Call No Man Father

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.

[1] Then Jesus said to the crowds and to his disciples, [2] “The scribes and the Pharisees sit on Moses’ seat; [3] therefore, do whatever they teach you and follow it; but do not do as they do, for they do not practice what they teach. [4] 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. [5] They do all their deeds to be seen by others; for they make their phylacteries broad and their fringes long. [6] They love to have the place of honor at banquets and the best seats in the synagogues, [7] and to be greeted with respect in the marketplaces, and to have people call them rabbi.

[8] “But you are not to be called rabbi, for you have one teacher, and you are all students. [9] And call no one your father on earth, for you have one Father – the one in heaven. [10] Nor are you to be called instructors, for you have one instructor, the Messiah. [11] The greatest among you will be your servant. [12] All who exalt themselves will be humbled, and all who humble themselves will be exalted.

[13] “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.


Some Thoughts on the Fifth Commandment

Sarah Vowell’s affection for the Puritans (see previous essay) is no love fest. They exasperate her every bit as much as they inspire her. But she reminds her readers that from history’s perspective, even though they’re in the “New World,” the Puritans have far more in common with the Middle Ages than Modern Era. It is therefore unfair to merely judge them by modern standards, because our modern sensibilities would be far more foreign to them than the medieval sensibilities they were in the process of casting aside.

On the positive side, John Winthrop (governor of the colony) was a remarkably charitable man. He was willing to go hungry (which in the New World of that period could easily have been fatal) in order to help someone else in need. He quietly broke many of the laws he was supposed to enforce because a strict reading of the law would have been inhumane. (The leadership of Massachusetts Bay Colony, for instance, banished Roger Williams in the middle of a severe winter. His banishment would almost certainly led to his death. But don’t feel too sorry for Williams, he was given many warnings but was unable to keep his subversive mouth shut. He sort of had it coming. But in spite of all that, Governor Winthrop gave Williams a heads-up about the fact that in a few days time he was going to banish him from Massachusetts, allowing him to make a more sensible and well-planned escape.)

But Winthrop and the Massachusetts Bay Colony were also very authoritarian. They considered democracy the absolute worst form of government. They believed in the divine right of kings. And they ruled their own colony with a ruthless and heavy-handed extremism that we would associate with various religious and political radicals of today.

So, how did the Puritans fit these two seemingly contradictory ideas together? Vowell figured out that if you understood the theology that drove these various sensibilities, they weren’t contradictory at all.

(Of course, this is no news to Evangelical scholars, but for a potty-mouthed, east coast, agnostic, feminist, liberal to figure this out is quite remarkable. Liberals have never been known for their open-mindedness, after all. But having lived in both worlds, Vowell is able to put her finger on the central issue and explain the seemingly contradictory behavior of the Puritans.)

Vowell explains this in her discussion of limiting dissent. Winthrop allowed no one to disagree with him. Public disagreement with the leadership of Massachusetts Bay Colony would lead inevitably to banishment or worse (as Roger Williams discovered to his dismay). Her question is, how can an otherwise fair minded guy like John Winthrop be so vehemently opposed to dissent? The short answer is that public dissent is an act of dishonoring public officials who make the policies. In her own words,

He does this acting as a patriarch … Winthrop is opposed to democracy and believes that a mixed aristocracy is what is warranted in scripture. Winthrop calls democracy “the meanest and worst of all forms of government; a breach of the fifth commandment.” (2:12:15) (ie “Honor your father and mother.”)

Okay, let’s take a break at this point. Just what does dissent and democracy have to do with the Fifth Commandment? It turns out that Sarah Vowell knows her Martin Luther, where this whole line of argument comes from. (In case you’re confused when a potty-mouthed, east coast, agnostic, feminist, liberal and Martin Luther are put in the same sentence, allow me to clarify: this is not Martin Luther King, the sixties Civil Rights leader; this is Martin Luther, of the fifteenth and sixteenth centuries, who nailed the 95 Theses on the Wittenberg Castle Door and began the Protestant Reformation.)

