“Then Jesus spoke to the multitudes and to His disciples, saying: “The scribes and the Pharisees sit in Moses’ seat. Therefore whatever they tell you to observe, that observe and do, but do not do according to their works; for they say, and do not do. For they bind heavy burdens, hard to bear, and lay them on men’s shoulders; but they themselves will not move them with one of their fingers. But all their works they do to be seen by men. They make their phylacteries broad and enlarge the borders of their garments. They love the best places at feasts, the best seats in the synagogues, greetings in the marketplaces, and to be called by men, ‘Rabbi, Rabbi.’ But you, do not be called ‘Rabbi’; for One is your Teacher, the Christ, and you are all brethren. Do not call anyone on earth your father; for One is your Father, He who is in heaven. And do not be called teachers; for One is your Teacher, the Christ. 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.” – Matthew 23:1-12
This is the most cited passage by those who claim it is not justified to call anyone on earth the term ‘father,’ but this solely literal interpretation does not hold up in comparison with the rest of the Holy Scripture. As in the case of all scriptural interpretations and hermeneutics, we must understand it in the context of the rest of the Bible. If only one person is ever to be called the literal term father (the meaning being taken at face value), this immediately puts into conflict several verses of which the Protestant viewpoint must indeed justify. We will also explore the accurate understanding of what is meant by this.
Conflict With Scripture
The Bible is the inerrant Word of God, therefore it cannot and does not contradict. The literal interpretation in Matthew 23 puts the Word of God into said contradiction though, let us first look at the Ten Commandments itself. “Honor your father and your mother, as the Lord your God commanded you; that your days may be prolonged, and that it may go well with you, in the land which the Lord your God gives you.” – Deuteronomy 5:16. Why does God specifically reference someone other than Himself as a father while also outlawing anyone other than Him to be called a father? Jesus Christ instructs of the same, acknowledging the term father for someone other than God. “Jesus replied, “ ‘You shall not murder, you shall not commit adultery, you shall not steal, you shall not give false testimony, honor your father and mother,’ and ‘love your neighbor as yourself.’ – Matthew 19:18-19.
The third contradiction if holding to the solely literal interpretation comes from Luke 16:24, “So he called to him, ‘Father Abraham, have pity on me and send Lazarus to dip the tip of his finger in water and cool my tongue, because I am in agony in this fire.” The fourth from Colossians 3:21, “Fathers, provoke not your children to anger, lest they be discouraged.” (1). These are further examples of the Bible referencing father as someone other than God.
The fifth contradiction comes in 1 Corinthians 4:15, “Even if you had ten thousand guardians in Christ, you do not have many fathers, for in Christ Jesus I became your father through the gospel.” Here Paul is referring to himself as a spiritual father, reminding of his own fatherhood, and that of having fathers in the faith. Paul references both Timothy and Titus as his spiritual sons (2 Timothy 1:2, Titus 1:4), this concept of spiritual father and spiritual son is clearly grounded in scripture as is the use of using the term father literally for others. There’s even more examples of this in scripture but to get back to the original verse, what does Jesus mean here then when he says do not call anyone father?
“Call no man father” in context is Jesus Christ contending against certain rabbis of the time period who were using the title of father, rabbi, and teacher unjustly to accomplish their own prideful ends. If these rabbis had been using other titles like pastor or reverend, it would follow that it applies the same to these terms as well. (2). Jesus clearly warns us in the scripture not to call leaders by the “title” of father that simply desire to be titled as a form of honor before men or who teach falsely. Put another way, He was telling them not to use their positions as spiritual fathers and spiritual teachers as an opportunity to give way to pride and build disciples around their own private interpretations. Reread the first half of the opening verse of the article and you will begin to see it.
Jesus also saw the personal character of these scribes and Pharisees were corrupted, they were using their position of spiritual father for self-exaltation and for self-recognition succumbing deeply to pride of wanting the glory for themselves, not for God. This is why the second half of the opening verse focuses on the one who exalts himself will be humbled. Their self-love wanted them to be seen by men, they bind heavy burdens on others while not wanting to carry any heavy burdens themselves. They wanted all the benefits of being served while not putting forth their own effort to serve their flock.
Christ’s warning is against hypocritical teachers, not an outright prohibition on the term itself. Teacher is a term applied to men many times as well in scripture, Acts 13:1, John 3:10, Ephesians 4:11, 2 Timothy 1:11, etc. True spiritual fathers and teachers do not take the place of God and could never, they are called to father their flock and lead their people in love to correct instruction.
The Early Church Perspective
“No one should be called teacher or father except God the Father and our Lord Jesus Christ. He alone is the Father, because all things are from him. He alone is the teacher, because through him are made all things and through him all things are reconciled to God. But one might ask, “Is it against this precept when the apostle calls himself the teacher of the Gentiles? Or when, as in colloquial speech widely found in the monasteries of Egypt and Palestine, they call each other Father?” Remember this distinction. It is one thing to be a father or a teacher by nature, another to be so by generosity. For when we call a man father and reserve the honor of his age, we may thereby be failing to honor the Author of our own lives. One is rightly called a teacher only from his association with the true Teacher. I repeat: The fact that we have one God and one Son of God through nature does not prevent others from being understood as sons of God by adoption. Similarly this does not make the terms father and teacher useless or prevent others from being called father.” – St. Jerome, Commentary on Matthew 4.23.10.
“Again, “call no man your father.” This is said in order that they may know whom they ought to call Father in the highest sense. It is not said frivolously as if no one should ever be called father. Just as the human master is not the divine Master, so neither is the father the Father who is the cause of all, both of all masters and of all fathers.” – St. John Chrysostom, The Gospel of Matthew Homily 72.3.
“You do not call anyone on earth “Father” in the sense that you say “our Father” of the one who gives all things through all ages and according to the divine plan.” – Origen, Commentary on Matthew 12.
1. The Orthodox Study Bible. 2. Fr. Richard Ballew – Ancient Faith Series, 1983. 3. St. Jerome, Commentary on Matthew 4.23.10. 4. St. John Chrysostom, The Gospel of Matthew Homily 72.3. 5. Origen, Commentary on Matthew 12. Orthodox Monastery Icon.