This one comes from a conversation with a visitor I had to our parish lately. Obviously, as Evangelicals, we believe that the Bible is the inspired Word of God and that we should model our lives so that they mimic that which in contained in the Sacred Scriptures as much as possible. While we are also traditionalists, we have rejected some traditions because they do not line up with Scriptural teachings.
With that in mind, why do we refer to our priests as “Father” when Jesus specifically says, “Call no man ‘father’”?
Before you could ever justify why we refer to our clergy as such, we really have to address what appears to be a crystal clear prohibition from Our Lord. “Look,” says the critic, “He says right there in red letters, ‘Call no man father.’ Where do you get off saying, ‘That’s not what He meant?’”
The particular passage in question is Matthew 23:1-12 which may be found here. These verses are a small part of a much longer discourse in Saint Mathew’s Gospel where Our Lord has gone into the Temple (after the Triumphal Entry) and has begun to teach the people who are gathered there. The scene begins at Matthew 21:23 and continues through until 24:3 when Our Lord and the Apostles leave Jerusalem and retire to the Mount of Olives. During His time teaching in the Temple, Our Lord addresses the Pharisees, Sadducees, and the Scribes before, in Chapter 23, proclaiming judgment and “woe” upon the Scribes and Pharisees.
The idea that it is permissible to refer to another man as father, in direct (apparent) contradiction of Jesus’ instruction must be justified by other Scriptures. Saint Paul tells his disciple Timothy, “All Scripture is given by inspiration of God, and is profitable for doctrine, for reproof, for correction, for instruction in righteousness, that the man of God may be complete, thoroughly equipped for every good work.” (II Timothy 3:16-17) If all Scripture is inspired by God then it cannot contradict the teaching of Jesus who is “the Word Made Flesh.” (St. John 1:14) That means that, if, elsewhere in the New Testament, we find passages referring to men as father, then Our Lord did not literally mean “do not call anyone your father.”
Are there such examples? Yes, there are. In his speech at Solomon’s Portico, Saint Peter uses the word ‘father’ to refer to their common Jewish ancestors, actually referring to the LORD as “the God of our fathers.” (Acts 3:13) Saint Stephen begins the speech which leads to his martyrdom by addressing his listeners as “Brethren and fathers” and continues to use the word fourteen more times before he is stoned to death. (Acts 7:2ff) Saint Paul used the phrase frequently to refer to the ancestors, even going so far as to say that Abraham is the “father of us all!” (Romans 4:16-17) Most strikingly, Saint Paul says to the Church at Corinth, “For though you have countless guides in Christ, you do not have many fathers. For I became your father in Christ Jesus through the gospel.” (I Corinthians 4:15 ESV, see also NIV) Saint Paul actually has the audacity to say I am a father to you Corinthians! If Saint Paul, inspired by the Holy Spirit, told the Corinthians that he (St. Paul) was their father, how could Our Lord have really meant do not call any man your father? Finally, how are you supposed to obey the fifth commandment to “Honor your father” (Exodus 20:12; Deuteronomy 5:16) if you are not allowed to address him as such?
So what did Our Lord really mean? The actual injunction against calling men rabbis, fathers, and teachers comes near the end of a passage which concludes: “But he who is greatest among you shall be your servant. And whoever exalts himself will be humbled, and he who humbles himself will be exalted.” (St. Matthew 23:11-12) The heart of what Jesus is saying is do not go in for exalted titles. Do not think of yourself as superior to anyone, do not exalt yourself over anyone, and, most importantly, do not expect to be treated specially because of your job or your title. Jesus singles out the Scribes and the Pharisees because of their self-righteous and superior attitudes. Our Lord begins a litany of charges and complaints against them.
Now, that may mean that it might be okay to call some men fathers, particularly fathers in the faith, but if those men maintain self-righteous, “holier than thou,” exalted attitudes which demand special treatment then it should not really matter whether you call them Pastor, Father, or Elder. They have become modern day Scribes and Pharisees and their title is irrelevant; their hearts are in error.
How ought our priests to behave so that they do not run afoul of Our Lord’s warnings to the Scribes and Pharisees? Before a man may ever be ordained priest, he must first be ordained and serve a term as a deacon. The term “deacon” comes from the Greek word meaning “servant.” We speak of the “ontological change” that occurs when one is ordained, a change in the very nature of one’s being (not unlike how one’s nature is changed when they are married and the two become one flesh). That change is never undone; our priests always remain deacons. That is why, as of late, we have had priests substitute for deacons in some of our services. There is nothing wrong with this practice because the priests are still, in fact, deacons. I was recently reminded that two of the primates in the ICCEC are known to wear a deacon’s stole under their chasuble as a reminder to themselves that they are still deacons and servants.
In addition, every year during Holy Week, the priests remind themselves and the congregation that they are still servants by following Our Lord’s example. In the Maundy Thursday service, we repeat Our Lord’s words when Saint John tells us:
So when He had washed their feet, taken His garments, and sat down again, He said to them, “Do you know what I have done to you? You call Me Teacher and Lord, and you say well, for so I am. If I then, your Lord and Teacher, have washed your feet, you also ought to wash one another’s feet. For I have given you an example, that you should do as I have done to you. Most assuredly, I say to you, a servant is not greater than his master; nor is he who is sent greater than he who sent him. If you know these things, blessed are you if you do them.” (13:12-17)
More than simply reading and teaching on this passage, as Sacramentalists, we act the passage out. Just prior to the foot-washing in the Maundy Thursday service, the Celebrant stands before the congregation and reads:
“Fellow servants of our Lord Jesus Christ: On the night before His death, Jesus set an example for His disciples by washing their feet, an act of humble service. He taught that strength and growth in the life of the Kingdom of God comes not by power, authority, or even miracle, but by such lowly service. We all need to remember His example, but none stand more in need of this reminder than those whom the Lord has called to the ordained ministry.
Therefore, I invite you who share in the royal priesthood of Christ, to come forward, that I may recall whose servant I am by following the example of my Master…”
So, we have seen that Our Lord did not literally mean “do not call anyone your father.” We have seen that what He meant was be wary of those who seek titles as a means of self-aggrandizement and use their positions to receive special treatment. We have also seen that our priests, at least in principal, ought to never be engaged in such practices, yet just because a practice is not expressly forbidden does not mean that is should be done. The question yet remains: why should we call our priests fathers?
The answer goes back to the history of the Jewish relationship with God. Prior to the institution of the Levitical priesthood, priestly duties were carried on by the fathers. They were the ones who made sacrifices for their families to make atonement, thanksgiving offerings and the like. To an extent, we still see this in our wedding services. We allow the groom, whether he be clerical of lay, to serve his wife Holy Communion on their wedding day in acknowledgment that the father is “the priest of his own household.” This is nowhere more clearly expressed than in the Book of Judges when Micah invites the Levite to “Dwell with me, and be a father and a priest to me.” (17:10) The phrase is again repeated in the next chapter. The point is this: the priests were seen as fathers to the Children of Israel. The ancient practices were not wholly forgotten and the priest was a father to his people.
Thus, as an heir to the Levitical priesthood, as a spiritual “father in the Lord” to their congregation, as long as they are not running afoul of the warning given in St. Matthew 23, the practices of referring to priests as “Father” goes back to the very institution of the Priesthood and is not forbidden by Holy Scripture.
And, by the way, I want to wish a happy birthday to my Father, whom I have no problem with calling such. Happy Birthday, Dad! I love you.