[Quoting Luther:] In this commandment belongs a further statement regarding all kinds of obedience to persons in authority who have to command and govern. For all authority flows and is propagated from the authority of parents. They are all called fathers in the scriptures as those who in their government perform a function of a father, and should have a paternal heart towards their subordinates.

Somehow I missed this bit of Luther in both Bible College and seminary, so I did a bit of research. It turns out that for the Reformers, Lutheran, Presbyterian, and Radical alike, this was the standard interpretation of the Fifth Commandment: “Honor your father and mother …” The Radical Reformation was quite a bit less willing to apply the commandment to kings than Luther himself, and the Scottish Presbyterians reframed the argument as well during the time they were living under a Roman Catholic monarch, but in spite of a bit of wiggling, the principle held firm: The early Protestants considered their leaders (parents, church, and civil) to be their fathers.

In short, the signers of the Declaration of Independence “our Founding Fathers” is not a lot different than calling one’s pastor “father.” It’s rooted in the same principle of reflecting the reality of God as Father, and as embodied primarily in the family unit, according to early Lutheran and Reformed interpretation.

It also needs to be said that Protestants steadfastly refused to use the title “father” with their pastor. That smacked of popery and a sixteenth or seventeenth century Protestant wouldn’t be caught dead smacking of popery. So the first wave of Protestants (Lutherans, Presbyterians, Methodists, etc.) tended to call their pastors “the Rev. Jones,” while the Protestants of the Radical Reformation (Mennonites, Baptists, Moravians, etc.) tended to call their pastors “Brother Jones.”

But in spite of the peccadillo against using the actual title “father” (Which Jesus seemed to specifically condemn – more about that in the next essay.), the idea of the fatherhood of leaders was deeply entrenched among all Christians, Protestant and Roman alike, in the sixteenth and seventeenth centuries and even into the eighteenth century. It was simply how the created order and the Fifth Commandment were understood.

At this point I’m tempted to go off on a theological rabbit track about the Fifth Commandment, but I suspect this essay is long enough already. If you’re interested, you can read Martin Luther or John Calvin yourself. I’ll just stop and be satisfied with the humiliation that a potty-mouthed, east coast, agnostic, feminist, liberal who has never been to theological school taught me something I didn’t know about the Protestant Reformers’ interpretation of the Ten Commandments.

That Other Group of Puritans

National Public Radio has introduced me to a cast of characters that I like very much. Ira Flato hosts Talk of the Nation, Science Friday. Although I haven’t heard her in a very long time, Fredericka Matthews-Green used to be a commentator on All Things Considered. And of course there’s David Sedaris and Sarah Vowell who make regular contributions to This American Life.

I particularly enjoy Sarah Vowell. Her quirky viewpoints are often laugh-out-loud funny and even though she’s a potty-mouthed, east coast, agnostic, feminist, liberal who rejected her Pentecostal Bible Belt upbringing, her basic fairness and childlike voice gives her radio essays a sense of innocence that is quite captivating. The fact that she moved from Oklahoma to Bozeman, Montana when she was in Junior High and graduated from Bozeman High creates a familiarity that makes many of her stories accessible. I was in competitive speech and debate and spent many a weekend at Bozeman High and the stories she tells from high school are remarkably familiar.

Her primary job is as a writer for the online magazine Salon, where she writes about contemporary culture. But over the years she has transformed herself into an amateur historian. It began with The Partly Cloudy Patriot, a collection of essays originally prepared for radio about American history. Three years later, in 2005, she published Assassination Vacation, a book about her travels around the country researching the assassination of Presidents Lincoln, McKinley, and Garfield (according to Wikipedia – I haven’t read the book). Her most recent offering is The Wordy Shipmates, a history of the Massachusetts Bay Colony under the leadership of John Winthrop. It is actually a fairly serious and in depth historical study of this lesser known group of Puritans who founded Boston. (Not the same as the Pilgrims who came to Plymouth some 30 years earlier.)

