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Jesus forbids his disciples from calling anyone on earth 'father' as they have a Father in heaven.

Why do some organisations encourage their congregations to call their congregational leaders 'father'?

Is it an admission that their organisation does not result in their congregations drawing near to the Father of the Lord Jesus Christ ?

And call none your father upon the earth: for one is your Father, which is in heaven. Matthew 23:9 KJV.

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    @SamuelBradshaw I grant that my question is in the same area, but I think it is a different question. I am looking for the reason behind the ignoring of Jesus' words. – Nigel J Mar 16 at 17:49
  • There are at least a few denominations that observe this practice. They're quite different in many ways (for example, they recognize different biblical canons). Do you want an overview of how they all justify themselves? Or are you interested mainly in one? – Matt Gutting Mar 17 at 14:09
  • @MattGutting I think there must be a common denominator, so my own view is that they will have the same reason and thus will all justify themselves in a similar manner. – Nigel J Mar 17 at 14:48
  • Does this help? christianity.stackexchange.com/a/4411/12563 – Matt Gutting Mar 17 at 16:20
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In Matthew 23:1-12 Jesus denounces the Jewish scribes and Pharisees for their hypocrisy in elevating themselves above others. They wanted the common people to look up to them and address them as teacher and master, as father, as if they were the source of truth. Jesus, however, taught that the source of all life and truth is God, and that no-one should seek a title that belongs only to God. God as Father will not share his titles with mere mortals.

In Matthew 23:7-10 Jesus explains why it is wrong to call men “father”:

7 And greetings in the markets, and to be called of men, Rabbi, Rabbi. 8 But be not ye called Rabbi: for one is your Master, even Christ; and all ye are brethren. 9 And call no man your father upon the earth: for one is your Father, which is in heaven. 10 Neither be ye called masters: for one is your Master, even Christ. (Matthew 23 7-10 KJV 1900)

Therefore, for any religious leader to ignore Jesus’ words is to suggest they want their followers to look to them as the source of life and truth, instead of looking to God. There is but one Father, who is in heaven. There is but one Master, Christ.

All Christians who have been born again are adopted into God’s family, and all are equal. They all have one heavenly Father, whom they are privileged to address as “Abba” (Romans 8:15), and they all have one Master, Christ Jesus, who bought them at a price (Acts20:28).

Within the context of Jesus' words, it is clear he is not referring to a physical, earthly, biological father, but to religious leaders who seek to elevate themselves above Christ who is their Master.

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1) The Apostles know how to interpret the words of Jesus better than we. In their teaching and letters, they viewed themselves as spiritual fathers, and as having spiritual sons (both which implies the other).

1 Corinthians 4:14-17 (DRB) I write not these things to confound you; but I admonish you as my dearest children. For if you have ten thousand instructors in Christ, yet not many fathers. For in Christ Jesus, by the gospel, I have begotten you. Wherefore I beseech you, be ye followers of me, as I also am of Christ. For this cause have I sent to you Timothy, who is my dearest son and faithful in the Lord; who will put you in mind of my ways, which are in Christ Jesus; as I teach every where in every church.

2 Timothy 1:2 (DRB) To Timothy my dearly beloved son, grace, mercy, and peace, from God the Father, and from Christ Jesus our Lord.

1 Peter 5:13 (DRB) The church that is in Babylon, elected together with you, saluteth you: and so doth my son Mark.

Male persons who identify people as their sons have, by virtue of this identification, identified themselves as fathers.

Matthew 3:9 (DRB) And think not to say within yourselves, We have Abraham for our father. For I tell you that God is able of these stones to raise up children to Abraham.

Cf. Gn. 17:5.

Here Abraham is described as having spiritual sons (believing Jews and Gentiles, without respect to their geneology), as in:

Galatians 3:7 (DRB) Know ye therefore, that they who are of faith, the same are the children of Abraham.

