DANIEL ROHAN Priests deserve title of father
At times, we hear objections to the use by non-Orthodox Christians of the title father for their priests, especially from those who claim that our Lord prohibited the use of this title in the Gospel of St. Matthew.
Now, our Lord did not mention only the title father in this passage; what he said was: "But you are not to be called rabbi (i.e., master), for you have only one master; and you are all brothers. And do not call anyone on earth father, for you have one father, and he is in heaven. Nor are you to be called teacher, for you have one teacher, the Christ." (Matthew 23:8-10)
On the surface these words seem to make a strong case against calling anyone father, but of course, they go even further than that; they seem to forbid the use of any sort of title among Christians. After all, mister is just a form of master and even doctor (often used by the non-Orthodox as title for their clergymen) comes from the Latin word for teacher.
But if we look more closely at the Gospels as a whole and at this passage in particular, we see that our lord had something very different in mind. Jesus used the term father for people other than God, and when he spoke of Father Abraham in the parable of Lazarus and the rich man (Luke 16:24), he also quoted the commandment to honor one's father (Matthew 15:4), meaning the earthly father.
If we read the whole chapter in which this passage occurs, we find that our lord is condemning the proud leadership of the Jewish nation at his time. He is warning his followers not to be greedy for exalted titles or to be treated with respect in public, but to be content with being treated as he was. He reminds his disciples that God is their only master and father, and that he himself is their only teacher, though he has called them to serve as his representatives to teach and guide his followers.
One of the earliest and greatest priests, St. Paul, gives us an example of the right use of the title father in the Christian community in this first letter to the Corinthians (4:15), when he says: "Even though you have ten thousand instructors in Christ, you do not have many fathers, for in Christ Jesus I became your father (literally: gave birth to you) through the Gospel." He was the one who brought new life in Christ to the Corinthians, and as such he is allowed to call himself their father, the one who, in earthly terms, gave them the new birth of Baptism.
And it is the same for all priests: they make available to their people the new birth of baptism and the renewal of that rebirth in confession; they bring their people to the Lord Jesus Christ through training and instructing them in the Gospel and its requirements. In this way they share with the Apostle Paul in the role of spiritual fathers of their flock, frequently suffering greatly to bring them to new life in Christ.
The priest in his humility and modesty should not demand to be called father. Indeed, there is a beautiful tradition among Russian Orthodox priests of never calling themselves father, but only priest. It is left to the flock to offer this title to him as a spontaneous offering of affection and respect when they behold in him the love and care of God himself for his people.
The people approach their priest as spiritual children, coming to him for instruction and for incorporation into the new life of the church through the sacraments. He acts as God's instrument in bringing them into this life, and for this reason alone, not for any personal merit, he is allowed to be called by one of God's most precious titles: father.
XThe Rev. Daniel Rohan is the pastor of St. Mark Orthodox Church in Liberty.