Catholic and Orthodox Counterfeits of Spiritual Fatherhood Part 1: Educational “Fathers”

By Yaroslav Sebastian Tegza

Former Ukrainian Priest of the Greek Catholic Church Khust, Ukraine

The concept of “fatherhood” entails several meanings.  The first and literal meaning of fatherhood bears a physical connotation.  A father is someone who first and foremost gives physical life. That is what we mean when we refer to our parents as “fathers”.  This term also applies to our forefathers, the founders of our family, tribe, or even an entire people.  The famous phrase “Our father Abraham” cited in relation to the people of Israel in Holy Scripture has this meaning.

Fatherhood also bears connotation in a legal sense.  This meaning involves a guardian or tutor assuming legal status as a father.  Joseph was called the father of Jesus in this regard.

In a relational sense, fatherhood signifies a certain degree of similarity and identification.  This is the intended meaning when Holy Scripture refers to Abraham as “the father of all believers” or Satan as “the father of lies”.

Fatherhood also can be used in an historical sense.  In this regard, we understand the word “father” in referring to “church fathers”, “fathers of the Reformation”, and “founding fathers of the nation”.

Additionally, the understanding of fatherhood carries a religious meaning, specifically as an official title for the elders of the religious community.  This understanding ascribes to them special power and honor.  In this sense, a philosopher or teacher can also be considered “father” by his students.  A mystic or guru can also be revered as “father” by his disciples devoted to his movement.  Fatherhood in the religious sense is linked with unbounded authority and demands utter submission.  Such a context presumes that a religious “father” possesses a good life and deeds that he transmits to his followers.

Finally, the New Testament speaks of authentic fatherhood in its spiritual sense.  In other words, the Bible teaches true spiritual fatherhood in its evangelical (Gospel) sense.

As we have seen, people have various ways in their understanding of “fatherhood”.  Thus it is very easy to fall for a counterfeit understanding of this precious concept.  In fact, this area is a particular target of “the Father of Lies” who employs his ancient Satanic tactic of substituting darkness for light.

The critical word that defines the essence of this problem is the word “counterfeit”.  It would be extremely difficult to use another word to describe this problem.  Here we are speaking of a counterfeit religious “pseudo-fatherhood”.  Let us analyze this issue in depth.

We divide this issue into three aspects of the religious usage of the word “father”: educational (rabbinical), sacerdotal (priestly), and elder (hierarchical).  Let us examine them in order.

The Educational Counterfeit to True Spiritual Fatherhood

In Jewish circles, pretenses to religious fatherhood were based on the rabbinical function.  The Scribes and Pharisees did not connect the concept of fatherhood with sacraments.  Such an idea was alien to them.  Yet as teachers of the Law, they demanded their disciples to relate to address them as “fathers”.

St. Irenaeus of Lyon in the 2nd Century A.D. reflects this attitude: “For when any person has been taught from the mouth of another, he is termed the son of him who instructs him, and the latter [is called] his father.”[i]

Jesus addresses this very issue in His dispute with the Scribes and Pharisees in Matthew 23:

“Then spake Jesus to the multitude, and to his disciples,

Saying The scribes and the Pharisees sit in Moses’ seat:

All therefore whatsoever they bid you observe, that observe and do; but do not ye after their works: for they say, and do not.

For they bind heavy burdens and grievous to be borne, and lay them on men’s shoulders; but they themselves will not move them with one of their fingers.

But all their works they do for to be seen of men: they make broad their phylacteries, and enlarge the borders of their garments,

And love the uppermost rooms at feasts, and the chief seats in the synagogues,

And greetings in the markets, and to be called of men, Rabbi, Rabbi.

But be not ye called Rabbi: for one is your Master, even Christ; and all ye are brethren.

And call no man your father upon the earth: for one is your Father, which is in heaven.

Neither be ye called masters: for one is your Master, even Christ.

But he that is greatest among you shall be your servant.

