Thursday, August 18, 2011

"Salutations in the Marketplaces" and Calling Priests "Father"

Fathers Abraham, Isaac, and Jacob
One common objection that Protestants raise against Catholicism concerns the practice of addressing a priest as "father." According to such critics, Jesus prohibited such a thing when He castigated the scribes and Pharisees, who "love the place of honor at feasts and the best seats in the synagogues, and salutations in the market places, and being called rabbi by men" (Mt 23:6-7). Jesus went on to say, "call no man your father on earth, for you have one Father, who is in heaven" (Mt 23:9), which said critics interpret to be a clear rebuke of Catholic piety. There are two reasons why this interpretation is erroneous.

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:

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.

Pax Christi,


  1. Would you please pray about and consider checking out Amazon's Christianity Discussion forum?

    We need Catholic apologist's who can keep a level head while charitably correcting and teachings the facts about Christ and His Church.

    If you cannot, would you look it over and please refer it to someone who might be able to help? It can be quite frustrating, but it is an excellent opportunity to use technology to communicate His Word to others.

    If the link I leave does not work and you are interesting in viewing this forum and it's many discussions (among them 'A Protestant Reads Catholicism' and 'SNAP Unmasked') just type in Amazon Christianity Discussion forums, and it should come up. Too, don't be surprised if you see posts by a well-known author of vampire lore - an ex-Catholic - there. Thank you again so much for your consideration!

  2. I'll check it out, but I can't promise that I'll be able to spend a lot of time there. I'm already devoting a lot of time to this facebook group that I'm in.

  3. Greetings Nicholas,

    I agree with a lot of things you said, but I still don’t agree with your final conclusion.

    Now, there is nothing wrong with calling a human “a” spiritual father / teacher / rabbi, etc., but to call them “Father,” “Teacher,” or “Rabbi” directly as a spiritual title is wrong (and this would include the use of the Protestant title “Reverend,” as well). These are forbidden as formal religious TITLES OF HONOR. If all Christians are “brothers” in Christ (Matthew 23:8), then there should be no elevated religious titles among Christians.

    Matthew 23 is not against “biological,” “spiritual,” or “ancestral” fathers, since they are recognized as legitimate roles elsewhere in Scripture. And since Jesus does not condemn the role of pastor, you could refer to a man as “a pastor” or “the pastor,” but the term should not be used as a formal, personal, spiritual title. Although we all have different functions in the church, where some are certainly (and rightfully) leaders, Jesus clearly forbids the self-exalting titles that men often want to use.

    By the way, there is no reason to believe that Jesus was using hyperbole here, in view of the context. For example, He wasn’t exaggerating when He said, “You are all brothers”, and He wasn’t exaggerating when he described the antics of the scribes and Pharisees.

    For more info., see this article:

  4. Russell ... thank you for your comment. I see what you mean. The examples I provided describe a position, not a title that was being used. I wonder though: were the people wrong when they called John the Baptist "Rabbi" (Jn 3:36) and "Teacher" (Lk 3:12)? What about "King"? That title is used quite extensively in Scripture. See, for example:

    -- "King Saul": 1 Sam 18:6
    -- "King David": 2 Sam 3:31; 5:3; 6:12, 16; 7:18; 8:8, 10-11; 9:5; 13:21; 16:5-6; 17:17, 21; 19:11, 16; 20:21; 1 Ki 1:1, 13, 28, 31-32, 37-38, 43, 47
    -- "King Solomon": 1 Ki 1:34, 39, 51, 53; 2:17, 19, 22-23, 25, 29, 45; 4:1, 27; 5:13; 6:2; 7:13-14, 40
    -- "King Adonijah": 1 Ki 1:25
    -- "King Herod": Mk 6:14
    -- "King Agrippa": Acts 25:24, 26; 26:2, 19, 27
    -- "King Aretas": 2 Cor 11:32

    Jesus even told a parable where servants refer to their owner as "Master" (cf. Mt 25:14-30). What we see from all of this is that there is nothing wrong with using titles to refer to a person's position among the people. Jesus' issue was with people who seek certain positions because of the title that it affords them, or who do not live up to the title that they have received. That interpretation is really the only way to reconcile Mt 23 with the biblical data. Otherwise, you would have to accuse Samuel (the author of 1 Sam 1-25), Nathan and Gad (the authors of 2 Sam; cf. 1 Chron 29:29-30), Jeremiah (the author of 1 Kings), Mark, Paul, and the disciples of John the Baptist with all doing something that displeases God.

  5. Hi Nicholas,

    You asked if the followers of John the Baptist were wrong in calling him (i.e., John) “Rabbi / Teacher.” I would have to say yes they were, according to Jesus, but they probably did this in ignorance, since Jesus addressed this topic AFTER John the Baptist’s death (Matthew 14:1-12).

    Concerning the title “King,” this is not a SPIRITUAL title, which is what Jesus was addressing in Matthew 23.

    You said:

    “Jesus’ issue was with people who seek certain positions because of the title that it affords them, or who do not live up to the title that they have received.”

    That is partly true, but Jesus didn’t say, “Call only those with the RIGHT ATTITUDE “Father,” or only those who DESERVE it “Rabbi.” He said to give those spiritual titles to NO HUMAN (Matthew 23:8-10).

  6. Russell ... my response to you is too long for the combox. I will make a blog post instead, and provide a link here when I am finished.

  7. Russell ... you can read my response here:


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