Why Do We Call The Priest “Father”?

The Reading from the First Epistle of St. Paul to the Corinthians. (4:9-16)

One of the most common questions that comes up when someone comes to the Orthodox Church, especially those who come from protestant/ non-denominational backgrounds is “Why do you call the priest ‘Father’?” This is actually a very good question. We should ask questions about our faith and try to dig in and learn as much as we possibly can in life, especially our life in Christ. When we ask the right questions we have the possibility of gaining knowledge and insight that can inform and sometimes transform our reality. One of the philosophers once said “the unexamined life, is no life at all.” That being said, we are encouraged to ask but also to listen closely to the answers provided through the gospels, through the Scriptures, and through the holy tradition of the Church as it has existed for 2000 years.

This question about why we call the priest “Father” is even more important in light of the teaching of our Lord Jesus Christ in Matthew 23:9 where He says “Do not call anyone on earth your father; for One is your Father, He who is in heaven.” So the question then is, “why do Orthodox and Roman Catholic believers still call their priests “Father”? As far as I can tell, the answer is multi-faceted. It involves depth not careless and simple interpretation.

Fr. Richard Ballew in his short article “Call No Man Father?” writes that “[Christ] was telling them not to use their positions as fathers and teachers as an opportunity to build disciples around their own private opinions. For to do so would only serve to “shut up the kingdom of heaven against men”.

He goes on saying “While Father Abraham by his faithfulness deserved the title, as did others of Israel’s greats in history, these men (the Pharisees and Sadducees) had forfeited their role as fathers. They were to cease and desist in their use of the term and, in turn, bow to God Himself as the fountainhead of all fatherhood.”

St. Jerome writes,

“No one should be called teacher or father except God the Father and our Lord Jesus Christ. He alone is the Father, because all things are from him. He alone is the teacher, because through him are made all things and through him all things are reconciled to God.

But one might ask, “Is it against this precept when the apostle calls himself the teacher of the Gentiles? Or when, as in colloquial speech widely found in the monasteries of Egypt and Palestine, they call each other Father?” …. One is rightly called a teacher only from his association with the true Teacher. I repeat: The fact that we have one God and one Son of God through nature does not prevent others from being understood as sons of God by adoption. Similarly this does not make the terms father and teacher useless or prevent others from being called father.” Commentary on Matthew 4.23.10. [CCL 77:213.]

St. John Chrysostom had this to say, “not that they should not call, but they may know whom they ought to call Father, in the highest sense. For like as the master is not a master principally; so neither is the father. For He (God) is cause of all, both of the masters, and of the fathers.” Commentary on Matthew, Homily LXXII

In today’s epistle we hear these words from the great Apostle St. Paul who writes “For though you have countless guides in Christ, you do not have many fathers. For I became your father in Christ Jesus through the Gospel.” (1 Cor 4:15)

I remind you that this St. Paul encountered the living Lord Jesus Christ and learned from Him directly. He was the chosen apostle to preach and teach the gentiles. He possibly understood the faith with more depth than anyone who had come before or after him. Yet here he clearly calls himself “father” to those Christians at Corinth. It wasn’t that He was ignorant of the teaching of Christ. It was that He understood it much better than we do. It was not meant as a hard and fast rule to be blindly followed. It was meant to mold and guide our understanding of reality in Christ. It also pointed to what was lacking within the leadership of the people of Israel at the time of Christ.

These days when I meet someone from a protestant background, they are hesitant to call me father. They call me brother or pastor or James. And that is generally ok, because they are not part of our flock and they often want to honor the words of Our Lord. However, within the Christian community of the Orthodox Church, the priest is the father of the community in a very real sense, just as some of you are fathers to children within your homes. To pretend otherwise would be a sin. You bring your children into existence, you nurture and support them, you provide for them and protect them. These are attributes of fatherhood. Even if you adopt children, if you faithfully take on the mantle of all of these responsibilities, whether the child appreciates it or not, you become their father.

Life in the Church, just as in the home, functions best when a good father is present. The father is there to challenge, to encourage, to correct, to protect, and to provide for his family. Sometimes that means literal food and clothing and shelter, but most often this refers to caring for our spiritual needs. Without a priest, there are no sacraments especially the most holy body and the most precious blood of Christ, and without the sacraments and the corresponding prayer and liturgical life, the church ceases to fully exist. It may exist as a shell or a shadow, but the reality is that a priest under the authority of a canonical bishop is required for the Church to be fully manifested and present in any place. This has been and remains the teaching of the early Christians and of the Orthodox Church until now.

Know that we are here to serve you and to present you to Christ. This is our life’s work and our joy. Pray for all the priests and especially this priest so that we may faithfully embody the sacrificial and life-giving love of God, who is our true Father. Glory be to God forever, AMEN.

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