Why Call Priests "Father"? Didn't Jesus Say Not to Do That?

This article from our archives was first published on RI in May 2022

In churches, why do people call the priest “Father”? For Orthodox Christians (and also for Catholics and Anglicans) this is common. But how is it biblical?

Throughout the Bible, godly men are called “father”. Joseph was a wise counselor, and was therefore a “father to Pharaoh” (Genesis 45:8). Job said he was a “father to the poor” (Job 29:16). God Himself calls Eliakim a “father to the inhabitants of Jerusalem” (Isaiah 22:21).  And in recognition of fatherly spiritual leadership, the prophet Elisha calls out to the prophet Elijah, “My father! My father!” (2 Kings 2:12).  Later, the king of Israel called the prophet Elisha “father” (2 Kings 6:21). When these men demonstrate godly leadership, Scripture does not hesitate to call each one of them “father”.

But some people think God changed His mind. They think the word “father” was OK in ancient Israel, but not in today’s Church. Jesus said, “Do not call anyone on earth your father; for One is your Father, He who is in heaven. And do not be called teachers; for One is your Teacher, the Christ” (Matthew. 23:9-10). But not only is the word “father” mentioned in this passage; so is the word “teacher”!

So if Jesus literally means for us to stop calling people “fathers”, then He must also want us to stop calling people “teachers”. Yet many churches have “Sunday school teachers” or “Bible teachers”. Every Christian school has “teachers”, as well. If we stop calling pastors “father”, then we also need to stop calling teachers “teacher”. But this cannot be, because God Himself says that he has appointed “teachers” in the Church (1 Corinthians 12:28), and God says that He has given us these “teachers” as gifts for the Church (Ephesians 4:11). But if the word “teacher” is still OK, then so is the word “father”!

The problem is not with the word “father”, or “teacher”. The problem is with how we think about these words. In Matthew 23, Jesus criticizes the Pharisees. He says they are hypocrites, because they lust for power and honor, while they turn people away from God. They want the glory of being called “Father”, but they do not live in ways that encourage people to worship our Father in Heaven. These evil religious leaders usurp God’s authority, and try to take His place. These are the sort of “fathers” that we should avoid. If any religious leader tries to come in between you and God, then run away! Do not call him “father” or “teacher”!

But when a holy man exercises godly spiritual authority, there is nothing wrong with calling him “Father”. In fact, the apostles of Jesus practiced this very thing. The apostle Peter acknowledged his spiritual fatherhood, by referring to Mark as his “son” (1 Peter. 5:13).  The apostle John recognized his spiritual fatherhood, by calling the members of a church his “children” (1 John 2:1). And Paul speaks this way many times, calling church members his “children” (2 Corinthians 12:14), and his “little children” (Galatians 4:19).

Perhaps the clearest mention of spiritual fatherhood comes from the apostle Paul:

“I do not write this 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” (1 Corinthians 4:14-15).

In this passage of Scripture, the apostle Paul calls himself “father”.

These Scriptures are the Word of God, inspired by the Holy Spirit. So the word “father” is something good. It is perfectly fine to call your priest “father”, if he is a godly leader who points you to Jesus.

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