Call no Man Father
"Do not call anyone on earth your father;
for One is your Father, He who is in heaven." (Matthew 23:9).
Livy records that pagan priests were called 'Pater,' 'Father': "The envoy then returns to Rome. It was
customary for the king immediately to address the senate in approximately these words: 'Concerning the demands, the disputes,
and the claims which the 'pater patratus' (the fetial priest) of Rome has announced to the 'pater patratus' of the
Ancient Latins, which demands they have not fulfilled as it was fitting for them to do, say (he addresses the man whose opinion he
asks first) what you think should be done.'" (Livy, History of Rome, Book I, 32).
Perhaps pagan converts to Christianity saw no more harm in calling a priest 'Father'
than we see in calling a judge 'Your Honor.' The only problem is, Jesus said not to.
In this case, as in so many others, the gospel contended against
Rome, and, in the long run, Rome prevailed.
On its face this verse legislates against Roman Catholic
practice, as do many others. Their practice establishes
rank. Jesus' instructions to His people generally run
against hierarchy: "The guiding rule for a follower of
Jesus is to avoid high rank: 'For everyone lifting himself up will
be abased, and anyone abasing himself will be lifted up' (Lk.
14.11). There could not be a clearer injunction against hierarchy of
any kind. 'The last will be first, the first will be last.'" (Garry
Wills, What Jesus Meant, p. 45). Eventually the Roman Catholic church would
embrace hierarchy, borrowing from the gnostics their division of the
church into the 'perfect' and the hearers: "The order of those made
perfect is that of the monks who live a single-minded life. Thus,
our own hierarchy is blessedly and harmoniously divided into orders
in accordance with divine revelation and therefore deploys the same
sequence as the hierarchies of heaven." (Pseudo-Dionysius the
Areopagite, The Ecclesiastical Hierarchy, Chapter Six, III,
Section 5, p. 248).
At this, Roman Catholics begin tallying up those who have called someone,
whether their own biological male parent or another, 'father.' There are
several such, for instance Elisha, who said, evidently to the departing Elijah,
“And Elisha saw it, and he cried out, 'My father, my father, the chariot
of Israel and its horsemen!'” (2 Kings 2:12). The Roman Catholic categorical
imperative runs, it would seem, 'If anyone has at any time done anything,
whether this behavior is described in the Bible or outside the Bible, Jesus
cannot have intended to legislate against this behavior, because this would
mean He expected people to do something other than what they already were
doing.' Jesus, to the contrary, finds Himself competent to tell the people
new things: "Furthermore it has been said, ‘Whoever divorces his wife,
let him give her a certificate of divorce.’ But I say to you that whoever
divorces his wife for any reason except sexual immorality causes her to
commit adultery; and whoever marries a woman who is divorced commits adultery." (Matthew 5:31-32).
There is no instance in the New Testament of a minister addressed by his
congregation as 'father.' There are, however, analogies drawn by authors
who describe their relation to those they have mentored in the faith as
like to that between a father and his child. Roman Catholics assume therefrom
that these teachers also demanded to be addressed as 'father.' Do they
assume likewise that Paul asked his students to call him 'Mommy,' because
he likens himself not only to a father...but to their mother?: "My
little children, for whom I labor in birth again until Christ is formed
in you, I would like to be present with you now and to change my tone;
for I have doubts about you." (Galatians 4:19-20). Nor do I think
it likely Jesus wants His followers to address Him as 'Clucky the Hen,'
because He likens Himself to a mother hen gatherings her chicks under her
wings: "O Jerusalem, Jerusalem, the one who kills the prophets and
stones those who are sent to her! How often I wanted to gather your children
together, as a hen gathers her chicks under her wings, but you were not
willing!" (Matthew 23:37). So I think there is a meaningful difference
between likening oneself to something, and demanding to be addressed as if one were that thing.
Isn't it simpler to obey, rather than to search out Philadelphia
lawyer style exceptions and exemptions?
