by Steven Chan
Someone asked: “Why does the bible say we should not call anybody Father, except our Father in Heaven. But we still have the “Father” in some churches and our earthly father, whom we also call Father. If not, should we call our father “Uncle”?”
Let’s consider what the Bible teaches about the subject.
The text from which the question is asked is that of Matt 23:1-12:
“Then Jesus spoke to the multitudes and to His disciples, 2 saying: “The scribes and the Pharisees sit in Moses’ seat. 3 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. 4 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. 5 But all their works they do to be seen by men. They make their phylacteries broad and enlarge the borders of their garments. 6 They love the best places at feasts, the best seats in the synagogues, 7 greetings in the marketplaces, and to be called by men, ‘Rabbi, Rabbi.’ 8 “But you, do not be called ‘Rabbi’; for One is your Teacher, the Christ, and you are all brethren. 9 Do not call anyone on earth your father; for One is your Father, He who is in heaven. 10 And do not be called teachers; for One is your Teacher, the Christ. 11 But he who is greatest among you shall be your servant. 12 And whoever exalts himself will be humbled, and he who humbles himself will be exalted.”
On of the important principles of correct understanding is the common-sense requirement that one reads the immediate context in which the text is located. This approach will ensure that one gets the correct picture of the truth being taught. As they say, a text taken out of context becomes a pretext! Pretext means to give a pre-conceived notion of what a phrase means, rather than what is really meant within the context of the person’s discussion/speech/writing.
So let’s consider the immediate context in which is found the phrase “do not call anyone on earth your father; for One is your Father, He who is in heaven” (Matt 23:9). Jesus was discussing about the religious leaders of His days, namely the scribes and the Pharisees (Matt 23:2). He said that they do “all their works to be seen by men” (Matt 23:5a); they place emphasis on what they wear, i.e. their outward appearance (Matt 23:5b) and 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.’”(Matt 23:6).
It is within this immediate context (of religious teachers; and not family relationship) that Jesus taught the disciples not to “be called ‘Rabbi’; for One is your Teacher, the Christ, and you are all brethren. 9 Do not call anyone on earth your father; for One is your Father, He who is in heaven. 10 And do not be called teachers; for One is your Teacher, the Christ.”
In other words, in the religious setting/world, Jesus taught the disciples not to be called “Rabbi” or “Teacher.” Rather the relationship among the disciples of Christ was to be one of “brethren” (not “teacher-disciples”) because in the religious realm, Christ is the Teacher. Similarly, in the spiritual/religious world, one is not to call any one or any leader, “father” because God in heaven is our father. So, the practice of the Roman Catholic Church in addressing their priests as “father” is in direct contravention of the command of Jesus in Matt 23:9.
So, it is evident that Jesus meant that in the religious/spiritual realm, there should be no religious titles such as “Rabbi”, “teacher” or “father”. Jesus did not mean that one cannot call one’s biological father, Father – for in the account of the prodigal son in Luke 15, Jesus Himself without disapproving its use, mentioned that the son said to his earthly father: “’Father, give me the portion of goods that falls to me.’”(Luke 15:12); “Father, I have sinned against heaven and before you” (Luke 15:18).
The thrust of the teaching of Jesus in Matt 23: 1-12 is that of the need for His disciples to be humble (and be simply “brethren” and nothing more) and the danger of exalting man instead of exalting God. So, it would not be wrong to call your earthly father, “Father”; or to call your academic teachers in schools or colleges as “Teachers”. But in the religious realm, we are not to call anyone on earth, by any title other than that of “brethren”. Peter the apostle, referred to Paul the apostle as follows in 2 Peter 3:15: “our beloved brother Paul”.
By the same rationale, we should not call anyone in the religious realm, “reverend” because the Bible says in Psa 111:9 that Reverend is God’s name: “He sent redemption unto his people: he hath commanded his covenant for ever: holy and reverend is his name.” So, the practice of many denominations of calling their preachers or ministers, “reverend” is without scriptural basis or authority, and is fact usurping the title which according to Psa 111:9 belongs to God.
We do not read anywhere in the Scriptures that the apostles or any of the early church elders were ever addressed as “the reverend” Paul or Peter, or the “Most Right Reverend” Paul or Peter? It is noted by one writer that according to the Oxford Universal Dictionary the title of reverend was first applied to persons of age and character in 1449. In 1485 the deans in the Catholic Church were given the title of “Very Reverend” and the bishops were called “Right Reverend…and in 1642 the Arch-Bishops began to be called “Most Right Reverend.” These titles are man-made and the scriptures do not authorize their usage upon the servants of God. They were designed to honor men; not God; for holy and reverend is God’s name (Psa 111:9).
The scriptures understood in its proper/immediate context are very simple to understand. We should never interpret or seek to understand a text out of its immediate context. Otherwise, we will have serious misunderstandings of the Scriptures and in the case under present consideration (i.e. Matt 23:9), one may end up erroneously teaching that since we cannot call anyone on earth “father”, we can only call our earthly fathers “uncles” or some other titles!! Thus, the Scriptures would be used to teach some nonsensical doctrines.