Luke 16:19-25 (DRB) There was a certain rich man, who was clothed in purple and fine linen; and feasted sumptuously every day. 20 And there was a certain beggar, named Lazarus, who lay at his gate, full of sores, 21 Desiring to be filled with the crumbs that fell from the rich man's table, and no one did give him; moreover the dogs came, and licked his sores. 22 And it came to pass, that the beggar died, and was carried by the angels into Abraham's bosom. And the rich man also died: and he was buried in hell. 23 And lifting up his eyes when he was in torments, he saw Abraham afar off, and Lazarus in his bosom: 24 And he cried, and said: Father Abraham, have mercy on me, and send Lazarus, that he may dip the tip of his finger in water, to cool my tongue: for I am tormented in this flame. 25 And Abraham said to him: Son, remember that thou didst receive good things in thy lifetime, and likewise Lazareth evil things, but now he is comforted; and thou art tormented.

3) God doesn't interpret this teaching as excluding spiritual fathers.

Isaiah 22:20-23 (DRB) And it shall come to pass in that day, that I will call my servant Eliacim the son of Helcias, 21 And I will clothe him with thy robe, and will strengthen him with thy girdle, and will give thy power into his hand: and he shall be as a father to the inhabitants of Jerusalem, and to the house of Juda. 22 And I will lay the key of the house of David upon his shoulder: and he shall open, and none shall shut: and he shall shut, and none shall open. 23 And I will fasten him as a peg in a sure place, and he shall be for a throne of glory to the house of his father.

Cf. Mt. 16:13-20.

Pope (Papa) means 'father' and if this basically approves of a papacy-like position within the kingdom, wherein he functions as some kind of father ("he shall be as a father to the inhabitants of Jerusalem"), then the Bible can't be forbidding the idea.

4) It cannot be illict to identify someone as what the Bible says they are—fathers, or sons. It would be contrary to reason to think Jesus is teaching us to not call people what they are in truth. That is, it's not rational to hold the view that Jesus and others call people sons and themselves fathers, and obviously in an approved capacity, yet is against being truthful in this regard when identifying them.

5) In context, He is very clearly using hyperbole (as He does a lot) in order to drive a point through; He doesn't literally means 'don't call anyone teacher' or 'father.' And before you say, 'why didn't He teach it another way,' that's what hyperbole is: unqualified extreme.

Matthew 5:30 (DRB) And if thy right hand scandalize thee, cut it off, and cast it from thee: for it is expedient for thee that one of thy members should perish, rather than that thy whole body be cast into hell.

Here again, He speaks hyperbolically, with not the least qualification. There you have it, Jesus teaches perpetual dismemberment until you have no arms or eyes or legs, etc. (Notice in the passage we're discussing he doesn't qualify 'anyone.' That excludes even biological fathers if taken in the absolute.)

Much like metaphor, which is also unqualifed by nature: "God is a man of war;" (Ex. 15:3) "God is not a man" (Num. 23:19). Clearly He meant both, but one was metaphorical and the other doesn't qualify for the same given the context—taken with a little seasoning of common sense.


Matthew 23:1-12 (DRB) Then Jesus spoke to the multitudes and to his disciples, 2 Saying: The scribes and the Pharisees have sitten on the chair of Moses. 3 All things therefore whatsoever they shall say to you, observe and do: but according to their works do ye not; for they say, and do not. 4 For they bind heavy and insupportable burdens, and lay them on men's shoulders; but with a finger of their own they will not move them. 5 And all their works they do for to be seen of men. For they make their phylacteries broad, and enlarge their fringes. 6 And they love the first places at feasts, and the first chairs in the synagogues, 7 And salutations in the market place, and to be called by men, Rabbi.

To break here for a little:

These hypocritical leaders use their position of power to gratify their own pride. That's why they love being called 'Rabbi'—which is quite evidently equivalent to the modern day, 'Father.' He is very specifically talking about them.

The change to the more general seems to put most people off, and they lose sight of the hyperbole clearly being employed in the following:

8 But be not you called Rabbi. For one is your master; and all you are brethren. 9 And call none your father upon earth; for one is your father, who is in heaven. 10 Neither be ye called masters; for one is your master, Christ.

