Paul perpetuated the spiritual fatherhood theme and often referred to St. Timothy as both his child and his son: Therefore, I sent to you Timothy, my beloved and faithful child in the Lord … (1 Corinthians 4:17), how as a son with a father he has served with me in the gospel (Philippians 2:22), my true child in the faith (1 Timothy 1:2), Timothy, my son (v. 18), my beloved child (2 Timothy 1:2), and my son (2:1). So did St. Paul sin when he likened his spiritual relationship with St. Timothy as a son with a father, or did he sin when he called St. Timothy a “son” when there is only One Son? St. Paul also called Titus my true child in a common faith (Titus 1:4), and referred to Ones’imus as my child (Philemon 10). None of these men were St. Paul’s literal sons; he was emphasizing his spiritual fatherhood to them.
Did St. Paul sin when he called himself a “father” when he addressed the Church at Corinth: I do not write this to make you ashamed, but to admonish you as my beloved children. For though you have countless guides in Christ, you do not have many fathers. For I became your father in Christ Jesus through the gospel (1 Corinthians 4:14-15)? St. Paul was not unique; St. Peter carried the theme: She who is at Babylon, who is likewise chosen, sends you greetings; and so does my son Mark (1 Peter 5:13). The early priests considered their flocks to be their children, and they considered themselves as spiritual parents: I am ready to come to you. And I will not be a burden, for I seek not what is yours but you; for children ought not to lay up for their parents, but parents for their children (2 Corinthians 12:14), and my little children, with whom I am again in travail until Christ be formed in you! (Galatians 4:19). St. John recognized his role as a spiritual father as well: My little children, I am writing this to you so that you may not sin … (1 John 2:1), and no greater joy can I have than this, to hear that my children follow the truth (3 John 2:1). And it was St. John, who provided an example of spiritual fatherhood, yet also called men other than himself “fathers”: I write to you, fathers, because you know him who is from the beginning (1 John 2:14).
And now I ask you to consider the logic of the subject and organize the data. In both the Old and New Testaments, the word/title “father” is approvingly used in three different senses in addition to that reserved for God: 1) biological/ancestral fathers, 2) spiritual fathers, and 3) spiritual leaders. And there are two understandings of Jesus’ meaning behind Matthew 23:9: either no person should be called “father”—specifically as a title for a religious leader—as your group demands, which would render the entire theme of spiritual fatherhood a figment of fancy, and condemn the Apostles who used the term in all three senses; or Jesus was communicating precisely what the Catholic Church of Christ has taught for thousands of years: He was warning people against inaccurately attributing spiritual fatherhood to the scribes and Pharisees, and presenting the gulf of majesty between the Father in heaven and those we show respect for with a most respectful title, as the final two verses, which I will address shortly, reveal.
But before I address the last two verses from the passage, please consider one more adventure in reason: ask yourself, how, specifically, you know that the book of Matthew belongs in the Christian canon of Scripture. Why do you believe it is inspired? There is no inspired table of contents; sola Scriptura cannot determine its status. The book of Matthew is there because the Catholic Church of Christ determined that it belongs there. More specifically, it is there because men who were called “fathers” included it. This is an uncomfortable fact for many Protestant traditions, but it is, none-the-less, a fact. So either the Catholic Church did not notice the passage as she wrote it (St. Matthew was Catholic), as she determined its status as inspired, and as she added it to the canon of Sacred Scripture; or perhaps, just maybe, modern non-Catholic Christian communities who have since adopted her canon (or an abridged version of it) simply do not understand the isolated verse.
Verses 11,12 read: He who is greatest among you shall be your servant; whoever exalts himself will be humbled, and whoever humbles himself will be exalted. Throughout this blog I have shown that the nature of the New Testament Church is hierarchical, apostolic, and shepherded by men who were properly called and ordained. The Protestant Church of Christ, however, has no anchor to the hierarchy, is not apostolic, and is purposefully unknown to the conduit that calls and ordains clergy. Put differently, one model consists of elders who serve at the pleasure of those they are subordinate to, and one model consists of men who exalt themselves to a position of authority. And it is precisely this very real comparison that provides insight into which paradigm, Catholic or Protestant, that Jesus was more closely condemning.
