One very common objection to the Orthodox Catholic Faith is that we refer to our priests as “Father”. And at first glance it seems that those who criticize us for this practice have a case from the Bible. When this charge is brought up our interlocutors have in mind the words of Christ in Matthew 23:8-10, “But you are not to be called rabbi, for you have one teacher, and you are all brethren. And call no man your father on earth, for you have one Father, who is in heaven. Neither be called masters, for you have one master, the Christ.”
Seems clear cut enough but it begs the question that if the meaning of this passage is as obvious as the Reformers claimed how did it go unnoticed for nearly 1500 years? Perhaps the first Christians and their descendants before the Reformation had a different understanding of these verses?
The Orthodox Catholic understanding of this passage follows the usage of the Bible and the early Church in that we are not to call anyone “father” in such a way that it usurps the role of our Father in heaven. It does not forbid us from calling men father who have received a share in patrimony from God whether our natural fathers or our spiritual fathers.
All authentic fatherhood flows from the Fatherhood of God, “For this cause I bow my knees to the Father of our Lord Jesus Christ, Of whom all paternity (Gr. – paternia – “fatherhood”) in heaven and earth is named.” (Eph. 3:14-15)
But let’s not forget that, in the same way, we should not call any man “teacher” in a way that usurps God’s place as our one ultimate Teacher .
After all, theses verses (Mt. 23:8-10) also forbid us to call men both “teachers” and “fathers”. Yet most Protestants have no qualms about the word “teacher” even though they oppose “father”.
And yet we see both of these terms applied throughout the New Testament.
Men were called “teachers” without breaking Christ’s words:
“Let not many of you become teachers, my brethren, for you know that we who teach shall be judged with greater strictness.” (James 3:1)
“And his gifts were that some should be apostles, some prophets, some evangelists, some pastors and teachers” (Eph. 4:11)
And men were also called “fathers” without breaking Christ’s words:
” Are you greater than our father Jacob, who gave us the well, and drank from it himself, and his sons, and his cattle?” (Jhn. 4:12)
“I am writing to you, fathers, because you know him who is from the beginning. I am writing to you, young men, because you have overcome the evil one. I write to you, children, because you know the Father. 14 I write to you, fathers, because you know him who is from the beginning. I write to you, young men, because you are strong, and the word of God abides in you, and you have overcome the evil one.” (1 Jhn. 2:13-14)
“And the high priest said, “Is this so?” 2 And Stephen said: “Brethren and fathers, hear me. The God of glory appeared to our father Abraham, when he was in Mesopota’mia, before he lived in Haran,” (Acts 7:1-2)
And St. Paul calls himself a father in the spiritual sense, “I do not write this to make you ashamed, but to admonish you as my beloved children. 15 For though you have countless guides in Christ, you do not have many fathers. For I became your father in Christ Jesus through the gospel.” (1 Cor. 4:14-15).
What is being emphasized in the “Call no man father” passage is the sin of pride among the scribes and Pharisees as the co-text shows. They loved these titles and took great pride in them in such a way that they were usurping the role of God. This was problematic because outside of the Fatherhood of God there are no fathers at all in the true sense of the term.
This does not mean that humble men cannot participate properly in these titles by grace. In God we have all sorts of true fathers.
How Did the Early Christians Understand this Verse?
As Origen said, reflecting ante-Nicene belief, “You do not call anyone on earth “Father” in the sense that you say “our Father” of the one who gives all things through all ages and according to the divine plan.” (Commentary on Matthew 12)
And Blessed Jerome said later, “No one should be called teacher or father except God the Father and our Lord Jesus Christ. He alone is the Father, because all things are from him. He alone is the teacher, because through him are made all things and through him all things are reconciled to God.
But one might ask, “Is it against this precept when the apostle calls himself the teacher of the Gentiles? Or when, as in colloquial speech widely found in the monasteries of Egypt and Palestine, they call each other Father?” Remember this distinction. It is one thing to be a father or a teacher by nature, another to be so by generosity. For when we call a man father and reserve the honor of his age, we may thereby be failing to honor the Author of our own lives. One is rightly called a teacher only from his association with the true Teacher. I repeat: The fact that we have one God and one Son of God through nature does not prevent others from being understood as sons of God by adoption. Similarly this does not make the terms father and teacher useless or prevent others from being called father.” (COMMENTARY ON MATTHEW 4.23.10).
And St. John Chrysostom teaches, “Again, “call no man your father.” This is said in order that they may know whom they ought to call Father in the highest sense. It is not said frivolously as if no one should ever be called father. Just as the human master is not the divine Master, so neither is the father the Father who is the cause of all, both of all masters and of all fathers.” (THE GOSPEL OF MATTHEW, HOMILY 72.3).
The early Church understood that Jesus was condemning the usurpation of the fatherhood of God, not the proper participation in and acknowledgement of that fatherhood by grace.