Call No Man Father
by Sebastian R. Fama

"Call no man your father on earth, for you have one Father, who is in heaven. Neither be called masters, for you have one master, the Christ. He who is greatest among you shall be your servant. Whoever exalts himself will be humbled, and whoever humbles himself will be exalted" (Matthew 23:9-12).

This passage is often quoted in opposition to the practice of calling priests father. However, Jesus is dealing with a much different issue. He is pointing out the hypocrisy of the Pharisees and Teachers of the Law. In verses 6 and 7 which immediately precede the rejection of the titles of honor, Jesus explains in what sense His rejection is meant: "And they love the place of honor at feasts and the best seats in the Synagogues, and salutations in the market places, and being called rabbi." Here Jesus is commenting on their superiority complexes. They have effectively set God aside and put themselves in His place; thus the comments on being humbled and being exalted (see also verses 12-36).

Many times in the Gospels Jesus refers to our earthly fathers as well as our Heavenly Father. If the command to call no one on earth father were in the strict literal sense, He would not have done so. See Matthew 10:37, 15:4, 19:5, 19:19 and 19:29; also Luke 12:53 and 14:26. Similarly, we would not be commanded to "Honor your father and mother" (Exodus 20:12).

Jesus didn't object to titles, but to the way they were used. Paul calls himself the father of the Corinthians. "I do not write this to make you ashamed, but to admonish you as my beloved children. 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" (1 Corinthians 4:14-15).

Father Mitch Pacwa points out that "There are 144 occasions in the New Testament when the title of father is used for someone other than God. It is applied to the patriarchs of Israel, the fathers of families, to Jewish leaders and to Christian leaders" (Call no Man Father, This Rock January 1991).

Protestants call their ministers "Pastor." Pastor means shepherd. In John 10:14-16 Jesus says, "I am the good shepherd.  I know my own and my own know me, as the Father knows me and I know the Father, and I lay down my life for the sheep. And I have other sheep that are not of this fold. I must bring them also, and they will heed my voice. So there shall be one flock, one shepherd." If we reason that we cannot call a priest Father because we "have one Father who is in heaven," then can we not also reason that we cannot call a minister Pastor because there is only "one Shepherd?"

God is Father and Jesus is Shepherd in the ultimate sense. Church leaders are shepherds and fathers in a lesser sense. Why else would Peter say in 1 Peter 5:2-4, "Tend the flock of God that is your charge, not by constraint but willingly, not for shameful gain but eagerly, not as domineering over those in your charge but being examples to the flock. And when the chief shepherd is manifested you will obtain the unfading crown of glory." The term "Chief Shepherd" indicates that there are subordinate shepherds. One scripture verse clarifies another, and so it is with the different verses pertaining to the title of father.

When assuming these titles in the proper sense we share, in a subordinate way, in the priesthood of Jesus, working for the furtherance of God's kingdom. As practiced by the Pharisees and the teachers of the Law, however, it was a way of exalting self while pretending to serve God.

Isolating and grabbing hold of one scripture verse is risky. It can be misleading or even dangerous. Even an honest and well-intentioned Christian can subconsciously bend a verse to suit his or her own needs. It is vitally important to understand the Bible as God intended. St. Augustine once said, "Not what one scripture says, but what all of Scripture says." We can take it a step further and say, not what Scripture says but what Scripture means.

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