Who are You Calling “Father”?

One of Christianity’s largest denominations uses “father” as a religious title for its leaders. But did you know this contradicts the words of Christ?

There are over 1.2 billion Catholics throughout the world. The Roman Catholic Church is the largest denomination of Christianity, and it continues to grow, mostly in the developing world (Africa and Latin America). Its current leader, Francis I, has continually made headlines with his unorthodox actions and words.

Francis comes from Argentina, where he was born Jorge Mario Bergoglio. He became a priest in 1969 and began ascending the ranks of the Catholic Church in Argentina. He was appointed provincial of the Jesuits in 1973, a bishop by John Paul II in 1992, coadjutor archbishop in 1997, archbishop of Argentina in 1998 and a member of the College of Cardinals in 2001.

He ascended to the papacy when he was elected by the cardinals on March 13, 2013 (succeeding the retired Benedict XVI).

Do you know what the word pope means? It is actually a very simple term, derived from the Latin word papa, meaning “father.”

Roman Catholic leaders (starting with priests and going all the way up to the pope) are given the title father. In monastic communities, the leader of monks is called an “abbot,” which is derived from the Aramaic word abba, meaning “father.” But within Roman Catholicism, only the bishop of Rome can be called the pope—or the father. It is a form of the title that is reserved only for his office. And, in order to further distinguish the pope’s authority, he is also given the title holy father.

When Francis visited the United States last September, it was common to hear him addressed as “holy father” by Catholics and non-Catholics alike.

Should we call religious leaders “father”?

Roman Catholics are not the only denomination to use the title father to refer to their leaders. It is also used to describe leaders in the Orthodox, Anglican and Lutheran churches.

You may be surprised to learn that Jesus specifically addressed this title during His ministry. Notice what He said, recorded in Matthew 23:9: “Do not call anyone on earth your father; for One is your Father, He who is in heaven.”

Just taking that scripture out of context and at face value, we could assume Jesus is saying that we can’t call anyone father—including our own biological father. But that is not the point He was making. Throughout His recorded words in the Gospels, Jesus referred to paternal parents as fathers without hesitation.

For instance, in Matthew 15:4, He cites the Fifth Commandment, reinforcing the command to “honor your father and mother.” In Luke 15:11-32, we read Jesus’ famous parable of the prodigal son where He uses the word father 12 times to refer to the prodigal son’s biological father.

So Jesus was not opposed to calling a father, father. The word is also occasionally used as a descriptor of a nation’s progenitor (Romans 4:1, 12, 16) or describing someone’s role of helping someone young in the Christian faith (1 Corinthians 4:15; Philippians 2:22).

So, what point was Jesus making in Matthew 23:9?

The context

As we have shown continually in this column, one of the most important principles of Bible study is to closely read the context. When we read the context of this scripture, Jesus is addressing religious leaders and titles. He was specifically taking the scribes and Pharisees to task for their hypocrisy, their love for physical preeminence and the titles they gave themselves (Matthew 23:1-7).

The first title He addresses is rabbi. During the first century, Jews would call those in a teaching role “rabbi.” This term didn’t simply mean teacher. The word comes from the Hebrew root word rab, which means “great.” So the term implied much more than a teacher; it literally meant “my great one” (New Bible Dictionary, second edition, p. 1006).

The title not only reflects God’s preeminent authority over all things, but also His nature of love and kindness.

It seems some of the scribes and Pharisees loved strutting around Judea, being called by a title that exalted them above all their Jewish contemporaries! They truly thought of themselves as great ones (Luke 11:43; 20:46)!

In Matthew 23:10, Jesus also says, “Do not be called teachers.” Does this mean it is wrong to be called a teacher, if you literally are a teacher? Again, you have to look at the original word. The word translated teacher in the New King James Version is not the common word used in the Bible for teacher.

The word here is kathegetes, and it is only used in two places in the Bible (in verses 8 and 10). This word is better translated master (as it is translated in the King James Version) and describes a position of higher exaltation than the common word for teacher (didaskalos). There are numerous New Testament examples of people legitimately being called teachers, or didaskalos (Acts 13:1; Ephesians 4:11; 1 Timothy 2:7).

So, the context shows us that when Jesus said, “Do not call anyone on earth your father” (Matthew 23:9), He meant not to use the term as a religious title.

Why call no man “father”?

The most important point to understand is why Jesus forbids using the word father as a formal religious title for human beings. He gave the answer in the second part of the verse: “Do not call anyone on earth your father; for One is your Father, He who is in heaven” (emphasis added).

Simply put, Father is a title reserved for God. This title not only reflects God’s preeminent authority over all things, but also His nature of love and kindness. As a title, this is reserved for Him alone.

Jesus used this term for His Heavenly Father. In fact, He addressed God as “Holy Father” in His longest recorded prayer (John 17:11).

“Holy Father” is only used this one time in the Bible—and it explicitly refers to God.

We encourage our Catholic friends and readers to think deeply about this issue. Look at these scriptures, pray about them and ask yourself the question: Can I continue referring to men by a title that is reserved exclusively for the supreme God of the universe? Does any man deserve the title that Jesus used when praying directly to God, His Father?

What about “reverend”?

This message is not just for our Catholic friends. Protestants don’t generally refer to their leaders as “father,” but do commonly use the title reverend for their pastors. What does this word mean, and where did it come from?

“Reverend” simply means “worthy of reverence: revered.” Merriam-Webster’s Collegiate Dictionary defines “reverence” as “profound adoring awed respect.” It also lists the following words as synonyms: adore, deify, glorify, revere, worship and venerate.

Nowhere in the Bible is a minister, or any person, referred to by such a title. The word reverend only shows up once in the King James Version of the Bible:

Psalm 111:9: “He sent redemption unto his people: he hath commanded his covenant for ever: holy and reverend is his name” (emphasis added).

The titles pope, father, holy father and reverend are all titles of divinity, and titles of divinity should only be used to describe God. They entered mainstream Christianity years after the close of the New Testament era, and it’s interesting that they emerged in the form of Christianity that also took it upon itself to change or declare obsolete many of God’s laws. It seems that as men took divine titles upon themselves, they simultaneously believed they possessed the power to alter the divine laws God revealed in the Bible.

A challenge to leaders and laity

The purpose of this “Christ vs. Christianity” column is not to condemn anyone, but to motivate all people to honestly examine their beliefs by comparing them to Jesus Christ’s own words. We hope, and pray, that when you see discrepancies between the two, you will see the importance of obeying God “rather than men” (Acts 5:29).

The most common biblical terms for Christian leaders emphasize the leaders being shepherds, servants, overseers and examples to God’s people (Matthew 20:26-28; 1 Corinthians 12:29; 1 Peter 5:2-3). While those who faithfully teach God’s Word and serve His people are to be shown honor and respect (1 Timothy 5:17; 1 Thessalonians 5:12-13), we encourage our readers to study Ephesians 4:11 and 1 Corinthians 12:28 to learn the positions and titles for these leaders that existed in the early New Testament Church.

If you have commonly used the titles father or reverend, we urge you to reconsider and reserve those titles only for the One they truly describe—the God of the universe.

To learn more about the proper respect and reverence we should have for God, read “Fear of the Lord: What Does It Mean?” 

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