And whosoever shall exalt himself shall be abased; and he that shall humble himself shall be exalted.”[ii]

The Approach of Religious Tradition

The use of the title “Father” to members of the clergy in Roman Catholicism and Eastern Orthodoxy is considered common and normative.  This attitude exerts a powerful influence on Catholic commentators who analyze Scriptural passages such as that above.  They are forced to interpret such passages in a way that they do not offend traditional practice of the Catholic Church.  Such misinterpretation of Scripture does not limit itself merely to some ignorant priests, but even renowned scholars and clerics of the church!

Here are a few examples:

“Matthew 23:6-10 speaks out against three titles used in Jewish (rabbinical) circles in the period when Mathew was written: ‘Rabbi’, ‘Father’, and ‘Teacher”.  Appealing to these excerpts, anti-Catholic fundamentalists criticize the practice of naming priests “Fathers”, even though they have no problem in calling faculty members “Professors” or “Doctors” (the contemporary secular equivalents for the titles ‘Rabbi’ and ‘Father’).  Rather, Matthew condemns the ambition for honor – an ambition which in various times was expressed through different titles.  The main lesson is that regardless of whatever titles are used, every person is a brother (or sister) in Christ, and the greatest must be a servant.”[iii]

“Returning to your question, I would like to recall the words of Christ together with my first words in St. Peter’s Square: ‘Be not afraid.’ Have no fear when people call me the ‘Vicar of Christ,’ when they say to me ‘Holy Father,’ or ‘Your Holiness,’ or use titles similar to these, which seem even inimical to the Gospel. Christ himself declared: ‘Call no one on earth your father; you have but one Father in heaven. Do not be called ‘Master’; you have but one master, the Messiah’ (Mt 23:9-10).  These expressions, nevertheless, have evolved out of a long tradition, becoming part of common usage. One must not be afraid of these words either.”[iv]

“So how does Orthodoxy interpret Christ’s words ‘Call no man you father upon the earth’?  Christ is not speaking about the external, but the internal.  He is not condemning the use of the title itself, but rather the internal state of souls to whom such titles are addressed.  He is not condemning the one who uses the title “Father” nor the one who bears that title.  There is the lust of self-glorification, the lustful tug toward self-exaltation at assemblies and to the prestige of titles.  This is what Christ condemns.”[v]

The main argument in this approach stands out to us.  This approach screams of literalism, and literal interpretation is presented with a negative spin as something ridiculous.   In this plan we can hear this argument: “If you interpret the words of Christ literally, then you could never call your natural father ‘Father’.”  This is a gross misrepresentation of Christ’s idea.

It also presumes that Christ criticizes only the inner pride and love of titles, not the actual usage of titles in the community of His disciples.

What Jesus Christ Actually Taught

Now let us examine this passage of Holy Spirit with which we began.  Before us is the final sermon of Jesus Christ which he pronounced in the Temple in Jerusalem in the presence of people several days before His death.  This sermon includes the famous utterance “Woe to you!” repeated seven times.  Jesus begins with these words: “The scribes and the Pharisees sit in Moses’ seat: All therefore whatsoever they bid you observe, that observe and do; but do not ye after their works: for they say, and do not.”

How are we supposed to understand His command?  Did Christ really summon His disciples to submit their conscience to “the tradition of the elders”? Not even Christ Himself did not follow these traditions.

Recall the situation when He sat at the table and did not perform the rite of washing His hands before eating.  And even the Scribes and the Pharisees taught that it was mandatory.  And so, would this mean that the disciples were under obligation to fulfill and preserve the teachings of the Pharisees, yet the disciples were not to imitate the Pharisees only in certain situations?  Having in mind that the Lord was speaking of the seat of Moses, we come to the logical conclusion that Christ was speaking about the Law which these teachers were supposed to have been teaching.  This is exactly what the disciples were supposed to follow and obey.  So how exactly were they supposed to behave?  Not the way the Pharisees conducted themselves.  How did the Pharisees conduct themselves?  According to their traditions and not by Scripture.  In other words, the disciples ought not to conduct themselves according to the rites of the Pharisees which contradicted what the Law taught.  The following verses in Chapter 23 follow up with rebuttals to those traditions held by the Pharisees and which the disciples were supposed to reject.