Does anyone really think that because God is father, there are no spiritual fathers, as St. Paul says? Does anyone really think that since Christ is our Master, there are no kings, lords, etc. "to whom honor is due" (Rom. 13:7)?

1 Peter 2:15-18 (DRB) For so is the will of God, that by doing well you may put to silence the ignorance of foolish men: 16 As free, and not as making liberty a cloak for malice, but as the servants δουλοι of God. 17 Honour all men. Love the brotherhood. Fear God. Honour the king.

18 Servants, be subject to your masters [δεσποταις] with all fear, not only to the good and gentle, but also to the froward.

Jude 1:4 (DRB) For certain men are secretly entered in, (who were written of long ago unto this judgment,) ungodly men, turning the grace of our Lord God into riotousness, and denying the only sovereign Ruler [δεσποτην], and our Lord Jesus Christ.

Clearly the Apostles didn't view the Lordship of Christ as exclusive to earthly lords, any more than they viewed God the Father as exclusive of spiritual fathers.

Jesus is just criticizing the titles-for-teachers practice as abused by prideful men—almost to the point of abolishing it in despair due to its woeful misuse and abuse—yet we see that He did not abolish the practice, or I should say perennial human tradition, of calling teachers by honorifics.

But what follows affirms what I said just before:

11 He that is the greatest among you shall be your servant. 12 And whosoever shall exalt himself shall be humbled: and he that shall humble himself shall be exalted.

It is the titles qua titles which occasion pride in prideful men which are forbidden—if sought after and 'enjoyed'—not the simple titles themselves.

Taken in a literal, anti-contextual way, this would forbid all honorifics whatsoever, since 'only God deserves to be honored.' Yet this is evidently not what is meant, given the Biblical data.

2 John 1:1 (DRB) The ancient to the lady [κυρια] Elect, and her children, whom I love in the truth, and not I only, but also all they that have known the truth,

  • What then, are we to make of Pope Clement VI who said: "No man outside obedience to the Pope of Rome can ultimately be saved. All who have raised themselves against the faith of the Roman Church, and died in final impenitence have been damned, and gone down to Hell." (Source: Pope Clement VI, "Super Quibusdam," as cited in "Apostolic Digest, Book V: The Book of Obedience") Salvation comes, not from faith alone in Christ, but from obedience to the Pope? How are we to understand this view of the "holy Father"? – Lesley Mar 18 at 17:58
  • Quite simply that a) this statement doesn't qualify for 'infallible' according to the Church's own definition; but that if it did, b) this speaks of deliberate disobedience toward a known truth, not someone in Africa who hasn't so much as heard of Jesus, for example, let alone any of His Church's structure or Scriptures or rules or laws. Obedience to a rule implies knowledge; disobedience implies knowledge. Someone who hasn't heard of Jesus or the Church, or who was confused, not ill-willed, and didn't accept the papacy as an institution of Christ, wouldn't be damned. – Sola Gratia Mar 18 at 19:26
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    I would say there is a difference between corporate fathers and an individual begetter. I count myself to have many 'fathers in the faith' (effectively, 'ancestors') such as Martin Luther, John Bunyan, John Knox, William Huntington, Robert Young, John Burgon, J.C. Philpot and John Metcalfe. But I call none of them - individually - 'Father'. Nor would I do so. – Nigel J Mar 18 at 19:37
  • @NigelJ It's irrational to refuse to identify someone as what you've already called them. If you call two people your 'parents' then both individually are your 'parent.' You don't have the option of disagreeing with that linguistically or logically. Unless the substance what it meant to be a 'father' in the corporate sense changed from that to the individual. Like how some claim asking a fellow saint for prayer becomes worship as soon as that person is in heaven. – Sola Gratia Mar 18 at 19:45
  • I have two parents but only one Creator. – Nigel J Mar 18 at 19:47
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I think there is a little bit of confusion because, while Jesus has forbidden referring to any human by the name "father" or title "father", the reality is that biologically I still was the result of a man and woman that didn't create me, but rather procreated.

