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Should you address a priest as ‘father’?

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June 5, 2019

Occasionally, you might find yourself conversing with someone that disagrees to address a priest with the term ‘father.’ Sometimes those who hold this opinion even refuse to call their own dad’s ‘father’. These people are usually very quick to point out that we should not call anyone on earth ‘father’ as it says in Matthew chapter 23. But both the Orthodox and Catholic traditions have been using the term ‘father’ to address priests and biological parents for centuries. So is it appropriate for us to use the term? And if yes, why?

 

So in Matthew 23, the text says that we should not call anyone on earth ‘father.’ It also says that we should not call anyone ‘teacher.’ But are these verses supposed to be taken literally or do they have a deeper meaning? If it is to be taken literally, then we should never use the term father while addressing a priest or our own biological parent. We should not use the word ‘teacher’ either. But a very quick glimpse at the remainder of Scripture would demonstrate that these verses are not to be taken literally and that Matthew 23 does have a specific context. I will only cite a few examples. In first Corinthians, St. Paul says to his congregation: “I do not write these things to shame you, but as my beloved children I warn you. For though you might have ten thousand instructors in Christ, yet you do not have many fathers; for in Christ Jesus I have begotten you through the gospel.” Here, St. Paul clearly calls himself a father to his spiritual children whom he has begotten in Christ. Again, St. Paul when addressing St. Timothy, he says to him: “… To Timothy, a true son in the faith…” St. John the beloved does the same in his epistle, he says: “I have no greater joy than to hear that my children walk in truth.” In these last two verses, we find that the Apostles clearly consider their disciples as their children, implying their spiritual fatherhood. These verses validate the use of the word ‘father’ in the context of Christ’s priesthood. Remember, St. Paul and St. John were Apostles of Christ. To put it simply, they were the equivalent of a Bishop today. Also, on many occasions, we also find the word ‘father’ used in the context of biological fatherhood. Ephesians 6 verses 1 to 4 is an example, where St. Paul clearly addresses biological fathers and asks children to honor their father and mother. All of this clearly demonstrates that the meaning of Matthew 23 is not to be taken literally.

 

So what is the meaning of Matthew 23? Let us read the text together. Christ says the following: “The scribes and the Pharisees sit in Moses’ seat. Therefore whatever they tell you to observe, that observe and do, but do not do according to their works; for they say, and do not do. For they bind heavy burdens, hard to bear, 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 to be seen by men. They make their phylacteries broad and enlarge the borders of their garments. They love the best places at feasts, the best seats in the synagogues, greetings in the marketplaces, and to be called by men, ‘Rabbi, Rabbi.’ But you, do not be called ‘Rabbi’; for One is your Teacher, the Christ, and you are all brethren. Do not call anyone on earth your father; for One is your Father, He who is in heaven. And do not be called teachers; for One is your Teacher, the Christ.” The problem here is that the scribes and Pharisees were defective fathers. They misused their God-given fatherly authority by laying heavy burdens on the people while they themselves shied away from these rules. That is precisely why we can read in the remainder of Matthew 23 Christ’s harsh criticism of the scribes and pharisees and He repeatedly labeled them as ‘hypocrites.’ In other words, they practiced a corrupted fatherhood—a fatherhood that is outside of God. The message here is therefore to heal this alien fatherhood, to bring it back within the true fatherhood of God the Father. St. Jerome explains it in the following way, he says: “Remember this distinction. It is one thing to be a father or a teacher by nature, another to be so by generosity. For when we call a man father and reserve the honor of his age, we may thereby be failing to honor the Author of our own lives. One is rightly called a teacher only from his association with the true Teacher. I repeat: The fact that we have one God and one Son of God through nature does not prevent others from being understood as sons of God by adoption. Similarly this does not make the terms father and teacher useless or prevent others from being called father.” He is saying that the Son of God is Son by nature, yet, we can also be called sons but we are sons by adoption. Similarly, there is a father by nature who is God the Father and another father by generosity or by grace, meaning someone that received the gift of fatherhood. So if we honor someone as father because of his own self, then we are wrong to do so. But we can rightly call someone teacher by his association with the true Teacher. We can also call someone father by his association with the real Father, who is God. So it is acceptable to use the term ‘father’ to address our biological fathers or to address priests as we do so within the Fatherhood of God. Our biological fathers have received from God the gift of procreation. Meaning, we participate with God in creating and it is therefore acceptable to be called fathers as it is within God’s fatherhood. Similarly, the priests having received the Priesthood of Christ, they have become shepherds to the flock and therefore and it is commendable to address them as fathers as St. Paul did in 1st Corinthians 4:15.

 

This concept of sharing in the fatherhood of God can be seen in Ephesians 3, it says:

“For this reason I bow my knees to the Father of our Lord Jesus Christ, from whom the whole family in heaven and earth is named, that He would grant you, according to the riches of His glory…” The word rendered ‘family’ here is the Greek word ‘patria’, which is derived from the Greek word ‘pater’ which means Father. So these verses could also be rendered: “For this reason I bow my knees to the Father of our Lord Jesus Christ, from whom the whole fatherhood in heaven and earth is named…” In other words, the earthly family is a family because it has a father and a mother and this is part of God’s plan of sharing His Fatherhood. So, here, we can see an example of a fatherhood that is within God in heaven and on earth. St. John Chrysostom also says: “Again, call no man your father. This is said in order that they may know whom they ought to call Father in the highest sense. It is not said frivolously [thoughtlessly] as if no one should ever be called father. Just as the human master is not the divine Master, so neither is the father the Father who is the cause of all…” In other words, God the Father is the ultimate Father. And all true fatherhood has God the Father as its source. Any other type of fatherhood is not true fatherhood. An example of this is if a biological father would ask his son to lie to cover up for a mistake. This is an earthly fatherhood, it is outside of God. And that is the meaning of not calling anyone on earth father. Meaning, do not accept any other fatherhood that is outside of God. A Christian father should not practice such things but always exercise his fatherhood within God.

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