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Call No Man Father?

by Douglas Cramer

The Orthodox Christian Church has since the time of Christ nurtured and raised up a way of understanding the world, of understanding ourselves, and understanding our walk with God that is a unique treasure often unheard, unheralded and unshared. Our's is a living faith, a living Tradition of how to follow Christ. Let's consider an easily-overlooked passage from St. Paul's first Epistle to the Corinthians. It is a crucial reference point in one small tradition of the Church, a tradition with large implications.

The passage, 1 Corinthians 4:14-16, reads: "I do not write these things to shame you, but as my beloved children I warn you. For though you might have ten thousand instructors in Christ, yet you do not have many fathers; for in Christ Jesus I have begotten you through the gospel. Therefore I urge you, imitate me." The tradition reflected in this passage is one we still practice today - our tradition of calling our deacons and priests "father", and of referring to our Orthodox Christian spiritual elders through the century as "the Fathers of the Church."

Let's think about what we can learn from this tradition of calling our clergy and spiritual elders "Father". The traditional title "Father" points us towards the truth that our faith is a living thing, rather than simply a mere collection of ancient rituals. We are part of God's living, growing family - and our spiritual elders are called to a special role in that family. And this family's greatest task is to safeguard God's Holy Tradition.

Paul is writing to the congregation of the apostolic church of Corinth, a church which Paul had founded during his missionary travels but which had struggled with a great many problems, from disunity to doctrinal confusion. Paul refers to the Corinthians as his "beloved children". He tells them that they "do not have many fathers", but that he himself has "begotten" them. Clearly, Paul is taking on the mantle of spiritual fatherhood for the congregation of Corinth.

Spiritual fatherhood is an ancient tradition and a stark contrast to the feeble substitutes our modern secular culture provides. Just look at the authority figures we find in the media today, the priests and priestesses of the airwaves. On the one hand, we have a spiritual guide seeking to model holy behavior for his followers while challenging them to fulfill their potential. On the other hand, we have pseudo-celebrities on talk shows who seem to want nothing more than to keep their audiences addicted to the next spoonful of information that has no real importance to their life.

This tradition of spiritual fatherhood was part of the lifeblood of the early Church. Paul's understanding of himself as the father of the Church of Corinth, though, raises a very old controversy within the Christian world. Many Christian denominations have since at least the Protestant Reformation rejected the title of "father" for spiritual elders, despite the clear fact that St. Paul and other great early leaders of the Church thought of themselves as exactly this.

This controversy springs from the way some Christians have interpreted Our Lord's words in Matthew 23:9, "Do not call anyone on earth your father; for One is your Father, He who is in heaven." It's important to remember that the apostle Paul seems to not believe this was Christ's intent. In addition to the Epistle passage above, there are several other passages from Scripture in which Paul refers to the idea of spiritual fatherhood. In fact, even one of the earliest leaders of the Protestant Reformation - John Calvin himself - believed that Paul was correct to refer to himself as "father". Calvin wrote, "While Paul claims for himself the appellation of father, he does it in such a manner as not to take away or diminish the smallest portion of the honor which is due to God. ... God alone is the Father of all in faith ... But they whom he is graciously pleased to employ as his ministers for that purpose, are likewise allowed to share with him in his honor, while, at the same time, He parts with nothing that belongs to himself."

Now, let's also remember that in Matthew 23, Christ also says "do not be called teacher". Yet, elsewhere in the Gospels, Our Lord himself uses this title for others, such as Nicodemus.

In this "call no man father" passage, Our Lord is making a particular point for a very particular audience. He is contrasting His own living truth with the teachings of the "scribes and Pharisees" who were convinced that only they understood God's Law and were fit to interpret it. Christ is accusing the rabbis opposed to him of deliberately twisting God's Word to suit their own desires. Christ stood in opposition to those who seek to elevate themselves and place themselves before God.

Our Lord wants true teachers. He wants true spiritual fathers who can take on the mantle of spiritual leadership. But He only wants teachers and fathers who understand that they themselves are not the source of the Tradition which they are passing on, but are instead conduits for the Tradition of God.

As St. Paul says earlier in 1 Corinthians, "God has displayed us, the apostles, last, as men condemned to death; for we have been made a spectacle to the world, both to angels and to men. We are fools for Christ's sake, ... Being reviled, we bless; being persecuted, we endure; being defamed, we entreat." The followers of Christ learned quickly that there was no worldly reward for spreading the Gospel of Christ, for founding the Holy Tradition. They knew that they owed their lives to the Truth of God which had been revealed to them, and that they needed to be true teachers and fathers, showing through their actions the way of God.

So, we begin to see how this small thread of our Tradition, our practice of calling our spiritual elders "Father", leads us towards the unique power of the Orthodox Christian faith. Our faith is not a faith in dead letters and ancient rituals. Our faith is a faith in a living God, a God who cares so much for us that He would not let us suffer in our sin but instead sent His Only Begotten Son to teach us and heal us. Our Lord Jesus Christ came to us, and established the Church which will continue to be our unbreakable fortress until His glorious return. He lives with us still through the Church, which is His Body and our refuge.

Our Church is alive, as Our Lord is alive. And what is our Church? It is the home of our Holy Tradition, a living faith entrusted by Jesus Christ to His apostles, our spiritual forefathers, and by them to their own followers. We learn from Scripture that the Apostles took great care to make sure that they were good stewards of the wisdom and power entrusted to them. They knew that they were not the source of Holy Tradition. This would have been an easy trap to fall into. How often today do we see leaders go astray by believing they are the source of their teachings, rather than their steward? The Apostles' role, rather, was to preserve and transmit God's great revelation, the Good News of the Gospel, in all of its beauty and power and intricacy. What is called "the apostles' doctrine" in the Book of Acts is not a new tradition of men. It is, rather, the first communal codification of the wisdom of Christ.

