And call no man your father upon the earth: for one is your Father, which is in heaven.
– Matthew 23:9
Roman Catholics have long been accused of breaking one of the Lord’s clearest commands: Call no man your father upon the earth, for God alone is your father (Matthew 23:9). Despite the obvious suggestion in each of our minds that there is something more to this command than meets the eye, we have found it convenient to persist in harassing them on this particular point. They call their priests “Father”. Aha! We’ve got them!
It may be that we find in these words of Christ a very explicit command. There is no going around that. The original Greek is not particularly difficult to translate here, and so most Bible versions capture it very well. Call no man your father, pure and simple. And yet it is obvious that we cannot be completely literal with the command. Once we realize this, the difficulty that then arises is how to rightly apply it: whom can we safely call “Father” without flouting the directive? Is there an underlying principle that we can apply appropriately to all our leaders and “father” figures? Context is always a good place to begin the search for answers.
The Recurring Theme of Who Owns What
We will trace the context of these words beginning from Matthew 22:15. The Pharisees set upon a plot to entangle Jesus on a doctrinal point so they could prove Him to be a false prophet. They sent their henchmen to ask Him a question concerning taxes. Israel hated the occupation of the Romans, and the heavy taxes they collected were not only financially painful but were a bitter symbol of their failure as a nation which should have been favoured by God. Clearly, they thought, Jesus was so passionate about Israel that He would speak against the tax, and then they could charge Him before the Romans with sedition against the state. Or else if He spoke for it, they could accuse Him before the people as a Roman sympathizer, a traitor to the nation. Either way it would become easier to get rid of Him. Of course, Jesus famously turned the question back to them with a principle they themselves were to apply: give unto Caesar what belongs to Caesar, and to God what belongs to God. This is the principle we want to keep in mind.
Next the Sadducees came to Him endeavoring to entangle Him in the difficulty of trying to justify a belief they rejected. The Sadducees did not believe there would be a resurrection. One of their arguments was that it would be difficult to resolve the effects of some of their cultural practices in an afterlife where God had to be fair. So they brought to Him what was probably a favorite dilemma they would pose anyone who taught the resurrection. How could God be fair to people who had each legitimately acquired a wife in this life (through levirate marriage), and each of whom wanted to be with her in the afterlife? They hoped that either Jesus would realize that the dilemma was too difficult to solve, and would give up belief in the resurrection and join their camp, or else lose face among the people as a teacher by struggling and failing to resolve the knotty riddle. As you know, Jesus famously rose to the challenge, pointing out that it was not the fact of the resurrection that was in question, but rather the basic plausibility of their scenario to begin with. Since people are not married in the resurrection, the dilemma does not exist, and so there is no case to settle. Though more subtly, the same theme continues: the domain of this life pertains to men, but the realm of the afterlife belongs to God. Give unto Caesar what belongs to Caesar, and unto God what belongs to Him.
The tests and temptations continued, and the Lord dealt masterfully with them. Then He had a few words of His own. He addressed the people concerning the leadership of their religious authorities, particularly the Pharisees. He said, listen to them when they teach the law, because that is their rightful office. However do not follow their inconsistent example. What example? This is where the meat of our question’s answer lies:
6 But all their works they do for to be seen of men: they make broad their phylacteries, and enlarge the borders of their garments, 6 And love the uppermost rooms at feasts, and the chief seats in the synagogues, 7 And greetings in the markets, and to be called of men, Rabbi, Rabbi.
Here’s the Beef
Their interest was not whether or not this new Teacher – or any other – was teaching the truth. If that were their concern, they would have been acknowledging that there is a truth beyond themselves; a truth in God, whom God Himself could reveal to whomever He willed.
The Pharisees went about seeking glory that was not theirs to have; the honour and adoration of men belongs to God. Particularly in their office as sitting “in the seat of Moses”, any praise that came their way ought to have been directed to God, the only true Teacher. But they craved and coveted it for themselves. It is in this context that Jesus speaks those words, and also these:
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.
Jesus’ words are spoken as a warning against the attitude of the Pharisees. He is not making an absolutist proscription against calling people a certain word or certain words; He is giving a contextual warning against people assuming a station in their minds that rightfully belongs to God, and against encouraging them to do so. When the people called the Pharisees Rabbi, it gratified their self-centered desire for honour and recognition. When the called them Father, it gratified their desire for respect and spiritual headship over the people. When they called the Master it gratified their selfish desire to be served and obeyed by the people.
