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.