But didn’t Paul call himself "father"?

Published June 24, 2013 by Andrew Lindsey in apologetics, Bible translation, Reformation Theology

8 But you are not to be called rabbi, for you have one teacher, and you are all brothers. 9 And call no man your father on earth, for you have one Father, who is in heaven. 10 Neither be called instructors, for you have one instructor, the Christ. 11 The greatest among you shall be your servant. (Matthew 23:8-11 ESV)

Many professing Christians are involved in systems of religion in which the command of Christ, seen above, is regularly contradicted. Invariably, those who wish to ignore the words of the Lord Jesus by calling their ministers “Father” [So-and-so] will turn to the following passages in an attempt to justify their disobedience:

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 Corinthians 4:15 ESV)

But you know Timothy’s proven worth, how as a son with a father he has served with me in the gospel. (Philippians 2:22 ESV)

And so the question comes: since Paul referred to himself with the term “father,” why shouldn’t Christian ministers today also be called by the title “Father”?

Notice, however, what Paul does in these passages and what he does not do.

What Paul does in these passages is use the word “father.” But, as I’ve argued before, Jesus was never intending to ban all uses of the word “father.” When Jesus forbade his disciples from using the terms, “rabbi, father, and instructor,” He was NOT saying that these words must be discarded from their natural use. In another passage, Jesus approvingly quoted from Mosaic Law, saying, “Honor your father and mother” (cf. Mark 7:10; Exodus 20:12); so, in Matthew 23, Jesus is not teaching his disciples to dishonor their parents by discarding the terms of “father” and “mother.” Again, in the parable of the prodigal son (Luke 15:11-32), when the son repented before his father, he addressed him as “father” (Luke 15:17,21); in this illustration, Jesus certainly does not present the prodigal calling his earthly father “father” as a violation of His words. Finally, in Romans 4, Paul, the servant of Christ Jesus (Rom 1:1), writes of “our father Abraham” (Rom 4:12), having previously explained that Abraham is “our forefather according to the flesh” (Rom 4:1); in using the title “father Abraham” to refer to an ancestor in this way, Paul was certainly not violating the commands of Christ.

Again, what Paul does in these passages is to use the word “father” in an analogical, qualified manner. In 1 Corinthians 4:15, Paul uses “father” as a metaphor, and he qualifies his use of “father” by adding “in Jesus Christ through the gospel.” Paul is referring to his gospel ministry among the Corinthians, through which many of the Corinthians were initially exposed to the message of the Cross (Paul being the one who “planted” the gospel in Corinth [1 Cor 3:6].) In Philippians 2:22, Paul is using a simile to describe his ministry with Timothy “in the gospel;” a mentoring relationship is in view.

What Paul does not do in these passages is begin using “father” as a formal religious title. Notice how Paul introduces himself in his letters. He normally refers to himself as a “servant” (as in Philippians 1:1) or- especially when writing responses to churches in which his authority was being questioned to some degree- he refers to Christ’s calling upon his life, establishing his apostleship. What Paul does not do in his letters is ever refer to himself as “Father Paul.”

I may refer to my former Sunday school teacher, Russell Jones, metaphorically as my “father in the gospel” because it was under his teaching that I was saved. I may refer to my former pastor, Dave Stephen, using a simile, saying that he was “like a father to me,” because he was the first person ever to give me formal instruction concerning preaching and because he had a great influence on my spiritual life. I may NOT, however,  begin referring to these men with an honorific religious title as “Father Russell” or “Father Dave:” to do so would be a direct violation of the clear command of Christ.

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