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 23.8-12 (ESV)
One day while sitting on a park bench and wearing my priest collar, a man came passing by and without pausing in his stride, he turned toward me and smiled knowingly and said “call no man father” continuing on without waiting for a reply. To be honest, I don't recall whether I replied or not – at least in my imagination, I retorted “Call no man teacher!”
As one who grew up in a fundamentalist denomination, I completely understand where that man was coming from in his gentle condemnation. I grew up with the understanding that Jesus' admonition in Matthew 23 was directed at Roman Catholic priests. And even though that is no longer my understanding, I strongly encourage those who are uncomfortable with the title "father" to follow their conscience and not say it. It is more important that you follow your conscience regarding your understanding of God's Word, rather than use a conventional title. I am not offended by someone simply addressing me by my first name.
However, there is a title that I don't care for: “reverend.” From my perspective, that title fits the context of Jesus' admonition in Matthew 23 more so than does the term “father” in our culture. The word “reverend” etymologically refers to one who is revered, or one who is worthy of reverence. That doesn't fit me, or anyone else that I know! The term “reverend” has come to be used as a formal title designating a clergy person, and I use it as such in formal correspondence, with gritted teeth.
The pride of wishing to be revered above other men is the very problem that Jesus addressed to the crowds and disciples regarding the scribes and Pharisees in Matthew 23. To understand Jesus' warning to call no one “my master” (ie. Rabbi), “teacher” or “father”, we must consider the context of the passage. In Matthew 23.2, Jesus recognized that the scribes and Pharisees had authority because they represented Moses, “so practice and observe whatever they tell you.” But Jesus warned the people not to practice what the scribes and Pharisees do because of their pride and hypocrisy. The problem then isn't so much with the title but the reason why the religious leaders wanted the title and position, and how they administered the authority associated with it: they viewed themselves as above the Law, and as superior to other people.
Moses identified the same issue when he warned future kings not to think of themselves as better than their subjects; rather to be devoted to studying God's Law [Deuteronomy 17:20a].
Jesus dealt with the sin of pride of place among the disciples when they argued over who was the greatest [Mark 9.33-37], and later when James and John tried to secure a place of honor in Jesus' kingdom [Mark 10.35-45.] “Whoever would be first among you” Jesus said, “must be slave of all.”
Paul, who was well aware of the pride of the religious leaders, used the word “father” to indicate that he was a spiritual father of those he taught and mentored:
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 (ESV)
Regarding Timothy, Paul wrote:
But you know Timothy's proven worth, how as a son with a father he has served me in the gospel
. -- Philipians 2.22 (ESV)
[For more examples, see also 2 Kings 2.12; Acts 7.2; Romans 4:16; 1 Thessalonians. 2.11; 1 Timothy 1.2; 5.1-2, and Philemon 10]
Clearly, Paul viewed the Church as a family, and used those terms to describe her members. We use the same terms today, where "father" applies to the office of "elder".
Neither was Paul adverse to using the title “teacher” in the context of ministry:
And God has appointed in the church first apostles, second prophets, third teachers, then miracles, then gifts of healing, helping, administrating, and various kinds of tongues.
-- 1 Corinthians 12:28 (ESV)
And he gave the apostles, the prophets, the evangelists, the shepherds and teachers, to equip the saints for the work of ministry, for building up the body of Christ
, -- Ephesians 4:11-12 (ESV)
If we believe that Jesus forbids us to use the term “father” in any context, why are we not troubled to use the term “teacher” or “Sunday School teacher”? I suspect it is because Jesus' use of “teacher” as a hyperbole to make a point is obvious to us. Were it not for the visceral reaction to the Roman Catholic Church during the Reformation Movement, we might not be any more troubled by the title “father” than we are by the title "teacher". Especially, when addressing a Christian pastor whom we view as a member of our Christian family.
Correspondingly, the title “elder” (presbyter), which was used in the Early Church for the office that we call “priest” today, is also found in Paul's letters to Timothy and Titus. "Elder" referred to those who were recognized as having spiritual maturity as Christians, and who were called (or ordained) to serve in roles of leadership in the Church. The term “father” as we use it today carries the same connotation by Christians as does “elder”. Not one to be revered, but one who has been entrusted with a measure of fatherly spiritual responsibility for the brothers and sisters in the church.
So I exhort the elders among you, as a fellow elder and a witness of the sufferings of Christ, as well as a partaker in the glory that is going to be revealed: shepherd the flock of God that is among you, exercising oversight, not under compulsion, but willingly, as God would have you; not for shameful gain, but eagerly; not domineering over those in your charge, but being examples to the flock. And when the chief Shepherd appears, you will receive the unfading crown of glory. Likewise, you who are younger, be subject to the elders. Clothe yourselves, all of you, with humility toward one another, for “God opposes the proud but gives grace to the humble.”
-- 1 Peter 5:1-5 (ESV)
Obey your leaders and submit to them, for they are keeping watch over your souls, as those who will have to give an account. Let them do this with joy and not with groaning, for that would be of no advantage to you.
-- Hebrews 13:17 (ESV)