If you checked out the About Us page on this website, you probably noticed something interesting. Both priests who serve this parish have the title “Father” attached to their names. Father Chris and Father Seraphim. But wait, you say. Doesn’t Jesus Himself tell us “call no man father”? What is this insanity?
In this post, we explain the proper context of this often misinterpreted message. We also explain why the Orthodox continue to address their priests this way.
“Call no man Father”
To make things a bit easier for me as I write, I have reproduced the Gospel story in which Jesus speaks these four incredibly misconstrued words. Feel free to refer back to it!
Then Jesus spoke to the multitudes and to His Disciples, saying: “The scribes and Pharisees sit in Moses’ seat. Therefore whatever they tell you to observe, that observe and do, but do not do according to their works; for they say, and do not do. For they bind heavy burdens, hard to bear, and lay them on men’s shoulders, but they themselves will not move them with one of their fingers. But all their works they do to be seen by men.
They make their phylacteries broad and enlarge the borders of their garments. They love the best places at feasts, the best seats in the synagogues, greeting in the marketplaces, and to be called by men, “Rabbi, Rabbi”; for One is your Teacher, the Christ, and you are all brethren. Do not call anyone on earth your father; for One is your Father, He who is in heaven. And do not be called teachers; for One is your Teacher, the Christ. But he who is greatest among you shall be your servant. And whoever exalts himself will be humbled, and he who humbles himself will be exalted.”Matthew 23:1-12
Ignoring the context
“Cherry-picking.” You may have heard this term before. It often gets tossed around in religious conversations and debates (as well as political ones). Essentially, it means that someone picks and chooses particular Bible verses (almost always out of context) to prove their point. Cherry-picking solves nothing. In fact, it often makes things frustrating, because the true answer can never be found.
It is important to remember that the Bible is a whole, coherent, connected text. It is not just a compilation of random citations the Apostles thought would make a great read two-thousand years later. As with any words or statements, we cannot simply read Bible phrases in isolation. This Gospel lesson is of no exception. We must remember that centuries of Holy Tradition informed proper interpretation of Scripture. If we hope to understand the proper meaning of Christ’s words here, we must view them in the proper context.
It was the perfect time for Christ to deliver His final sermon. With the feast of Passover approaching, many people had come into the city. The Jewish scribes and Pharisees, intent on discrediting Jesus as a false prophet and false messiah, tried to use these people for their own aims. Essentially, their goal was to compromise Him in front of a large crowd. To catch Him up in His words and use that as an accusation against Him. When the scribes and Pharisees fail at accomplishing this (again), Christ delivered His message, publicly condemning these men.
Why did Christ rebuke the Pharisees?
Imagine: a professor of science announces to his students that he is the one responsible for modern science. That he is the creator and commander and developer of science. You would probably look at him with pity or disgust. After all, how could someone take credit for something that obviously had nothing to do with him? As a teacher, this man is nothing more than an intermediary. In other words, he receives the teachings from elsewhere, and he delivers them to his students. Yet he still possesses a dangerously large ego and attempts to mislead those students by letting his ego control his actions.
We can see clearly why Christ would rebuke the Pharisees and scribes. Their hypocrisy and vainglory make them unfit to serve as models of properly living the Christian life. Why? Because the Pharisees essentially tried to become gods themselves in the eyes of the people. They dole out rules and regulations, and make a show in front of others. Their pride consumes them. And Christ is telling us not to legitimize this sort of behavior.
Christ is giving us a lesson in humility, using hyperbolic statements (as He often does to prove His points). The full context of the Word here illustrates that Christ did not mean we could literally call no man father or teacher. Otherwise, Matthew would have transgressed Christ’s teaching by using the word “father,” 37 times within the first 17 verses of his Gospel. Christ would have contradicted Himself as well, for He says the word father 4 times within a couple verses (Matthew 15:4-6). Altogether, the word father is mentioned in the New Testament nearly 400 times, mostly by Christ or His Apostles. How could we possibly interpret Christ’s words as literal, given plenty of evidence to the contrary?
Why do the Orthodox still do this?
In the early Church, many of the disciples of Jesus came to view themselves as the spiritual fathers of their flocks (i.e. Saint Paul and his spiritual relationship with the Church of Corinth and with Timothy). The early Christians utilize familial terms (father, son, children, etc.) to illustrate the nature of Christian relationships and stress the closeness and unity of the Body of Christ (Mark 11:10; John 4:12; Acts 7:2; 1 Peter 5:13; 1 Timothy 1:2; Titus 1:4; 1 Corinthians 4:17).
The Orthodox merely continue the ancient Tradition of the Church in calling priests Father. By doing this, we acknowledge their sacred office as servants of God and we look to them as spiritual guides, who help continue the work of Christ and preserve the Church in Truth.
John Calvin, one of the earliest leaders of the Protestant Reformation, can sum up everything beautifully for us: “While Paul claims for himself the appellation of father, he does it in such a manner as not to take away or diminish the smallest portion of the honor which is due God. … God alone is the Father of all in faith … But they whom he is graciously pleased to employ as his ministers for that purpose, are likewise allowed to share with him in his honor, while, at the same time, He parts with nothing that belongs to Himself.”
Viewing Biblical phrases in their proper context is essential if we are to continue living the Christian life. In this particular case, the context showed us that Jesus’ words were not to be taken literally. This removes a substantial weight from our shoulders, and allows us to once again focus on that which is important: becoming closer and closer to God.