It’s official, the world has turned upside down. Several times recently, I have defended Catholic theology and practice. Those who know me from college will be shocked as back then I was putting the protest back in Protestant. To my eye, Catholicism could do no right and Catholic doctrine could be right only where it agreed with Protestantism, such as the Trinity and salvific death of Christ.
Oh, I’m still Protestant, Pentecostal to be specific, and therefore I believe that certain Catholic doctrines are incorrect. However, on those areas we agree, I will not allow criticisms against them to stand. The reason for that is simple: we are allies in our love for family, Christendom, and Western Civilization. As that comes under attack from both Left and East, all men of Christ must lock arms together.
Call No Man Father
One of my recent defenses also qualifies as a study in hermeneutics. When Pope Francis made his visit to America in the Fall of 2015, a meme went around FaceBook that since the Pope is called Holy Father, he must never have read Matthew 23:9, “Do not call anyone on earth your father; for One is your Father, He who is in heaven.”
A surface reading of this verse does forbid calling anyone father, but the careful interpreter will always look deeper. You see, if this verse forbids calling anyone father, it forbids calling your earthly father “father.” However, that simply can’t be the case. No thinking person would make such an illogical argument. In fact, throughout Scripture, both before and after this command, earthly fathers are called “father.” For example, in Acts 4:25, the disciples say, “who by the Holy Spirit, through the mouth of our father David Your servant, said, ‘WHY DID THE GENTILES RAGE, AND THE PEOPLES DEVISE FUTILE THINGS?” Others will be found in Romans 4:18 and 9:10.
Some of those disciples would have been present when Jesus made the statement recorded in Matthew 23:9. Therefore, we can rule out a blanket prohibition. Logic and reason would also have served just as well, but the Scriptural evidence should end the argument once and for all. (These last few paragraphs have not been a strawman fallacy. It is instead a reduction to absurdity, showing the Jesus is using hyperbole and thus showing that the blanket prohibition must be fallacious. I am showing that if the simple understanding is wrong, something deeper must be meant.)
Alright, so maybe Jesus means we aren’t to call anyone father who isn’t our earthly father. This interpretation is actually what some protestants teach and what the meme would argue had its use as rhetoric not required it be pithy.
The Testimony of Scripture
Does that argument hold Scripturally? There are two principles of hermeneutics that can be shown here.
First, it is not wise to build a doctrine on one verse. To be stable, one should have multiple verses.
Secondly, one of the most important rules of hermeutics is “interpret the unclear by the clear.” That is, if you have a verse such as Matthew 23:9, whose meaning is being questioned, find other verses on the topic that are clear. The clear will shine light on the unclear and make it clear.
We see in the Old Testament, several examples of leaders and advisers being called “father” (Joseph, Job, and Elijah). However, we are more interested in how the Christians acted after Christ than how the Israelites acted before Him.
The question comes, “are there examples in the New Testament that would show us the first believers did not understand Jesus’ prohibition as a blanket denial of calling anyone father who is not your earthly or heavenly father?”
First, we will eliminate all uses of “father” referring to God, Abraham, Isaac, or other Israelite ancestor. We are interested only in idiomatic uses of father to refer to leaders or advisors.
Searching in the New Testament, turns up these occurrences. All quotations are from the NASB, 1995 edition.
- Acts 22:1 “Brethren and fathers, hear my defense which I now offer to you.”
- 1 Corinthians 4:15 For if you were to have countless tutors in Christ, yet you would not have many fathers, for in Christ Jesus I became your father through the gospel.
- 1 Timothy 5:1-2 Do not sharply rebuke an older man, but rather appeal to him as a father, to the younger men as brothers, 2 the older women as mothers, and the younger women as sisters, in all purity.
- 1 John 2:13 I am writing to you, fathers, because you know Him who has been from the beginning. I am writing to you, young men, because you have overcome the evil one. I have written to you, children, because you know the Father.
- 1 John 2:14 I have written to you, fathers, because you know Him who has been from the beginning. I have written to you, young men, because you are strong, and the word of God abides in you, and you have overcome the evil one.
These last two are especially important as John is not writing to other apostles but to leaders of the church that received the letter. He is not calling them his father but they are fathers to the congregation.
Conversely, one could look for instances of “children” or “child” used to refer to one who is not of physical descent, for if one has a child in a nonphysical sense, then one is a father in a nonphysical sense. The first one that comes to mind is Timothy.
- 1 Corinthians 4:14 I do not write these things to shame you, but to admonish you as my beloved children.
- 1 Corinthians 4:17 For this reason I have sent to you Timothy, who is my beloved and faithful child in the Lord, and he will remind you of my ways which are in Christ, just as I teach everywhere in every church.
- 1 Timothy 1:2 To Timothy, my true child in the faith: Grace, mercy and peace from God the Father and Christ Jesus our Lord.
- Titus 1:4 To Titus, my true child in a common faith: Grace and peace from God the Father and Christ Jesus our Savior.
- Philemon 1:10 appeal to you for my child Onesimus, whom I have begotten in my imprisonment,
- Galatians 4:19 My children, with whom I am again in labor until Christ is formed in you–
Along with Paul, Peter and John refer to believers as their children.
- 1 Peter 5:13 She who is in Babylon, chosen together with you, sends you greetings, and so does my son, Mark.
- 1 John 2:1 My little children, I am writing these things to you so that you may not sin. And if anyone sins, we have an Advocate with the Father, Jesus Christ the righteous;
John has similar wording in 1 John 2:12, 13, 18, 28, 3:7, 10, 18, 4:4, 5:21, and 3 John 1:4.
From these examples, we see that John, Peter, and Paul had no problem thinking of not only themselves as fathers to their converts but also elders in the church were fathers in the faith to their congregants.
Since we have clear, Biblical examples, by people who were inspired by God and in the case of John most likely present when Jesus issued the prohibition, we can safely conclude that Jesus is not meaning the prohibition as we might understand it.
In the same passage in Matthew, Jesus tells people not to call one another teacher. However, later Scripture not only allows one to be called teacher, but “teaching” is one of the gifts of the Holy Spirit.
What then does Our Lord Mean?
Scripture cannot be contradicting Jesus; both written Word of God and Living Word of God will stand without error. What then does Jesus mean?
When we pull back from Matthew 23:9, we see that Jesus is warning his students not to be like the scribes and Pharisees who have taken glory for themselves where none has been earned. He warns against taking on airs and piling on titles that one does not need. Certainly, we can call our spiritual leaders “father.” Just as we call them “teacher” or “doctor,” if they are truly filling the role of “father” then it would be wrong not to use their proper title.