- Updated 5/2001
"And call no man your father upon the earth: for one is your father, which is in heaven" (Matthew 23:9)
Jesus is objecting here to the the scribes and Pharisees (certain religious leaders of His day) being called "father".  Does that mean that Catholics are wrong to call their priests "Father"?

Are we to take this verse in its strictest sense, and deny any male human being the title "father"?  If we did, we would run into some problems, for Jesus Himself called Abraham (Luke 16:24); Jacob (John 4:12); and David (Mark 11:10) "fathers".  He also called male parents in general "fathers" (Matthew 19:29; Lk 11:11).

The difference here is that these men truly are fathers, while the scribes and Pharisees were not truly fathers of their pupils.  They claimed that title to exalt themselves, but they didn't deserve it.  Jesus objects to their pride, but He has no objection to the title "father" being used for a man who truly is a father, and so truly deserves the title.

Old Testament Priests as Spiritual Fathers

Now, one can be a true father either physically or spiritually.  The Levitical priests of ancient Israel were considered the spiritual fathers of the people (see Judges 17:10-11; 18:19).  And such they were because of their priesthood, unlike the scribes and Pharisees, who were not members of the priestly clan.

In Acts 7:2, St. Stephen the First Martyr addresses a group of Jewish religious leaders, including the high priest, as "brethren, and fathers".  By "fathers" he meant to address the high priest and any other priests in the group, since they were the spiritual fathers of the Jewish people. By "brethren" he meant to address everyone else, for they were simply his brother Jews and not spiritual fathers!

Was Stephen wrong to address the priests as "fathers"?  No, for Scripture says that he was filled with the Holy Spirit at the time (Acts 6:10; 7:55).  Would the Spirit of God inspire him to say something which Jesus had forbidden?  Of course not!  Also, St. Paul addresses the religious leaders the same way in Acts 22:1, and the Bible never excoriates him for doing it.

So God clearly does not object to a religious leader being called "father" if he truly is a spiritual father to the people.

Spiritual Fathers in Christianity

The New Testament contains ample evidence that the Apostles, who were the first generation of Church leaders, saw themselves as the spiritual fathers of those they had brought to Christ.  St. Peter calls Mark his "son" (1 Pet. 5:13), thus implying that he is Mark's father.  St. John the Evangelist addresses the recipients of his first letter as "my little children" (1 John 2:1), and elsewhere writes "I have no greater joy than to hear that my children walk in truth" (3 John 4).

In 1 Timothy 1:2, St. Paul calls St. Timothy "My own son in the faith".  Elsewhere he says of Timothy, "But ye know the proof of him, that, as a son with the father, he hath served with me in the gospel" (Phil 2:22; see also 1 Cor. 4:17; 1 Tim 1:18; 2 Tim. 1:2; 2:1).  He begins his Epistle to Titus by saying "To Titus, mine own son after the common faith", and tells Philemon "I beseech thee for my son Onesimus, whom I have begotten in my bonds" (Philemon 10).

Similarly, Paul tells the Corinthians that he is their father through the Gospel: "For though ye have ten thousand instructors in Christ, yet have ye not many fathers: for in Christ Jesus I have begotten you through the gospel" (I Cor 4:15).  In I Thessalonians 2:11 he says "As ye know how we exhorted and comforted and charged every one of you, as a father doth his children".

So the Bible clearly refers to leaders of the Christian Church as the "fathers" of the people (see also I John 2:13-14).  Catholic clergymen are the successors to the Apostles, so it is perfectly biblical and lawful to call them "Father".  Like the Apostles, they truly are spiritual fathers to Christians.  A Catholic priest does not take on this title to put on airs or exalt himself, rather the title describes what he really is.

(Jesus also says in Matthew 23:8 "But be not ye called Rabbi: for one is your Master, even Christ; and all ye are brethren".  "Rabbi" means "teacher", so this would seem to ban Christian leaders from being called "teacher".  Yet St. Paul uses the term "teacher" to refer to Christian leaders in Ephesians 4:11.  We must take the whole of God's Word into account, not just one verse!)


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