Thursday, March 28, 2013

On Calling Priests "Father": Part 3

On Holy Thursday, when we commemorate the institution of the ministerial priesthood, it seemed fitting that I should pick up again my debate with Russell on calling priests "father" and respond to his latest comment. Also see Part 1 and Part 2. His words will be indented and italicized.

I had said that “King” is not a spiritual title, and you said:

“Regarding your second point, I think the title of ‘King’ -- at least as it applies to the Davidic kings -- is very much a spiritual title.”

But many other kings, even UNGODLY ones, in both the Old and the New Testament, were also called “King” as a title (for example, “King Nebuchadnezzar,” or “King Herod,” etc.). So, this is a very weak argument. If “King” is a SPIRITUAL title, why would the writers of Scripture give such an honor to those kings who were spiritually UNdeserving?
I should not have made my point so tentatively before. That is my fault. All I meant to affirm is that "King" is a spiritual title when it is applied to the Davidic Kings. That much is true, and it follows from this that we have a spiritual title being used quite extensively in Scripture. Also, you didn't address the fact that Jesus told a parable where servants refer to their owner as "Master" (cf. Mt 25:14-30).

I found some other passages too. In another parable, Jesus had the rich man refer to Abraham as "Father Abraham" (Lk 16:24, 30). Paul addressed the high priest and the council of elders by saying, "Hear me, brethren and fathers!" (Acts 7:22). Paul isn't just describing a position. He actually called them fathers, even though Jesus said, "call no man father."

And concerning whether one is “deserving” of a title or not, let’s address this common Catholic argument (surrounding Matthew 23) that it’s ok to have these formal spiritual titles “as long as the person is deserving.” Some of your own comments suggest that you believe this.

But Jesus didn’t say, “Whoever humbles himself gets to be called ‘Father.’” If Matthew 23 is about “deserving” a title, Jesus would have used some sort of “give honor to whom honor is due” expression in the context. But He doesn’t. But He does tell us, quite clearly, who is worthy of such a title – “… NO man…” (23:9). There is far more reason to believe that this context is about the FORBIDDING of titles than some human DESERVING them. So, the “as long as the person is deserving” argument is bogus.

By the way, how do you know that a priest you have never seen before is deserving of the title “Father”? There could always be some deep, dark, continual sin in his life that no one but God knows about. Yet, Catholics do not hesitate to call almost any priest by that spiritual title.
I never said that it was ok to have a formal title as long as the person is deserving. As you rightly conclude, that would not square with Catholic practice. Let me be clear on this. I think there are two lessons we should derive from Mt 23:

1. The Pharisees do not deserve the honor they receive.
-- Consequently, respect their authority but do not abide by their example.
2. God is the ultimate Father, Rabbi, and Master

That's as far as I think we should go with it. Protestants go too far when they say that this chapter is evidence that Jesus wanted to do away with spiritual titles.

You mentioned that Jesus, in anger, was saying that we have only ONE “Teacher,” ONE “Father,” and ONE “Master,” when we actually have many teachers / fathers / masters to teach and guide us. That may be true, but the point is that there is only One who is DESERVING of these titles, and that One is God / Jesus. Again, no hyperbole, no exaggeration. There is no connection or similarity between “straining a gnat / swallowing a camel” and “call no man Father,” as you implied. It seems that claiming hyperbole may be just an excuse to continue with an unbiblical (and anti-biblical) practice. This is an excellent example of voiding Christ’s command for the sake of your own traditions (Matthew 15:3, 6).
In a sense, I agree with you. No one is a Father like God is a Father. But, that doesn't mean we can't have a share in His work, or that we shouldn't call a thing what it is, or that we should fail to respect the noble office a person has been given. Jesus told the people to practice and observe whatever the scribes and Pharisees told them to do. Why? Because they sit on Moses seat. The honor is given because of the position that is held. Jesus does not want to do away with this honor, He wants the scribes and Pharisees to live up to it. Do you really think that Jesus went through such great lengths to catalogue their many sins so as to do away with titles? Or, could it be more likely that He did this so as to expose their failure to be the fathers, rabbis, and teachers that they should be?

When I mentioned that Jesus said to give no human a spiritual title, you implied that the context of Matthew 23 denies this. You said:

“’The scribes and the Pharisees sit on Moses’ seat; so practice and observe whatever they tell you’ (vs. 2-3). Jesus’ wants the people to continue to respect the authority of the scribes and Pharisees. Using titles such as ‘father’, ‘rabbi’, and ‘master’ is how you show this respect for someone in a position of authority. Yet, by your interpretation, Jesus told the people to respect their authority one minute, then disrespect it the next. That makes no sense.”

Nicholas, Matthew 23:2-3 is more about respect for the Law that they were obligated to preach, than for the Pharisees themselves. Respect for the role of “teacher” is fine, but you’re assuming that one way to do this is by giving them spiritual titles. But Jesus speaks directly against this very practice. It is not “disrespect” to avoid what the Ultimate Teacher says to avoid.
You're obviously begging the question here. This argument only holds if Jesus actually spoke against using spiritual titles. But, you haven't proven that yet.

