I remember the first time I ever heard Matthew 23:9. I was shocked. “And do not call anyone on earth ‘father,’ for you have one Father, and he is in heaven” (Matt 23:9). Being raised Catholic, I was taken aback by this verse. After all, priests are referred to as father all the time. How many priests had I called father?
Then another realization crashed in: how can a church as old as the Catholic Church have missed this verse? Someone needs to tell them!
I’ve since heard this verse many times, often cited as a proof that Catholics are unbiblical. After all, how could Jesus have been more clear in his meaning?
Some interpretations hold that Jesus meant this in a literal way. But a literal interpretation is hard to believe.
Some might be thinking, “Jesus said it in plain words. What more do you need? Don’t call anyone father!”
Jesus said things bluntly and plainly, yes, but we must look at his words with respect to the rest of scripture. Let me explain.
How Literal is literal?
It’s tempting to interpret all Bible passages literally. No doubt, many verses are meant to be taken literally. For instance, when the Bible says that Jesus is the son of God (Matt 17:5), we take that literally.
There are also verses that shouldn’t be interpreted literally. Take, for instance when Jesus said that if, “your right eye causes you to sin, pluck it out and throw it away; it is better that you lose one of your members than that your whole body be thrown into hell” (Matt 5:29). A literal interpretation of this verse would create a world full of Christian amputees. Yet Jesus didn’t have Peter cut out his tongue after denying him. Jesus’ point was about how serious sin is, not about how you can mutilate yourself to avoid it.
Sometimes Jesus uses hyperbole when he is making a point. That is, he over emphasizes his point by stating it in extreme terms. Catholic Apologist Trent Horn explains that hyperbole, “has been a common tool among rabbis since before the time of Christ.”1
“Okay, okay,” some object, “but what if Jesus actually meant what he said about calling people father? I mean, Jesus doesn’t tell us when he is and isn’t using hyperbole.”
Good point. So let’s see what else the Bible has to say on the matter.
A brief scan through the new testament shows many instances of people addressing others as father. To name a few: Quoting the ten commandments, Jesus said to honor your father and mother (Luke 18:20); in the story of the prodigal son, Jesus refers numerous times to the boy’s parent as his “father” (Luke 15:11-32).
“Wait, wait, wait. That‘s referring to someone’s biological father. Jesus was clearly making an exception for biological fathers in Matt 23:9. I’ll bet even you referred to your dad as your father, am I right?”
You would be right (though I usually stuck to “dad” and an occasional “pops”). I wholeheartedly believe that all are allowed to refer to their paternal parent as their father. But we should be cautious at this point. Jesus didn’t make exceptions when he said to call no man father. So why would we stop at saying that we are only allowed to call our biological fathers father?
A Closer Look
To really understand Matthew 23, we need to see it in context. Let’s look at the preceding verses:
Then Jesus spoke to the crowds and to His disciples, saying: “The scribes and the Pharisees have seated themselves in the chair of Moses… They love the place of honor at banquets and the chief seats in the synagogues, and respectful greetings in the market places, and being called Rabbi by men” (Matt 23:1-2, 6-7).
Then Jesus followed his description of the Pharisees’ lofty position with a series of warnings:
But do not be called Rabbi; for One is your Teacher, and you are all brothers. Do not call anyone on earth your father; for One is your Father, He who is in heaven. Do not be called leaders; for One is your Leader, that is, Christ. But the greatest among you shall be your servant. Whoever exalts himself shall be humbled; and whoever humbles himself shall be exalted. (Matt 23:8-12).
Looking at Matt 23:9 in its surrounding context, Jesus is clearly targeting the Pharisees. After all, the Pharisees had places “of honor at banquets and the chief seats in the synagogues” (Matt 23:6). They were the hot-shots of their time, and they made sure everyone knew about it (like the business man who brings up his stock investments at every family gathering). But did you notice what else Jesus warned about? We are not to call others teacher or leader (from a Greek word (kathēgētai) meaning “Master”). So if we cannot call anyone father, we should be equally careful when referring to people as teacher or master. Yet we hear these words every day.
The term teacher is used all the time to refer to those who teach. “Look daddy, teacher said, every time a bell rings, an angel gets its wings!” (It’s a Wonderful Life, anyone?). We even see that St. Paul writes to Timothy that he “was appointed a preacher and apostle and teacher” (2 Tim 1:11, emphasis added). And the commonly-used titles Mister and Mistress are just forms of the word master.2
Nobody argues that Jesus was warning against calling people Mister or teacher. They are terms of respect, and should be used by anyone who claims to have manners. Then why do we get hung up when we call people father?
At this point, many will claim that Jesus was condemning spiritual fatherhood; that we should not give the title father to one in a place of spiritual authority. “After all,” someone might say, “Jesus was rebuking the Pharisees before he warned against using titles. Clearly he was referring to spiritual fatherhood, and the dangers of a spiritual hierarchy.”
