on calling ministers ‘father’

It’s pretty common in Christianity for priests or pastors to be referred to as ‘father’.  But is this right?  There are many who oppose this practice – and they do so on the basis of Jesus’ own words.  Before we ask any questions then, we’d best read what Jesus had to say.

“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).

Sounds reasonable.  And I honestly wouldn’t be upset with anyone for restricting their use of the word ‘father’ because of this passage.  However, I do think that it misses the intention of these words.  If that is what Jesus meant, how far are we to take this?  Is it, for example, unbiblical for a child to refer to their father as ‘father’?  If not, then we have to agree that there are some situations when the word ‘father’ is an acceptable title and some when it is not.

This gets clearer as we look at the surrounding verses.  Jesus also says that his disciples are not to be called ‘rabbi’ which means ‘teacher’.  Is it unbiblical then, to tell your pastor that he is a great ‘teacher’?  Or for a seminary student to relate to their professor as their ‘teacher’.  I don’t think it is, but if there truly is a universal condemnation of priests or pastors being called ‘father’ (vs. 9) then consistent biblical interpretation would require that there be equally strong objections to the words ‘teacher’ (vs. 8) and ‘master’ (vs. 10).  Since this is very rarely the case, it would seem that most objections to the title ‘father’ are not based solely on the words of Jesus, but are also coloured by some external factors.

Even so, we are still left to try to understand which usages of the words father, teacher, and master are acceptable, and which are not.  For the sake of clarity, I will now focus only on the word father, but it should be understood that there are similar applications for the other titles.

It has already been implied that usage of the word father in a biological way isn’t a problem.  Jesus is not in these verses forbidding children from calling their fathers ‘father’, or ‘dad’ or ‘papa’, or any other synonymous designation.  But what about in a spiritual way?  Is there any evidence that this might be acceptable in some circumstances and not in others?

If you went to Sunday school, you probably got used to referring to the Old Testament figure Abraham as the father of the nation of Israel or even the father of the faith.  To my knowledge, there are no objections to this usage of the word ‘father’ for Abraham or for his descendants who also share in this calling.  Isaac, Jacob, and others are counted among the patriarchs or forefathers of the nation of Israel.

The New Testament too has similar examples.  The Apostle John, throughout his epistles, regularly addresses those he is writing as ‘children’, which firmly places him in a fathering role. And Paul in 1 Corinthians 4:14-15 says this: “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.” Surely Paul was aware of Jesus’ teaching in Matthew 23!

So we can see that this practice – of referring to spiritual leaders as ‘father’ – is actually pretty common in the scriptures; and the Apostles themselves, despite their first hand knowledge of Jesus’ words, are comfortable adopting this practice when addressing their congregations.

Why?  (this is the important bit)

The Fatherhood of God, like many things in theology, is something that we can really only grasp by way of reference and analogy.  It is our familiarity with the concept of fathering that gives the revelation of God as Father its profound meaning.  We are given imperfect earthly shadows which are meant to in some way reflect and communicate the perfect heavenly reality.  In other words, we can learn something of the Fatherhood of God by looking to the fathers of scripture and to our biological fathers.  Likewise, when some churches choose to refer to their pastors as ‘father’, their intention is to do so in recognition of the infinitely greater Fatherhood of God.  Our pastors and priests are not an end in themselves and they are not perfect fathers, but their task is to point us to our perfect heavenly Father; and God is pleased to reveal his fatherly nature to his people through them.  To forbid the use of the word ‘father’ altogether would cause us to miss this analogous relationship and we would ultimately risk losing sight of the Fatherhood of God.

That said, we aren’t quite done.  What was Jesus condemning in Matthew 23?

These verses come in the midst of a section denouncing the pride and arrogance of the scribes and Pharisees. Rather than humbly looking to God as the source of fatherhood, teaching, and authority they exalted themselves as the highest authorities, (‘master’ – vs. 10) the ultimate teachers (‘rabbi’ – vs. 8) and primary father figures (‘father’ – vs. 9). They were seeking titles without giving recognition to God as the source of all these things.  They wanted to be called ‘father’ but were not reflecting the Father’s heart or leading people to the Father.  They were seeking his glory for themselves.  Jesus isn’t universally condemning all usages of the words ‘father’, ‘teacher’, or ‘master’ – he is condemning the idolatry and hypocrisy of human teachers and authority figures.

