In Eastern Orthodoxy, as well as Roman Catholicism, the laity address priests as “Father”. Father Stephen, for instance, is the priest at our parish. This “title” given to the priest doesn’t always sit right with certain groups of Protestant Christians, who insist that Jesus Himself tells us “call no man father”? In this post, we explain the proper context of this often misinterpreted passage in the Scriptures.
Estimated reading time: 4 minutes
Often in discussions regarding whether something is based in Scripture, the wider context of the Scriptures is overlooked. This results in cherry-picking and proof-texting, in which someone takes verses or passages out of context and attempts to prove a point.
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. The passage in which Christ mentions calling no man father is not exempt. 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.
The context of Christ’s sermon
With the feast of Passover approaching, many people had come to Jerusalem. 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 Christ 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 delivers His sermon, publicly condemning these men.
What did Christ mean by “call no man father”?
Imagine: a professor 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 attempts to mislead those students by letting his prideful ego control his actions.
We can see clearly why Christ would rebuke the Pharisees and scribes here. Their hypocrisy and vainglory make them unfit to serve as models of properly living the Christian life. Why? Because they tried to become gods themselves in the eyes of the people. They doled out rules and regulations, and made a show in front of others. Their pride consumed them. And Christ is telling us not to legitimize this sort of behavior.
Christ gives 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?
The use of “father” in the early Church
In the early Church, many of Christ’s disciples saw themselves as the spiritual fathers of their flocks (i.e. Saint Paul and his spiritual relationship with the Church of Corinth and with Timothy). Christians used familial terms (father, son, children, etc.) to illustrate the nature of their spiritual 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’ admonition to call no man father was 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.
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