“Call no man your father…”

“And call no man your father on earth, for you have one Father, who is in heaven.” – Matthew 23:9

Taken at face value, the above verse records Jesus’s command to His followers that they address no man as “father.” In violation of this instruction, the Roman Catholic church directs its members to call their priests “father.” The supreme ruler of the church of Rome is called the “pope,” a variation of the Latin “papa,” which we all know means “father.” The church even addresses the pope as “Holy Father,” a title that would be appropriate for God alone. How can Rome justify addressing its priests as “father” when Jesus strictly forbids it?

Catholic apologists claim Christ’s words aren’t to be understood literally in this case. They point out that Jesus approvingly refers to biological fathers many times in the synoptic Gospels (e.g., Matthew 15:4, Mark 10:7, Luke 15:20, etc.). They also refer to Paul’s writings such as 1 Corinthians 4:15 and Philippians 2:22 in which the apostle refers to himself as a spiritual “father.” The apologists say Jesus only meant in this passage that His followers should not elevate spiritual leaders above God or to a God-like status.

The context of Matthew 23:6-12 clearly shows that Jesus was warning his disciples not to elevate those in the coming church who would be in leadership and teaching positions. The Jewish pharisees craved honorific titles (teacher/father/master/leader) and the honor, admiration, and benefits that went along with them. But all of Jesus’s followers were to be equal brethren in the Lord and were even to become servants to each other. Catholics point out that Jesus accepted the title of Rabbi (teacher) when some addressed Him as such, thus violating His own commandment, but, oh yeah, Jesus did claim exclusive rights to the title of Rabbi in Matthew 23:10.

Protestant apologists agree that Jesus obviously wasn’t referring to biological fathers in this passage. They also say Paul referred to himself as a spiritual “father” only in a metaphorical sense, as in being a mentor. Paul was not asking believers to address him as “father,” and would have corrected them if they had.

Even Karol Wojtyla, pope John Paul II, acknowledged Catholicism’s designation of the pope and priests as “father” was problematic and could not honestly be justified theologically beyond its roots in tradition:

“Have no fear when people call me the “Vicar of Christ,” when they say to me “Holy Father,” or “Your Holiness,” or use titles similar to these, which seem even inimical to the Gospel. Christ himself declared: “Call no one on earth your father; you have but one Father in heaven. Do not be called ‘Master’; you have but one master, the Messiah” (Mt 23:9-10). These expressions, nevertheless, have evolved out of a long tradition, becoming part of common usage. One must not be afraid of these words either.” – pope John Paul II from “Crossing the Threshold of Hope,” p. 6

But Catholics respond by saying Protestants who object to priests being called “father” are hypocrites because they regularly refer to their own church leaders with honorific titles such as “Pastor,” “Reverend,” or “Doctor.”

Do Catholics have a point? Do evangelical Christians also defy Christ’s teaching in Matthew 23:6-12 by elevating brethren with the gifts of leadership and teaching and by addressing them with honorific titles, which to some degree surely engender pride, envy, and class distinctions within the body? As one case in point, the independent fundamental Baptist newspaper I used to subscribe to decades ago referenced more “Dr.”s than an office directory at a medical building. Okay, so I’m exaggerating just a little bit.

Without question, the Catholic pope and priests certainly do attempt to take the place of Jesus Christ as spiritual mediators as indicated by their titles; “Holy Father,” “Vicar of Christ,” “persona Christi,” and “alter Christus.”

Are the titles we give Protestant ministers merely signs of love and respect for the ministry they share through Christ, or do we go too far by venerating with titles those in the body with the gifts of leadership and teaching?

Feedback is welcome.

“Dear brothers and sisters, honor those who are your leaders in the Lord’s work. They work hard among you and give you spiritual guidance. Show them great respect and wholehearted love because of their work. – 1 Thessalonians 5:12-13

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30 thoughts on ““Call no man your father…”

  1. Hey Tom,

    An author of an ecumenical blog that I read and write for wrote on this particular topic just the other day. Feel free to check it out in its entirety https://jessicahof.wordpress.com/2017/07/03/call-no-man-father-2/

    However, I’ll pull out a few quotes from the author here:

    “as many Protestants does, asks why we call priests ‘father’ when Matthew 23:9 says not to; oddly, like everyone else I have ever met, he does not rail about us calling our ‘teachers’ teacher, although Matthew 23:10 is equally clear; so how can it be that men who call their teacher by that name, find it so hard to call a father, father?”