The amazing thing about the book is that the very irreverent, potty-mouthed, east coast, agnostic, feminist, liberal Sarah Vowell finds the Puritans so attractive. She certainly doesn’t whitewash them(!), taking them to task for their various excesses: banishing the separatist Roger Williams in the middle of winter, condemning Anne Hutchinson, to a certain extent because she was a mouthy woman, and the massacre of the Pequot Indians. But amidst this critique that in other contexts might be construed as Puritan bashing, she demonstrates a genuine affection for Winthrop, Williams, the Rev. John Cotton, and the Puritans in general.

It is this affection that allows her to sort through all the excesses to bring out the genius of Puritan ideas and theology that shaped what America would become. In her telling, it is a sad story, but it is also a triumphant story. The Massachusetts Bay Puritans represent both the worst and best of who we are as Americans entering the twenty-first century.

If you can put up with her irreverence and potty mouth, it is a wonderful history about the other Puritans who came 30 years after the Pilgrims.

But this essay isn’t just a book review of The Wordy Shipmates. In the book she made some observations about what many view as a very strange disconnect between the seemingly mean-spirited authoritarianism of Massachusetts Bay Colony and their genuine charity. I suspect it is Vowell’s Christian upbringing that allows her to see past our contemporary cultural blinders and recognize what was going on in the Massachusetts of yore. Her rather detailed historical explanation of the Protestant interpretation of the Fifth Commandment (of Ten Commandments fame) suddenly opened my eyes to the thorny practical issue of why Catholics and Orthodox call their priests “father,” and why that offends Protestants so deeply.

But that’s a whole different subject. In fact it’s two different subjects. So along with extolling Sarah Vowell as a budding historian, this essay serves to introduce and put into context the subject matter the next two essays, which will follow in the next fewdays.

Stay tuned.

Self-Help and Asceticism has a “something for nothing” deal every month or so. Whether one is an Audible member or not, the curious are able to download an audio book for free. Last month Stephen Covey’s book, The Seven Habits of Highly Effective People, was the freeby. I’ve never been interested in Covey’s work, but I’m a sucker for free, so I downloaded it and have been listening to it over the last week.

It’s an okay book. In fact echoes of the desert fathers and great spiritual Christian writers can be heard in this book. But let me be clear that Covey’s not saying the same thing; the similarities are no more than echoes. Covey’s book fits into that genre of self-help books that are success oriented, and this whole approach is antithetical to Christian sensibilities. While self-help gurus promote success, promotion, and wealth, Jesus Christ teaches that true virtue grows out of self-sacrifice and leads to death of self, the giving up of earthly things, and persecution in this life, not success. As St. Paul says, “I have been crucified with Christ, and it is no longer I who live, but Christ who lives in me” (Col 2:20).

When I was Presbyterian pastor I was looked at with disdain by many of my colleagues because I hadn’t read and didn’t practice Covey’s principles. In his heyday, Covey’s books could be found at book tables at many Presbyterian conferences. From my ecumenical contacts I know he was big stuff among Protestants across the spectrum from Baptist to Episcopal, Quaker to Methodist.

And this was true not only of Stephen Covey. The self-help genre is big among Protestants. And for more conservative Protestants who are bothered by reading secular books, Christian book stores are chock full of Christian self help books covering topics from weight loss, to addictions, to financial success, to messy living rooms.

In a flash of insight it occurred to me that this whole self-help industry fills an important void within Protestantism. The ancient forms of Christianity (Eastern Orthodox, Oriental Orthodox – Coptic, Syriac, Indian Malankara churches – and Roman Catholic) are all profoundly ascetic in their spirituality. Among the great Christian traditions only Protestantism is essentially anti-ascetic.

