Addressing a Christian Leader as Father

Do not call anyone on earth your father; for One is your Father, He who is in heaven (Matt. 23:9 NKJV).

Jesus said not to call any man “Father,” but in Paul’s writing, Timothy and Titus are called sons, and one can assume they would call Paul “Father.” Can you give me understanding on this?

You know what? The prologue to your question was brilliant, because that is exactly right. What you have done is instead of just taking a phrase of the Bible, you contextualized that phrase by testing Scripture in light of Scripture.

I think it would only be fair to our listeners to get an idea of what is going on in this context. Listen closely to what Jesus is saying. Jesus is talking to the multitudes as well as to His disciples, and He is saying,

The scribes and the 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, 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 (Matt. 23:2–12 NKJV, emphasis added).

Now, what is interesting about reading the context — I flipped open my Bible to this very famous passage, Matthew 23, and I have not taken the time to memorize it — but I flipped this open, and I read it to you. I read it to you to give you context. The first thing you see in this context is false teachers, people who want the adulation of people. Don’t call them “Father.” Don’t even call them “Teacher,” because all they want to be is exalted in the eyes of men.

If I say, “I talked to Father Steve,” or “Father Steve said this,” or “Father John said this,” well, people immediately say, “But, does not the Bible say you are not supposed to call anyone Father? This is one of the problems with Eastern Orthodoxy and Roman Catholicism. You have brought yourself into this web of deceit in which people are calling other people ‘Father’; this is just wrong. The Bible is very clear about this.”

The minute someone says that, you know they simply have something in their head. They have not ever gone to the Bible to examine this in context. When you do, you come up with exactly what you said in the prologue to your question. You find out that if this is really true, then the Bible must be wrong somewhere else. What is the idea here in Matthew 23:9? Context concerns the hypocrisy of false teachers puffing themselves up to be glorified by men rather than God.

Many people also like to cite this passage to say that you are in error in using this term (father), yet the passage also speaks again about teachers. That is why I put the emphasis there. If we are not supposed to call anybody “Father,” why is it that the same people complaining about those that are calling people “Teacher,” they have no problem with it whatsoever. I cannot count the number of times people have told me, “You should not call anybody Father.” But, they do not ever say, “You should not call anybody Teacher.” Well, the context here tells us both. So, you have to read Scripture in light of Scripture.

The reality is that “father” and “teacher” are applied to men many times within the New Testament, but you can never do that with people who are false teachers, or you cannot do this simply to puff people up and make them as exalted as your notion of God.

Let me give you a couple examples of the proper use of “father.” The apostle Paul refers to himself as a “father” to the Corinthian believers (1 Cor. 4:14–15). If this is taken at face value without considering context, then Paul would be doing something that he should not be doing. In the gospel of Luke — one of my favorite passages, I have referred to it a few times on this show — Abraham is approvingly referred to as “father Abraham” (Luke 16:19–31). In the epistle to the Colossians, you have the approval of the term “father” as we normally use the word to refer to our own biological fathers (Col. 3:21). If you take this in a wooden literalistic sense rather than the sense in which it was intended, you would not even call your own biological father “Father” because that would be in conflict with Matthew 23:9. Obviously, it is not.

That is what I love about what you just did. When you asked the question, you also contextualized the answer to the question by reading Scripture in light of Scripture. That was a brilliant move on your part.

Blog adapted from the May 16, 2017, Bible Answer Man broadcast.

One Response to Addressing a Christian Leader as Father

  1. Hi Warren Nozaki

    Thanks for an informative blog post. It’s well-written with a systematic approach. I really liked reading it.

    I came across your blog post because I’m doing some research on the concept of a contemporary Christian context for a future blog post.

    I know the Eastern Orthodoxy and Roman Catholicism as I come from the Philippines.

    Now I’m living in Greenland. When I read your blog posts, I began to think about how different we use these family-related terms in the Philippines compared to the part of the Western World I’ve seen.

    We have different views on the world depending on what our context is.

    Well – just wanted to say thanks for sharing 🙂

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