In brief:  If your pastor or priest is seeking the title ‘father’ because he wants to divert your attention from God who is your true and perfect Father – then the context of Matthew 23 is applicable and you should not indulge or encourage such things.  If, however, your pastor is seeking to point you towards your heavenly Father – if he desires to worship God with you and if in some small way you see a reflection of your heavenly Father in the person ministering to you in his name – then it is not inappropriate or unbiblical to acknowledge that with the title ‘father’ if you so choose.

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  1. Thanks Amos. Very clear explanation.

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  2. This was a very good and well explained reason about something that I’ve been wondering about. Thanks for this very helpful post!

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  3. Ephesians 3:14-15 14 ‘For this cause I bow my knees to the Father of our Lord Jesus Christ, Of whom all paternity in heaven and earth is named.’

    I would suggest a good many protestant translations of this passage are biased, since they usually use the word ‘family’ rather than ‘fatherhood’ or ‘paternity’, the implied connection is clear (pater-patria). I am a father to my children and ministers are fathers to those in their spiritual care to the extent that I/they conform to the image of the true Father in heaven.

    When I have encountered those who object to calling priests ‘Father’ I usually respond by simply asking then if they call anyone ‘teacher’. More often than not it isn’t something they’ve though about very deeply.

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    • Thanks for sharing that verse, I’d never noticed that before. To be fair though, I typically use the RSVCE and it has ‘family’ there as well. What version do you read?

      That’s usually my first response too, but for whatever reason, the objection doesn’t seem to be going away. In any case, it’s nice to hear that I’m not the only one hearing it. 🙂

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      • Because I was weaned on it, I typically use the KJV/AV, interesting since I hated it as a child… now it’s in the bones and everything else reads dryly. Apart from the KJV I use the Douay Rheims and the ‘Confraternity version’ new Testament (I really like the confraternity, good modern English, accurate and not clunky unfortunately that project was never finished). For some reason I remembered this verse as “for whom all fatherhood… is named” and was surprised on looking it up, I don’t know how it got into my mind that way. The CE revisions to the RSV-CE were quite minimal when I get home I’ll see what the RSV2CE says.

        Yes, to be fair, ‘patria’ means family. ‘Family’ isn’t wrong, but it leaves half the meaning out, and in English makes no sense, ‘the Father.. for whom all family is named”. It’s different when the word for family is one made out of the word for ‘father’ apart from bias I can’t think of a reason to translate it as ‘family’. Translating it as ‘fatherhood’ while still leaving out some nuance at least is comprehensible.

        Anyways, it’s been a wile since you’ve written here, good to hear from you . Are yall observing Lent?
        Take care and God bless.

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      • That is interesting.  I hated the KJV as a child too, but I never grew out of it.  My father (Baptist) is still hoping for that. 

        There is certainly a stronger connection in the text (‘patria’) than is conveyed by the translation ‘family’.  On the other hand, I feel like ‘fatherhood’ or ‘paternity’ narrows the meaning beyond its intention as well – it doesn’t really convey the inclusion of the whole human race.  So, there could be some bias, but we definitely need to factor in the limitations of the English language. 

        I don’t imagine changing the designation of the family unit to father-y would go down well in today’s world, but it would save us some confusion. 

        It has been quite a while.  Unfortunately, writing is a lot easier to put off than other things and it tends to slide off the bottom of the priority list rather quickly.  I do enjoy it though, and always intend to be more consistent. 

        We are, indeed, observing Lent.  Ash Wednesday is always one of the highlights of the year for me.  In some ways, it feels like we’ve been in a Lenten season for a number of years now, so this is becoming a very rich season for us as a community.  We certainly have much to be thankful for. 

        Thanks for your comments, it’s nice to connect.  God bless!  

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  4. Well done. I would also add that much of what Jesus is confronting throughout his teaching are cultural norms. He addresses the norms that drive the Greco-Roman culture that is driven on honor/shame and family relationships. We see this when he addresses the family relationships in Matthew 12:48. The point being made is that often family ties were the primary consideration because one received honor or shame based on who their family was and where they stood in society. Jesus flips this all on it’s head, or rather, with the kingdom of God, flips it back to a reconciled relationship where this is the not the primary concern.