I think that biological parents, even though they aren't the Father, have a very special place in the hearts and minds of their biological children and vice-versa. The same could be true for adopted parents or spiritual parents, although it's God's plan that the biological parents have integrity, and not need others to step in in their stead. Parents REPRESENT God but aren't God. They represent the Father, are LIKE the Father, and in doing so are a type of father in a sense, but they aren't the Father.

You can see in Hebrews 2:11 that the author of Hebrews calls us who believe brothers of Jesus. In this, as well as in other locations, you can see that the plan has always been that Jesus is the firstborn Son as well as God the Son, and that we, humans, are the younger brothers and sisters, who have God Himself as their Father. When we were children, we were under the authority of our parents directly, but when we become adults, we are now fully grown like our parents and are not under our parents' authority in the same way. God alone is our Father.

In Genesis we see the commands to "bear fruit and multiply". This is commonly thought to be 1 command but it's actually 2. I'll take an example from the life of Jesus. When Jesus healed someone He was bearing fruit. When He was teaching the apostles to heal someone He was multiplying Himself into another son. Luke 6:40 says that the one who is fully trained will be "like his master"

So it's always been the nature of things that leaders not set up hierarchies, but rather multiply themselves into those that are fully mature the way that Jesus is, are children of God the way that Jesus is, are directly accountable to God the way that Jesus is, experience life the way that Jesus does, and have God alone as Father the way that Jesus does. This is a part of what it originally meant to be "in the image of God", and is part of what now the New Testament refers to as being "in Christ".

It's easy to see this in nature. When I'm 35 I'll be similar to my dad when he was 35 in many ways. I'm a reproduction of him and my mom. I'm not a mini version of them at all (anymore). Seeing as my dad is older than me, he's still a big brother to me. Thus, as a (technically) brother, I'm not directly under his authority unless I'm staying at his house.

So it's Jesus' mission to make "disciples" people that obey "all that [Jesus] has commanded" and thus people whose lives are growing in resembling the life of Christ "with ever increasing glory" (2 Corinthians 3:18). These people are reproductions of those that have influenced them in many ways, but that doesn't mean their final destiny is determined by those people or that they are under the authority of those people. Rather all of those who are in Christ and adults are under the authority of God Himself, and their destinies are overridden in every way by the DNA of Christ inside of us. Anyway our earthly parent figures disagree with Jesus, Jesus reminds us of who we actually are in Christ. Generational sin has no authority in the lives of believers. We consider ourselves dead to sin but alive to God in Christ Jesus (Romans 6:11).

This doesn't mean that we aren't to honor government, because they have a positional authority from God. However it does mean that it's God's ultimate will to no longer have kings. In Israel we see that God appointed Judges, but Israel asked for a king aside from God Himself. Our sin nature seems to be insecure about our Father being spiritual in nature rather than earthly. This is probably because we were all born disconnected from Him, and are easily made insecure about His always being with us.

Ephesians 3:15 says that all families derive their names from God the Father. In this we see that even though we all have dads and moms, God alone is the final authority in the life of any person. It doesn't mean we don't honor our parents. It just means we know they are under God's authority, and that when we grow up, we will be parents that are under His authority as well.

All of these principles apply to the idea of a spiritual father as well as natural. Our biological parents were always meant to, not simply represent themselves, but to represent God to their children. In the absence of believing parents and parents that accurately represent the Father, spiritual parents can step in to assist in accurately representing the Father to children and even to adults as an older brother or sister. However, again, adults are not under their authority directly unless they are on their property. God alone is their Father.

Paul talks about "fathers" as does John in 1 John. Again, me being a father to my children doesn't mean they are to call me "father" (thus the Protestant tradition of calling parents "mom" and "dad"). It only means I've played a role in helping them grow into fully mature sons or daughters of God Himself. I have represented the Father to them, but not been their Father. Important distinction. This is one of the ways we see the tension in scripture of how we are God's glory (1 Corinthians 11:7), created in His image, but we aren't Him. We represent Him and show the world something about Him, but we aren't Him.

I think that organizations that practice referring to priests as "father" are in direct disobedience to the teachings of Jesus and show that they are more interested in promoting themselves than promoting God.

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