    You allude to this when you ask, “Do Catholics have a point? Do evangelical Christians also defy Christ’s teaching in Matthew 23:6-12 by elevating brethren with the gifts of leadership and teaching and by addressing them with honorific titles, which to some degree surely engender pride, envy, and class distinctions within the body?”

    The author takes on the meaning of the word Father and its use to properly understand the mystery of our Heavenly Father “One suspects that they call their male parent ‘father’, so it is hard not to conclude that they concentrate on this point because it allows them to attack the Catholic Church; that it attacks the Orthodox is, in all probability, something few of them realise…if we never called our male parent ‘father’, it would mean, effectively, that we would not understand what it means to call God ‘Father’; if we never used the word of our male parent, how would we begin to understand what the word meant? So, unless we hold that Jesus wanted no one to understand what it meant to use the word father, we must conclude that he meant something else by it; what?”

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    1. Philip, It’s clear from the context of the verses that Jesus was forbidding His followers to give men the veneration in spiritual matters that belongs only to the Father and to Him. Designating priests as “father” violates that command. John Paul II admitted as much as I indicated but advised Catholics to simply let it go. The early Protestants, still clinging to some Roman traditions, continued the custom of elevating the clergy albeit in a much less blatant manner. Evangelical ministers aren’t claiming to be “Holy Father,” “His Holiness,” “Vicar of Jesus Christ,” “persona Christi,” or “alter Christus.”

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      1. Of course, I disagree with your interpretation on the emphasis of St. John Paul II’s words. In fact, reading what you quoted, I don’t see how you reach your conclusion.

        Nonetheless, I knew you’d hold to this opinion, but my reply was in reference to your question of whether Protestants are in violation by using references such as Minister, Pastor, and even as the author indicates “teacher” being clearly a violation of a literal interpretation out of context of both the event and Judaic culture. What is most telling, is your avoidance on the Protestant side of the debate and wiggling, which the author points to as the ultimate irony when condemning Catholics.

        The heterodoxal errors from personal interpretations of scripture outside the traditions of the Church are blindingly obvious by this examination of scripture. Of course this is actually what Pope John Paul II is saying in his text “Be not Afraid” of using such words when they seem (notice the clear phrasing here; it indicates that they are not inimical) inimical to the Gospel.”

        “These expressions, nevertheless, have evolved out of a long tradition (indicating the words in Judaism carried a context, no longer used in the same manner) Therefore, in the tradition of the Church founded by Christ, “one must not be afraid of these words either.”

        Again, the context of Pope John Paul II’s words have a far greater depth than indicating by your superficial context.

        A continued misrepresentation of Catholicism, I hope that you’re still in agreement about “Thou Shall Not Bear False Witness” But maybe your faith alone absolves you from such commands.

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      2. RE: “Again, the context of Pope John Paul II’s words have a far greater depth than indicating by your superficial context.”

        In his statement regarding Matthew 23:6-12, JPII at least has the decency to admit the Catholic position is inimical to Scripture. Why not agree with your blessed saint an leave it at that instead of accusing me of dishonesty!

        Yes, I’m so grateful the Lord freed me from Catholic chains and saved me by His grace through faith in Christ alone! How many mortal sins have you committed today, Philip? Are you keeping track? I commit mortal sins every day either in thought, word, deed, or by omission. Yes, I’m so grateful salvation doesn’t depend on obedience as you believe. But if I could see inside your heart as the Lord does, I would see you’re in the exact same predicament as me. Not one single plea can we offer. Even your “good” deeds are tainted with sin. But you can have the free gift of salvation by faith in Christ alone also. Unfortunately, your institutional church is your idol that keeps you from Christ. I’m praying for you.

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      3. Brother Tom, I spoke without charity in the last comment. Anyone who says they’re willing to pray for someone out of concern has good intentions in their heart, even if one or another believes him or her to be misguided.

        However, I believe you’re simply misrepresenting his words, no serious Christian scholar of any denomination would interpret his words in such a way.

        I’m also confused, my institutional church? I think you’re referring to the mystical body of Christ, which Christ founded as the bride and safeguard of his good news.

