One of the most common verses used to prove that Catholics are not “Biblical” has to be Matthew 23:9 where Jesus says “And call no man your father on earth, for you have one Father, who is in heaven.” Since Catholics call priests “Father” it is viewed to be in clear violation of Scripture. And unfortunately there have been Catholics who have left the faith when confronted with this one verse – it has been an “open door” for others to lead them away. In “The Gospel According to Rome” by James G. McCarthy (an anti-Catholic work) he says this:
“Jesus taught: ‘Do not be called Rabbi; for One is your Teacher, and you are all brothers. And do not call anyone on earth your father, for One is your Father, He who is in heaven’…. (Matthew 23:8-9). The Roman Catholic Church has organized and titled its hierarchy with total disregard for these commands.”
It will always be problematic to base a particular viewpoint on a single Scripture without considering both the immediate context and what Scripture has to say as a whole on the subject. Always, no matter how clear that verse in isolation may seem. For example, most Protestants hold to a doctrine of justification by “faith alone.” Yet there is only one time in the Bible that uses the term “faith alone,” and that is James 2:24 where he says that “You see that a man is justified by works and not by faith alone.” Why is that one verse not enough to dispute their beliefs in this case? Why would they not profess that a teaching of justification by faith alone is not Biblical and any who teach that are totally disregarding what Scripture says? Why rather would they expect a more holistic view of what the Bible says about faith and works to be important?
The same is true when we consider Christ’s command to “call no man Father.” We have to look holistically at Scripture. And when we do that, we discover that the apostles did not take Jesus literally. So a deeper understanding must be needed. The Ignatius Study Bible says in reference to this passage that “Jesus uses hyperbole to post a warning that no one should pridefully desire honorific titles. His words are not meant literally. The New Testament writers elsewhere use father for natural fathers and spiritual fathers in the Church.”
One thing that has always been interesting to me about this passage is that Jesus also says to call no one “teacher,” but that is not taken literally by those who claim that Catholics err in calling priests “father.” From teachers of their children at school to Sunday school teachers, most churches I am aware of totally disregard Christ’s command about not calling anyone teacher. And as with “father,” Scripture has many passages that refer to teachers.
People also seem to totally disregard Christ’s command about calling “no man father” in terms of natural fathers. They seem to limit his command to spiritual fatherhood even though the text really doesn’t limit in that way.
But the apostles do claim spiritual fatherhood over those under their charge, which is why Catholics can be certain that Jesus did not mean these words literally. In Romans 4:16 St. Paul says of Abraham “That is why it depends on faith, in order that the promise may rest on grace and be guaranteed to all his descendants—not only to the adherents of the law but also to those who share the faith of Abraham, for he is the father of us all.” St. Paul has no qualms about extending the fatherhood of Abraham beyond his physical descendants and into a spiritual fatherhood based on faith, and to refer to Abraham as “father.”
The apostles often indicate the relationship they have to those in their care is one of a loving father to their children. St. John writes “Little children, keep yourselves from idols,” (1 John 5:21) and “No greater joy can I have than this, to hear that my children follow the truth.” (3 John 1:4) He does not view himself only as a “brother” in the Lord to them.
St. Paul sees himself as a spiritual father to Timothy and Titus, even though they have both followed Paul into ministry and work alongside him. Yet he does not view himself only as a “brother” in the Lord to them. He writes to Titus “To Titus, my true child in a common faith” (Titus 1:4). He writes to Timothy “To Timothy, my true child in the faith,” (1 Timothy 1:2) and “This charge I commit to you, Timothy, my son, in accordance with the prophetic utterances which pointed to you, that inspired by them you may wage the good warfare” (1 Timothy 1:18). And he writes about Timothy to the Philippians “But Timothy’s worth you know, how as a son with a father he has served with me in the gospel” (Philippians 2:22).
St. Paul also claims his spiritual fatherhood in those congregations he served. He writes to the Thessalonians “for you know how, like a father with his children, we exhorted each one of you and encouraged you and charged you” (1 Thessalonians 2:11). He writes to the Corinthians “Here for the third time I am ready to come to you. And I will not be a burden, for I seek not what is yours but you; for children ought not to lay up for their parents, but parents for their children.” (2 Corinthians 12:14). He also tells the Corinthians that “I do not write this to make you ashamed, but to admonish you as my beloved children. For though you have countless guides in Christ, you do not have many fathers. For I became your father in Christ Jesus through the gospel.” (1 Corinthians 4:14-15)
So while Mr. McCarthy and others like to claim that Catholics have totally disregarded the command of Jesus to “call no man father,” he and others fail to address the reality that the apostles did not take the words of Christ literally and certainly understood that a spiritual fatherhood existed between them and the flocks under their care – their “beloved children.” St. Paul became the “father” of the Corinthians in Christ. As Catholics we recognize this very Biblical spiritual fatherhood that is present in those who have been ordained as priests in the line of succession of these same apostles, and understand our calling them “Father” is a very Biblical idea indeed.