Like many Orthodox clergy, I have lost track of the number of times my Protestant brethren have objected to the priestly title (in my case, “Father Lawrence”), citing the Bible which commands that they “call no man ‘Father’”. They are, of course, thinking of our Lord’s words in Matthew 23:9. If I am feeling puckish and mischievous, I sometimes respond with a simple denial, insisting, “No, the Bible doesn’t say that” just to wind them up and make the final riposte more satisfying. It is not particularly sanctified, but it is fun.
Admittedly the Good News Bible renders the verse “you must not call anyone here on earth ‘Father’”, as does The Living Bible and the New International Version. More accurate versions such as the King James, the RSV, and the New American Standard do not render it this way, since the Greek reads, πατέρα μὴ καλέσητε ὑμῶν ἐπὶ τῆς γῆς/ patera me kalesete umon epi tes ges. Note the boldface ὑμῶν, so that the verse is rendered more accurately as “call no man your father on the earth” (thus e.g. King James).
What is the difference between “call no man ‘father’” and “call no man your father”? The difference is the difference between a title or form of address and a relationship. It is the latter which Christ is describing and proscribing, not the former. The Bible never says, “call no man ‘father’”. Indeed, such a command would be bizarre in a Middle Eastern environment, where the term “father” was the usual honourific for a male person of age. That is why the term is on the lips even of the rich man in Christ’s parable: he calls the venerable patriarch “Father Abraham” when he calls out to him for help (Luke 16:24, 30).
Christ’s word about never calling anyone upon the earth their father finds its true meaning in the context of His denunciation of the Pharisees and Rabbinic piety of the time, which is why the command shows up in Matthew’s very Jewish Gospel and not (say) in the Gospel of Luke, which was addressed to a Gentile audience.
The whole of Matthew 23 consists of a collection of the varied critiques of the Pharisees Christ offered at various times. The fact that there are seven “woes” in the chapter pronounced upon the Pharisees (in verses 13, 15, 16, 23, 25, 27, 29) suggests that this is a finely-crafted compendium of Matthew’s, summarizing what Christ said on a number of different occasions, and not a single sustained oration by Jesus. The chapter constitutes a dossier of denunciation, a warning to His disciples not to follow the practices of the Pharisees and the scribes.
One of the practices which Christ warned His disciples to avoid was the insistence upon public honour and loyalty. The Pharisees loved respectful greetings in public and being hailed with the term “Rabbi” (literally, “my master/ my great one”). (The term at that time was as an honourific, and did not denote a clerical office, as it does today.) The Rabbis would accumulate disciples, men whose task it was to memorize the views and words of their Rabbi and make them their own. Indeed, those teachers claimed a greater respect from their disciples than was given to one’s parents, since they reasoned that one’s parents gave only earthly life, while the Rabbinic teacher gave spiritual and eternal life. They functioned therefore as gurus for those followed them as their personal disciples.
Our Lord insisted that such total allegiance and such blind loyalty had no place among His followers in His Church. The leaders in His movement were never to function as such fathers, commanding personal allegiance and accumulating personal disciples. Such complete allegiance could only be given to God, their common Father in heaven. On earth the only Leader to whom such devotion should be given was Christ, the Messiah of all. His disciples were all brothers, and even the leaders among them looked to the same Leader and Lord, the Christ of God (Matthew 23:8-10).
In all of this, what mattered was where the heart was, and to whom one gave ultimate loyalty. The Rabbis of the Pharisees claimed personal loyalty from their disciples as their due in a kind of personality cult. Such a cult and such devotion were to find no place among Jesus’ followers. The issue was not so much whether one calls one’s leader either “Fr. Tom” or “Pastor Tom”. The issue was the relationship between the leader and the led. One can be led by Fr. Tom and address him as “Fr. Tom”. But Fr. Tom can never command ultimate personal loyalty—nor, as a true disciple of Christ, would he wish to.
The temptation to accrue personal disciples is a perennial one, and not confined to the Pharisees, scribes, and Rabbis of the first century. We can see such a cult of personality and the demand for personal allegiance in some televangelists. It is not necessary to name names; the names are already well-known. Though not using the ancient Middle Eastern honourific “father”, such men function as fathers to their supporters, authoritative gurus, demanding like the Rabbis of old personal loyalty (and financial support).
