This is the first post in a series addressing common anti-Catholic objections of the ridiculous variety. These are not deep theological grievances but ad-hominem imputations which have worn out their welcome in the Catholic-Protestant conversation. Let’s never say these again!
“You Catholics can’t even address your pastor without committing blasphemy. Jesus Himself commanded that we ‘call no man Father!’ Ever heard of Matthew 23:9?? Guess that’s what you get for not reading the bible.” - Me, five years ago
A good method for debate is to assess the prior knowledge of the person you’re speaking with. If the “call no man Father” argument arises, it’s a pretty good indicator that your opponent has very little prior knowledge of Catholicism whatsoever. It’s also a general indicator that the person harbors some degree of anti-Catholic resentment. Its a good idea to put this issue to rest before proceeding with any further doctrinal defenses. This one dispels quickly!
#1. The “call no man Father” argument relies on a severely amputated proof-text.
The sole Bible-bullet used is Matthew 23:9. It reads:
And call no man your father on earth, for you have one Father, who is in heaven.
Consider the verse in context. Jesus said:
“But you are not to be called ‘rabbi,’ for you have one teacher, and you are all brethren. And call no man your father on earth, for you have one Father, who is in heaven. Neither be called ‘masters,’ for you have one master, the Christ” (Matt. 23:8–10).
Contextually, we now see that “call no man father” was not, in fact, the main topic of a drawn-out sermon, but an illustrative point tucked neatly between two admonitions of other terms: “rabbi/teacher” and “master.” When taking verses eight through ten together, the reader is presented with the idea that Christ is making some kind of point about honorific titles.
So what is the point? When verses eight through ten (or heaven forbid, just verse nine) are read alone, a Christian may conclude that Christ was literally forbidding the use of terms like “teacher” and “master.” That Christian would be woefully mistaken. For the sake of this topic, let us examine other New Testament references to the word “father” and how the term is used.
The first instance of the word “father” appears in the very first book of the New Testament, the book of Matthew. In the first chapter we find a genealogy and the word “father” appears ad nauseam. Matthew’s gospel was written just a few dozen years after the life of Christ. Are we really to believe that the gospel writer (traditionally believed to be the Apostle Matthew) disregarded his own retelling of Christ’s words in chapter 28 by using “father” to describe family lineage? Obviously not. “No no,” says your friend, “you misunderstand. Christ was condemning ‘father’ in a spiritual sense.” Since this qualification does not appear anywhere in Matthew 28:8-10, the scripture-savvy Catholic can now point out that both Catholics and Protestants embrace the term “father” under some circumstances. All must agree that the strict literal interpretation has already failed.
Proponents of the “call no man Father” argument must logically uphold that there exist no instances in the New Testament of anyone using father in a spiritual sense. Even a “read the bible in 40 days” skimming could produce evidence to the contrary. Not only is “father” used repeatedly elsewhere in the New Testament, but it’s virtually never condemned. For example, consider the words of Saint Paul in 1 Corinthians 4:15:
“…For I became your father in Christ Jesus through the gospel.”
(Ironically, Saint Paul’s next words challenge us to imitate him!)
Perhaps Saint Paul was mistaken. Was Saint Peter mistaken too? Consider the closing words of his first letter, specifically 5:13:
“She…sends you greetings, as does my son, Mark.”
Saint Peter did not have a biological son, much less one named Mark. We conclude that he is speaking of the Apostle Mark, who is traditionally known as a close companion of Peter. Peter is blatantly claiming spiritual fatherhood over Mark. Throughout the New Testament, spiritual fatherhood permeates the scriptures by way of specific citations and general overarching ideas (about 400 instances, to be specific). It is safe – and necessary – to conclude that Christ is not condemning the literal use of the terms like “teacher,” “father,” or “master.” He is hyperbolically warning believers against the prideful desire for honorific titles.
#2. The “call no man Father,” argument destroys a most beautiful analogy to God Himself.
God is beyond human comprehension and as such, we are limited to our human capacities when attempting to describe Him. We use human terms in reference to God. Consider the use of the term “Good Shepherd” as a descriptor of God. Without shepherds on earth, could we understand this descriptor? Of course not. Likewise, we call God our Father because we have fathers here on earth. As we see in scripture itself, these fathers are both biological and spiritual. In Ephesians 3:14-15, we specifically read:
“For this reason I bow my knees before the Father, from whom every family in heaven and on earth is named…”
Imagine the implications of removing “father” from our vocabulary. One of the most beautiful analogies in all of scripture – the idea of God as Father and we, His children – would be rendered meaningless.
Catholics refer to priests as “Father” and the term is not anti-biblical. In fact, the term is one of honor and respect both for the man bearing the title and for the priesthood itself. Protestants who misinterpret Matthew 23:9 may feel uncomfortable addressing a priest as “Father” when attending a Catholic wedding or funeral, but one thing is for sure: the Protestant won’t call him Father, but he can’t call him anything else.