So this last Sunday when I preached on this passage, I made comment on the fact that when Jesus told us to “not call anyone on earth ‘father,’ for you have one Father, and he is in heaven,” in Matthew 23:9, he was condemning the Pharisees for thinking of themselves as spiritual fathers to the people. After my sermon Shannon asked if this had some implication when it came to calling Catholic Priests “Father.” I told Shannon I would do some research on it.
Some anti-Catholic and fundamental Bible scholars, believe calling priests “Father” is against this passage in Matthew.
As you might imagine the Catholics have a bit of a different view on it. Jesus was not just condemning the Pharisees for thinking of themselves as spiritual fathers to the people. He was condemning them for having such high attitudes about themselves that they saw themselves to be in some ways equal to God. They were Rabbis and teachers of the people, as God was their teacher and Rabbi. They believed they gave spiritual birth to the people with their teachings. When the Pharisees wanted to be called “Rabbi,” “teacher,” and “father” it was to set themselves up as being spiritually above the masses.
Catholic Biblical scholars go on to point out the fact that Paul refers to himself as the spiritual father to the Corinthians in I Cor. 4:14-15-“14 I am writing this not to shame you but to warn you as my dear children. 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.” By saying this Paul was not asserting he was like God the Father, but rather he had some spiritual responsibility to the Corinthians. Paul used the term as one of service, rather than as one of superiority.
Many protestant scholars agree with this Catholic interpretation of what Jesus was talking about. In his commentary on this verse, John Calvin writes:
9. And call no man on earth your Father. He [Jesus] claims for God alone the honour of Father, in nearly the same sense as he lately asserted that he himself is the only Master; for this name was not assumed by men for themselves, but was given to them by God. And therefore it is not only lawful to call men on earth fathers, but it would be wicked to deprive them of that honour. Nor is there any importance in the distinction which some have brought forward, that men, by whom children have been begotten, are fathers according to the flesh, but that God alone is the Father of spirits. I readily acknowledge that in this manner God is sometimes distinguished from men, as in Heb. 12:5, but as Paul more than once calls himself a spiritual father, (1 Cor. 4:15) we must see how this agrees with the words of Christ. The true meaning therefore is, that the honour of a father is falsely ascribed to men, when it obscures the glory of God. Now this is done, whenever a mortal man, viewed apart from God, is accounted a father, since all the degrees of relationship depend on God alone through Christ, and are held together in such a manner that, strictly speaking, God alone is the Father of all.
I think Calvin is saying, right along with Jesus, the important thing is not what someone is called, but who is getting the glory. Is the glory going to man (as in the Pharisees’ case) or is it going to God (as in Paul’s case). I would think the term “Father” for Catholic priests is meant in no way to detract from the glory of God.
One Catholic priest writes:
Given that context, Jesus says not to call anyone on earth by the title, “Rabbi,” “Father” or “Teacher,” in the sense of arrogating to oneself an authority which rests with God and of forgetting the responsibility of the title. Yes, as Jesus said, only the heavenly Father is the true Father, and the Messiah, the true teacher and rabbi.
Nevertheless, we do use these titles in common parlance: We call those who instruct us and others “teacher”; our male parent “father”; and Jewish religious leaders “rabbi.” Especially in a religious sense, those who serve the Lord and represent His authority, as a teacher, parent and especially a priest, must be mindful of exercising it diligently, humbly and courageously. To use this authority for self-aggrandizement is pure hypocrisy. Jesus said at the end of this passage, “Whoever exalts himself shall be humbled, but whoever humbles himself shall be exalted.”
Shannon and others, I hope this makes sense. Let me know.