That anti-ascetic stance is rooted in a reaction to an historical accident. The Medieval European church was very goofy, even by modern Roman Catholic standards. Popular Christianity had devolved into a system of raising money for a huge central network of Christian leaders that owned lots of property and had to pay for all that property. (In this sense there is very little difference between the Medieval Roman church and the church of the modern televangelists: a message tailored to maximize revenue.) As the financial demands of the leadership increased, proper Christian spirituality was transformed into a system of paying “God” (ie, the church hierarchy) for the increasingly expensive “gift” of salvation.

Martin Luther and the Reformers would have nothing of it. In response to this graceless, pay-as-you-go system of salvation, Luther declared, “Salvation by grace alone, through faith.”

This reaction to an historical accident got turned into a whole doctrinal system when the Reformers began to bifurcate grace and works, saying that if salvation was by grace alone, then works could have nothing to do with salvation.

While this theology became absolutely normative within Protestantism, as anyone who paid attention in Sunday School knows, such a bifurcation between grace and works creates a great deal of tension when you read the New Testament: “Work out your own salvation with fear and trembling, for it is God who works in you” (St. Paul). “Show me your faith apart from your works, and I by my works will show you my faith. You believe that God is one; you do well. Even the demons believe – and shudder. Do you want to be shown, you senseless person, that faith apart from works is barren?” (St. James). “You that are accursed, depart from me into the eternal fire prepared for the devil and his angels; for I was hungry and you gave me no food, I was thirsty and you gave me nothing to drink, I was a stranger and you did not welcome me, naked and you did not give me clothing, sick and in prison and you did not visit me” (Jesus).

In short, you can’t be a Christian if you aren’t a “doer of the Word,” to quote James again. All Christians – including Protestants – know this instinctively. It’s just that it doesn’t fit smoothly into the Protestant doctrine of salvation. All the other Christian traditions see no conflict between grace and works. Salvation does indeed come to us exclusively by the grace of God and that gracious gift of salvation is incorporated through hard work and effort. Because of this sensibility all the above-mentioned Christian traditions (except for Protestantism) have a strong and lively ascetical tradition. But Protestantism does not.

There are certainly echoes of it. The Reformed tradition, and Calvin especially speak extensively of the necessary gratitude that is a response to grace, and this gratitude causes Christians to live a particular way. That resulted in what has been variously called the Calvinist work ethic or the Protestant work ethic. There is also the Holiness tradition that argues we must strive for perfection on this earth. Growing up my family was closely associated with a para-church organization called The Navigators. They emphasized Bible study and memorization as well as a strict and disciplined practice of small accountability groups. And the list of such movements that believe Christianity demands discipline and a changed life could go on and on.

Just don’t call them works (like Paul the Apostle and James, the brother of our Lord, did).

And this leaves a hole in the Protestant Christian life. One experiences the grace of God and wants to respond; the Christian wants to put some flesh on that divine grace that he or she has received. But if one is a Protestant, talking about that process in terms of expected or even required ascetical disciplines is problematic. The idea of “synergy” (co-working with God’s grace to incorporate it into our life) was considered a heresy by nearly all the classical Protestant theological traditions. And this left a gaping hole.

A gaping hole that the self-help industry has tried to fill: Be your best Christian self and glorify God by losing weight and being fit and trim. Maximize your Christian experience by memorizing scripture and joining a small group for fellowship. Let others see you are a Christian by living a “purpose driven life” and being part of a “purpose driven church,” etc.

Any other Christian (Orthodox, Catholic, Coptic, Malankarian) would immediately recognize such things as the co-operative effort required to incorporate salvation into one’s life. But for most Protestants, salvation is something distinct and separate from all these things.

I suspect that this is precisely why Presbyterian pastors (and a whole host of other Protestants) are perfectly willing to use a secular book such as The Seven Habits of Highly Effective People, as the basis for their ascetical life.

Oops. Excuse me. I almost forgot. Protestants don’t have an ascetical life.