It happens every day. You will often hear Catholics respectfully calling their priests “Father” as a title of honor. But let’s get right to the issue. Didn’t Jesus forbid us to call anyone by this title when He said, “Call no man Father” (Matthew 23:9)? Or did He really mean something else?
But we’re not just going to address Catholics today, because members of the Orthodox Church and even some Protestants (Anglicans / Episcopalians) call their priests by this title as well. If it’s wrong, it’s wrong for all of them. And it is wrong. Whether one happens to be a Catholic, Orthodox or Protestant priest, the words of this article’s title should be applied… instead of encouraging the practice, they should be saying, “Don’t call me Father.”
Let’s look at the context of what Jesus was saying in Matthew chapter 23. Speaking of the scribes and Pharisees, He said:
(v. 5) But they do all their deeds to be noticed by men; for they broaden their phylacteries, and lengthen the tassels of their garments.
(v. 6) And they love the place of honor at banquets, and the chief seats in the synagogues,
(v. 7) and respectful greetings in the market places, and being called by men, Rabbi.
(v. 8) But do not be called Rabbi; for One is your Teacher, and you are all brothers.
(v. 9) And do not call anyone on earth your father; for One is your Father, He who is in heaven.
(v. 10) And do not be called leaders; for One is your Leader, that is, Christ.
(v. 11) But the greatest among you shall be your servant.
(v. 12) And whoever exalts himself shall be humbled; and whoever humbles himself shall be exalted. (NASV)
Catholics (and others) will often argue that Jesus was really only saying for us not to call someone “Father” if they don’t deserve it, like the scribes and Pharisees. But Jesus didn’t say, “You can call others ‘Father,’ but not the scribes and Pharisees.” He didn’t say, “Only call the deserving leaders ‘Father’.” And He didn’t say, “Call no one ‘Father,’ except for priests.” No, He said to CALL NO MAN “Father.” Jesus clearly tells us who is deserving of the title: No one on earth (v. 9).
But some will object and say, “But He had to be using hyperbole (that is, a figure of speech which uses exaggeration to emphasize a particular point) when He said to call no one “Father,” because other people in the Bible are called ‘fathers’. So He couldn’t have meant it in an absolute sense.”
But there is no exaggeration if this passage is taken in its right sense. And the context bears out this sense… He forbids such terms when used AS FORMAL RELIGIOUS TITLES OF HONOR.
Notice that the scribes and Pharisees craved the attention and approval of men (v. 5). They loved the honor and devotion of men (v. 6). And they loved the respectful greetings of men - and Jesus even gives examples of these greetings, which included titles (v. 7-10). Was Jesus “exaggerating” about the scribes and Pharisees when He said these things, or when He said, “You are all brothers”? No, not at all. Again, context is the key. When He said, “Call no man Father / Teacher / Leader…” He was not denying the role or the function of fathers, teachers or leaders in the church – He simply forbids the use of these terms as personal titles of honor.
It is ok to refer to someone as a spiritual father, spiritual teacher, spiritual leader, bishop, elder, overseer, pastor, deacon, etc., because these are biblical roles. But in the New Testament we see no titles like “Father Paul,” “Bishop Titus,” “Reverend John,” “Elder Nathaniel,” “Pastor James,” “Doctor Andrew,” “Monsignor Bartholomew,” or “Holy Father Peter.” The context of Matthew 23:5-10 is specifically speaking of the scribes’ and Pharisees’ love of flattering religious titles and special attention.
Hyperbole is indeed exaggeration. But it is certainly not an exaggeration to say that only God is worthy of such titles of honor. There is nothing confusing or “exaggerated” about this passage – it is very simple and straightforward.
Understanding the passage in this way places all Christians on the same plane as brothers (v. 8), yet with each having his own function and role in the church. Yes, there are leaders in the church of Jesus Christ, but there is no “big I” and “little you.” There should be no elevated religious titles if we are all brothers in Christ.
Once again, we want to make it clear that we acknowledge that the term “father / fathers” is indeed used in many places in the Old and New Testament. Sometimes, the term simply refers to natural fathers (male parents). Sometimes it refers to ancestors. Sometimes it refers to “spiritual” fathers (leaders or founders of the church, for example). But in the case of Matthew 23, it refers to none of these.
Now, we are not denying that there are some with titles in the church who are still humble. But they are still disobedient to Matthew 23:7-10. Sooner or later, the enemy will capitalize on this and will either cause the title-bearer to fall because of pride (Proverbs 16:18), or he will cause others to stumble because of him.
Why should we not call someone “Father”? Simple… because it usually goes to his head! That’s the nature of man. Ministries and church offices or positions are gifts from God, not something we earn. But personal spiritual titles tend to puff us up.
Whatever happened to, “I must decrease and He must increase” (John 3:30)? It’s got to be pretty hard to “decrease” when you allow people to call you “Father,” “Doctor,” or “Reverend.”
Let us ask a serious question: If you thought that there was any remote possibility that a title in front of your name offends God, even if only slightly, would you be willing to drop your title? If your answer is yes, then by all means, get rid of it. This would go a long way toward avoiding the type of inflated egos that Jesus was speaking of.
If your answer is no, why not? Why demand to keep your title? God knows your work and the level of your faithfulness. If you can’t be content with losing a title, that’s just more proof that you don’t deserve any title.
Whether a “priest” is Catholic, Orthodox or Protestant, he is not my father in any sense of the word. These groups may try hard to deny it, but the concept of priests using the title “Father” seems to be EXACTLY the type of thing that Jesus was condemning. Those using these types of religious, self-exalting titles of themselves need to repent.
By the way, not only should we not call priests “Father,” but these groups that we just mentioned all have a more serious problem: there is no ministerial priesthood in the New Testament. See here: