Call No Man Your Father


Question: I’m stuck on Matthew 23:8-10. Jesus says, “Do not be called Rabbi; for One is your Teacher, and you are all brothers. Do not call anyone on earth your father; for One is your Father, He who is in heaven. Do not be called leaders; for One is your Leader, that is, Christ” (NASB). Are we really not supposed to refer to people as teacher, doctor, or boss?

Jesus says some challenging words! Craig Blomberg in the New American Commentary on Matthew 23:5-10 was helpful to me. He notes that the NT uses the categories of ‘teacher’ and ‘father’ in reference to believers:

People are properly called teachers in Acts 13:1; 1 Tim. 2:7; and Heb. 5:12. Paul will even refer to a spiritual gift that enables some people to be so identified (Eph. 4:11; 1 Cor. 12:28-29; cf. James 3:1). It remains appropriate to call a biological parent one’s father, and even one’s spiritual parent may be addressed with this term (1 Cor. 4:15; cf. also 1 John 2:13; Acts 22:1). So the point of Matthew 23:8-12 must be that such titles are not to be used to confer privilege or status.

Blomberg’s interpretation fits the preceding context (Matt. 23:5–7) well:

But they do all their deeds to be noticed by men; for they broaden their phylacteries and lengthen the tassels of their garments. They love the place of honor at banquets and the chief seats in the synagogues, and respectful greetings in the market places, and being called Rabbi by men.

Jesus exposes the scribes’ and Pharisees’ love of honor and lists the ways they seek it and love receiving it.

Jesus exposes the scribes’ and Pharisees’ love of honor and lists the ways they seek it and love receiving it.

In addition to what Blomberg said above, I would note that the categories of apostles (Acts 6:6), elders (Acts 11:30), overseers and deacons (Phil. 1:1) were used throughout the NT as particular offices, along with evangelist, pastor, and prophet (Eph. 4:11; Acts 21:8). So, it would seem that the use of an office, e.g., “pastor” as a means of identifying the persons who serve in that office, would be both appropriate and sanctioned by the Spirit.

On the other hand, The Reverend, The Right Reverend, His Holiness, His Eminence, My Lord, and other such honorifics find no support in the NT and, I would argue, are examples of the kind of thing Jesus was rebuking in this passage.

D.A. Carson comments in the Expositor’s Bible Commentary:

This verse not only [forbids] self-exaltation in teaching divine things but rejects the authority of the religious teachers of Jesus’ day.…Among those who follow Jesus, a brotherly relationship is required.…Jesus was not justifying that particularly perverse pride that cloaks itself in discourtesy.…The risen Christ is as displeased with those in His Church who demand unquestioning submission to themselves and their opinions and confuse a reputation for showy piety with godly surrender…as he ever was with any Pharisee.

When I am in a church context, I say to people, “When I am teaching at the college, I am ‘Dr. Phil’ or ‘Dr. Brown’ because it is an academic setting. But when I gather with the body of Christ in church, I am ‘Bro. Phil’ or ‘Bro. Brown’ or just ‘Phil.’ Neither my status as an ordained elder nor the PhD degree I earned with long, hard work, elevate me above any of my brothers and sisters in Christ.” Scripture is clear that those who labor in the Word and doctrine are worthy of double honor (1 Tim. 5:17-18). However, that honor is an expression of gratitude for their service, not a conferral of superiority, status, or value with respect to other believers. Peter is clear that those who are his fellow elders and under-shepherds are to care for the flock, not as lords, but as servants (1 Pet. 5:1-5).

Here’s the bottom line: Since we all have one Father, we are family in Christ. Within His Church, Christ prohibits the use of honorary titles that make some believers superior to other believers.

Adapted from God’s Revivalist. Used by permission.

Philip Brown
Philip Brown
Dr. Philip Brown is Graduate Program Director and Professor at God's Bible School & College. He holds a PhD in Old Testament Interpretation from Bob Jones University and is the author of A Reader's Hebrew Bible (Zondervan Academic, 2008).