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  5. Fairly straight forward I would have thought – the whole idea is to NOT view anyone on earth as spiritual father. Recognition of this comes with different nationalities having pet names for their literal fathers, like Da, or daddy, which is also OK to apply to THE father, (abba) but not ok to apply spiritually to flesh and blood. Corruption was the order of the religious day – and still is. The Catholic and Anglican etc. use of Father for earthly priests is wrong, as is such “Father” priests being prevented from marrying – hence the sex scandals.

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    • Hi there. Thanks for your thoughts. I hope you don’t mind if I ask you a few follow up questions.

      “The Catholic and Anglican etc. use of Father for earthly priests is wrong”

      1. Perhaps you stated it, but I don’t quite understand your justification for this statement. What is it that makes this practice wrong? Are you basing this belief on this passage in Matthew 23 or some other scripture?

      2. If it is wrong – what do you do with Paul (I became your father in Christ Jesus)? What do you do with ‘our father’ Abraham? What do you do with the early church ‘fathers’?

      3. ‘Christian’ literally means ‘little Christ’. It is a designation that indicates similarity to Christ, and I would guess that you don’t consider it to be wrong. What is the difference between calling someone a Christian because they in some way reflect what we know to be true about Christ, and calling someone ‘father’ because they in some way reflect what we know to be true of our Heavenly Father?

      4. Do you also condemn usage of the word ‘teacher’? Why or why not?

      5. Do you also condemn usage of the word ‘master’ (or its modern equivalent – ‘sir’)? Again, why or why not?

      At the end of the day, we may disagree on a topic like this, but I hope we can keep it in its proper place. I don’t think such a fringe issue should contribute to division. As I mentioned in the blog, I have no problem with people who do not desire to use the designation ‘father’. There are many other things that are much more important that we can be focusing on.

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  6. Hi guys – just lost my lengthy (now lost) reply through misunderstanding how to send it – yet I dare to speak on spiritual matters? (:) – The text is plain, Jesus not only says it as a prohibition, he explains WHY. This is speaking plainly. There is ONE Father in heaven whom we pray to. There is ONE master, the Christ. There is ONE teacher, (the Holy Spirit.) . This is the line of authority which for some reason you seem to be trying to break down? The days of priests and rabbis are over. On this basis we could argue black was white. “Teacher” could be a person who has the scriptural Spirit gift of teaching from the ONE teacher, the Holy Spirit. To call someone Father simply because they in some way reflect the nature of God would qualify ALL Christians, and a lot of non-Christians, to be called Father. Father Abraham is a Jewish term, the one that Jesus seized on to make the point that they were “of their father the devil”. Paul and the “church fathers” is perhaps OK as a written descriptive term but never intended as vocal. The most important thing is to understand that through the cross revealing God’s love, we stand forgiven. But most doctrines contain problems that obscure this truth. Where for example, do you stand on praying to dead people? On Homosexuality? On “Purgatory”. On priests being allowed to marry, and on so many other diversionary and fleshly misapprehensions? Truth is singular and without clutter, but so many of us appear to be intent on, or caught up in, complication. My thoughts are not your thoughts. (You could be grateful for that!) If this has not been helpful then I am sorry.

    Liked by 1 person

    • Hi there. Thanks for your reply.

      “Paul and the “church fathers” is perhaps OK as a written descriptive term but never intended as vocal.”

      I can’t tell if this is a serious statement or not, but if it is – how do you justify such a distinction? Is there, for example, a scripture that tells us not to read scripture out loud? Or maybe you learned from your pastor that you should censor Paul’s letters if you vocalize them? I don’t know, but I can’t imagine how difficult it would be to study church history if I was totally free to write ‘the church fathers’, but barred from saying it.

      “Teacher” could be a person who has the scriptural Spirit gift of teaching from the ONE teacher, the Holy Spirit.

      Exactly! We can call them teacher because their gift is derived from the one Teacher. They are not trying to steal glory, but instead point to something beyond themselves – the great Teacher of our faith.

      This is exactly the same line of reasoning as with ‘father’. We can’t just pick and choose whichever one we feel like and say that one is ok, while the other is wrong. Either both ‘father’ and ‘teacher’ are condemned and need to be avoided, or Jesus meant something else in this passage, (i.e. – that using these terms without reference to the one Teacher, the one Lord, the one Father – as the Scribes and Pharisees were doing – is wrong).

      The most important thing is to understand that through the cross revealing God’s love, we stand forgiven.

      We can agree on that. Jesus is everything! 🙂

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