Referring to Clergy
Definition of Terms:
In the early Christian church, the practice of calling bishops and priests “father” was widespread. In ancient Greek, the term used for “father” was “πατήρ” (patēr), and in Latin, it was “pater.” These terms were commonly used in addressing bishops and priests. This practice was based on the notion of spiritual fatherhood, emphasizing the role of these leaders in nurturing and guiding the faith of their congregations. The primary reason for using the term “father” was to emphasize the spiritual relationship and guidance provided by these leaders to the members of the Christian community. It highlighted their role as shepherds and mentors, responsible for the growth and well-being of their congregations, much like a father would care for his family.
The evidence for this practice can be found in early Christian writings, where bishops and priests were referred to as “father.” For example, in Paul’s letters, he uses the term “father” metaphorically to refer to his role as a spiritual guide and mentor to the Christian communities he founded (1 Corinthians 4:15, 2 Timothy 1:2). The usage of the title “father” for clergy can be traced back to the early centuries of Christianity. The Church Fathers, such as St. Augustine, St. Jerome, and St. John Chrysostom, were addressed as “father” by their congregations and fellow believers. Early Christian liturgical texts and prayers also contain references to clergy as “father.” The Liturgy of St. James, an ancient Christian liturgy dating back to the early centuries, includes prayers addressing the bishop as “our father and archpastor.”
In Matthew 23:9, Jesus says, “And call no man your father on earth, for you have one Father, who is in heaven.” Since the Protestant Reformation, this verse has been a subject of interpretation and discussion within Christian theology, particularly in regard to the use of the title “father” for clergy.
The context of Matthew 23:9 is important to understand its intended meaning. In this chapter, Jesus is criticizing the scribes and Pharisees for their hypocritical behavior and self-exaltation. He warns against seeking titles of honor and authority for themselves and highlights the importance of humility and servanthood. When Jesus says, “call no man your father on earth,” He is not speaking literally about the title used for biological fathers, nor is He forbidding the use of the word “father” in general. Instead, He is addressing the misuse of titles and the desire for self-glorification among religious leaders and cautions against using titles in a way that usurps the authority of God the Father or promotes a false sense of spiritual superiority.
In this context, calling clergy “father” is not a violation of this teaching because it is used to honor the spiritual paternity and pastoral care of ordained ministers, recognizing that they are acting in the person of Christ as spiritual fathers. It is essential to consider that in other parts of the New Testament, the title “father” is used in a spiritual sense. For instance, St. Paul refers to himself as a “father” to the Corinthians and Galatians (1 Corinthians 4:14-17, Gal. 4:19) and a “father” to Timothy, Titus and Onesimus (1 Tim. 1:2, 2 Timothy 1:2, Titus 1:4, Phil. 2:22, 10). Peter referred to Mark as his son (1 Pet. 5:13) and John addresses his letters to his spiritual children (1 John 2:1, 3 John 4). John also addresses men in his congregations as “fathers” (1 John 2:13–14).
Interpreting Matthew 23:9 in light of the overall teachings of Christ and the usage of the term “father” in the early Church, it becomes evident that the verse is not meant to be a strict prohibition against the title “father” for clergy. Rather, it serves as a reminder to approach titles with humility and to recognize that all spiritual authority ultimately comes from God the Father in heaven (Matt. 23:8–10). This includes other titles that can be misused as well, including “rabbi” (or derivatively “teacher” and “doctor”) and “master” (or derivatively “mister” and “mistress”), but also “pastor”, “brother”, “reverend”, and other titles of respect.
The title “father” is used as a sign of respect and honor for the clergy, while still recognizing that this authority ultimately belongs to God and not the individual. The title is not intended to take away from the unique fatherhood of God or to elevate clergy to the level of God the Father. Rather, it is a way to honor and respect the spiritual leadership and pastoral care provided by the clergy. The use of the title “father” for clergy also reflects the humility of the Church. By acknowledging the spiritual fatherhood of priests and bishops, the faithful show their recognition of the ordained ministry and their willingness to submit to the spiritual authority of those who have been called to lead and serve. Referring to clergy as “father” is based on biblical and historical foundations and is deeply rooted in the tradition of the Church, being practiced by the more ancient traditions including Catholicism, Eastern Orthodoxy, Oriental Orthodoxy, and the Church of the East.
“I was a father to the poor, and I searched out the cause of him whom I did not know.”
“In that day I will call my servant Eliakim, the son of Hilkiah… and he shall be a father to the inhabitants of Jerusalem and to the house of Judah.”
1 Corinthians 4:14–15
“I do not write this 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”
1 John 2:13–14
“I am writing to you, fathers, because you know him who is from the beginning. I am writing to you, young people, because you have conquered the evil one. I write to you, children, because you know the Father. I write to you, fathers, because you know him who is from the beginning. I write to you, young people, because you are strong and the word of God abides in you, and you have overcome the evil one.”
1 Corinthians 4:17
“Therefore I sent to you Timothy, my beloved and faithful child in the Lord, to remind you of my ways in Christ.”