It is usually otherwise among the Orthodox and those groups that use the title “Father” as an honourific for their clergy. Orthodox clergy all dress alike—the same black cassock, the same pectoral cross. Their teaching is the same, so that it scarcely matters whether one goes to Fr. Lawrence’s parish or Fr. Justin’s. The use of common title and of common clerical garb are intended to obscure and impede such personal style as would promote a cult of personality. Different clergy have different gifts, of course, and different parishes have different strengths and weaknesses. But the same Orthodox Faith is proclaimed by all the Orthodox clergy in the same way. There is not a Laurentian Orthodoxy here and a Justinian Orthodoxy there. Ecclesiastically speaking, there is but One who is the Teacher, and all clergy are brothers (Matthew 23:8). Christ is our earthly Leader, and He has taught us that God in heaven is our Father. We therefore call no man on earth our true and life-giving father apart from Him.
The most unfortunate fallout from the misreading is that it also leads into denial of Mary, the Theotokos and Mother of our God.
1 Cor. 4:15 (LEB)
For if you have ten thousand guardians in Christ, yet you do not have many fathers, for in Christ Jesus I fathered you through the gospel.
There are many pedagogues but not “polys pater”. Yet, that “not many” doesn’t mean none. And the argument is, the person who led you to regeneration/new life from the dead, this person plays a fatherly/begetting role worthy of emulation/submission. And who typically is involved in your regeneration? Your priest. If in Baptism, we really die with Christ, are really buried, are really raised, and if our priest is the one who acts in this way both pedagogically and in the begetting sense, then this person is also father/fatherly, and can’t be traded out for a mere pedagogue. That’s his argument to “his children”. Back a verse, 14 I am not writing these things to shame you but admonishing you as my dear children. And because of this, 16 Therefore I exhort you, become imitators of me.
As to this being the reason for denying the Theotokos, I don’t this is it. I think the bigger, I know the bigger issue is preserving monergism at the expense of any synergism. Logically, they have to deny this about Paul being father, as Paul is reduced to a “means” to the father, but could not be responsible in any way for their regeneration/gennao except in the sense of means/vessel/vehicle/medium that is reduced to something like a passive signal. And this is due to Original Sin and Guilt, the bedrock of Protestant Christianity. This is why I go after it all the time. Again, logically we should think Paul is blaspheming according to OS&G, because all he could do, the Theotokos or anyone else, is be a means.
Means are important, we pray for “all the means” to salvation. But means don’t reduce people to wiring or plumbing. The means, us, are connected/union-ed to God and His purposes if we abide in Christ/The Faith, and those who see the light of Christ in us and are changed in repentance and faith become brothers/sisters. In one sense, I owe the person who brought me to Christ the honor of father, but I will not call this person father, but I will say brother. But that brother, if they pedagogically did their job, would only be back in line with transmitting (with the use of their will and energy) the same content with which Paul, the Apostles, Jesus, fathered. Our allegiance is to Christ and His (the possessive) Apostles, who are now our fathers in the sense that Abraham, Isaac, Jacob were/are the fathers of the Old Covenant. Our fathers, priests, are in the same sort of lineage except explicitly on the basis of faith/keeping the Faith once delivered.
There’s my personal apologetic for priests as fathers. It really consists of what does Paul mean, and how do you not reduce Paul to a means, when he obviously doesn’t see himself that way even though his humility is on display to give all Glory to God.
Three major issues are affected by Original Sin and Guilt here: what is Baptism, what role is played by a Christian in the regeneration of someone else, and what authority is granted to and expected to be acknowledge by the recipients of the Faith? And OS&G will change the meaning of all three. It will change the meaning of Baptism, change the role to passive/means, and leave the believer with a pedagogue, 10’s of thousands, but no authority – and this nails the situation in Protestantism. All I did was think logically about the effect, I didn’t consult some apologetics manual.
Matthew, great piece but I have heard people deny the Father and Mary in the same breath for the same reason. It is probably not logical but I have heard it. Not often and a long time ago but I have heard it.