Whom might Jesus have had in mind as the likely culprits? Who was
guilty of this offense? Who in that world applied the title 'father'
to benefactors generally? The Romans were ever calling those who had
given patriotic service 'the father of his country.' As already noticed,
there were numerous 'fathers' by legal and customary title in that
society, over and above biological ones. Augustus Caesar
had the title permanently applied to him, as a matter of law: ". .
.and he also received the title of Father, with binding force (for
previously he was merely spoken of by that name and no decree had
been passed." (Cassius Dio, Roman History, Book 55, Chapter 10) When
Julius Caesar was saluted as king, he refused the title, explaining,
"He answered that Jupiter alone was king of the Romans and sent the
diadem to him to the Capitol, yet he was not angry and caused it to
be inscribed in the records that the royalty presented to him by the
people through the consul he had refused to receive." (Cassius Dio,
Roman History, Book 44, Chapter 11). This was good answer, too bad
that it was not sincere. Perhaps Jesus was concerned about this bad
habit bleeding over into Judaea and Galilee.
Even the pagan peoples could realize that God was a better father
than the rapacious step-fathers who came forward only to steal the
inheritance. Upon a change in emperors, the crowd cried out, ". .
.they uttered many lamentations, asserting that they alone of all
mankind were destitute of a leader, destitute of a king; and they
invoked the name of Jupiter, declaring that he alone should be their
leader and uttering aloud these words: 'As a master thou wert angry,
as a father take pity on us.' . . .But they stretched out their arms
toward the sky and exclaimed:. . .'this is the Roman Augustus:
having him we have all!'" (Cassius Dio, Roman History, Book 79,
According to the Bible, 'Father' is God's name: "For this cause I bow my knees unto the
Father of our Lord Jesus Christ, of whom the whole family in heaven
and earth is named. . ." (Ephesians 3:14-15). Augustus noticed the throng of 'fathers'
had something it common with him: "Therefore,
men,— for you alone may properly be called men,— and fathers,— for you are worthy to hold this title like myself,—
I love you and I praise you for this. . ." (Augustus Caesar,
addressing the married men, quoted in Cassius Dio, Roman History, Book 56, Chapter 2).
Augustus holds out to the unmarried men the promise that they can
share in 'his' title: "How could I any longer be rightfully named
your father, if you rear no children?. . .Thus you may yourselves
share this title and also render me well named." (Augustus Caesar,
quoted in Cassius Dio, Roman History, Book 56, Chapter 9). Actually it's
the other way around, properly it's a divine title, and it doesn't
belong to a tyrant at all. Not only did the pagan Romans over-apply
God's name of 'Father,' but they actually addressed priests as 'father,'
as seen above, just like Roman Catholics do.
Before the gospel call ever rang out through its streets, pagan Rome already had well-defined traditions respecting its
religious establishment, for instance that the body of the priesthood
was a closed, self-governing corporation: "The priesthoods, — particularly those politically most important, the colleges of men
of lore — according to ancient custom filled up the vacancies
in their own ranks, and nominated also their own presidents, where
these corporations had presidents at all; and in fact, for such
institutions destined to transmit the knowledge of divine things
from generation to generation, the only form of election in keeping
with their spirit was cooptation." (Theodor Mommsen, The History of
Rome, Book III, Chapter XI, Kindle location 15016). When the form of
church institutions, the 'clergy' in this case, starts to change,
from an original form in the New Testament going back to synagogue
precedent which is quite different, to a completed form which
however looks very much like what was the normal way of doing
business in pagan Rome, then one must ask whether the ongoing
process is following an internal logic, or the promptings of the
Holy Spirit, or is simply a process of acculturation, whereby the
church ends up conformed to the (pagan) world around it.
Upon this Rock
"Jesus answered and said to him, 'Blessed are you, Simon Bar-Jonah,
for flesh and blood has not revealed this to you, but My Father who is
in heaven. And I also say to you that you are Peter, and on this rock I
will build My church, and the gates of Hades shall not prevail against
it. And I will give you the keys of the kingdom of heaven, and whatever
you bind on earth will be bound in heaven, and whatever you loose on earth
will be loosed in heaven.'" (Matthew 16:17-19).
