Popes, monks, penance, Mass, adoration of saints, crucifixes, holy orders, the exaltation of the Blessed Virgin, and many other such practices distinguish Roman Catholics from their Protestant counterparts. In each of these, we can recognize through historical critique how a good thing was corrupted (maybe I should do that someday?), such as the term of the worship service, Mass, being connected to the Latin word “missa,” which refers to the fact that worshippers are sent back out to the world to live as Christians. One thing you will notice distinguishes (most) Protestants from Roman Catholics is that the latter refer to their leaders as “father” and the former (mostly) do not.
This practice is both strange in its presence and in its absence. Why is it that some men are called “father” by other men who are sometimes much older than themselves. The Protestant explanation is very interesting because when it is done simplistically, it is simply wrong (similar to simplistic explanations of justification by faith alone, apart from works). So, why don’t most Protestants call their leaders “father”?
Matthew 23:9 says, “And call no man your father on earth, for you have one Father, who is in heaven.” Seems pretty open and shut. We don’t call pastors or other mature believers our father because Jesus said not to. So, how did Christians ever get in the habit of doing so? Well, it’s not quite as easy as citing a biblical text and acting like that’s the end of the story. Much of our theology and explanation of biblical propositions must be interpreted in their relationship to others.
Paul says, “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).
Either 1) Paul is directly disobeying the command of Jesus, or 2) we must be more careful in how we interpret the passage than we often are. Here, I want to enlist some help from two Protestants, one from the Reformation and the other from the heart of nonconformity (i.e. those who would not even conform to the officially-Protestant Church of England).
John Calvin, one of the original Reformers and a touchstone in the Reformed branch of Protestant Christianity, says,
He claims for God alone the honor of Father, in nearly the same sense as he lately asserted that he himself is the only Master; for this name was not assumed by men for themselves, but was given to them by God. And therefore it is not only lawful to call men on earth fathers, but it would be wicked to deprive them of that honor. Nor is there any importance in the distinction which some have brought forward, that men, by whom children have been begotten, are fathers according to the flesh, but that God alone is the Father of spirits. I readily acknowledge that in this manner God is sometimes distinguished from men, as in Hebrews 12:5, but as Paul more than once calls himself a spiritual father, (1 Corinthians 4:15,) we must see how this agrees with the words of Christ. The true meaning therefore is, that the honor of a father is falsely ascribed to men, when it obscures the glory of God. Now this is done, whenever a mortal man, viewed apart from God, is accounted a father, since all the degrees of relationship depend on God alone through Christ, and are held together in such a manner that, strictly speaking, God alone is the Father of all.
John Gill, perhaps the most influential Baptist prior to Charles Spurgeon, his successor in the London congregation, says in his commentary,
Not but that children may, and should call their natural parents, fathers; and such who have been instrumental in the conversion of souls, may be rightly called by them their spiritual fathers; as servants and scholars also, may call those that are over them, and instruct them, their masters: our Lord does not mean, by any of these expressions, to set aside all names and titles, of natural and civil distinction among men, but only to reject all such names and titles, as are used to signify an authoritative power over men’s consciences, in matters of faith and obedience; in which, God and Christ are only to be attended to.
The Geneva Bible, likewise, says, “Christ forbideth not to give juste honour to Magistrates and Masters, but condemneth ambicion and superioritie over our brothers faith, which office apperteineth to Christ alone.” Its successor, the Reformation Study Bible, says essentially the same thing: “Jesus does not prohibit organization or the use of all titles in the church…His warning is against the temptation to claim for oneself authority and honor that belong uniquely to God and His Christ.” And the MacArthur Study Bible:
Here Jesus condemns pride and pretense, not titles per se. Paul repeatedly speaks of “leaders” in the church, and even refers to himself as the Corinthians’ “father” (1Co 4:15). Obviously, this does not forbid the showing of respect, either (cf. 1Th. 5:11, 12; 1Ti 5:1). Christ is merely forbidding the use of such names as spiritual titles, or in an ostentatious sense that accords undue spiritual authority to a human being, as if he were the source of truth rather than God.
Let’s summarize some of what is going on in the relationship between these passages. The Lord has forbidden the use of titles which seem to be impossible to honestly abandon. We all have teachers and fathers, and it would be dishonorable to refrain from showing proper respect for those individuals God has raised up in that place. The abiding authority of the fifth commandment requires that you continue to show honor to your earthly father, though you have a Father who is in heaven. “Double-honor” is due to elders, especially those who labor in preaching and teaching (1 Timothy 5:17, which is a reference to compensation). So the Lord is not condemning honor for certain people per se.
