A common criticism of Roman Catholicism is that they inappropriately call their priests ‘Father’ in violation of Matthew 23:9.
And call no man your father upon the earth: for one is your Father, which is in heaven. (Matthew 23:9 KJV)
The typical Roman Catholic response is to say that Jesus is not denying all uses of calling men Father, but only those that do it in arrogance. They point to the context of Matthew 23 to support this. They also point to other parts of the Bible where men are called father because of physical relation (Acts 7:2). They also point to the numerous places where Paul addresses Timothy as son (1 Cor. 4:17, 1 Tim. 1:2, 2 Tim. 1:2, etc.) to show that there is a spiritual father-son relationship that can be talked about in Christianity. Finally there is 1 Corinthians 4:15 where Paul actually says he is a father of the Corinthian church. Thus, the conclusion we should draw, according to them, is that Jesus is not referring to calling priests father here. To quote from a Catholic Answers article: “He [Jesus] is warning people against inaccurately attributing fatherhood—or a particular kind or degree of fatherhood—to those who do not have it.” There is actually a lot of truth in the Roman Catholic counterargument. For example, the original context of Jesus’ statement is condemning the arrogance of the Pharisees.
5 But all their works they do for to be seen of men: they make broad their phylacteries, and enlarge the borders of their garments, 6 And love the uppermost rooms at feasts, and the chief seats in the synagogues, 7 And greetings in the markets, and to be called of men, Rabbi, Rabbi. 8 But be not ye called Rabbi: for one is your Master, even Christ; and all ye are brethren. 9 And call no man your father upon the earth: for one is your Father, which is in heaven. 10 Neither be ye called masters: for one is your Master, even Christ. 11 But he that is greatest among you shall be your servant. 12 And whosoever shall exalt himself shall be abased; and he that shall humble himself shall be exalted. (Matthew 23:5-12 KJV)
So Jesus is saying the Pharisees liked to be called by their titles because they were seeking the glory of men, but that His disciples should not be that way — rather, they should be humble. However, does the way the Bible uses the word father, as used of men, support the way that Roman Catholics use ‘Father’ as a title for their Priests? I think actually looking at one of the New Testament examples of someone being referenced as a father will be helpful.
For though ye have ten thousand instructors in Christ, yet have ye not many fathers: for in Christ Jesus I have begotten you through the gospel. (1 Corinthians 4:15 KJV)
Here, the spiritual relationship that allows Paul to be referred to as a father is shown. He begot the Corinthian church through the Gospel. He is their spiritual father in that sense. However, note that Paul also says that even though they have many instructors in Christ, they don’t have many fathers. That is because, though at the time of Paul’s writing the church may have had many teachers in it, Paul birthed them into the faith. This is why he could rightly be called a father. He laid the foundation for their faith (1 Corinthians 3:10). Thus, two points we should take away from this is that the spiritual fatherhood being talked about is through the gospel, and not every teacher in the faith is to be automatically considered a father. This is in stark contrast to Rome where every Priest, regardless whether they have ever proclaimed the Gospel to a person, is to be referred to as ‘Father’.
An example I think is worth bringing up in regard to this is something that happened to my friend, Stephen, while we were ministering at an abortion clinic. He was introduced to a Roman Catholic priest by a Roman Catholic acquaintance there and had a conversation* that went something like this:
Acquaintance: “Stephen, this is Father Frank”
Stephen: “Hi Frank”
Priest: “No no, it’s Father Frank”
Stephen: “Hi Frank”
At this point the priest probably figured out that my friend wasn’t a Roman Catholic and stopped asking him to refer to him as ‘Father.’ How is this not exactly what Jesus was telling us not to do? How is it that a man who has no idea who my friend is is insisting that he be called ‘Father?’ He knew so little about him that he didn’t even realize that my friend was a protestant. He didn’t bring my friend to faith, he has no relationship to him whatsoever. The term ‘Father’ was simply an empty title, yet he still wanted to be addressed as such. And this is Rome’s problem. Yes, I agree that Matthew 23:9 is not a blanket prohibition against ever referring to any man as a father in any sense. However, Rome is in violation of it because they make it a title that everyone is to call their priests, regardless of spiritual relationship. They seek the glory of men to be addressed as ‘Father,’ just like the Pharisees wanted to be addressed as Rabbi. The Bible never uses ‘Father’ as a title for any mere man outside of natural descent in the scriptures, and we should not either. If I wanted to say that the person who first preached the gospel to me when I believed was “my father in the faith,” that would not be wrong. Yet, if I went around calling him “Father Chris,” that would be wrong, and I suspect he would never want to be called that. And it is arrogant to insist people whom you’ve never even met before call you ‘Father’.
As a final point, I would like to point to the fact that Jesus’ statement about calling men ‘Father’ is found in the Bible — the Word of God meant to bless His church throughout the age (2 Timothy 3:16-17). Under the Roman Catholic assumption, why would there be a statement of condemnation about something no one really does today? If there really isn’t anyone today calling people ‘Father’ inappropriately, why is this in the Word? The reason it’s there is because God knew this would be an issue His people would face and adequately equipped them. In explaining away what Jesus meant, Rome nullifies the Word of God in order to promote her tradition.
*The man’s name may not have been Frank, at this point I don’t remember what it was.