Odd it is that the same person who insists that “This is my body” is just a metaphor also insists that “Call no man father” must be utterly literal. But no one really thinks that I can not call my dad “father.” No one really thinks I can not call George Washington “the father of his country.” (Well, maybe there are a few oddballs who do say such things, but the real objection is not to calling dads “father” or Washingtons “father” but to calling priests “father.” The objection is reserved for priests.)
And, to be fair, there is a certain logic in this particular limitation. Even though Christ says “call no man father,” the context is a discussion of religious titles. This is part of a longer passage in which Christ condemns the Pharisees.
All their works they do for to be seen of men. They make broad their phylacteries, and enlarge the borders of their garments, and love the uppermost rooms at feasts, and the chief seats in the synagogues, and greetings in the markets, and to be called of men, Rabbi, Rabbi. But be not ye called Rabbi: for one is your Master, even Christ; and all ye are brethren. And call no man your father upon the earth: for one is your Father, which is in heaven. Neither be ye called masters: for one is your Master, even Christ.
Of course, Christ does not just say “Call no man father,” but “call no man master” and “call no man teacher.” So must we not use the phrase “master craftsman”? Should I refrain from saying, “Dr. Allen is my piano teacher”? For that matter, should we stop giving anyone doctoral degrees? (“Doctor” means “teacher,” since it comes from the Latin docere, meaning “to teach.”)
Yes, I know the context is religious titles. And I am getting there. But John MacArthur, a noted anti-Catholic minister, is called Dr. MacArthur. No one cites Matthew 23:10. No one cites that verse, either, against Dr.* James White being called “doctor.” The unaccredited diploma mill is enough of an objection where he is concerned.
So, again, this is all very selective. This is all about the Catholic priesthood. The one thing Christ really forbids, apparently, is to call priests “father.”
But we may certainly call our ancestors “father.” “Was not our father Abraham,” St. James asks, “justified by works?” (See what I did there?)
Now, Abraham was not merely the father of the nation of Israel. He was also the father of the faith of Israel. Indeed, Abraham, according to St. Paul, is the father of all who have faith:
Therefore it is of faith, that it might be by grace; to the end the promise might be sure to all the seed; not to that only which is of the law, but to that also which is of the faith of Abraham; who is the father of us all (Romans 4:16).
So here—and specifically in a religious context—Abraham is called “the father of us all.” Moreover, Paul frequently reminds us of his own role as a spiritual father. He is a father to Timothy (1 Cor. 4:17; 1 Tim. 1:2; Phil 2:22). He is a father to Titus (Titus 1:4). He is a father to Onesimus (Philemon 10). And he writes to the Corinthians: “I became your father in Christ Jesus through the gospel” (1 Cor. 4:14–15).
So then, what did Jesus mean by “call no man father”? I think the key to answering that is to note that, if he is speaking about religious titles, he is also speaking about conceit and pretentiousness. He is speaking about people who love to lord their titles over others. They love to be called “father” and “master” and “teacher.” They love the chief seats, the upper rooms, greetings in the marketplace. Like Narcissus, they would gaze into the water upon their broad phylacteries. It’s not titles, per se that piques Christ’s ire, but pretense.
And this is why Christ decides to give his disciples a lesson, not about vocabulary, but about the fact that the source of all authority, the source of all fatherhood, and all knowledge, and all instruction, is in God. It’s not all about you, Pharisees; stop being so vain. That’s the sense of what Christ says; “call no man father” is hyperbole to make that point.