Monday, December 24, 2012

Call No Man 'Father'?

As you probably know by now, if you've followed this blog at all, I am a member of the Orthodox Church, after having been raised a Baptist.

One of the minor struggles for me in entering the Church was that we call our priests "Father". This seems to go against the direct command of Jesus in Matthew 23:9.

I'm posting now, because I just came across something in the Scripture the other day that clinched my viewpoint from "well, the Orthodox interpretation makes Scriptural sense, but it's not Scripturally obvious" to "Yep, that's the what the Scripture actually teaches." In other words, it solidified things so that I now see the Orthodox interpretation as actively Scriptural, instead of scripturally ambivalent.

But first, let me lay out the two interpretations, and why I'm empathetic to those who hold the standard Protestant interpretation.

The Protestant Interpretation

For Protestants, it's pretty simple: Jesus said don't do it; so don't.

The Orthodox Response

The Orthodox answer to the Protestant inquiry is: look deeper, and consider the entirety of Scripture. Quit "cherry-picking", and seek to understand what Jesus is actually saying, because it's not as simple as you're making it out to be.

I will not go into the details of our explanation here. That has been done elsewhere.[1]

In summary, the argument is that Jesus is commanding anyone called "father" here on earth to image forth in his own fatherly relationships not his own opinions and ideas and desires — that is, his own "fatherhood" — but rather the fatherhood of God the Father. His own "fatherhood" is not really fatherhood at all, but a lie, if it is not submitted to and patterned after the Father.[2]

The New Development (to me)

My point with this blog post is this: Until now, the Orthodox answer has, to me, made sense, and I call priests "father" without difficulty. However, I have understood that the argument, as presented, is not air-tight — from the hard-core sola scriptura perspective — in that it doesn't seem to really have any direct Scriptural support.

And I'll admit, in the English translations available, it doesn't. But that's the fault of the translations, and not of the Scripture, as we'll see.

The verse I "stumbled across" is not new to me. It is a quite familiar verse. Let's take a look at it in English:

Ephesians 3:14, 15 (KJV)
For this cause I bow my knees unto the Father of our Lord Jesus Christ, of whom the whole family in heaven and earth is named...

This verse is typically interpreted to mean that the entire family of the Church, or, by some, the human race, gets it's name from either the Father or Jesus (the English not being too clear on which is the antecedent of "whom"). This is typically extrapolated to refer to the name "Christian", or to the fact that all, both Jew and Gentile, are united in Christ to the One Father, something similar.[3]

These are, of course, all true, and definitely good exposition of the one shade of meaning in the word here translated "family". However, and here's the kicker, "family" is not the literal or primary meaning of the word, but a metaphorical interpretation that presumes and in fact relies upon the literal meaning. The word is the Greek "πατριὰ", or "patria", which literally translates to "fatherhood", being derived from the Greek word "πατέρ", or "pater", which is "Father".

Also, the word just before it, translated in the KJV as "the whole", is "πᾶσα", or "pasa", from the root "pas". It can mean "the whole", but more commonly means "all" or "every", as several of the other translations have it, and as the KJV itself has it elsewhere[4].

So, the verse, literally translated, and syntax adjusted for clarity, says that every fatherhood derives it's name — that is, "father" — from the Father of our Lord Jesus Christ.

Now, let's take a look at the link between a name and using that name, that is: calling a thing or person by that name.[6] For reference, the word Jesus uses, translated "call", is "καλέσητε", or "kalesete", from the root "kaleo".

The word Paul uses for "is named" is "ὀνομάζεται"/"onomadzetai", the verb form of the noun root "onoma", meaning, simply, "name".

Thankfully, God provides us a wonderful exegetical tool in confirming that if something is named something, that is what it is called, and vice versa, in case it wasn't already obvious. For this, let's turn to Genesis 2:19, where God brings the animals to Adam

to see what he would call [καλέσει/kalesei] them: and whatsoever Adam called [ἐκάλεσεν/ekalesen] every living creature, that was the name [ὄνομα/onoma] thereof.

The next verse is even more direct:

And Adam gave names to all [πᾶσιν/pasin] cattle, and to the fowl of the air, and to every [πᾶσι/pasi] beast of the field.

The Greek here translated "gave name to all" is more obvious: ἐκάλεσεν Αδαμ ὀνόματα πᾶσιν. That is, "Adam called the names [of] every...". These are the exact three words used by Jesus and Paul.

So, if every fatherhood in the earth receives it name from the Father, then it follows that we call them according to their name: father.

It's obvious, when we look at the entirety of Scripture, that the basic meaning, from which all of the other metaphorical interpretations derive, is that anyone called "father" here is only worthy of the title insofar as he imitates God the Father.

Jesus is not wiping the concept of fatherhood, nor it's title, from our dictionary. Rather, He is re-connecting it to it's original prototype, it's ultimate referent. Which is exactly what we been said to start with. QED.


  1. If the link is broken, let me know, or just Google "Call no man father richard ballew"
  2. Incidentally, this is the exact explanation that some Protestant commentators give of Jesus' command not to be called "teacher", or "master" (depending on the translation), John Gill's commentary.
  3. Here is a good cross-section of these. (Scroll down to the "Parallel Commentaries" section.)
  4. The KJV has it as "every" over 200 times in 171 verses.
  5. I'm using the Greek edition of the Old Testament, the Septuagint, because we're discussing a Greek word.
  6. I'm just being thorough here. The link is "common sense". But let's be 100% and without a doubt clear that the Scripture does explicitly use things this way


  1. Just wanted to help you out a bit. "For this cause I bow my knees unto the Father of our Lord Jesus Christ, of whom the whole family in heaven and earth is named..."

    In that verse, "..of our Lord Jesus Christ" is a prepositional phrase that is an adjective to Father, therefor, the "...of whom the whole..." is referring to the Father.

    1. That is also how I read it; to me it's quite obvious, and most commentators also have it this way. But I have heard some people assert "Jesus Christ" as the antecedent, which is why I have the parenthetical statement.


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