You emphasized that Jesus is concerned with THEIR DISPOSITION. I certainly agree! And these personal, spiritual, exalting titles CONTRIBUTE GREATLY to this problem! If using these titles were discontinued, we wouldn’t have as many ego problems in many churches. Jesus knew what He was talking about. He said, “But he that is greatest among you shall be your servant.” (Matthew 23:11) But I’m sure it’s hard to have the mind of a servant when people you don’t even know are feeding your ego with flattering titles like “Father” or “Reverend.” God knows the selfish tendencies of man and how quickly this can go to his head.
Having a spiritual title does not necessarily lead to ego problems. Surely you know that. In some cases, it probably does, but not in every case or even most cases. To call a priest "father" has catechetical value for people. It reminds them that God has called this man to be a father and has truly made him one through the Sacrament of Holy Orders. He exercises this role in his ministry. The priest fathers many spiritual children in the Sacrament of Baptism. He creates them anew in the Sacrament of Reconciliation. He protects them from sin and temptation with his blessing. He feeds them with the Eucharist. To make children, to create, to protect, to feed -- these are all fatherly duties. And so it is with good reason that we call priests "father."

The title is for the priest's benefit insofar as it reminds him of what his identity is and what God has called him to do and to be in His Church. Instead of getting rid of the title, perhaps it would be better to make sure that only the best men receive it. This is what the Church strives to do. But even when wretched men become priests, they still remain fathers through the exercise of their priestly ministry.

You said:

“I humbly submit that your bias against Catholicism is causing you to misinterpret this passage.”

Nicholas, thank you for being respectful (and I believe you have good intentions), but, with all due respect, I can say the same thing in reverse. I believe that your Catholic bias, i.e., your will to serve the Catholic Church at any cost, is misdirected and will not let you accept the simple interpretation of this passage in its context.
Everyone brings biases and preconceived notions to the text. This is unavoidable. The task then is to decide which preconceived set of beliefs is the proper one. How about the set of beliefs that Christians have always had? How about the set of beliefs of the people out of which the Scriptures came? That seems like the proper context to me. It is ancient Christian practice to at least call bishops "father." For thousands of years, if you were a Christian, that's simply what you did. It was only after the Protestant reformers abandoned the ministerial priesthood altogether that anyone had the notion that Jesus was somehow against this title. Your bias is the abberation, not mine ... unless you would have us believe that Jesus allowed all of Christendom to confuse and betray one of His explicit commands for over 1500 years.

If it was wrong of Christians to call a bishop, or the pope, or one of the ancient teachers of the faith "father," then the great leaders and theologians of the Church that fought so ardently and even gave their lives to eradicate heresy would have squashed that bug a long time ago. You have separated your self from the Church of the Apostles and from the Church that emerged from the apostolic period. That is why you misinterpret this text as you do.

And with that, things boil down, as they always do, to authority. But let us leave that debate for another day (at least as long as we are able). It is Holy Week and I am very busy!

Peace of Christ to you,

PS: From here you may proceed to Part Four.


  1. Hi Nicholas,

    Ok, concerning your argument that “King” is a spiritual title, this is still extremely weak and not convincing at all.

    You said that I didn’t address the fact that Jesus told a parable where servants refer to their owner as “Master” (Matthew 25:14-30). Again, this is not a SPIRITUAL title, but a worldly, secular one. It is about a physical slave and his physical master.

    As for as the rich man referring to Abraham as ‘Father Abraham’ (Luke 16:24, 30), neither is this a spiritual title, but it is an “ancestral” or genealogical title. Abraham was the “father,” the ancestor, of all Jews.

    And as for as Paul addressing the crowd as “brethren and fathers” in Acts 7:2 (not 7:22), I don’t think you can prove that he’s using it as a personal spiritual title here, as it is used in Matthew 23.

    You just said:

    “I never said that it was ok to have a formal title as long as the person is deserving. As you rightly conclude, that would not square with Catholic practice.”

    Then it appears that you’re not squaring with Catholic practice, because you also said:

    1) “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."

    2) “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.”

    3) “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.”

    4) “Do you really think Jesus is concerned with titles, or is He concerned with the fact that the scribes and pharisees "LOVE" such titles AND DON'T LIVE UP THE THEM?”

    5) “Jesus' whole point is that the scribes and Pharisees exhibit a dastardly conduct that should not be imitated AND THEY DO NOT LIVE UP TO THE HONOR THAT THEY RECEIVE.”

    6) “1. The Pharisees DO NOT DESERVE THE HONOR THAT THEY RECEIVE. -- Consequently, respect their authority but do not abide by their example.”

    7) “Jesus does not want to do away with this honor,HE WANTS THE SCRIBES AND PHARISEES TO LIVE UP TO IT."

    8) “Or, could it be more likely that He did this so as to expose their failure to be the fathers, rabbis, and teachers THAT THEY SHOULD BE?”