1 Timothy 1:2
“To Timothy, my true child in the faith: grace, mercy, and peace from God the Father and Christ Jesus our Lord.”
2 Timothy 1:2
“To Timothy, my beloved child: Grace, mercy, and peace from God the Father and Christ Jesus our Lord.”
2 Timothy 2:1
“You then, my son, be strong in the grace that is in Christ Jesus”
“But Timothy’s worth you know, how as a son with a father he has served with me in the gospel”
“To Titus, my true child in a common faith: grace and peace from God the Father and Christ Jesus our Savior”
1 Timothy 1:18
“This charge I commit to you, Timothy, my son, in accordance with the prophetic utterances which pointed to you, that inspired by them you may wage the good warfare”
“I appeal to you for my child, Onesimus, whose father I have become in my imprisonment”
1 Peter 5:13
“She who is at Babylon, who is likewise chosen, sends you greetings; and so does my son Mark.”
3 John 4
“No greater joy can I have than this, to hear that my children follow the truth.”
Church Father Quotes:
Dionysius of Corinth
“Through the resources which ye have sent from the beginning, ye Romans, keep up the custom of the Romans handed down by the fathers, which your blessed Bishop Soter has not only preserved, but added to, sending a splendid gift to the saints, and exhorting with blessed words those brethren who go up to Rome, as an affectionate father his children.” -Letter to Pope Soter I (171 A.D.)
Irenaeus of Lyons
“The word ‘son’ has a two-fold meaning… whether as to respect to his being born so or by teaching of his doctrine. For when any person has been taught from the mouth of another, he is termed the son of him whom instructs him, and the latter is called his father.”
– Against Heresies 4:41-42
Clement of Alexandria
“It is a good thing, I reckon, to leave good children to posterity. This is the case with children born of our bodies, but words are the progeny of the soul.
Hence, we call those who have instructed us, fathers.”
– Miscellanies 1:1 Written 202 A.D.)
Cyril of Jerusalem
“We have mentioned these things, not by way of comparing the powers of man with the power of God, but as inquiring into human customs, and showing that you call no man your father upon earth, for you have one Father, Who is in heaven; but that the teachers in the Church are fathers.” -Catechetical Lectures; Lecture 5
Ephrem the Syrian
“You [Nicaea] were the venerable father of the venerable teachers.” -Hymns on Faith
Basil the Great
“I am naturally eager to meet my father and have missed you terribly.” -Basil the Great: In his letter to Gregory of Nazianzus (Epistle 15)
“Just as a father takes care of his children, so do I care for you all.” – St. John Chrysostom, Homily 40 on Ephesians.
“For Peter himself also, whom they set before us for our consideration, together with the other apostles, shows us the sum of virtue in his Epistles; for he is their father also, and he commands them as a father” (Homily 3 on the Statues).
Ambrose of Milan
“I entreat your Blessedness that, just as you are a father of fathers, you may be mindful of me as your son.” -Letter to Pope Siricius (Epistle 20)
Augustine of Hippo
“In writing to you, I think of myself as speaking to my children.” – St. Augustine, Letter 82, To Sapida.
“And I beseech your Holiness, with the most earnest entreaties, to set forth in your letters what your Council has decided concerning my brother and fellow-bishop and very dear father Alypius, and my brother and fellow-bishop and very dear father Possidius.” -Augustine in his Letter to Pope Innocent I (Letter 185)
“To my lord, most blessed and holy father, Boniface, Augustine sends greetings in the Lord.” -Letter to Pope Boniface (Epistle 209)
“Your letter, most blessed father, has reached me, and I am filled with joy by the greeting of your Holiness.” -Saint Alypius in his letter to Augustine (Epistle 147)
Jerome of Stridon
“I, who am but a humble servant of Christ, do not blush to call myself your father.” – St. Jerome, Letter 14, To Heliodorus.
“We address you as ‘father,’ for in Christ we have become your children.” – St. Jerome, Letter 58, To Paulinus.
“I implore you by your trust in Christ and by your fatherly love, to order me what to do.” -Jerome letter to Pope Damasus I (Epistle 15)
“Pope Damasus was the 37th in succession from Peter the Apostle, and held the see of Rome for eighteen years, two months, and twenty-two days. He was a father of the Church, learned in the Scriptures, and a great doctor.” -Jerome: In his work “Lives of Illustrious Men,”
“And we, if we do not become like our holy fathers, must at least submit humbly to their guidance.” -Conferences; Conference 2
Thomas Cranmer, influential figure during the English Reformation and the architect of the Book of Common Prayer:
“In the New Testament, he that is called a priest in Latin is called a senior or elder in English. And he that is called in Latin a bishop, is called in English a superintendent or overseer. And he that is called in Latin a deacon, is called in English a minister, that is, a servant; but forasmuch as in some places, it would not be understood of the simple people, the old ecclesiastical words were yet retained.” (Cranmer’s “Defense of the True and Catholic Doctrine of the Sacrament”)