Calling a priest "father"


I’m set to have a lunch with a friend where we’re going to discuss Matthew 23:9.

I have found some information on why we (I’m Catholic) call priests “father”.
1 Cor 4:14-15 and more.

Also an interesting article written by Nazarene minister, Dennis Bratcher.

What I want to know, is, how old is the practice of calling priests “father”? I’ve been Catholic all my life, and don’t know the answer.


I can’t answer for the age of calling priest father but I have some suggestion for the discussion. Do not let him talk about the single verse.

Instead make him discuss the entire chapter.

Read the whole chapter for yourself. Did you know that if we took Jesus’ words literally not only could we not call our father’s dad(Abba can be translated into Dad) but we couldn’t use the term professor either!

Jesus used often used hyperbole and it is easy to discern that he is on this subject when you read the whole chapter and not just pick out the verse.

If he balks at discussing the chapter then ask him if he would take a single sentence out of War and Peace and feel comfortable claiming that he could explain the book from that one sentence.

The bible is a very deep book and taking things out of context or pretending that you don’t have to read the corresponding text is dishonest.


I agree with everything you said. I’m just hoping that I’ll have the strength, faith, courage, and knowledge to make a proper presentation. I’ve not had much practice at apologetics.


There is actually a verse in which Paul refers to himself as father, but I have that reference at home.

It’s my understanding that prior to the nineteenth century, or so, it was common for Protestants to also refer to their ministers in this way. When it became more common for Catholics (especially Irish, I think) to refer to priests as “father”, the Protestants sought to differentiate themselves more from Catholics and so changed the way they spoke of their own pastors. This second paragraph is from a Catholic Answers radio broadcast from some time ago, though, and I may have some of the details wrong. Can anyone confirm this?



The word Father is used in the New Testament to mean a teacher of spiritual things, by whose means the soul of man is born again into the likeness of Christ: “For if you have ten thousand instructors in Christ, yet not many fathers. For in Christ Jesus, by the gospel, I have begotten you. Wherefore I beseech you, be ye followers of me, as I also am of Christ” (1 Corinthians 4:15, 16; cf. Galatians 4:19). The first teachers of Christianity seem to be collectively spoken of as “the Fathers” (2 Peter 3:4).




Ask him if he calls Teachers teachers.


and this:


“Father” is used many times in the New Testament to refer to Abraham, Isaac, and even Paul 1 Cor 4:15.

Funny how the focus is typically on “call no man Father”, but they ignore where it also says to call no man teacher or master; yet we refer to those folks who instruct us as “teacher”.


Ask him why he has hands and eyes.

“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. And if your right hand causes you to sin, cut it off and throw it away. For it is better that you lose one of your members than that your whole body go into hell.” (Matthew 5:29-30)

Clearly, not everything Jesus taught was meant to be taken literalistically.



Or if he calls anybody doctor, which of course is latin for teacher.


Also point out that the verse actually says to call no man YOUR father…as in don’t call them your father in the same way that we call our Heavenly Father as such. That one word makes a big difference in what it means.


Well if it is wrong to call someone Father we are in good company:

*All those who sat in the Sanhedrin looked intently at him and saw that his face was like the face of an angel. And the high priest said, Is this so?' And Stephen said,My brothers and fathers, listen. The God of glory appeared to our father Abraham, when he was in Mesopotamia’" (Acts 6:14, 7:1-2).

*Paul stood on the steps and motioned with his hand to the people; when all was quiet, he addressed them in Hebrew, `My brothers and fathers, listen to what I am about to say to you in my defense’" (Acts 21:40, 22:1). *

“*It depends on faith, in order that the promise may rest on grace and be guaranteed to all his descendants–not only to the adherents of the law but also to those who share the faith of Abraham, for he is the **father **of us all, as it is written, `I have made you the father of many nations’” (Rom. 4:16-17). *

*“I do not write this to make you ashamed, but to admonish you as my beloved children. For though you have countless guides in Christ, you do not have many fathers. For I became your **father **in Christ Jesus” (1 Cor. 4:14-15).

"I appeal to you for my child, Onesimus, whose* father** I have become in my imprisonment" (Philem. 10).

“I am writing to you, fathers, because you know him who is from the beginning. . . . I write to you, fathers, because you know him who is from the beginning” (1 John 2:13).


#14’s article on the Early Church Fathers has a good description of how the term Father came to be used…not necessarily WHEN or HOW it came to be used for priests, but definitely for bishops.

(Also, it was interesting reading Irenaeus Against Heresies III 3, 3 to read the early Apostolic succession from Peter to Eleutherius – when Irenaeus wrote the document)

  1. The blessed apostles, then, having founded and built up the Church, committed into the hands of Linus the office of the episcopate. Of this Linus, Paul makes mention in the Epistles to Timothy. To him succeeded Anacletus; and after him, in the third place from the apostles, Clement was allotted the bishopric. This man, as he had seen the blessed apostles, and had been conversant with them, might be said to have the preaching of the apostles still echoing [in his ears], and their traditions before his eyes. Nor was he alone [in this], for there were many still remaining who had received instructions from the apostles. In the time of this Clement, no small dissension having occurred among the brethren at Corinth, the Church in Rome despatched a most powerful letter to the Corinthians, exhorting them to peace, renewing their faith, and declaring the tradition which it had lately received from the apostles, proclaiming the one God, omnipotent, the Maker of heaven and earth, the Creator of man, who brought on the deluge, and called Abraham, who led the people from the land of Egypt, spake with Moses, set forth the law, sent the prophets, and who has prepared fire for the devil and his angels. From this document, whosoever chooses to do so, may learn that He, the Father of our Lord Jesus Christ, was preached by the Churches, and may also understand the apostolical tradition of the Church, since this Epistle is of older date than these men who are now propagating falsehood, and who conjure into existence another god beyond the Creator and the Maker of all existing things. To this Clement there succeeded Evaristus. Alexander followed Evaristus; then, sixth from the apostles, Sixtus was appointed; after him, Telephorus, who was gloriously martyred; then Hyginus; after him, Pius; then after him, Anicetus. Sorer having succeeded Anicetus, Eleutherius does now, in the twelfth place from the apostles, hold the inheritance of the episcopate. In this order, and by this succession, the ecclesiastical tradition from the apostles, and the preaching of the truth, have come down to us. And this is most abundant proof that there is one and the same vivifying faith, which has been preserved in the Church from the apostles until now, and handed down in truth.

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Looks like I’ll be reading more of the Early Fathers…and soon.


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