My dad has taught me a lot over the years: how to shake a hand, how to assume the best of others and treat them with respect, how to know my place and earn the right to be heard, how to act with conviction, how to not run from conflict, how to follow Christ’s words when trying to resolve it, and to always try to build bridges and not walls. These are just a few of the valuable life lessons that come to mind when I think of what my dad has taught me over the years. Usually on medical releases and other such documents where I am required to designate our relationship, I write/check/bubble in “father.” But in Matthew 23:9, Jesus says not to call any man on this earth “father” because we only have one Father in heaven. So am I sinning when I call my biological dad, or any other man, my father?
For those of you following the blog, you know that I take time occasionally to address a list of objections from a King James-onlyist to Catholicism being a valid expression of Christianity. These objections are based on the belief that these doctrines/practices are contrary to the Bible (KJV). So far I have addressed Purgatory and Apostolic Succession in Part 1, and Ecumenism in Part 2. This time around the objection I’ll answer is sixth on his list: “Title of Pope vs Matthew 23v9.”
To be clear, the basis of this objection is that this part of the Catholic faith is contrary to the Bible in KJV. As with the past parts of this series, this means I will only be using the KJV when quoting Sacred Scripture.
So to parse out the basis of this common objection I will give you a little background. First of all, the title of “pope” comes from the Latin word “papa,” which is a cognate of the Greek word “pappas” which is child’s word for “father.” This objection is also commonly tied to objecting to the reference to priests as “Father ____” The reason why is that in Matthew 23, Jesus is talking to the Pharisees and in verse 9 he says, “And call no man your father upon the earth: for one is your Father, which is in heaven.” (KJV)
To put it simply, Catholics are acting contrary to Jesus’ words in Mt. 23:9 when they call the successor of Peter, “pope,” or their priests, “Father ____,” and therefore this sinful and contrary to orthodox Christianity.
Before I launch into a defense of these titles, I have to point out that this is such a common objection that my reply will in no small way be influenced by the methodology of Catholic Answers (where I spent the past summer) in answering this. For their tract on the topic, you can click here. But this is also such a common objection that it sometimes gets used in a joking manner of speaking. Actually over Christmas, a couple of my Protestant friends were poking some good-humor at my transition and used this as a humorous example of polemics. I hope that by the end of this defense, you too will see why this objection is often used as a joke. However there are those who do hold that this objection is a valid contention in determining the orthodoxy of Catholicism, my KJV-only friend being one of them.
So finally, here’s an apology (defense).
Firstly, those who hold fast to this objection, hold to it because they take Jesus’ words literally. However, if they looked any further than this verse in the Bible, they would quickly run into some problems. For example, if I were to say that, “it’s raining cats and dogs,” you wouldn’t take my words literally because they were meant to be used as a figure of speech, an idiom in this case. But if you did take my words as literal, you would have a lot of trouble finding a climate on the planet earth where cats and dogs evaporated, condensed, and precipitated.
Not least of these problems, would be that it would rob us of the title we give to the first member of the Trinity, that being the Father. In theology proper, the Godhead is asserted to be “ineffable.” This means that the nature of God is indescribable in human terms. In light of this, God reveals himself in anthropological terms, like “Father” and “Son.” However, if the term “father” is robbed of its anthropological referent in the abolishment of biological “fathers,” then God would be quite inconsiderate giving us a title that has no meaning to us humans.
Now people who use this objection might say that Jesus was only condemning the non-literal use of the term “father” (which seems to be putting words in Jesus’ mouth since he never specifies), but this is still problematic since in Scripture we see multiple times where this title is used to refer to more than just God the Father or biological fathers. In Genesis 45:8, we meet Joseph as he is revealing himself to his brothers. Here he says, “So now it was not you that sent me hither, but God: and he hath made me a father to Pharaoh, and lord of all his house, and ruler throughout the land of Egypt. (KJV)” So here have and Old Testament use of the term to refer to fatherhood as more than just biological, but in a special sense i.e. a mentoring relationship.
Furthermore, if we visit Job in Job 29:16, we hear him dialoguing with his friends saying, “I was a father to the poor: and the cause which I knew not I searched out.” (KJV) Here “father” is used to refer to the role of benefactor practiced by Job towards the poor. Referring to Eliakim in Isaiah 22:21-22, God says, “And I will clothe him with thy robe, and strengthen him with thy girdle, and I will commit thy government into his hand: and he shall be a father to the inhabitants of Jerusalem, and to the house of Judah. And the key of the house of David will I lay upon his shoulder; so he shall open, and none shall shut; and he shall shut, and none shall open.” (KJV) Again note the non-biological and non-divine referent of the title “father.” In this instance, it is used in reference to a steward of God’s people, not unlike the pope (vs. 22 look familiar?) In reference to the ascension of Elijah, we find Elisha in 2 Kings 2:12, “And Elisha saw it, and he cried, My father, my father, the chariot of Israel, and the horsemen thereof. And he saw him no more: and he took hold of his own clothes, and rent them in two pieces.” (KJV) Here we see fatherhood used in spiritual sense.
To recap, there are multiple instances in the Old Testament where the title “father” is used by God and faithful people of God to refer to someone who is neither God the Father nor a biological father.
