“Call No Man Father”

Matthew 23:8-12

But you are not to be called rabbi, for you have one teacher, and you are all brothers.And call no man your father on earth, for you have one Father, who is in heaven. 10 Neither be called instructors, for you have one instructor, the Christ. 11 The greatest among you shall be your servant. 12 Whoever exalts himself will be humbled, and whoever humbles himself will be exalted.

Fathers and brothers.…” It’s the common salutation in conservative Presbyterian ecclesiastical gatherings. I am sure it is said in other church settings as well. It is the obligatory sign of deference to the church body and to those respected as “more equal” than others.

I’ve always hated it.

Some have told me that I don’t respect authority. That my style is brash, and I don’t know my place. That’s why I chafe at the requirements of social decorum. Perhaps. I still have the blood of immigrants flowing in my veins which means that I have always been willing to buck expectations of social convention. If my family wasn’t willing to take great risks and reach beyond “their proper place” as peasants in Hungary, I wouldn’t be here.

But the people to whom I minister might not think of me as an iconoclast. They don’t often report to me that they think I am brash or disrespectful. Quite the opposite, they think of me courteous and kind. Respectful but not respecter of persons.

I believe this is what Jesus is calling us to when he tells us to “call no man father.” We sometimes read commands like this in a wooden fashion and therefore think we shouldn’t use the word at all. The Ten Commandments call on us to honor our ‘fathers’ in a family setting. The term ‘rabbi’ is used frequently in the other Gospels. What is interesting from a literary perspective is that the term ‘rabbi’ is never used again in the Gospel of Matthew except by Judas, when he refers to Christ during the Last Supper (Matt. 26:25) and in the Garden as he is betraying Jesus (Matt. 26:49). It is used hypocritically in both instances. Jesus’ command is not so much a ban on words themselves, but an exhortation to not treat people according to a rank or status or perceived importance. We are all ‘brothers’… we all have truly equal standing.

I believe our disregard of this command among our institutional settings is one of the things that make our church bodies so ripe for abuse. We are respecters of status. And when those in higher status fail and commit sin (as we all are prone to do), those that see it are fearful of calling it out. There will be consequences… not for the sin… but for the one that doesn’t respect the higher status of the sinner. A church accountant once came to me asking for advice because the lead pastor had instructed her to make a check out to an individual (a kind of adopted child to the leader) even though this was against church policy. The accountant complied but came to me about how she should handle the situation. When I sought advice from a colleague and suggested going to the pastor, my colleague discouraged me from doing it. “Do you want to keep your job?” Status. Rank. Power. When these are emphasized, fear among those that don’t have it is always the result. Why? Because we all know that everybody else is a sinner. We might not see it in ourselves, but that is even more reason we should not be trusted with unchecked authority.

Some have dedicated their lives to educate and train others. Some have dedicated their lives to service in leadership roles. We should respect those roles and that investment. But the second a person steps outside the right exercise of that role for self-aggrandizement, we should have cultures that allow any witness of that abuse to call it out. Sisters… brothers… we have one Father… one Teacher. For our own good and even the good of one who abuses power, don’t let anyone infringe on our one Father’s authority. If we do, we become complicit in the abuse.

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