This series of cynically motivated questions was only one instance of the Pharisees attempting to assert and secure their own position as the legitimate teachers of Israel. Their interest was not whether or not this new Teacher – or any other – was teaching the truth. If that were their concern, they would have been acknowledging that there is a truth beyond themselves; a truth in God, whom God Himself could reveal to whomever He willed. They would have been in the humble position that every theologian ought to be in. However, in insisting that only they should interpret the Scriptures, they were claiming a monopoly over truth – a monopoly rightly belonging to God. The Pharisees were walking the old “luciferian” path of wanting “to be like the Most High” (Isaiah 14:14), and in heaping on them these coveted titles, the people were encouraging their sin.
Beyond Mere Words
So this is not merely about names and words, but about attitudes concerning the proper place of human authority figures. Jesus is not forbidding here with the warm family respect with which we call our fathers “Father”, or of the wholly appropriate honour we give our rulers when we call them “Master”, or “Your excellency”. He is not even talking about the socially appropriate custom of regarding elders who provide guidance and wisdom as our fathers and mothers the way we do in Africa. F.F. Bruce has gone as far as suggesting that He is not even talking about an ecclesiastical designation of an official’s leadership or pastoral role within a church, such as in the Roman Catholic church where priests are called “Father”.
Of course, in any and each of these contexts, the titles can be used inappropriately. A Biological father may want to be seen as the ultimate and only provider for his family. If that is what “Father” means in that case then it falls into the category Jesus speaks against. A ruler may want to be seen as the Ultimate Sovereign of his nation, like the emperors of old who claimed to be divine, or even some current rulers around the world. Titles like “Lord”, “Father,” and “Supreme Ruler” may then convey what they ought not to. And of course, a Roman Catholic priest may fall in the proud place of seeing himself as the only minister capable of meeting his church’s needs… that they cannot do without him, and that God Himself will find a hard time replacing him. If this is known, then it should not be encouraged. We must be clear about what belongs to God and what belongs, as it were, to Caesar.
As FF Bruce has stated it, “In the spiritual sense God alone is your Father; do not give to others the designation which, in that sense, belongs exclusively to him” (Emphasis mine). In other words, do not put men in the place of God, whatever names or titles you may be calling them by.
Call No Man Pastor
We must honour their leadership such as is proper to man, giving them their due respect, as unto Caesar. But we must not encourage any self-aggrandizing.
At the end of the day, the Roman Catholic church uses the word “Father” by analogy: the congregation is the family of which the priest is the head. They do so in much the same way as Paul does when he calls himself the father of those he converted in 1 Corinthians 4:14, 15, and as John does when he repeatedly addresses his congregants as “little children”. In that sense Catholics do the same thing as Protestants and other Christians who call their leaders “Pastor”. The title of “Pastor” is used by another analogy: the congregation is seen as a flock sheep of which the pastor is the shepherd. It is an honourable office, defined and ordained by God Himself (John 21: 15). But any authority invested in that office is a delegated authority. In either case, no arrogation of Divine prerogative is necessarily entailed, but in both cases it is entirely possible for men to forget that the authority is delegated and to act as if it is theirs inherently. We should also note that in principle the warning applies to anyone who is given any sort of leadership over the people of God in any capacity of service.
To conclude, Jesus gave this warning within a socio-religious context in which people used the terms Rabbi, Father and Master to give undue prominence to people they respected, often by way of sycophancy; a flattering tongue works ruin (Proverbs 26:28). I have become concerned that in our day and context, the command may apply as much to our pastors and theologians quite especially, and I feel impelled to re-echo Christ’s warning of ages past to our contemporary situation.
My personal observation is that many pastors and theologians are increasingly boastful of their station and demanding of their laurels and titles, where they crave public recognition and honour, where they take advantage of the poor by alleged divine right, where they exploit the vulnerable to serve their own interests, where they misinterpret scripture to advance their agendas. They declare themselves the only legitimate interpreters of Scripture by virtue of their extensive learning, and take on a disposition that makes it nearly impossible for congregants to question them or give feedback on their teaching and practice. If He were speaking in our day and context our Lord may well have used a different though similar phrase: Call no man your pastor on the earth, for one is your Pastor, which is in heaven.
I am not asking you to stop calling your pastors and theologians by their appointed titles, but I am asking you to keep them in their rightful place in your mind: far below the authority of God in your life and in your church. We must honour their leadership such as is proper to man, giving them their due respect, as unto Caesar. But we must not encourage any self-aggrandizing. We must realize that truth is not the prerogative of theologians, theology is. The prerogative of truth is the Holy Spirit, who gives to whom He wishes, and often to the one unskilled enough to confound the high and mighty theologian.
“To God belong wisdom and power; counsel and understanding are his.” – Job 12:13
Our pastors should be teaching us this.