To hear Roman Catholics tell it, Jesus was talking, not to Peter standing
there right in front of him, but to their bishop, whoever he may happen
to be at the time! Just as the Dalai Lama is always the same individual,
though in different reincarnations, the bishop of Rome is always
'Peter.' This popular interpretation makes this verse one of the
foundation-stones of the modern Roman Catholic system.
Modern-day bishops of Rome make astonishing
claims, assuring the public they possess more than merely human
faculties, including the ability to speak infallibly. The modern
Catholic apologetic enterprise presents these claims, not as an
embarrassment, but as a main selling point of their
religion. Scriptural arguments which are at best suggestive, like the 'Peter
is the Rock' formulation, are pushed forward aggressively as if they
were water-tight proofs. What could be better than inspiration on demand? Consult
the Bible book of Judges to see the inconveniences that follow upon
waiting for God to inspire and raise up leaders. So why wait?
But how credible are these claims? Does history confirm them?:
The history of Rome is long, but also chaotic. During its
Christian experience, the city has been both mistress of the world
and also back-water. The victorious barbarians depopulated the once-great
city. However compelling the arguments for the pre-eminence
among the churches of the mistress of the world
(and this was the beginning of the Roman bishop's rise to power), the same
arguments can hardly 'work' for the back-water. Nor have the
popes always been at Rome. The bishops did not remain in the city whose purported
connection to Peter is their claim to fame, but removed to Avignon
for a time, leaving any connection between the medieval institution of the
papacy and the city of Rome tenuous and hypothetical.
From the earliest times, even after the rise of the monarchical bishop, popes and
anti-popes have abounded at Rome. Three bishops were serving in office at the same
time, when a church council, the Council of Constance, found itself unable to sort
them out and so started over. The importance of the bishop of Rome
began inflating along with Rome's immense secular standing, but then Rome
fell. Reversing field, the power of the popes grew upon the
power vacuum in the West. Now they were feeding on Rome's weakness, not
her strength. Realizing that keeping the secular power weak was in their interest,
though not in the interest of Europe, the popes acted in their
In spite of all the changes this city and this institution have undergone, Roman Catholic
apologists see a continuity other, weaker eyes cannot. Both prince and
prelate, his claims first founded on forgery,— a 'Donation of Constantine'
which bequeathed to him the whole world,— the bishop of Rome made
himself into a 'Wizard of Oz' figure. This historical oddity, the
papacy, is nevertheless still viewed by Roman Catholic apologists as a positive.
But in historic fact, the popes are responsible for some of the great crimes of
history, including the Albigensian Crusade. Those who wish to defend this system must
explain how possession of a reliably God-inspired oracle turned out so poorly.
To judge by results, this institution is of merely human origin and inspiration.
Early church interpretation of this passage does not confirm the
later Roman Catholic understanding. For instance, Origen takes it
for granted that the reference cannot be to one individual, much
less to a purported successor:
"But if you suppose that upon that one Peter only the
whole church is built by God, what would you say about John the son
of thunder or each one of the Apostles? Shall we otherwise dare to
say, that against Peter in particular the gates of Hades shall not
prevail, but that they shall prevail against the other Apostles and
the perfect? Does not the saying previously made, “The gates of
Hades shall not prevail against it,” hold in regard to all and in
the case of each of them? And also the saying, “Upon this rock I
will build My church”? Are the keys of the kingdom of heaven given
by the Lord to Peter only, and will no other of the blessed receive
them?. . .And if any one says this to Him, not by flesh and blood
revealing it unto Him but through the Father in heaven, he will
obtain the things that were spoken according to the letter of the
Gospel to that Peter, but, as the spirit of the Gospel teaches, to
every one who becomes such as that Peter was." (Origen, A Commentary
on Matthew, Book 12, Chapter 11, ECF_0_10, p. 765).
This exegesis is not 'Protestant,' but one possible unbiased
Where the Spirit Is
"For where the Church is, there is the Spirit of God; and where the
Spirit of God is, there is the Church, and every kind of grace; but the
Spirit is truth." (Irenaeus, Against Heresies, Book 3, Chapter 24.1).
How might we ascertain where the Spirit is and where He is not? The Shepherd of Hermas, a book Catholics
like, offers a helpful answer: