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The Use of "Father" and "Rabbi"
Religious Titles and Jesus' Teaching

Dennis Bratcher

Matthew 23:9 And call no one your father on earth, for you have one Father--the one in heaven.

There are many Christians, both Protestants and Catholics, who take various parts of Jesus’ teachings as a new law to be obeyed much as they think Old Testament law was to be obeyed by Israel. And too often they read that new "law" through a set of doctrines and sometimes prejudices, so that the Bible ends up supporting personal opinion, sometimes in opposition to the message of the Bible itself.

However, this misses the point of Jesus’ teaching (as well as misunderstanding the Old Testament concept of torah as "law"). Jesus was not trying to replace one law with another, but to get people to respond to God in a way that goes beyond mere obedience to law.

However, a greater problem here is that we human beings too often tend to apply a legalistic view of God and Scripture to other people in a way that fits our own biases and prejudices. So, it is easy for this verse, seen as a new legalism, to be used by Protestants against Catholics or by those in more loosely organized independent traditions who claim to be more biblical or more authentic Christians against established churches. The assumption is that Jesus himself condemned Catholic practices since he taught us not to call anyone "father," which to those with anti-Catholic or anti-established church sentiment obviously means that we should not address Roman Catholic priests by this title or any other church leader by any title. However, such a use of this verse is a long way from what the passage in Matthew 23:9 actually communicates.

First, we should note that it is not only "father" that is mentioned in this verse, but also "rabbi," which in Hebrew means "teacher."

Matt 23:8 But you are not to be called rabbi, for you have one teacher, and you are all students.

However, it seems evident that the early church had no problem with the idea of "Teacher" (the meaning of the Hebrew term "rabbi") since it is mentioned frequently in the New Testament as one of the roles and gifts of Christians (1 Cor 12:28, 1 Tim 2:7, Heb 5:12, etc.).

Second, it seems that the title "father" was not a problem in the early church either.  Paul himself claims the title "father" in talking to the Corinthians:

1 Cor 4:15 For though you might have ten thousand guardians in Christ, you do not have many fathers. Indeed, in Christ Jesus I became your father through the gospel.

That suggests that we are probably not dealing with a new legalism in Jesus’ saying in Matthew 23:9, as it is often taken in anti-Catholic bombast. As is usually the case, such sayings must be seen in a context to be understood properly. In this chapter, Matthew is presenting Jesus in conflict with the religious zealots and legalists, typically in Matthew generically called "scribes and Pharisees." In the previous chapter 22, Jesus had already silenced the Sadducees. Also in that chapter, Jesus had summarized the requirements of "the law and the prophets," and concluded with a pointed question to them about the Messiah.

Chapter 23 opens with strong sayings about the hypocrisy of the religious leaders. Jesus tells the people to follow their instruction (from Moses) but not their practices. He points out that their practices are for self-aggrandizement and self-glorification, not for proper service to God or neighbor. The titles that the people apply to those leaders are vindications of that self-glorifying religious posturing. It is this self-serving religious posturing that Jesus is attacking.  Ironically, much of the modern rejection of titles by some traditions exhibits the same kind of self-righteous religious posturing, only from the opposite direction.

The instructions are given both "to the crowds and to his disciples":

Matt 23:8 But you are not to be called rabbi, for you have one teacher, and you are all students. 23:9 And call no one your father on earth, for you have one Father--the one in heaven. 23:10 Nor are you to be called instructors, for you have one instructor, the Messiah. 23:11 The greatest among you will be your servant. 23:12 All who exalt themselves will be humbled, and all who humble themselves will be exalted.

The point of this instruction is not the legalism of forbidding the use of titles, but the last two verses that focus on humility and servanthood. In the very next section of this chapter, Jesus launches into one of his most stinging condemnations of self-serving religion, of which the pompous claim of titles (or perhaps today the rejection of titles) is but one symptom.

Note that on one occasion (Jn 10:17-18) Jesus rejects the title "Good Teacher," most likely because in that context it is associated with the kind of status that he is here rejecting. Yet on other occasions, Jesus frequently accepts the titles "Teacher" and "Rabbi" (Mt 8:19, Mk 12:14, 19, Lk 21:7, Jn 20:16, etc.). On one notable occasion, he follows that acceptance with one of the most profound lessons on humility in Scripture, the foot washing:

John 13:13 You call me Teacher and Lord--and you are right, for that is what I am. 13:14 So if I, your Lord and Teacher, have washed your feet, you also ought to wash one another's feet. 13:15 For I have set you an example, that you also should do as I have done to you.

It seems that this dimension of "example" as opposed to status is what Jesus sees as a proper use of "Teacher."

I think a modern analogy might be a politically shrewd denominational church leader who has no graduate education but has been given an honorary doctorate, and yet who publicly insists on being called "doctor." I think that is probably the kind of thing Jesus had in mind in Matthew 23. And the same would apply to Pastor, Father, or any other title that is claimed for self-glorification.  Likewise, the claim that Jesus forbids all titles while placing oneself in a more righteous role by claiming the same rejection, saying or implying that those who do use titles are not biblical or spiritual, falls into a similar category of self-glorification.  The functional result is a great deal of pride in how humble they are because they do not take titles.  Either example is about status, which Jesus' teachings in Matthew 23 aims to reject.

So, by the principle of John 13, I am quite comfortable in referring to "Mother Theresa" (and now "Saint Theresa"), not because she had the title, but because she lived the example of Jesus.

-Dennis Bratcher, Copyright © 2018, Dennis Bratcher, All Rights Reserved
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