“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