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(Last Updated: 13 Jun 2001 )
If we take the "call no man your father upon the earth" verse absolutely literally, we are of course forbidden to apply the title even to our biological fathers, which would make the analogy of God as our divine Father meaningless. So obviously there must be some nuances here that we have to take into account. The same consideration applies to the other nearby statements, like verse 10, where Jesus says "Neither be called masters, for you have one master, the Christ" (interestingly, the NIV puts it "Nor are you to be called ‘teacher,’ for you have one Teacher, the Christ", which would, if taken absolutely literally, make things hard for Sunday school teachers...). Common sense would indicate that there is more to this than a simple blanket condemnation of these forms of address. Perhaps instead it is simply that we should not confuse any human fatherly relationship with the spiritual Fatherhood that belongs to God alone - God after all is "the Father, from whom every family in heaven and on earth is named" (Eph 3:14-15). Any fatherhood that we see exercised here on earth should be an attempt to image our Father in heaven, rather than being up itself as the ultimate "father figure" standard as Jesus' opponents here seemed to be doing.
So what is the proper usage of the term "Father" within a religious or authority-related context? The Bible gives us plenty of guidance, and it is clear that it is acceptable to use the term to refer to someone in authority or someone who has a spiritual fatherly relationship with us.
In the book of Genesis, Joseph had a fatherly relationship, given by God, with the king of Egypt: "it was not you who sent me here, but God; and he has made me a father to Pharaoh, and lord of all his house and ruler over all the land of Egypt" (Gen 45:8). Job was a father to the poor: "I was a father to the poor, and I searched out the cause of him whom I did not know." (Job 29:16). God called Eliakim to be "a father to the inhabitants of Jerusalem and to the house of Judah" (Isaiah 22:21). The term was applied to the Levitical priesthood, as is evidenced for example in Judges 17, where a travelling young Levite is welcomed into the house of Micah, who says to him "Stay with me, and be to me a father and a priest". Elijah was a spiritual father to Elisha, who cried "My father, my father!" when Elijah was carried up to heaven (2 Kings 2:12). Later, the king of Israel calls Elisha his father (2 Kings 6:21).
In the New Testament, things are even clearer. Jesus himself refers to Abraham as "father" in his parable about the rich man and Lazarus in Luke 16, and again in John 8:56. This practice is echoed by Stephen in Acts 7:2, where he is speaking under the influence of the Holy Spirit (cf. Acts 7:55). Not only does he refer to "Father Abraham", but he also addresses the members of the Sanhedrin as "brethren and fathers".
And a direct example of the theology of the spiritual fatherhood of priests is Paul's comment in 1 Cor 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".
References to father-child spiritual relationships in the New Testament are so common that it is probably overkill to quote them all now, although some more are mentioned below. They can easily be found by doing a word-search on "father" or "child".
Finally, I like the way my little
brother approaches this particular argument. He has done some
study in law, and he puts it like this:
Council for the Defendant: "Council for the defendant holds that
the purported application of the aforementioned clause is ultra vires in
regards to its intended use [ultra vires means "beyond its intended
scope"]. That being that the clause has no blanket application but
rather is limited to the confining reference to which it was originally
given (that being a chastisement of the Pharisees). Cases mentioned for
clarification of the limiting nature of the clause include but are not
Acts 7:2; 22:1; Rom 4:11, 16-17; 1 Cor 4:15; Phil 2:22; 1 Tim 1:2; Tit 1:4; Heb 12:7-9; Lk 14:26; 1 Thess 2:11; Phlm 10; 1 Jn 2:13-14."
The Ruling: "The weight of supporting evidence is staggering; the court rules that the application of the contested clause to any matter outside of the chastisement of those regarding their own fatherhood more highly than that of God, to be ultra vires and therefore any sanctions are hereby ruled null and void."
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