|Fathers Abraham, Isaac, and Jacob|
First of all, it should be noted straight away that anyone who wants to be a priest because he loves to be called by titles in the marketplace is rightly rebuked. I agree with the critics 100% on that, and so does the Church. From the Catechism of the Council of Trent (aka “the Roman Catechism”) we read:
“Some are attracted to the priesthood by ambition and love of honours; while there are others who desire to be ordained simply in order that they may abound in riches, as is proved by the fact that unless some wealthy benefice were conferred on them, they would not dream of receiving Holy Orders. It is such as these that our Saviour describes as hirelings, who, in the words of Ezechiel, feed themselves and not the sheep, and whose baseness and dishonesty have not only brought great disgrace on the ecclesiastical state, so much so that hardly anything is now more vile and contemptible in the eyes of the faithful, but also end in this, that they derive no other fruit from their priesthood than was derived by Judas from the Apostleship, which only brought him everlasting destruction” (Part 2: Sacraments, Holy Orders, “Right Intention”).So, no disagreement on that point. What I do take issue with is the notion that Jesus was somehow making a blatant prohibition against any type of spiritual fatherhood on earth, except for that which exists between man and his God. It is important here, as it is with so many disputed passages from Scripture, to read Jesus' words in context. When He says, "call no man your father on earth," He is not railing against fatherhood per se. Instead, He is speaking out against those who seek the position of father for the honor that it brings and who, once having the position, don’t live it humbly and authentically.
The entire chapter 23 from Matthew's Gospel is a rebuke of the pride and hypocrisy of the scribes and Pharisees. Jesus repeats the phrase, “Woe to you, scribes and Pharisees, hypocrites!” six times in this chapter. It is within this larger rebuke that we find Jesus’ words about calling no man rabbi, father, or master. He is using hyperbole in order to emphasize the Fatherhood of God above the fatherhood of any man and to highlight the unworthiness of the scribes and Pharisees to receive the titles their position affords them.
If one takes this passage too literally in order to condemn Catholicism, he finds himself in the awkward position of having to condemn Paul too. After all, Paul addressed his accusers by saying, “Brethren and fathers, hear me” (Acts 22:1; so did Stephen, cf. Acts 7:2 ). He even went a step further and called himself a father to the churches he formed and guided through his letters (cf. 1 Cor 4:15; Phil 2:22; 1 Thes 2:11). They were his “children” (cf. 2 Cor 12:14; 1 Thes 2:11). Timothy was Paul’s “beloved son” and “true child in the faith” (cf. 1 Cor 4:17; Phil 2:22; 1 Tim 1:2,18; 2 Tim 1:2), as were Titus and Onesimus (cf. Titus 1:4; Philemon 1:10).
Now, considering all this, is Paul forsaking the command of the Lord here, or is he witnessing to a true spiritual fatherhood that can exist on earth? I think the answer is clear.
At this point, it is often argued that, yes, Paul was a spiritual father to the churches, but he never took up the title of "Father." He never signed any of his letters "Father Paul" and no one is recorded as referring to him as "father." But, now I think we are splitting hairs.
Paul truly possessed a position of spiritual fatherhood on earth. This is an undeniable fact, as the passages previously cited clearly show. Now, do our critics really expect us to believe that Paul would call Christians his "children," but they would never call him their "father"? He was TRULY their father. There's nothing wrong with calling someone what he actually is.
Furthermore, were Stephen and Paul breaking the command of Christ when they addressed the scribes and pharisees by saying, "Brethren and fathers, hear me"? (Acts 7:2; 22:1). The patriarchs of the Jewish people are called "fathers" dozens of times in Scripture:
- father David: Mk 11:10; Lk 1:32; Acts 4:25
- father Abraham: Mt 3:9; Lk 1:73; 3:8; 16:24, 30; Jn 8:56; Rom 4:16; Jas 2:21
- father Jacob: Jn 4:12
- all the patriarchs: Luke 1:55; John 7:22; Acts 3:13, 25; Acts 5:30; Acts 7:11-12, 15, 19, 32, 38, 44-45, 51-52; 13:17, 32, 36; 22:3, 14; 24:14; 26:6; 28:17, 25; 1 Cor 10:1; Gal 1:14; 2 Tim 1:3; Heb 1:1; 3:9; 8:9; 1 Pet 1:18; 2 Pet 3:4
Jesus Himself refers to men as "fathers" numerous times in the Gospels (cf. Mt 10:21, 35, 37; 15:4-5; 19:5, 19, 29; 21:31; Lk 6:23, 26; 11:11, 47-48; 15:12, 17-18, 20-22, 27-29; 16:27; Jn 6:49, 58). Yet, if we are to interpret Mt 23:9 the way our critics would have us interpret it, then when Jesus said, "Call NO MAN father," He meant that I shouldn't even call my mother's husband "father"!
The only way to reconcile Jesus' words here with apostolic practice and that of Christ Himself is to acknowledge that Jesus is using hyperbolic language here in order to emphasize the importance and dignity of God's fatherhood above that of any other man. If you take him too literally, you are forced to come to a whole host of absurd conclusions.