As we know, the doctrine of the Apostles has been under constant assault by forces inside and outside of the Church since the very beginning. But God in His wisdom did not allow for the Church to be defenseless in the face of attack. Rather than only leaving us with a written record of His wisdom, or allowing the Apostles to only leave us such a record, God allowed for the truth to be embedded within a living organization, the Church. This enabled the Church to imitate the wisdom of the Apostles. The Church did not have to rely on the written word alone to preserve God's wisdom. The Apostles themselves picked their disciples with great care, making sure that their followers on the whole - despite the occasional bad apple! - would be able to pass on the true faith. And in imitation of them, the Church has always done likewise. She has sought out, with the guidance of the Holy Spirit, men and women capable of preserving, embodying, and passing on Orthodox faith, Orthodox worship, Orthodox conduct, and Orthodox doctrine.

Brothers and sisters, we are more than we realize. We in the Church today are nothing less than the direct descendents of the Apostles of Jesus Christ. Our Church is a living family which has endured for two thousand years, and will endure until the end of time itself. We today have been entrusted with the Holy Tradition of God, to embody and pass on to those who will follow us. This is a great responsibility for us all, and particularly those whose entire lives are dedicated to being good stewards of God's Tradition. These are the individuals who have been called out from among us to serve the Church as clergy. Led by our bishops, our spiritual fathers today trace their stewardship of God's Tradition directly back to the Apostles themselves. Like our spiritual fathers and mothers, the great elders and teachers God has sent His Church for two thousand years, our leaders in the Church today are our guides to the life of Christ. They guide us as parents guide their children, as Paul guided the Church of Corinth, and we acknowledge this great gift when we respectfully call them "Father", as the Church has always done.

So, what is the significance of this tradition for us today? There are many answers to this question, so let me leave you with a couple of ideas to get you thinking.

It is important for us to call the priests and other spiritual teachers God has sent to us "Father" as a show of respect. But even more so, it is important to understand why we do this. When we call our priests "Father", we are with a single word acknowledging our membership in a family that stretches back to Christ and His Apostles. When we kiss the hand of a priest we show our love and devotion to the family, the community, the Church founded by Jesus Christ and His Apostles. And the priest bestows his blessing on behalf of God and of all of our family members, our fellow members of the family of God, through the ages.

Once we understand and appreciate why we call our spiritual elders "Father", we can also better understand what we are not saying! We are not saying, when we call a priest "Father", that every word he ever speaks is above reproach. God forbid! Our spiritual elders, even our greatest saints, have always been men and women just like us - people struggling throughout their whole lives with their own faults and failings. As with any family, our strength comes from all of us pulling together. In a way, healthy families are self-correcting. It is hard for any one misstep or mistaken word by a family member to cause the entire family to crumble. Together, we work to correct each other and to preserve those gifts and truths which have been left in our care.

St. Paul rests his claim to being the spiritual father of the Corinthians on the fact that he has, in his words, "begotten you through the gospel." His mantle of authority originates with God, not with himself. For this reason, he can boldly instruct the church of Corinth to follow his teachings. He challenges them with these simple words: "imitate me".

It can be difficult for us today to willingly submit to authority. As some might say, "Who are you? Are you the boss of me?" We are much more likely to balk or flinch if someone says, "imitate me", then our ancestors would have been. So, why should we imitate our spiritual fathers - those of the past and those with us today? There is a very simple answer to this question, and it comes from St. Paul himself.

We've looked more deeply at the significance of St. Paul calling the Corinthians his spiritual children. We've looked at the origins of the Orthodox tradition of calling our spiritual elders "Father". We've seen how rather than being a tradition that undermines Christ's will for His Church, this tradition emphasizes the living reality of the family of faith.

Paul urges his spiritual children to imitate him. Why? In 1 Corinthians 11:1, Paul writes, "Imitate me, just as I also imitate Christ." Here is our answer. Paul urges his spiritual children to imitate him because he is imitating Christ. Paul is setting himself up as a spiritual role model, saying in essence: "We must all imitate Christ. Here, watch me, and I'll show you how it's done."

This is the legacy that the Church honors today. Our spiritual fathers who have gone before us continue to set for us an example of what it means to imitate Christ. And our spiritual fathers among us today strive to follow in their footsteps, imitating Christ to the best of their ability in order to provide their own spiritual children with an example. This is why we should all show respect and honor for our spiritual elders and teachers, and why we should work to imitate them. We are not imitating them because of any particular virtue inherent in a particular person. We are working to imitate Christ Himself. If we do, we will be tapping in to the great treasurehouse the Church places at our disposal, all of the accumulated wisdom and aid passed along by the generations of our spiritual ancestors.

There is certainly something unique in the Orthodox Christian worldview. This uniqueness flows from our belief that we are participants in a living faith. While we of course need to understand and learn from the written word of God, the Bible is only one of the pillars of Holy Tradition. God has provided us with other, complimentary ways of understanding His will for us. These include our beautiful and holy Orthodox worship. These ways include the writings and lives of the great fathers of the Church. And these ways also include our living fathers in the Church - our deacons, priests, and bishops today. They are our fathers, whose faith should form us as St. Paul's faith formed the Corinthians. Let us with untroubled hearts show our gratitude and respect for the family of God to which we belong, calling men father who teach and nourish us.

This reflection is adapted from a speech originally written for Fr. Christopher Metropulos of St. Demetrios Greek Orthodox Cathedral of Ft. Lauderdale, FL, and SCOBA's Orthodox Christian Network. Learn more about the powerful ministries of OCN on their website,