I was a Jehovah's Witness (JWs) for nearly eight years, but returned to the Church in
1966. One of the favorite passages that the JWs like to show Catholics in an attempt
to discredit the Church is Matthew 23:8-10, which in the New World Translation (the
"But YOU, do not YOU be called Rabbi, for one is YOUR teacher, whereas all YOU are
brothers. Moreover, do not call anyone YOUR Father on earth for one is YOUR Father,
the heavenly One. Neither be called 'leaders,' for YOUR Leader is one, the Christ."
The JWs say Catholics are disobedient to Christ by calling the clergy "Father." How
should Catholics respond?"
First of all, Jehovah's Witnesses, as do many Protestants, believe that the Catholic
Church was the result of the "Great Apostasy" of 2 Thessalonians chapter 2 and that
the date of the founding of the Catholic Church was in the 4th century when Emperor
Constantine made it the official religion of the Roman Empire. How, then, could Jesus
be referring to Catholic priests, who according to their own admission did not even
What about the title "Rabbi"? In several instances Jesus' disciples address him as
such (see John 1:38 and verse 49; John 3:2 and verse 26; John 6:25). No where does
Jesus forbid them or correct them for using the term. This apparently doesn't apply to
Neither does it apply to one's male parent. What does a JW call his or her dad? (See
Mark 7:10; Luke 18:20). Mary calls Joseph "father" in Luke 2:48 and the parable of the
Prodigal Son refers to the father who killed the fatted calf (Luke 15:27).
This apparently does not apply to the patriarchs either. St. Luke refers to Abraham as
"Father Abraham." (See Luke 16:24, 30; John 8:56; Rom. 4:16-17; James 2:21).
It also does not apply to the elders of the community, who are also called "fathers."
(See Acts 7:2; Acts 22:1; 1 John 2:13).
In 1 Cor. 4:15 St. Paul uses the title "father" for himself. He says that he is the spiritual
father to those whom he has converted to Christ. Did St. Paul not know of Jesus'
Apparently, then, a totally literal and prohibitionist interpretation of this passage at
Matthew 23:8-10 is not what Jesus had in mind. Furthermore, this interpretation
conflicts with the fact that Jesus and others acknowledged human fatherhood and
even made positive references to it in scripture.
If one reads the whole context of Matthew 23 one will see who Jesus is denouncing
and it is not Catholic priests. It is the Scribes and Pharisees because they are
opposed Christ's teaching and mission. Jesus is objecting to their seeking honor that
belongs to God alone. What Jesus is condemning is their spirit of superiority and
Since Jesus also condemns the title "Rabbi" or "Teacher," why do JWs not object to
using the title “teacher” in reference to school teachers? Why do the JWs not object
to calling a physician and a professor "doctor" since the word means "teacher" as
well? Jesus certainly had no problem in being called "Teacher." (See John 13:13-14).
Even Eph. 4:11 and 1 Cor. 12:28-29 refers to "teachers" in the Body of Christ (the
Church). St. Paul also calls himself a teacher at 1 Tim 2:7 and 2 Tim. 1:11. So, while
Jesus is the primary teacher (we are to be his disciples all our lives long), there are
also secondary and transitory teachers referred to in scripture.
Jesus also condemns the title "Master" or "lord", but many languages, like Spanish
and Italian use the words as a form of address. Also, St. Paul tells slaves to be
obedient to their masters (Eph. 6:5 and Col. 3:22).
The title "father" was first used in reference to bishops who were the heads of the
household of the church just as a natural father is the head of his household. Also,
Abbots (heads of monasteries) were referred to as "Father Abbot" because they were
the fathers of their family of monks. Likewise, Abbesses were called "Mother Abbess."
In addition, priests, as heads of their local parishes were also called "father" because
they took care of the spiritual needs of the people, much like a natural father takes
care of the temporal needs of his family. This was not intended as a title of superiority,
nor was a priest to be put on a pedestal. However, these were titles of love and
affection, showing the familial nature of the Church. All of the above were called
"father" in a similar manner to St. Paul. (See 1 Cor. 4:15; 1 Thess. 2:11-12; 1 Tim. 1:2;
Clearly, Matthew 23:1-12 is not telling us to merely avoid certain titles. The meaning is
much deeper. It calls us to a total centering of our lives in Christ. If simply using the
titles "teacher," "father," and "leader" means one is opposed to Christ, than I suppose
the whole world is filled with anti-Christs. Jesus’ words in Matthew the 23rd Chapter
teach us to always remember that any position of authority we might hold whether in
the Church, the World, or the Family comes from Almighty God and that those
positions are to be used to serve others and not to serve ourselves or our egos.
|Does the Bible Forbid Calling a Priest "Father"?
By Claude Kenneson