        I understand fully the consequence of my sins. For example, as I have practiced the sacraments, there’s no need to count, as St. Thomas Aquinas argues that I can be fairly confident in my salvation. I also understand, as stated by St. Augustine, who actually formulated the philosophy of original sin–not scriptural btw, you have to interpret it– that God will provide me the Grace needed. Of course, I suppose you’ve watched the debate where Trent Horn successfully out skilled James White’s argument on the topic.

        However, I will attest that for 1500 years of Christianity it was taught that at Baptism, my original sin has been washed completely from me. The Simul controversy was never on the radar prior to the reformation, so our good deeds are not tainted with sin, but rather reflect our theosis with the God the Father, as we’re created in His image. (An Eastern Orthodox term)

        Tom, you love Christ, I cannot fault you there, you’re always welcome back to follow Him by rejoining his mystical body. I pray that God’s Grace through the Holy Spirit stirs your heart.

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      4. RE: “…as St. Thomas Aquinas argues that I can be fairly confident in my salvation.”

        Nonsense and you know it. Presumption of salvation is taught to be a sin by your church. Your eternal damnation is as close as your next mortal sin. I commit mortal sins every day; covetousness, envy, lust, idolatry (prioritizing myself or something else ahead of God), hatred, unrighteous anger, etc., and if you’re a human being, you do the same.

        If infallible pope JPII admits that previous infallible popes flouted Jesus’s clear command then what is your foundation again? As I recall, JPII and Francis have both apologized for the intolerances of previous papal regimes. It’s all a whited sepulchre. As we all see currently in church news, infallible Francis is determined to sidestep the clear teaching of previous infallible popes regarding no communion for divorced remarried, to the consternation of conservative prelates like Burke and Muller. What is your foundation again?

        No need to point to the age of your institutional religion. As you’re aware from the writings of Paul, the error of works salvation was creeping into the early church even in his day.

        Francis, there is no more chance of me returning to Catholicism than a criminal once pardoned voluntarily returning to chains and a pending death sentence. You say that you pray to God but you have not yet come to Jesus as a helpless sinner without a single plea of your own as the publican in Luke 18:9-14.

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      5. It’s a shame that your responses always fail to engage the other in a conversation–listen to respond rather than listen converse.

        It’s not nonsense, and you ought right bear false witness, and I can prove it by the Summa. You can only conclude as such because it doesn’t fit with your pigeon-hole caricature of your perception of the Catholic Church’s teachings on the matter, which undoubtedly caused by, if I could guess, more catechesis anywhere between 70s – 90s.

        In Saint Thomas Aquinas’ Treatise of the theological virtue of hope, he gives objections on whether knowing one’s state of Grace.

        “As stated above (Article 1), the hope of which we speak now, attains God by leaning on His help in order to obtain the hoped for good. Now an effect must be proportionate to its cause. Wherefore the good which we ought to hope for from God properly and chiefly is the infinite good, which is proportionate to the power of our divine helper, since it belongs to an infinite power to lead anyone to an infinite good. Such a good is eternal life, which consists in the enjoyment of God Himself. For we should hope from Him for nothing less than Himself, since His goodness, whereby He imparts good things to His creature, is no less than His Essence. Therefore the proper and principal object of hope is eternal happiness.”

        You also misconstrue, or simply have a misunderstanding on how one commits mortal sins. As much research as you do, I would surmise that you fully know that you must meet three criteria to commit a mortal sin: CCC 1857 For a sin to be mortal, three conditions must together be met: “Mortal sin is sin whose object is grave matter and which is also committed with full knowledge and deliberate consent.”13

        So, if we use Lust, as an example of yours, If you look at a woman because she is pretty and have a subconscious thought–this would not meet the criteria for a mortal sin. It would only be if you realized what you were doing, and then, freely choosing to continue to do it.

        Again, listen rather than respond, JP II made no distinction, you misconstrue the meaning of his words. Furthermore, in the history of all of Christianity, there is clear precedent to explore and develop theology within the mysteries of the Church, which creates disagreement between sinful humans. However, to pretend that the little evangelical church down the street within its own voters meetings do not bicker over the state of their church is a false pretense.

        Your last paragraph, I would conclude judges the state of my soul, as you could no idea how I have approached the Lord. You’re welcome to judge my actions, but it’s clearly a violation, as I profess in the Nicene Creed, my faith in the Trinity, as well as the Son of God, who came down for us and our salvation, of scripture.

