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Call no man “Father”

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Earlier this year I promised a post on the selective biblical literalism that eschews addressing clergy as “Father”.

Jesus says:

“And call no one your father on earth, for you have one Father—the one in heaven.” (Matthew 23:9)

Firstly, is Jesus forbidding calling our biological, adopting, or earthly father, “father”?

For the God-as-rock metaphor to function, we need to be able to use the word “rock” for… well, rocks. If we cannot call rocks “rock”, then the metaphor of using “rock” for God cannot work. Similarly, if we can literally call no one “father” on earth, then the metaphor of “Father” for God cannot work.

Those who take Matthew 23:9 literally, presumably also take Luke 14:26 literally, where Jesus says,

Whoever comes to me and does not hate father and mother, wife and children, brothers and sisters, yes, and even life itself, cannot be my disciple.

Who says Jesus wasn’t in favour of divorce?!

In fact, St Paul certainly thought of himself as a father (1 Cor. 4:14–152 Cor. 12:14Gal. 4:19, etc) Others share in this approach (1 John 2:13 John 4), and others are fathers (1 John 2:13–14). If you take the Matthew 23 text as literalistically normative, we cannot use the term “doctor” (just the Latin for “teacher”). Church Fathers and Mothers, Desert Fathers and Mothers – all go. Abbots. Ammas.

Scripture, tradition, and reason all argue strongly against taking Matthew 23:9 literally. Jesus, as he so often does, is using hyperbole.

Let’s not go to the opposite extreme and require the use of “father” for clergy. Some will call a male priest, “father”; some will call a female priest, “mother”. Some will prefer to be addressed in this way, others will prefer to be addressed in another way.

What would motivate someone to selectively take this verse of the Bible literally? Far more important, it seems to me, is the attitude of clergy than their title. Jesus says:

But woe to you, … hypocrites! For you lock people out of the kingdom of heaven. For you do not go in yourselves, and when others are going in, you stop them. Woe to you, … hypocrites! For you cross sea and land to make a single convert, and you make the new convert twice as much a child of hell as yourselves…

For you …have neglected the weightier matters of the law: justice and mercy and faith. It is these you ought to have practised … You blind guides! You strain out a gnat but swallow a camel!

There is an all-too-human tendency and need to distinguish ourselves from others: if you cross yourselves with your right hand, we will use our left; if you use leavened bread, we will use unleavened bread;… if you call clergy “priests”, we will call them “ministers”… if you address clergy as “father”, we will…

Once again we see the limitations of basing teaching on such a small selection from the biblical material, and the lenses we all bring to our reading of the scriptures which undermine the usefulness of any sola scriptura approach.

Today is the Thirty-third Day of Easter.

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12 thoughts on “Call no man “Father””

  1. Chris Sullivan

    I suspect that at the time and place Matthew was writing his gospel, the term “father” denoted a rabbinic teacher. The verse seems to be aimed against the then developing early rabbinic Judaism.

    It is anachronistic to apply this verse to Chrisian priests.

    God Bless

  2. Trevor Morrison

    I agree entirely with the key issue of this post, but would also make explicit what I think is implicit in your words, that Jesus’ statement is not just simply hyperbolic. It is not just that “father” is a metaphor that we apply to God; God is the archetype of all fathers and mothers, the one to whom everyone who aspires to a fatherly/motherly role in any walk of life must look and imitate. When Jesus says, “Call no man father,” he is both pointing us to that archetype and reminding us that any human father/mother will inevitably fall short of the heavenly one. But he is definitely not forbidding the application of the type to our human relationships.

    Trevor Morrison

  3. Edward Prebble

    Well, Bosco, as your thread is prompted, in part, by a posting by me on this subject, I thought I needed to respond. Why have I suggested banning – or at least discouraging, use of “Father”.
    Well, not because I am a biblical literalist, on this verse or any other. Of course Jesus was talking about principles, and using metaphorical language. I can’t imagine anyone thinking he meant his injunction to apply to natural/odopted/step fathers, but it is interesting that many defenders of its use by clergy (for example on some Catholic websites) feel the need. Like you, to dwell on that aspect of things. Clearly he meant something else, but he did mean something.
    I also need to acknowledge, as anyone who knows me well will be aware, that I grew up in a church where my father was always known as Father Prebble, only sometimes relaxed in later Charismatic days, to Father Kenneth. I certainly mean no disrespect to his memory, but there are a number of aspects of how he lived his life that I choose not to emulate, and this is one of them.
    The Matthew passage where the verse in question appears deals, as you correctly point out with the tendency of various scribes and Pharisees to lord it over lesser mortals, and lay heavy burdens on their shoulders. He strongly criticises their desire to be greeted obsequiously in the market squares and having people call the Rabbi. It is my consistent experience (others my correct me based on theirs) that use of the title Father by clergy does indeed tend to encourage such obsequious behaviour. If I always use a title that most Christians are not entitled to use, then I am showing myself to be in a different category of being.
    This has become more marked since the ordination of women, as the grammatical equivalent, Mother, has traditionally had a quite different use in religious life, that of a senior nun. Anglo-Catholic women clergy must decide between being called Father ( rather like a senior police officer being called “Sir” – sometimes done, but a bit strange) calling themselves Mother, thus inviting the additional title of Superior (I’m serious there – it really happens, a lot), or using neither, which is a problem in a parish where all her colleagues are called Father.
    So what do I do? Well I let people call me Father sometimes. If I am in a Polynesian context, where use of that title is such a widespread cultural expectation, it seems a bit churlish not to. And when I am among Roman Catholics, and they ask me what they should call me(Vicar Prebble?) I encourage them to use the same title as they do for their own clergy, given that in our opinion, our theology of priesthood is the same a s theirs. And yes, i use “The Rev’d” in front of my name at the end of letters, so people do understand my position in the church. But most of the time, I prefer to be called by my Christian name.
    Similarly, though i am entitled, after several years of pretty hard academic work, to call myself Doctor, I don’t use the title very often, and certainly not in situations where to do so requires others to put me on some sort of pedestal .
    So perhaps we should put the question the other way around. Why would any priest want to call themselves Father? No I am not a biblical literalist, but considering that this is the only comment that Jesus made about what we now call clerical titles, then at least we should have a reason for doing the opposite of what he proposed.

