“The scribes and the Pharisees sit on Moses ‘seat, so do and observe whatever they tell you, but not the works they do. For they preach, but do not practice. They tie up heavy burdens, hard to bear, and lay them on people’s shoulders, but they themselves are not willing to move them with their finger. They do all their deeds to be seen by others. For they make their phylacteries broad and their fringes long, and they love the place of honor at feasts and the best seats in the synagogues and greetings in the marketplaces and being called rabbi by others. But you are not to be called rabbi, for you have one teacher, and you are all brothers. And call no man your father on earth, for you have one Father, who is in heaven. Neither be called instructors, for you have one instructor, the Christ. The greatest among you shall be your servant. Whoever exalts himself will be humbled, and whoever humbles himself will be exalted.” (Matthew 23:2-12 ESVST)
With the Pope’s visit this past week to the East Coast, it’s been impossible to avoid the image of how clergy is typically treated. We see a person in Francis who inspires awe and respect from all quarters of society, and in many cases, that reaction seems based on his outward displays of humility. He seems “down to earth”, he is at home with people, he doesn’t seem like he wants to be separated from the people by his status.
And yet… there is the fanfare. The robes. The adulation. And of course, the hat. People who would never be confused with “religious types” line up to honor him. They kiss his ring, and they call him “Holy Father.”
So it’s no surprise that I’ve seen reminders this week on Facebook to “call no man your father on the earth”. Often we in the church will go to Matthew 23 to confirm the idea that there should be no one with the title of “Father”, no person with a distinction of preeminence in the church, no system of clergy that creates separate classes within God’s people.
I would argue that those things are true – but not necessarily because of what Jesus says about the Pharisees.
As we look at the context, Jesus isn’t really talking about title or station. And he certainly doesn’t appear to be talking about the literal idea of not calling anyone “father”. Jesus uses the term on a number of occasions to describe a physical relationship – whether direct or ancestral. And later on, Paul has this to say about the Christians in Corinth:
I do not write these things 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. I urge you, then, be imitators of me. That is why I sent you Timothy, my beloved and faithful child in the Lord, to remind you of my ways in Christ, as I teach them everywhere in every church. (1 Corinthians 4:14-17 ESVST)
Paul wasn’t telling the brothers and sisters in Corinth that he should be addressed as “father” – it’s not about a title or terminology. It’s about a specific relationship that he had with the brethren there that didn’t exist between most other Christians – even those who had some sort of spiritual leadership or guidance over the Corinthians. He was a father to Timothy because he had guided and mentored him since Timothy’s youth. (Phil. 2:22, II Tim. 1:4-5) He was a father to the Corinthians in a spiritual sense because he had helped to build that congregation through teaching and encouragement. (Acts 18:1-11)
We all have fathers in the faith – and mothers, too, for that matter. While as Jesus said, we are all brothers and sisters and therefore equal in God’s sight, we have those people who were instrumental in forming and solidifying our faith. We may never use the term “father” or “mother” to describe them, but that’s what they are!
In those cases, it’s always about a specific, intimate relationship – not one that is designated or appointed. Someone doesn’t immediately become my father in the faith because I show up one day at his local church and begin attending there. I’ve known many men in the church who were elders or deacons in the church, but I would never consider them my “fathers” in the faith. They didn’t have that relationship with me, and no title or designation could bring that into existence.
But I can think back to men and women who have guided and molded me into what I am today (the good parts, anyway), and they did that through a godly influence, a willingness to guide me in understanding the word and a genuine interest in my growth and well-being.
As Paul said, you don’t have many of those. I know I don’t. Some people are blessed with more of them than others. And in an age where it’s too easy for Christians to be focused on their own lives, their own families, it sometimes seems like it’s rarer and rarer that we have those influences from men and women who take an interest in our spiritual growth not because biology or proximity dictates it, but because they see value in us, and they want us to fulfill all that God has laid in store for us, both in this life and the life to come. You don’t become someone’s father or mother in the faith by being observed from afar. You can certainly be an influence, but if you want to be a spiritual parent, you’re going to have to get personally involved in someone’s life.
Spiritual fathers and mothers don’t take that role on so they can wear ornate robes, be surrounded by throngs of admirers and receive invitations to speak in front of foreign dignitaries. They do it because they have an interest in individuals. They create one-on-one spiritual connections with the aim of helping someone else. They are, as Jesus pointed out, your servants.
We need more fathers and mothers in the church. And the only way that’s going to happen is if we start acting like them. May God help us to do just that.