Updated: Aug 15
By Luke Lancaster
Many of our Protestant brothers and sisters will say that Catholics are disobeying the Bible when they call their priests "father." They will quote Jesus in Matthew 23:9, "And call no man your father on earth, for you have one Father, who is in heaven." Many Protestants will interpret these words of Jesus to mean that people should literally not call any man father. However, if that interpretation were correct, then Jesus contradicted Himself. In reality, Jesus was using hyperbole to make the point that God is the true Father of all.
Jesus criticized the Pharisees heavily in Matthew 23. They are "hypocrites" and are similar to "white-washed tombs," who try to make themselves look pretty on the outside, but are truly dead on the inside (Matt. 23:13, 27). The criticism Jesus gave of the Pharisees in Matt. 23:9 was that they had been pridefully chasing after titles and honors, calling themselves "father" and pointing to themselves - rather than to God the Father. Rather, the Pharisees should have pointed to God the Father. For it is through Him that all fathers derive their fatherhood from (Ephesians 3:15). So, the issue is the pride behind the title.
Jesus did not want people to cut the word "father" out of the dictionary. Rather, he was being hyperbolic. Jesus was hyperbolic at times to make his point, such as in Matthew 5:29, "If your right eye causes you to sin, tear it out and throw it away. For it is better that you lose one of your members than that your whole body be thrown into hell." This was not to be taken literally! He was putting things in the extreme so that everybody understood the gravity of sin.
To say that Jesus literally wanted people to stop calling any person "father" in Matthew 23:9 would contradict Scripture. Jesus called human men "fathers" in Matt. 10:21. He called Abraham, the spiritual leader of ancient Israel, "father Abraham" (Luke 16:24). Stephen calls people "father" multiple times in Acts 7. St. Paul says, "I became your father in Christ Jesus through the Gospel" (1 Corinthians 4:15). If that were not enough evidence to suggest that this interpretation is phony, consider the fact that the word “father” is used in reference to human men 144 times in the New Testament! If Jesus was speaking literally in Matt. 23, then He would be contradicting himself.
Christians should interpret Matthew 23:9 to mean that God is the true Father of all. As usual, Jesus spoke hyperbolically to make that point. For example, Jesus said that if our eyes cause us to sin, then we should pluck them out (Matt. 5:29; 18:9). He DID NOT mean this literally. There is an inner meaning to the text, and Jesus is trying to get our attention by putting it in extreme terms.