|Padre Pio de Pietrelcina|
Some time ago, I wrote a post on why we Catholics call our priests “Father.” In a nutshell, this is a recognition of the priest’s spiritual fatherhood. St. Paul sets the pattern for this in 1 Cor. 4:15, when he tells Timothy, “I became your father through the Gospel.” The typical objection to this title is based on Jesus’ words in Matthew 23:9 (“call no man your father upon the earth: for one is your Father, which is in heaven”). But these words aren’t meant to be taken literally, as passages like Matthew 1:2, Mt. 10:37, Mark 10:29, Ephesians 6:2, James 2:21, and Romans 9:10 make clear.
Rather, Jesus is telling us in Matthew 23:9 to have no allegiances apart from Him. So it’s right to have St. Paul as a spiritual father (1 Cor. 4:15), but not in such a way that it turns into factionalism that damages or diminishes the Body of Christ (1 Cor. 1:12-13).
Let’s say you think Matthew 23:9 has to be taken literally to forbid the use of “Father,” at least as a title or honorific. What options does that leave you with, exactly?
Well, most Protestants use a title like “Reverend” or “Doctor,” or perhaps “Pastor” to refer to their spiritual leaders. But “Reverend” comes from the word for “revered,” and literally means “One who is to be respected” or “One who is to be revered.” Are Protestants comfortable embracing that? After all, St. Peter tells us that “God is no respecter of persons” (Acts 10:34). And, of course, the exact same Protestants who attack Catholics for using the title Father also attack Catholics for revering anyone other than God, saying things like “A definition of ‘venerate’ is ‘to regard with respect or reverence.’ Nowhere in the Bible are we told to revere anyone but God alone.” So the folks who reject “Father” can’t really substitute “Reverend” in its place.
What about “Pastor,” then? Well, Christ says in the New Covenant, “there shall be one fold, and one shepherd” (John 10:16). Taking this literally would seem to foreclose the use of “Pastor,” too.
|The Reverend Doctor Martin Luther King, Jr.|
“Doctor” fares the worst, since it comes from the Latin word for “teacher.” That is, it falls under the exact same prohibition as “Father.” Here’s what Jesus says in Matthew 23:8-9 (NIV),
But you are not to be called ‘Rabbi,’ for you have one Teacher, and you are all brothers. 9 And do not call anyone on earth ‘father,’ for you have one Father, and he is in heaven. 10 Nor are you to be called instructors, for you have one Instructor, the Messiah.
And the same passage in the KJV:
8But be not ye called Rabbi: for one is your Master, even Christ; and all ye are brethren. 9And call no man your father upon the earth: for one is your Father, which is in heaven. 10Neither be ye called masters: for one is your Master, even Christ.
And as John 20:16 explains, “Rabbi” means “Teacher.” So, then, someone claiming that we have to take the middle part of this passage as a literal ban on the title “Father,” can’t replace it with a title meaning “Teacher” without engaging in some pretty brazen hypocrisy. So “Doctor” is out, as well.
Well, perhaps we could just get rid of the special title, and go with a simple “Mister,” instead? Nope. Mister is a variation on the title “Master”, which Christ condemns in this very same passage.
You get my point.
Thankfully, the New Testament shows no signs of this legalistic neurosis. Abraham is described throughout the New Testament as “Father Abraham” (Luke 16:24; Luke 16:30), “our father in the sight of God” (Rom. 4:17), and “Abraham our father” (James 2:21). Both St. Paul (Romans 4:11-18) and Jesus Christ (John 8:39) make clear that this title is due to Abraham being our father in faith, rather than a biological ancestor. That is, the New Testament does exactly what modern Catholics do: refers to spiritual leaders as “fathers.” That’s because we believe that all fatherhood comes from God (Ephesians 3:15). So every father, spiritual or biological, shares in some sense in God’s singular Fatherhood. Thus, Matthew 23 is violated only if you set up a rival fatherhood or a rival authority to God’s.
Christ isn’t calling us to some letter of the law obedience to use and not use certain words. He’s reminding us that in the end, there’s only one true Father, Pastor, Teacher, Master, Lord. The clergy are called to cooperate in God’s leadership, not compete against it. Following a rival father, pastor, teacher, master, or lord is what’s forbidden. That’s what Matthew 23:8-10 is about. On the other hand, Christ says to those He commissions: “he that hears you, hears Me.” (Lk 10:16). So the authentic clergy of Christ are not a threat to God, since they’re the ways He makes His Fatherhood visible in the world. And it’s right that we should follow the New Testament practice of calling such men “Father,” as a result.