I think a very helpful illustration will give us even greater clarity. In preparing for ordination a couple years ago, I read through some works and passages from pastors throughout the church’s history about the task I was being called to. A common passage they dealt with, naturally, was 1 Timothy 3. Paul says, “The saying is trustworthy: If anyone aspires to the office of overseer, he desires a noble task.” This seems to be a simple statement, yet it is very hard to swallow. Do I desire nobility? I hope not. The Lord says we should be like him, who became the servant of all. But notice what it says, “desires a noble task.” To want to be an overseer/pastor/elder/bishop is to desire to have greater opportunity to perform a particular task. And what is that task? It is studying the Word of God in order to deliver it faithfully to the people of God by the Spirit of God for the glory of God. Is this task noble? Of course it is. But my desire, and every minister’s desire, must be the opportunity to perform the task, a servant’s task to be sure. Does this come with “double-honor”? It does, but our hearts must be toward the task and not the honor, toward washing feet and laying down our lives, not acquiring for ourselves honors and titles.
As we move back to the passage at hand, we can think carefully about Christ’s demand. The idea is that we would refrain from assuming the authority of teacher, master, and father, but instead depend on the Father, Master, and Teacher. As he ministers to us through those men and women he places in our lives, we show them the honor that is due to them, not because of them, but because of the Lord.
J. C. Ryle (though he was an Anglican), said it best:
The rule here laid down must be interpreted with proper scriptural qualification. We are not forbidden to esteem ministers very highly in love for their work’s sake (1 Thessalonians 5:13). Even St. Paul, one of the humblest saints, called Titus his “true son in our common faith” (Titus 1:4), and says to the Corinthians, “I became your father through the gospel” (1 Corinthians 4:15). But still we must be very careful that we do not give to ministers, unawares, a place and an honor which do not belong to them. We must never allow them to come between ourselves and Christ. The very best are not infallible. They are not priests who can atone for us; they are not mediators who can undertake to manage our soul’s affairs with God: they are human just like us, needing the same cleansing blood and the same renewing Spirit; they are set apart to a high and holy calling, but still after all only human. Let us never forget these things. Such cautions are always useful: human nature would always rather lean on a visible minister than an invisible Christ.
A special place where we can see some of this in place is 1 John. John calls his readers, “My little children” (2:1), “Children” (2:18), and “Little children” (2:28, 3:7, 3:18, 4:4, 5:21). These are terms of endearment from an elder, mature Christian who has had the blessed opportunity to minister to the lives of the saints in a particular place. But notice, too, “See what kind of love the Father has given to us, that we should be called children of God; and so we are…Beloved, we are God’s children now” (3:1a, 2), “By this it is evident who are the children of God, and who are the children of the devil: whoever does not practice righteousness is not of God, nor is the one who does not love his brother” (3:10), “Everyone who believes that Jesus is the Christ has been born of God, and everyone who loves the Father loves whoever has been born of him. By this we know that we love the children of God, when we love God and obey his commandments” (5:1–2), “everyone who has been born of God does not keep on sinning, but he who was born of God protects him, and the evil one does not touch him” (5:18). What’s going on in these passages? The first show that there is a fatherly love from the elder saint toward his children, and the children (those who have been nurtured by him), presumably, have a proper love for their Christian father/teacher. But, ultimately, the writer is their brother, not their father, since they were both born of God. We are all God’s children if we have been born again, though the providential differences in timing and providential differences in growth and responsibilities mean that some will function in father-like roles toward others.
So, why don’t Protestants use the term “father” in referring to their ministers? It would be unbiblical to say that it is because there is no sense in which ministers are fathers of other Christians. Rather, the reason we do not refer to our ministers as fathers is because 1) it can, and has, lead to an unbiblical understanding of the relationships between believers who are ultimately brothers and sisters in Christ, and 2) it is not an official title provided by the Bible itself (consider the fact that “bishop”/”overseer” and “elder” are terms used of official offices throughout the NT and “father” is more relational than titular). As we look at the mature Christians in our lives, those who exercise a special place in discipling us, let us do so with a loving respect we would show toward our fathers. As we look at those spiritually-younger Christians in our lives, whom we hope to help grow in faith in our Father, let us have a similar concern for their souls that we would for our natural children.