Catholics do not confuse spiritual paternity with that of God, and Catholics do not believe that the priests they call “father” are God; but rather, Catholics recognize and acknowledge a truth that the Protestant Church of Christ only partially understands: spiritual fatherhood and the respect owed to Christ’s clergy.
Just as the Apostles referred to those in their care as spiritual sons and children, today’s priests perpetuate the ancient practice by referring to their flocks as spiritual sons and children. And just as the Apostles and disciples referred to even clergy priests as “fathers”, Catholics today refer to their priests as “fathers”. Christ Jesus was not against this truth; it was He who vested His clergy with their responsibilities, and that fact is recorded in Sacred Scripture. It is not a violation of Jesus’ intent to address fit priests with a most fit and respectful title. What violates His intent and lesson from Matthew 23:9 is self-exaltation, bloated arrogance and spiritual pride—unworthy father figures in the Faith, as compared to humble servants who, conversely, will be exalted.
Is it Wrong to Address a Man as “Holy Father”? As already established, it is perfectly biblical for Christians to call their priests “father”. However, the address “holy” is a word that the Protestant Church of Christ reserves for God alone, but is its reservation biblically substantiated?
We know that Herod feared John, knowing that he was a righteous and holy man (Mark 6:20). The prophet Zechariah’s prophecy referred to holy prophets (Luke 1:70), and St. Luke’s narrative also referred to holy prophets (Acts 3:21). Was St. Peter not referring to men when he wrote about a holy priesthood (1 Peter 2:5)? Was Sarah not one of the holy women who hoped in God (1 Peter 3:5)? And did St. Peter not encourage the Church to remember the predictions of the holy prophets (2 Peter 3:2)?
Clearly, the “Bible alone” does not reserve the address “holy” for God alone, but rather, suggests that there are indeed holy men and women. And therefore, since “father” is a biblical address for priests, the two words, added together, form an address that does not violate the Scriptures.
“Beware of … robes” Explained: The Protestant Church of Christ often objects to the Catholic Church’s use of vestments (robes), and believes that its use of vestments are an indication that it is a body that Christians should “beware of.”
This particular objection is superficial, but it is popular, and often presented within the context of Jesus’ words, Call no man your father on earth; so I will quickly address it. Fundamentalist elders and preachers do not wear “robes” during their services. And from a fundamentalist’s perspective, Catholic priests do in fact wear robes. And when a verse such as Mark 12:38 is read, which reads, Beware of the scribes, who like to go about in long robes, the anti-Catholic bias within the fundamentalist’s mind draws a quick conclusion: We do not wear robes, we are right, they wear robes, the Bible says to beware of people who wear robes, so therefore, they are wrong.
The outer “robe” that Catholic priests normally wear during Mass is the chasuble, which is a kind of Roman overcoat that was popular in the early centuries. In other words, it was a suit—a garment that was simply the fashion of its day. The Catholic Church is old and the Protestant sects are young, and it makes sense that an old Church would still resemble its youth in some way, even as a young sect might think that its older brother does not know how to dress.
But what does the passage mean? Jesus was illustrating how people who are bloated with spiritual pride parade themselves, how they put on their finest clothes to impress their audiences and draw attention to themselves. Catholic priests do not “dress to the nines”, nor do they try to draw attention to themselves by donning the vestments. In fact, one result of a priest’s attire is a diminished emphasis on the man, and a greater emphasis on the office; the world does not recognize a well-dressed person, but rather, it recognizes that the man is a priest; or as St. John the Baptist might have worded it, He [Jesus] must increase, but I must decrease (John 3:30).
The lesson and application of such warnings do not indict the Catholic Church and her anonymous servants, but rather, serve as warnings against preachers who provide ample fodder for the world to stereotype segments of the religious world: men who wear righteousness on their sleeve, socialite silk suit-wearing preachers, GQ-worthy fashionista “health and wealth” advocates, spiritual snobs, and the like. The Catholic Church’s vestments are holdovers of an era that viewed them as normal, not extravagant, attire; the world changed around the Church. Fundamentalist traditions, young and with no memories, have no anchor to that era, and they tend to judge what they do not understand.
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