What follows in this post is a sermon which focuses on the epistle reading of our Church for this past Sunday.
“Call No Man your Father”
Beloved of God, rather than speaking about the Sunday Gospel of today I would like to concentrate on something else; that is, I would like to focus on our epistle reading. In particular, I would like to consider one particular verse, that is, the following words of the holy Apostle Paul: “For though ye have ten thousand instructors in Christ, yet have ye not many fathers: for in Christ Jesus I have begotten you through the gospel.”
It is important for us to point out this verse and consider the message it conveys because the traditions of our holy Orthodox faith are sometimes challenged by those outside the Church. These particular words of the Apostle Paul bring a response from those who would critique us for calling our priests father – a critique they base on the words of St. Matthew in his Gospel where he says, “And call no man your father upon the earth: for one is your Father, which is in heaven.” On the surface, these two passages seem to conflict with one another; but these excerpts, as with the whole of the Scripture—especially the New Testament—must be seen and interpreted within the life and tradition of the Church. This is so, first of all, because the Christian faith and the Christian Church existed before the New Testament. And it is the Church, with the enlightenment of the Holy Spirit, which “produced” the New Testament; it was not the New Testament that produced the Church. As is known, the New Testament is comprised of 27 books. These books were selected by the Church from a multitude of other early Christian writings which were circulated under the name of Apostles.
From Church History we discover that the need for defining a specific Canon for the New Testament arose around the end of the 2nd century when certain heretics tried to define their own Canon. For this reason, various Fathers of the Church began referring to specific books which they considered divinely inspired. It was not until the latter half of the 4th century that this problem of the Canon of the New Testament was solved. In 367, Athanasius the Great presented a complete list of the books which he believed should be considered divinely inspired, and this was accepted by the Church in the East. A little later on, in 397 the same books were made official in the West with the Synod of Carthage.
So, what we must first realize is that the tradition of calling a priest a father is actually older than the official collection [or Canon] of the books we call the New Testament. And those holy men of the Church who confirmed for us the books of the New Testament obviously had no problem with these words of St. Matthew and St. Paul even though on the surface they may appear contradictory. So let us take a detailed look into this subject and consider both why we call a priest a father, and exactly what is meant by our Lord’s words as recorded by St. Matthew.
The words we find in this particular passage of St. Matthew’s Gospel must not be taken literally on the surface because if we were really to take them literally to an extreme we would need to find a new name for our parents. We would be prohibited from calling our male parent “father”; and this, of course, would be ridiculous.
But let us listen again to the words of the Apostle Paul: “For though ye have ten thousand instructors in Christ, yet have ye not many fathers: for in Christ Jesus I have begotten you through the gospel.” Saint Paul calls himself a father to the Corinthians. This is how he describes the relationship he has with the Corinthians – that of a priest to the laity of the Church. This is also a living relationship which is expressed by the word father. As a father begets a child, cares for the child and supplies its needs while growing up in this world, so too, does the priest do for his spiritual children.
We see this expressed in other places in the Scriptures, as well; so let us take a look at some examples. In the book of Judges (17:10), a man named Micah from the mountains of Ephraim is mentioned. We see that he invites a Levite traveler to live with him, and he says to the Levite, “Dwell with me and be a father and priest to me.” In another place, we see Elisha saying to the prophet Elijah: “My father, my father, the chariot of Israel and its horsemen.” (IIKings 2:12) This took place shortly before they parted and Elijah was taken up into heaven. Later we see that Elisha, who then became the foremost prophet in Israel, was referred to as father by the kings of Israel. King Joash used these same words for the Prophet Elisha, when he went to see him while he was on his deathbed. There the king said to him, “O my father, my father, the chariot of Israel, and the horsemen thereof.”(IIKings 13:14)
Therefore we should not doubt this tradition of our Church, that is, the tradition of calling a priest father. But as for the words found in St. Matthew, we must consider the context in which our Lord was speaking. When He said these words our Lord was critiquing the Scribes and Pharisees for their pride and vain glory and He was warning His disciples not to fall into the same thing. Many of the religious leaders in the time of our Lord prided themselves on their position and they were vainglorious, that is they loved the attention and praise of the people. Our Lord, when He told the disciples “Call no man your father,” was critiquing this pride and vain glory. So then, when we Orthodox call a priest “father” we are not breaking this injunction of our Lord. Even so, let us look into ways in which this is sometimes broken so we can more fully understand what our Lord is telling us.
First, there is sometimes a tendency for a sectarian spirit to arise in the Church, and this is something we must avoid. We see that this is what was happening in Corinth, and this is what the Apostle Paul was speaking against when he wrote: Some of you are saying I am of Apollos or I am of Cephas or I am of Paul. Some of the Church community at Corinth were naming themselves by a man on earth; they were putting up one of the apostles as their living head here on earth, and this was causing division in the Church. They were measuring themselves by one of the apostles, and in their pride each was saying the one whom they followed was the best and this was making a schism in the body of Christ. They were calling a man on earth their father. This also, is basically the same thing that has occurred with Roman Catholicism and the Papacy, they set up one single man as an absolute head over all of the Church—something that has never been acceptable to Orthodoxy. Perhaps what is even worse is that we see some of the protestant confessions repeating the same thing – naming themselves by a man, for instance Calvanists or Lutherans. It is such actions as these that our Lord was speaking against when He said call no man your father upon earth.
There is one more point that we must take into consideration which applies not only to this text but the whole of the Gospel of St. Matthew. It is traditionally believed that St. Matthew wrote his Gospel in Aramaic and that it was later translated into Greek by the Apostle James the Brother of the Lord. It is unfortunate that the Aramaic text is not extant. However, any Greek scholar, upon reading the Gospel of St. Matthew, would easily recognize that Greek was not the writer’s (or translator’s) first language. This is especially true with some of the finer points of grammar which might naturally allow for the possibility of an obscurity and thus the possibility of having variant meanings of certain texts. Therefore, as Orthodox faithful today we must remain within the tradition of the Church and accept how our Church interprets the Scriptures. In light of this, here is a question for us to ponder: Is St. Matthew actually warning us not to call ourselves by the name of any man on earth as being “our father”? We can call many priests “father”, but for the whole Church to call any man “our father” is something quite different and unacceptable. So then, to call our priests father—a spiritual father—is acceptable to God; and we see this from the words of the Holy Apostle Paul we heard in today’s epistle and which I will repeat again: “For though ye have ten thousand instructors in Christ, yet have ye not many fathers: for in Christ Jesus I have begotten you through the gospel.”
Let us keep our faith and hold fast to the traditions that we have received from our Church because our Church is the holy and apostolic Church. By apostolic we mean we can trace the consecration of our bishops in a direct line back to the apostles of Christ. Therefore we can say that Christ is the father and founder of our Church – not some man who picked up the Bible and interpreted it according to his own mind, for this is another error we see among many protestants. Some of them call themselves “Bible churches”, but their faith is built upon the teachings of this man or that man who at some time or another interpreted the Bible according to his own mind. Therefore, a man is the founding father of their faith, and not our Lord Jesus Christ. In the final analysis, they must admit that a man is their father and not God. But for us, by the apostolic succession of our bishops, we are able to confidently proclaim that our Lord Jesus Christ is the founder and father and head of our Church. To Him be glory together with His Father Who is without beginning and his all-holy good and life-creating Spirit, now and ever and unto the ages of ages. Amen.