    9) “Instead of getting rid of the title, perhaps IT WOULD BE BETTER TO MAKE SURE THAT ONLY THE BEST MEN RECEIVE IT. This is what the Church strives to do.”

    10) “Do you really think that Jesus went through such great lengths to catalogue their many sins so as to do away with titles? Or, could it be more likely that He did this so as to expose THEIR FAILURE TO BE THE FATHERS, RABBIS, AND TEACHERS THAT THEY SHOULD BE?” [All Emphasis mine]

    These are all direct quotes from you. But in all of these things (these 10 examples) you are implying that IT IS INDEED ok to have these formal spiritual titles “as long as the person is deserving.” On the one hand, you denounced this idea, but on the other hand, you continue to use this concept in our dialogue, as though you actually accept it.

    As I said before, this “as-long-as-the-person-is-deserving” argument is faulty, since NO ONE is deserving of these titles, except Jesus / God. You have yet to show me that you agree with Jesus on this. In fact, I don’t think that you do.

  2. (Part 2 of 2)

    You summed up Matthew 23 in only two points: That the Pharisees don’t deserve the honor they were being given; and that God is the ultimate Father / Rabbi / Master. And you said that this was pretty much all that this chapter is teaching, and that we Protestants take it too far to suggest that Jesus wants us to avoid titles.

    But I respectfully disagree. There are certainly OTHER points that Jesus was making, as well. I think that what Jesus said (concerning our topic) is very plain and simple (“…call no man ‘Father’”), and that the context supports this. But Jesus gave us several things that He wants us to do or not do in this chapter, for example…


    …observe the Law that they preached (v. 3)
    …act toward each other as BROTHERS (v. 8)
    …be a servant to others, no matter your role in the church (v. 11)
    …be humble; let God exalt you (v. 12)


    …do what the Pharisees (and scribes) did (v. 3)
    …load heavy burdens on people (v. 4)
    …do your works just to be seen of men (v. 5)
    …love the special attention of men (v. 6)
    …love the special greetings of men (v. 7)
    …be called “Father” / “Teacher” / “Rabbi” / “Master” (v. 8, 9, 10)
    …etc., etc.

    So, your two points are valid, but they are not the only lessons to learn in this chapter. The “title command” should not be ignored. By the way, Jesus was not just denying personal spiritual titles to the undeserving Pharisees, but to all men (v. 8-10). All these “do’s and don’ts” are given to every believer. Nothing in here suggests hyperbole (exaggeration). These are all straightforward commands. So, we can’t just pick some of these commands to obey and ignore the others.

    When I said that it is not “disrespect” to avoid what the Ultimate Teacher said to avoid (i.e., calling someone “Father”), you responded:

    “You're obviously begging the question here. This argument only holds if Jesus actually spoke against using spiritual titles. But, you haven't proven that yet.”

    Nicholas, the burden of proof is not on me. I’m just taking what He said at face value and demonstrating that the context agrees with this simple interpretation. I would say that it is you who is begging the question, because you’re the one assuming that He really didn’t mean what He plainly said, so the burden is on you to prove that. You seem to be saying that His words here fall under some type of “exception” in this context. I invite you to demonstrate how that follows.

    Finally, you appealed to a set of beliefs that was supposedly “ancient practice” which was always believed in the church throughout its history. But “being around for a long” time doesn’t prove that something is right. Many practices in the history of the church have certainly been questionable, including some long-time practices.

    Nicholas, what would really make your case is if we could find in the New Testament some genuine cases of the faithful using the titles “Father Paul,” “Father John,” or “Holy Father Peter.” But we see none of these. In fact, the honest reader will admit that we don’t even see a ministerial “priesthood” in the New Testament. (But that’s a whole ‘nother topic.) See here for more on that:

    Yes, I agree that it does all boil down to authority. Perhaps someday we can discuss that also.

    Nicholas, I still stand by everything I said, and I will just say, let’s let the reader decide which side is more reasonable.

    Thanks for the discussion.

    Also, for anyone interested, here is an article that I did on calling a man “Father” about a year ago:

    In His Name,

  3. I responded to your comments. Go here:

  4. It is not "OK" for any person to have these FORBIDDEN titles, PERIOD! And of all people! For Papists to pretend THEY deserve such titles--this child-molesting, gospel-perverting idol-worshippers think they deserve divine titles??? And there is NO SUCH THING as a ministerial office of a "priest" in the New Testament! This is all MADE UP BY ROME!

    The Bible makes clear there are Apostles, Prophets, Evangelists, Pastors and Teachers. These are the leaders of churches, who are also called Elders. Deacons exist as assistants to Elders. An Elder may be an Apostle, Prophet, Evangelist, Pastor or Teacher.

    The above is SO FOREIGN to Popery, because Popery is utterly foreign and at variance with the Scripture, and the early church, but very much in harmony with Judaism, Pagan Roman Emperor worship, The college of cardinals is simply the Roman Senate, and some pagan ideas and doctrines as well. Popery is Mystery Babylon-Rev.17

    1. Somebody's been rolling up Chick tracts and smoking them.


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