    1. Thanks, Edward.

      Firstly, I think you are right – our baptismal, Christian name should be predominant. In the renewal of baptismal spirituality, and the equality of all the baptised, “Edward” is more appropriate than “Father Prebble” IMO. The same applies IMO to bishops – the days of “Bishop Selwyn” IMO have passed.

      Secondly, I would note that in NZ the “Anglo-Catholic” camp is small, rarified, (shrinking?) This is the sub-community that tends to use “Father” as a “signal” (akin to a Freemasonic handshake). This makes “Father” somewhat artificial – whereas in the much larger (internationally) Orthodox or (even locally) Roman Catholic communities “Father” can be used without the “twee” nuance that is present in a minority sub-community attempting to distinguish itself from the larger community of which it is also an integral part. That is not to say that Roman Catholicism or Orthodoxy is not fraught with clericalism – but I think we need to work away at the underlying clericalism. I am convinced that it is possible to use “Father” in a non-clericalist context. But I also understand that there are some contexts where “Father” is so intertwined with clericalism that its use may need to be challenged.

      Just thoughts a bit on the fly…

      Christ is Risen!

  4. Jordan Greatbatch

    I couldn’t have put it better myself Bosco. Could the same be said of the word ‘priest’ which some in Anglican circles frown upon and insist should be ‘minister’.

    1. You could expand a bit what you mean, Jordan. I actually don’t like the word “minister” used for the priest alone, because I think the ministry of all the baptised is so important. A New Zealand Prayer Book He Karakia Mihinare o Aotearoa uses the title “minister” for whoever is leading the service at the time – ordained or lay. Blessings.

  5. Jordan Greatbatch

    Thanks Chris. I should have made my comment more specific. In the line of reasoning that Bosco has provided it wouldn’t work for the word priest, you are correct. I suppose I just get annoyed when people say the term priest shouldn’t be used at all.

    As someone stated in a previous thread the correct term is presbyter, but know one outside the church has any idea what that is.


    1. Richard Woods

      A parish priest (priest being an English contraction of ‘presbyter’) is called to be pastor, leader, etc, etc. ‘Father’ is, in my mind, a reflection of much of that.

      In parishes in which I have served, some have called me Father, some ‘Rector’, some just ‘Richard’. (The only thing absolutely out was ‘Rev Woods’ as wrong in grammar and usage). As has been said, in Christ we should use christian names; and I have found that in school ‘Fr Richard’ works as both giving an adult formality and ‘distance’ with the familiarity of the christian name.

  6. Peter Carrell

    To a degree, Bosco, I am in agreement with you. That degree is the importance of reading the Bible carefully and considerately and not necessarily literally. Thus in reading the Bible in that way I take care about other passages, for instance phrases such as “This is my body” which, curiously, is taken literally by quite a few Christians who like to call their priests “Father.” I await news of their hermeneutic which guides us when to read the Bible literally and when to not do so 🙂

    Where I disagree with you is that the possible use of ‘Father’ to address a priest is helpfully guided towards not doing so by referring to Jesus’ own wise words. His wisdom is that in the kingdom of God access to God as Father is direct (cf. address in the Lord’s Prayer) and not mediated by any human figure, especially not one who – in a slight accident of church history and the English language – is deemed a ‘priest’ (rather than a presbyter or elder), a term understood to apply in many religions as human mediator between God and humanity. To address the presbyters of the church as ‘Father’ runs the risk (in my view) of overlooking or misunderstanding the nature of access to the Father in the new kingdom announced by Christ: no priest is needed and no confusion about this should be engendered by use of titles such as ‘Father.’

    1. Thanks, Peter.

      There is a lot to respond to in your thoughtful points. Of course I totally agree with you – the calling of the priest is to engender, enable, and encourage the divine life in people; to nurture the relationship with God. As my references indicate, St Paul saw this as having parenting dimensions to his calling. If for an individual, referring to a priest as “father” interferes with this relationship with God, then, of course, the priest needs be the first to restrain this, but exploring why this is so for this person may lead to much fruitfulness. If referring to a priest as “father” advances or is neutral in the relationship with God I really can see no issue. The point is: not confusing the means and the goal – a confusion too often present in the church.

      As to seeing “this is my body” as taken “literally”, regularly explaining what this “literally” involves is a regular part of Christian catechesis. To think that our understanding of the eucharist is drawn from the Bible alone is to look at Christian sacramental theology with a sola scriptura assumption that ‘quite a few Christians who like to call their priests “Father”’ eschew.

      Christ is risen!

  7. Thanks, Fr Bosco, for having brought this issue forth.

    Personally, I take four different attitudes towards clergy:
    1. To the clergy whom I don’t wish to respect, I use: «Mr», «Mrs», «Rev.» or other fancy titles + family name.
    2. To the unCatholic clergy whom I respect, I use: «Brother», «Sister» + Christian name.
    3. To the clergy that are in a Church with catholicity (bishops, priests, deacons), I say «Father», «Mother» + Christian name, and I often thou them.
    4. No qualification to clergy who are close friends, but only their Christian names and thouing if possible.

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