“Call No Man Your Father”
This title should be familiar, it is words spoken by our Lord as related by St. Mathew in his Gospel. What follows here is a sermon on the epistle for this coming Sunday which I hope will help us Orthodox to understand our tradition of calling our priests “father”.
Beloved of God, rather than speaking about the Sunday Gospel of today I would like to concentrate on something else, I would like to concentrate on our epistle reading. So let us today 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” (ICor. 4:15).
It is important for us to point out this verse and consider what message it conveys because the traditions of our holy Orthodox faith are sometimes challenged by those without the Church. And these particular words of the Apostle Paul make a response to those who would critique us for calling our priests father. This critique is based 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” (Mat. 23:9).
On the surface there appears to be a contradiction, 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 that, “produced” the New Testament and the New Testament did not produce 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 similar books which were circulated under the name of Apostles.
From Church History we discover that the need of 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. This problem of the Canon of the New Testament was not solved until the second half of the 4th century, when the Church in the East accepted the opinion of Athanasius the Great, who in 367 for the first time in history, presented a complete list of books which he believed should be considered as divinely inspired. A little later on, in 397 the same books were made official in the West with the Synod of Carthage.
So the first thing we must realize is that the tradition of calling a priest a father is older than the collection of the books of 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 which on the surface appear contradictory. So let us take a detailed look into this subject and consider both why we call a priest a father and what is the meaning of our Lord’s words recorded by St. Matthew.
The words in St. Matthew’s gospel must not be taken literally on the surface because if we were really to take this 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”. 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 which is also the relationship of a priest to the laity of the Church. And this is 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 so let us take some examples: In the book of Judges (17:10) a man named Micah from the mountains of Ephraim is spoken of. And he invites a Levite traveler to live with him. And he said to the Levite, “Dwell with me and be a father and priest to me.” Again Elisha says to the prophet Elias: “My father, my father, the chariot of Israel and its horsemen.” (IIKings 2:12) This was shortly before they parted and Elias was taken up into heaven. Likewise Elisha who then became the foremost prophet in Israel was referred to as father by the kings of Israel. For we see the King Joash used these same words for the Prophet Elisha, when he went to see the prophet while he was on his deathbed 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 in St. Matthew, we must consider the context in which our Lord spoke. 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. For 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, therefore, 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; yet let us look into ways in which this is broken so we can fully understand what our Lord is telling us.
First there is a sectarian spirit which often happens in the Church and this is something we must avoid. It is like what happened in Corinth and which the Apostle Paul speaks against when he writes: Some of you are saying I am of Apollos or I am of Cephas or I am of Paul. This is what was happening among the Corinthians. The people 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 dividing 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—this has never been acceptable to Orthodoxy. And what is perhaps even worse is that we see some of the protestant confessions naming themselves by a man, for instance Calvanists or Lutherans. It is such that our Lord was speaking against when He said call no man your father upon earth. For us Orthodox to call many priests “a father” is not a problem but to call any one man “our father” is unacceptable.
There is one more point we must take into consideration which applies not only to this text but the whole of the Gospel of St. Matthew. We learn from our tradition that St. Matthew wrote his Gospel in Aramaic and it was translated into Greek by the Apostle James the Brother of the Lord. It is unfortunate that the Aramaic text is not extant. Any Greek scholar on reading the Gospel of St. Matthew would recognize that Greek was not the writer’s (or translator’s) first language. Especially with fine points of grammar this would naturally augment the possibility of an obscurity and so the possibility of variant meanings of certain texts. Therefore we must remain within the tradition of the Church and accept how our Church interprets the scriptures. The meaning of this text can also be: “Do not call (or designate) yourselves by any man as your father upon earth”.
So then, to call our priests, a 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 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.” And so 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 a man who picked up the Bible and interpreted it according to his own mind—for this is another error we see among many Protestants. There are those that call themselves Bible churches, but their faith is built upon 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 a man is their father and not God. But for us, by the apostolic succession of our bishops, we can 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, both now and ever and unto the ages of ages. Amen.