This is a good point. Clearly Jesus was shooting a metaphorical “bullet” past the Pharisees’ heads when he made his warning. But does it follow that Jesus forbids calling spiritual leaders father? Again, let’s see what the rest of scripture says.
There are many references to spiritual fatherhood throughout the New Testament. For instance, St. Paul refers to Timothy as his “child” (1 Tim 1:18, 2 Tim 2:1, Phil 2:22), and similarly to Titus (Titus 1:4). And in his letter to Philemon, St. Paul says “I appeal to you for my child, Onesimus, whose father I became in my imprisonment” (Philem 1:10, emphasis added).3 So if Jesus meant that we shouldn’t call spiritual leaders father, then St. Paul would have been a heretic (which is absurd).
“Okay, okay, Paul had a lot of sons. But how do we know that they were not biological? You said above that Jesus allows us to address our dads as father.”
I’ll let St. Paul’s first letter to the Corinthians answer that:
I am writing this not to shame you but to warn you as my dear children. Even if you had ten thousand guardians in Christ, you do not have many fathers, for in Christ Jesus I became your father through the gospel. Therefore I urge you to imitate me. For this reason I have sent to you Timothy, my son whom I love, who is faithful in the Lord (1 Cor 4:14-17, emphasis added).
It couldn’t be said more clearly. St. Paul became the Corinthian’s father in the gospel, and urges them to imitate him. If that isn’t spiritual fatherhood then I don’t know what is. When Jesus warned against calling others father, he was not saying that we can’t honor people as spiritual fathers, since St. Paul himself became a father to many through the gospel.
God is our heavenly Father, and all earthly fatherhood is derived from God’s divine Fatherhood. Just look at what God said when He created man: “Then God said, ‘Let us make man in our image, after our likeness’” (Gen 1:26). The Eternal Father chose to make mankind in His own likeness. Earthly fathers are only fathers in so much as they imitate our One Divine Father.
Why the Warning?
When Jesus warned us about calling others father, he wasn’t saying that we shouldn’t call our paternal parent father, and he wasn’t saying we can’t address spiritual leaders as father.
“Then why did Jesus bother saying ‘call no man father’? He couldn’t have said it for nothing!”
And you’re right. Jesus’ warning was to caution people from forgetting that God is our ultimate master, teacher, and father. Anyone who receives the honor of being addressed by one of these titles has only received it from God in heaven. Fatherhood is something that man participates in, not something that he owns.
Many leaders in Jesus’ time (and our own…) had fallen into the trap of pride. The Pharisees had used their authority to satisfy their own pride, by forgetting that God was the source of their authority. Yet St. Paul assures us that, “there is no authority except from God, and those that exist have been instituted by God” (Rom 13:1).
But humans tend to turn leaders into gods – just look at pop culture. In the Roman empire, people had to worship the Roman Emperor as a god4 (hence why so many Christians were martyred). Even the Jews tended to exalt leaders to an unhealthy status. Famous rabbinical leaders, especially those who founded important schools, such as Hillel and Shammai, were highly exalted by their disciples.5
Jesus warned us to not give to any human the respect and honor owed to God alone.
When Jesus warned his followers, he was warning them about a very dangerous temptation: forgetting that God is the origin of mankind’s fatherhood and authority. As James writes, “Every good gift and every perfect gift is from above, coming down from the Father of lights” (James 1:17), which includes human fatherhood.
This was understood in the early Church, as we see St. Paul referring to himself as a spiritual father on numerous occasions. And this is still understood in the Church today, as it is taught in the Catechism of the Catholic Church:
The divine fatherhood is the source of human fatherhood; this is the foundation of the honor owed to parents. The respect of children, whether minors or adults, for their father and mother is nourished by the natural affection born of the bond uniting them. It is required by God’s commandment (CCC 2214).
Matt 23:9 is frequently used to challenge the custom of calling Priests father, but the charge simply doesn’t hold up. Jesus warned us to never give to any human the respect and honor owed to God alone. But His warning isn’t at odds with calling priests father.
So, the moral of the story? Don’t be afraid to address your priest as father. The practice is both biblical and honorable. By addressing people as father (whether biological or spiritual), we are affirming Our Heavenly Father as the source of their earthly fatherhood. That’s what the Bible teaches; that’s what the Church teaches. Just never forget the source of that fatherhood.
1. Horn, Trent. Hard Sayings: a Catholic Approach to Answering Bible Difficulties. Catholic Answers Press, 2016, p. 232.
2. “Call No Man “Father”?” Catholic Answers. N.p., n.d. Web. 02 Mar. 2017.
4. Ray, Stephen K., and R. Dennis. Walters. “Chapter 3.” The Faith for Beginners: Understanding the Creeds. San Francisco: Ignatius, 2015. N. pag. Print.
5. “Call No Man “Father”?” Catholic Answers. N.p., n.d. Web. 02 Mar. 2017.