        Again, your welcome to be a part of Jesus Christ’s mystical body. Again, it’s clear that Christ est. the Church with Peter and the succession has not been broken furthermore, it’s biblical. In the Greek, Petros and Petra are synonyms, how can we know this? In the Gospels, Aramaic, the language of the Apostles and Christ is preserved and Peter is named Kepha several times, which means Rock in Aramaic. It’s rendered in Greek with a masculine because Peter is a man, of course,

        The main problem with your personal use within the theological belief of Sola Scriptura is that it isn’t Biblical, it’s self-refuting, there’s nothing in the Canon which states this position.

        Again, as laid out, you’ve misconstrued and then rejected the Gospel of Jesus Christ preserved by his Bride and mystical body. The door of hell is said to be locked on the inside, Christ calls us to repent and to follow him, We should obey him and follow what he established here on earth, as even Scripture is full of passages where we’re called to action, even by the words of our Savior Jesus Christ Mt. 25, I choose to follow him.

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      6. Oy vey. Please don’t drop the lengthy Aquinas quotes on me. He argued vehemently against the immaculate conception of Mary which would have made him a heretic after 1854.

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      7. If Aquinas was wrong regarding one infallible dogma how can he be trusted about anything? Who decides? The pope? We have pope Francis in essence telling us previous popes were wrong regarding absolutely no communion for divorced remarrieds. The absolutes change in your church depending on which prelate you consult.

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    2. Philip Augustine, I truly am afraid to do this, as all Christians should be. We should be afraid to disobey the Lord. For in addition to not wanting to grieve Him, we know with certainty that we will stand before Him one day. 

      Hebrews 12:28-29
      28 Therefore, since we are receiving a kingdom which cannot be shaken, let us have grace, by which we may serve God acceptably with reverence and godly fear. 29 For our God is a consuming fire.

      Serving God acceptably means acknowledging only One Holy Father, the God and Father of our Lord Jesus Christ.

      Matthew 11
      25 At that time Jesus said, “I praise You, Father, Lord of heaven and earth, that You have hidden these things from the wise and intelligent and have revealed them to infants.”

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  2. Good post I especially like the point you made about “doctors” in Protestant ministries. Typically I don’t see people with a DMin as someone I would go addressing “doctor” but I see some use that title. I think “Pastor” is enough of a title.

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    1. Thanks, Jim! I never felt completely comfortable calling priests “father” when I was Catholic. It seemed to me to be a charade that we were all forced to play along with.

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      1. That’s very revealing. Your comment reminded me of my mother in law who grew up in a very zealous Catholic family and how early one she always felt certain things with Romanism was more charade than real.

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      2. The majority of U.S. Catholics are strictly nominal/cultural members. Little zeal or obedience to the system. 45% don’t even believe the central tenet of transubstantiation. But they do make sure to baptize their babies and call a priest when someone is dying…just in case it’s really true.

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    2. …by the way, all of the fundy pastors who appeared in the pages of The Sword of the Lord with Dr. titles had been awarded honorary doctorates, mainly from Jack Hyles’ Hyles-Anderson College.

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      1. Yikes that’s even worst than I thought with guys earning an “DMin” (as opposed to more academic ThD and Phd). Degree mills for ministers are the worst…the false assurance and pride that comes with it is deadly.

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    1. Thanks, Wally. I like that approach a lot. The Lord was warning us not to exalt a clergy caste like the Pharisees expected and demanded. We know about the dangers of putting men on a pedestal or allowing men to take privileges they shouldn’t take. It’s bad for them and the “laity.” It’s just my opinion but the early Reformers were all ex-priests and maybe they weren’t altogether willing to go as far as they needed to go with regards to reforming the attitudes towards leaders and teachers back to the Lord’s admonition in Matthew 23. They had a vested interest in continuing some of their advantages, even if they weren’t as blatant as they were under Rome.

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  3. There is Only ONE TRUE GOD the FATHER who art in Heaven, ONE SON ( Yeshua-Jesus Christ ) and ONE HOLY GHOST ( HOLY SPIRIT ) – They’re All THREE in ONE!!

    Praise Only Jesus-Yeshua Christ for Today and Everyday, HE is Our TRUE KING of kings and LORD of lords, HE is the ALPHA and OMEGA!! Glory Glory Hallelujah and Maranatha and Shalom ( Peace )!!

    God Bless All my Sisters and Brothers in Christ Jesus-Yeshua and Your Families and Friends!!

    Love Always and Shalom ( Peace, ), YSIC \o/

    Kristi Ann

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