The Protestant Church of Christ objects to the Catholic Church’s practice of calling her priests “fathers”. Your group bases its 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 I have addressed on this website thus far, I will illustrate how context and reason 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 (Christian!) 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. 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 your 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 other people “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). As already shown, 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 priests 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, nonetheless, 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 the body of this website I have shown and will continue to show that the nature of the New Testament Church is hierarchical, apostolic, and shepherded by men who are 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 / Restorationist, 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 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 and biblical pattern 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.