When a Protestant becomes Orthodox there are things within Orthodoxy that can be seemingly impossible to accept – deal breakers, if you will – such as the veneration of Mary the Theotokos, and there are things that, while not a real big deal, can be a constant irritant. Referring to the priest as “father” and the bishop as “master” is one such irritant. After all, the issue is pretty black and white in Protestant eyes. Jesus said, in Mt. 23:9, “Call no one your father on earth, for you have one Father – the one in heaven.”
I myself am more bemused than offended by the practice. I’ve read various tracts, pamphlets, and books (and even the footnote in the Orthodox Study Bible!) on the subject and the defense of using the term “father” for a priest is thin at best. The fact is that all of us have blind spots; we have little “t” traditions which become so engrained that tradition trumps truth. This insistence that we must call our priest “father” seems one of those little blind spots in Orthodoxy and Roman Catholicism.
But before we go any farther, it’s worth taking a look at Jesus’ words in context. The text is Mat. 23.
 Then Jesus said to the crowds and to his disciples,  “The scribes and the Pharisees sit on Moses’ seat;  therefore, do whatever they teach you and follow it; but do not do as they do, for they do not practice what they teach.  They tie up heavy burdens, hard to bear, and lay them on the shoulders of others; but they themselves are unwilling to lift a finger to move them.  They do all their deeds to be seen by others; for they make their phylacteries broad and their fringes long.  They love to have the place of honor at banquets and the best seats in the synagogues,  and to be greeted with respect in the marketplaces, and to have people call them rabbi.
 “But you are not to be called rabbi, for you have one teacher, and you are all students.  And call no one your father on earth, for you have one Father – the one in heaven.  Nor are you to be called instructors, for you have one instructor, the Messiah.  The greatest among you will be your servant.  All who exalt themselves will be humbled, and all who humble themselves will be exalted.
 “But woe to you, scribes and Pharisees, hypocrites! For you lock people out of the kingdom of heaven. For you do not go in yourselves, and when others are going in, you stop them.” [And the woes go on for several verses.]
The first thing to notice is that the prohibition is aimed, not at the faithful, but at the twelve disciples as leaders of the church (ie, the pastors, priests, and bishops in today’s terminology). Notice the change in person between verses 7 (or 6, where the sentence begins) and 8. In verse 6 Jesus is talking to the crowd and refers to the leaders as “they.” But in verse 8 it’s clear he’s talking to the disciples because he switches from “they” to “you.” When seen in the context of the whole chapter it is clear that after telling the people to obey those in leadership, he then turns his attention to the leaders themselves. The prohibition about calling a leader father is not aimed at the pew sitter: “Don’t call your priest father.” It’s rather aimed at the priest: “You aren’t to be called father. In other words, “Don’t let your parishioners call you father.” In fact, Jesus tells the crowds to obey the scribes and the Pharisees because they have rightful authority. Thus, in essence, if your priest demands or expects of you call him father, Jesus tells you to do it. If it’s wrong, it’s the priest’s problem and not yours.
(And for you non-Orthodox readers out there, let me be clear that technically speaking, “father” is an honorific and not a requirement in the Orthodox Church. There is no rule that says an Orthodox person has to call their priest “father” and their bishop “master.” But while it is not a requirement I must admit that in my short sojourn within Orthodoxy, I’ve never heard a priest not be referred to as “father.” (Well, in public anyway. In private, priests, like politicians and attorneys, are called quite a number of things. But as I read Mat. 23, I suspect those things are actually looked down upon by God. Yep, that text does manage to cut both ways.)
The fundamental issue is not the title in and of itself, it’s the pride that too often goes with the office. Jesus makes this clear in vv. 5f: “They do all their deeds to be seen by others … They love to have the place of honor at banquets …” (Ever been to an Orthodox banquet? The clergy all sit together at the head table while the hoi poloi look on from below.) Let me be clear; the above observation is not necessarily a criticism of the clergy. Most likely this honor is organized by the hoi poloi themselves. It’s probably the parish that is proud of their priest and wants to honor him, so they push him (and the other clergy) into the place of honor. But it’s also easy to see how tempting it would be for a person in leadership to assume that they belonged at the head table, to want to be at the head table rather than amongst the people.
It would be kind of fun to go to a diocesan conference and have the janitor, the person who folds the bulletins, and the person who actually shows up at vespers every Saturday (there aren’t many of them!) at the head table, and make the bishop and priests find a place to sit at the ordinary tables like everyone else. There might even be a few priests who were actually upset that they weren’t at the table of honor. And there might be a lot of regular folk who were very uncomfortable because they were too embarrassed to sit with the priest. This need to divide the world into “important people” and “regular people” runs very deep in the human psyche. And Jesus says very clearly in v. 12 that those who exalt themselves (that is, those who assume they ought to sit at the head table) will eventually get their comeuppance.
And lest you think this only happens in the Orthodox Church … I grew up in the Independent Church (something like the Baptists), spent a year as a missionary pastor with Rocky Mountain Bible Mission, went to two different seminaries then for over two decades was a Presbyterian pastor. Think Protestant pastors and professors don’t love the place of honor? Well, I’ve got stories to tell. But I’ll hold my tongue.
Matthew 23 is about loving honor – something all people in places of authority have to struggle with. Verse 9 (“Call no man father …”) is simply one piece of the larger argument. But just because it illustrates a larger point doesn’t mean we can write the verse off as insignificant. Furthermore, given the history of the Protestant Reformation – the anathemas, the bloodshed, the heresies on both side of the fight – it’s no wonder that Protestants are touchy and easily offended when they hear the priest constantly called “father.”
But, while this is not Sarah Vowell’s argument (see the previous two essays), it seems a case can be made that the reason Protestants don’t call their pastors “father” is less theological and more an accident of history. In spite of the specific title, “father” for a priest or pastor, the theological idea of the fatherhood of our human leaders is deeply entrenched in both the theology and biblical interpretation of two or three centuries of Protestant scholarship and practice. Furthermore, Protestants (with a very few exceptions) have no problem calling judges “your honor,” kings “your majesty,” and pastors “reverend.” Calling one’s pastor or priest “father” is of the same species of honorific.
No, the real problem (as I observed in the previous essay) is not the title “father,” but rather the fact that the title smacks of “popery.” And even to this day there is a certain strain of anti-Catholic feeling that runs deep and strong in the Protestant psyche. Because calling a priest “father” seems just a bit too Catholic, the Protestant mind immediately jumps to the verse that prohibits the practice, even though Protestants are quite as caught up in seeking the place of honor as any Orthodox person.
Don’t get me wrong. The use of such honorifics to the point that they become normalized is deeply problematic. It feeds the ego of the leader, and a leader with truly Christian sensibilities eschews such honor whenever possible. But, when I recognized the classic Protestant interpretation of the Fifth Commandment is rooted in the very same sensibilities of the legitimate earthly fatherhood of leaders, it tended to take the sting out of the practice qua requirement of calling any priest father, in spite of Matthew 23. After all, if a radically Protestant Puritan like John Winthrop is comfortable with the fatherhood of all the leaders in a community, both civil and religious, it seems the contemporary knee-jerk reaction to the title needs to be tempered with a bit of history.