Recently, I wrote about the call to stop using “Father” for priests because of the abuse crisis. This post continues that reflection by thinking about the selective biblical literalism that eschews addressing clergy as “Father”. It is repeating a post from an earlier time.
“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. 4:14–15, 2 Cor. 12:14, Gal. 4:19, etc) Others share in this approach (1 John 2:1, 3 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.