Now we can directly apply what we learned to our current problem.  The Scribes and Pharisees loved “to be called of men, Rabbi!”  The original Greek language is literally translated as they loved “to keep on being called” teachers.  This speaks of a repeating action.  This alludes to the extant tradition prevalent among them to use religious titles to address spiritual leaders.  Addressing His disciples, Jesus states: “But be not ye called Rabbi.”  Literally, this could be rendered: “Do not ever be called Rabbi.”  In this part of the passage, Jesus does not speak of a repeating action, but rather a perfected action completed one time with ongoing consequences.  The form of the verb in verse 8 “expresses a prohibition of an action that should never have started in the first place”[vi].  In this manner, Jesus bans His discipled not only from “keep being named” but also “ever be named”, not only “to keep on being called” but also “to be called”, not only to accept such address, but also to adopt for oneself such address.  Christ not only forbids them from loving to be addressed in such an exalted way, but he also forbids the disciples to even permit such a practice to arise among them.  He speaks up not merely against the abuse of religious titles, but also against their usage in general.  He gives the command not only not to seek out such titles in daily living, but He also condemns their introduction in church life.  Instead, Jesus proposes to His disciples an entirely different culture of relationships: “All ye are brethren.”[vii]

Verse 9 states: “And call no man your father upon the earth.”  The original Greek in this verse literally states, “And do not ever call anyone on this earth Father.”  Jesus practically says the same thing as in the previous verse, but with one distinction.  Whereas in the first instance, He used the passive voice “do not be called”, here in the second instance we see the command in its active voice, “do not call”.  What does this mean?  This means that the disciples not only should never allow other people to demand being called by special religious titles.  It also means that the disciples themselves ought never to initiate this process.  In other words, Christ is saying, “Do not allow people to give you titles, nor should you yourselves even introduce such titles to separate some people as special ‘fathers’.”  The command “Do not call” “is used as a negative prohibition”.[viii]

Here He is using this command in a context not of a repetitive action, but of a once and complete action.  In this instance, Jesus categorically condemns not only the subjective aspiration to gaining titles, but He also gives a clear warning for the disciples in no manner to conform to Pharisaic practice from the beginning of tradition to apply special religious titles to the leaders of the church.

The Apostolic Practice

A particularly important criterion for interpreting this passage is the practice of the apostolic church.  It is important for us to see how the apostles themselves understood the words of Jesus Christ and put them into practice.  Nowhere do we find people calling the leaders of the church “fathers”, not in the Book of Acts nor in the epistles.  The only time we find such forms of address is when the apostles address the Jewish leaders.  But the church never had such a tradition.  The only title commonly used was “brothers”.  This precisely conforms to the words of Christ: “All of you are brothers.”  One example that will more than suffice can be found when the apostle Peter refers to the apostle Paul in his epistle as “our beloved brother Paul”.[ix]

[i] St. Irenaeus of Lyon, Against Heresies, IV, 41, 2 on  retrieved on March 10, 2018.

[ii] Matthew 23:1-12.  Unless otherwise noted, all Scriptures are taken from the King James Version on .

[iii] Raymond Brown, Introduction to the New Testament, Volume 1, (Moscow: St. Andrew’s Biblical Theological Institute, 2007) 231.  Author’s emphasis.

[iv] John Paul II, Crossing the Threshold of Hope, (New York: Alfred A. Knopf, Inc., 1994) 27.  Author’s emphasis.

[v] Andrey Kurayev, Orthodoxy Explained to Protestants, (Moscow: Christian Life, 1997) 51-2.  Author’s emphasis.

[vi] Cleon L. Rogers, Jr. and Cleon L. Rogers III, The New Linguistic and Exegetical Key to the Greek New Testament, (Zondervan: Grand Rapids, MI, 1998) 124.

[vii] Matthew 23:8

[viii] Ibid., 124.

[ix] 2 Peter 3:15