But perhaps things changed in the New Testament. Maybe like the fulfillment of the law that Christ provided, he fulfilled our relationship to the Father in a way that we should no longer use the title to refer to anyone but him. However on a reading the New Testament, one must conclude that this is not the case.
In the first and minor sense, we see that “father” can refer to an ancestor and is not just limited to an immediate male parent in the New Testament, notably in reference to Jewish Heritage. For instance, in Acts and Romans where we hear of Father Abraham and Father Isaac from Stephen and Paul.
But even more, we see uses of the title “father” throughout the New Testament that don’t have any biological connection. I will only list a few examples here (needless to say, all KJV.)
In 1 Corinthians 4:15 Paul writes,“For though ye have ten thousand instructors in Christ, yet have ye not many fathers: for in Christ Jesus I have begotten you through the gospel.” If Paul, who being the writer of these “God-breathed” words, refers to himself as a father of the Corinthians having “begotten [them] through the gospel,” we might want to take a hint on the morality of calling other men “father.”
In 1 Timothy 5:1 Paul entreats Timothy saying, “Rebuke not an elder, but intreat him as a father; and the younger men as brethren,” etc., thus comparing the relationships with in the church (primarily spiritual) to familial relationships, like father and son. Indeed Paul implies his fatherhood when addressing Timothy in his second letter. In 2 Timothy 1:2, Paul calls Timothy his son, and knowing the family history of Timothy from Acts, we can easily deduce that this cannot be taken in a literal and biological sense.
So ok. Enough about what Jesus was not saying. It seems pretty clear that from reading the rest of the Bible (KJV or otherwise) that this verse in Matthew 23 is by no means a kibosh on using the title “father” to refer to people other than God the Father. So what does it mean then? Jesus wasn’t just spewing hot air, so what was he saying?
Well like I referenced before, people use figures of speech to communicate. Jesus used figures of speech too, he’s most famous for talking in parables, which is a figure of speech, but he also used hyperbole as well. The best example is when he tells his followers to cut off their right hands if they cause them to sin. If this was literal, you might expect Jesus to command Peter to cut of his hand when he cuts off the guard’s ear, or to cut out his tongue. But he doesn’t. Why? Because it’s absurd to think that Jesus meant these words to be understood literally.
So we know that Jesus uses hyperbole, but what would make us think that Jesus is using hyperbole in this verse specifically? Let’s look at the surrounding context. Here is Matthew 23:1-12:
“Then spake Jesus to the multitude, and to his disciples, saying, “The scribes and the Pharisees sit in Moses’ seat: All therefore whatsoever they bid you observe, that observe and do; but do not ye after their works: for they say, and do not. For they bind heavy burdens and grievous to be borne, 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 for to be seen of men: they make broad their phylacteries, and enlarge the borders of their garments, and love the uppermost rooms at feasts, and the chief seats in the synagogues, and greetings in the markets, and to be called of men, Rabbi, Rabbi. But be not ye called Rabbi: for one is your Master, even Christ; and all ye are brethren. And call no man your father upon the earth: for one is your Father, which is in heaven. Neither be ye called masters: for one is your Master, even Christ. But he that is greatest among you shall be your servant. And whosoever shall exalt himself shall be abased; and he that shall humble himself shall be exalted.” (KJV)
So if Jesus was speaking literally here, we also need to condemn the usage of terms like Rabbi (or teacher) and master. This poses similar problems like the ones I’ve already addressed when we encounter divinely inspired Scripture using these terms in places like Paul’s letter to the Ephesians, in which he uses “teacher” in 4:11, “And he gave some, apostles; and some, prophets; and some, evangelists; and some, pastors and teachers;” and “master” in 6:9, “And, ye masters, do the same things unto them, forbearing threatening: knowing that your Master also is in heaven; neither is there respect of persons with him.” Seeing the usage of the other words supposedly condemned by Christ in Matthew 23 should key us into the fact that Jesus may have been saying something a little bit more nuanced.
The audience of Jesus in this passage is the Pharisees and the main point of his address here is to call out the pride and ambition in which they seek out prominence. This is not how the leaders of the people of God should act. Jesus tells us explicitly what godly leadership looks like. It looks like service. John’s account in chapter 13 shows us Jesus playing show and tell. Kneeling to wash the feet of his disciples of which he is Lord and Master, and then teaching them that this is the example they are to follow.
*As a side note, this practice of serving by washing each other’s feet is preserved within the Catholic Church. On Maundy Thursday, the day before Good Friday, the church gathers and the priest washes the feet of the parishioners. In some larger parishes, some members will share in the service of washing the hands or feet of others. It is something truly beautiful to participate in, and you don’t have to be Catholic to join in.*
This is not the leadership of the Pharisees, however. As Jesus portrays it, their leadership looks like hypocrisy, greed, self-righteousness, lusting for high positions and titles, vain clothing, and power. This is the message of Jesus: humility. We are not to lust after these titles in themselves, even though they may properly exist and be used, but we should remember that to which they point. This is what Paul exhorts of the masters in Ephesus: to remember that they have a Master in heaven.
I have my earthly father. I have my primordial Father. I have my many spiritual fathers on earth, of which my dad and priest are two.