Call no man father!

One of the questions which are often asked about Orthodoxy by those who are investigating our ancient and Apostolic faith, is why it is that we call our pastors and priests, Father, or Abouna, or some other word in another language that has the same meaning, when it seems that the Lord Jesus Christ forbids the use of this word. In Matthew 23, he says…
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, greetings in the marketplaces, and to be called by men, ‘Rabbi, Rabbi.’ But you, do not be called ‘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. 

We know that our Lord Jesus does not always mean his teachings to be taken in a literal manner. He also tells us that we are to hate our fathers and mothers, wives, brothers and sisters and children, but we would not say that this is exactly what he wants us to do. St Paul tells us clearly that hatred is a work of the flesh, and that those who practice hatred will not inherit the Kingdom of God. Therefore, when our Lord Jesus tells us to hate our ow family he cannot mean this in a literal and simple sense, unless St Paul is mistaken in his own teaching. Instead we understand that the Lord Jesus is asking us to consider whether we put knowing God above all other relationships, and indeed over our own desires and preferences, and he uses this striking and challenging language to make us think hard about the importance we place in seeking and knowing God.

Likewise it has always seemed to the Church that it is a mistake to simply take the words about calling someone father or teacher at face value. If we take the words at face value then we would have to say that we must not call our parents father, or dad, or pa, or papa or anything that is a form of father. But we all call our fathers these names. Yet the simple words of Jesus Christ say that we should call no one father. But he also says we should call no one a teacher. Yet we call many people teacher, and the word doctor is a form of teacher, we have no problems calling people doctors either, and this is also against the simple words of Jesus.

Or, in an equally simplistic manner, we could say that actually Jesus Christ said, call no man, abba. And when I am called father, or even abouna, this is not exactly the same as abba, and therefore does not contradict anything Christ has said. But this would be no more reasonable an approach than forbidding the word father, in all languages and circumstances.

Even in the New Testament we find St Paul speaking of being a father to his spiritual children, and we find that there are those who are called teachers. So it seems clear that we cannot just take the words of Jesus Christ and make them mean something. In fact the use of this passage in this way has only occurred within the Protestant movement as a means of condemning and opposing the role of priests in the Church. A few examples show that the words father and teacher are often used by St Paul, and that he clearly does not understand the words of Jesus Christ as a prohibition. A few of these passages include…

Romans 4 Abraham our father….  that he might be the father of all those who believe…who also walk in the steps of the faith which our father Abraham had… who is the father of us all… it is written, “I have made you a father of many nations… he became the father of many nations.
Romans 9 Rebecca also had conceived by one man, even by our father Isaac…

Romans 15 Now I say that Jesus Christ has become a servant to the circumcision for the truth of God, to confirm the promises made to the fathers

1 Corinthians 4 For though you might have ten thousand instructors in Christ, yet you do not have many fathers; for in Christ Jesus I have begotten you through the gospel.

1 Corinthians 10 I do not want you to be unaware that all our fathers were under the cloud…

Galatians 4 … though he is master of all, but is under guardians and stewards until the time appointed by the father

Ephesians 6 “Honor your father and mother,” which is the first commandment with promise… And you, fathers, do not provoke your children to wrath, but bring them up in the training and admonition of the Lord.

1 Timothy 5 Do not rebuke an older man, but exhort him as a father, younger men as brothers…

1 Corinthians 12 God has appointed these in the church: first apostles, second prophets, third teachers, after that miracles, then gifts of healings, helps, administrations, varieties of tongues.

Ephesians 4 And He Himself gave some to be apostles, some prophets, some evangelists, and some pastors and teachers

1 Timothy 2 I was appointed a preacher and an apostle a teacher of the Gentiles in faith and truth.

2 Timothy 1 I was appointed a preacher, an apostle, and a teacher of the Gentiles.

Hebrews 5 … by this time you ought to be teachers

James 3 My brethren, let not many of you become teachers, knowing that we shall receive a stricter judgment.

All of these passages seem to show very clearly that the New Testament Scriptures themselves do not forbid the use of the word father or teacher, and therefore any interpretation of the words of Jesus Christ which absolutely forbids these words is not an accurate one, nor is it a Scriptural one.

In my experience the fatherhood of the priest is to be entirely a matter of a spiritual relationship. To be called Father should not be a title but the description of a real relationship. Just as we call other Christians by the name of brother and sister and this should not be a title but a description of relationship, so if I am a father it is because this is what I really am to my spiritual children, And I find this use of the word father in the New Testament and from the beginning in the Church. The context of the words of the Lord Jesus is his confronting the pride of the Pharisees who love to be called Rabbi, and Father, and Teacher, but who fail to live out what they teach in their hypocrisy and resistance to God. It is not a teaching which comes out of nowhere and simply bans these words – since we see that St Paul uses them often, and in fact Jesus Christ was speaking to an actual situation. And this situation and context still has meaning, not least, as St Paul says… those who become a teacher will be held to a much stricter judgement.

What did Jesus Christ mean? The Church has taught that he does not mean an absolute prohibition and has never understood it in this way.

St John Chrysostom, for instance, says..

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.

This makes sense. Our true Father, and Master, and Teacher is God and the Lord Jesus Christ. This is what we are to always have in mind. But this does not mean these words cannot be used, just as we are not simplistically to hate our family, but are to have our commitment to God above all other relationships.

St Jerome says about this…

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.

He says here that we are able to use the terms father and teacher of fellow men only when they are associated with the true Father and Teacher, and this also makes sense. The words are not to be used simply as empty titles and ranks, but as an expression of a true spiritual union with God which produces a spiritual relationship of fatherhood and teaching among the faithful people. And Origen says…

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. Whoever ministers with the divine word does not put himself forward to be called “teacher,” for he knows that when he performs well it is Christ who is within him.

It is not the word father which is a problem, or teacher, but the false idea that either fatherhood or teaching can be performed independently of the true Father and Teacher. We do not put ourselves forward as father or teacher, but if we have this service then in humility we are aware completely and entirely that it is only because of the grace of God by the indwelling Holy Spirit that we have achieved anything. We are not the Father in the sense that we say, Our Father. But in our service in humility we may also represent and reflect this divine Fatherhood in our obedience.

The meaning of the words of our Lord Jesus is not that we should abandon the use of the words father and teacher. He was never understood as saying this, either in the New Testament or in the early Church. But just as the context makes clear, we are to avoid having any sense of our own importance, and even if we have an important service in the Church we are to consider ourselves as the least of all. I have seen such an attitude in the life and service of many priests and bishops, who are reminded by being called father, and abouna (my father), that they have a tremendous and awesome ministry in the grace of God to care for those spiritual children God has placed in their hands. This is something that produces humility and not pride in the true father and true teacher.

The words of our Lord Jesus remind those of us with such a ministry that we can easily fall into the judgement given against the Pharisees and those who delighted in their self-importance. But this pridefulness is not linked to being called father, anymore than our own parents are to be condemned for calling themselves father. It describes, before all else, a relationship. A spiritual relationship, and in such a context the words father and teacher properly describe this relationship and have always been used by the Church. To condemn these words is to misunderstand and misrepresent the words of Jesus Christ and to apply them in a manner that St Paul never did.

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