Monday, October 7, 2013

Should pastors be called Father?

My article from this week's newspapers about using "Father" as a pastoral title:

Q:  Is it acceptable to call a pastor “Father” in light of Jesus’ words in Matthew 23:9?  What are the appropriate ways to address clergy in various churches? 

While there are many forms of address for clergy, such as Pastor, Father, Reverend, etc. their particular use does vary from denomination to denomination and according to circumstances. 

Reverend (abbreviated Rev.) is one title for which its use is confined to a particular sphere.  While it is true that clergy of various degrees and in the majority of denominations properly deserve the title Reverend, it is often misused in American English. 

It is intended to be a written form of address, such as when addressing or signing letters, but it is not intended to be used as a form of spoken address (“Hello, Rev. Luther;” “I just talked to Rev. Luther.”) It is also intended to be used with the clergy’s full name (Rev. Martin Luther) and if one desires to be meticulous about it, should be preceded by “The” and followed by the clergy’s familiar title (The Rev. Father Martin Luther, The Rev. Pastor Martin Luther), although this practice is in decline in recent years.

Pastor is typically appropriate for a majority of clergy.  How this title is used will vary between churches.  Traditionally, the word Pastor followed by the last name (Pastor Luther) would be used in spoken address.  Although in past generations, it would have been considered disrespectful, it has recently become more common, especially in more informal churches, to use the title Pastor with the first name (Pastor Martin) instead. 

The title Father is most commonly used among Roman Catholics, but does have some following among Eastern Orthodox, Episcopal, and Lutheran churches.  Some objections have been raised to this term, based on Jesus words in Matthew 23:9, when He says, “Call no man your father on earth, for you have one Father, who is in heaven. 

However, when taken in context, it would be difficult to understand this as prohibiting the use of Father as a title in the church.  First of all, such an understanding would prohibit us from calling even our biological fathers by that name, since Jesus says to call “no man” father.  Additionally, in the surrounding verses he makes similar prohibitions about using the titles Rabbi and Instructor as well, which have not historically been understood as universal prohibitions. 

Even more, the Apostle Paul speaks of himself as a spiritual father in 1 Corinthians 4:15 and calls Timothy his “true child in the faith” in 1 Timothy 1:2.  Finally, He instructs believers not to rebuke their pastors but to encourage them as they would fathers in 1 Timothy 5. 

Teachers of Christianity, such as Martin Luther have also understood many offices with earthly authority as being derived from the authority of fatherhood—particularly in vocations such as teacher, pastor, and government rulers, and the first generations of reformers retained the title Father for their pastors prior to its later disappearance. 

The most sensible approach to this saying of Jesus seems to be as a warning against those who demand titles of honor (such as the Pharisees who were there with Him) and against honoring a man more highly than God.  So, if a man demands the title Father and uses His authority contrary to God’s Word, it would certainly be inappropriate to give him any honor or obedience.  However, if a man acts in service to God as a ruler, pastor, or teacher, and teaches and rules according to God’s Word, it would be a matter of Christian freedom what title one is to address him by—whether pastor, father, or otherwise. 

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