One of the most common grumbles one hears from Protestant fundamentalists against the Catholic Church is “In Matthew 23:9 Jesus said ‘Call No Man Father–so why do you Catholics call your priests ‘Father’ in direct disobedience to the clear words of Jesus?”

This article from Catholic Answers goes into great detail–answering the question from Scripture. I’m grateful for the article and agree with it, but when I’m teaching our Upper School students about apologetics I will cut to the chase a bit more sharply.

Instead of long explanations about how some characters in the Bible used the term “Father” and how Jesus himself and the apostles were called “Teachers” and Jesus himself accepted the term “Rabbi”, I ask a few probing questions about how we all (Catholics and non-Catholics alike) read and interpret the Bible.

I ask whether they eat ham sandwiches, enjoy pork barbecue or play football. If they do, then I refer them to the Old Testament verses that prohibit not only the consumption of pork products but also the handling of the carcass of a pig. A football is, after all, made from pigskin. Hey! No more Friday night football for you Christian folk!

Then I ask whether their women are allowed to have braided hair or wear a string of pearls or gold jewelry or God forbid! a diamond ring. Then I ask them to look up I Timothy 2:9: ”

In like manner also, that women adorn themselves in modest apparel, with shamefacedness and sobriety; not with braided hair, or gold, or pearls, or costly array;

Then I push it a bit further and ask whether they have handled rattlesnakes recently–or whether they have had a sip of arsenic. Have they read Mark 16:18? What about Jesus’ own words that if our eye cause us to sin we should pluck it out or cut off our hand if it sins? Why have they still got two eyes and two hands?

The obvious point being that all of us–quite sensibly–do not take every verse of the Bible literally. We understand that the Bible is an ancient document written thousands of years ago. We need common sense, scholarship and a trustworthy authority to interpret it properly. We also understand something called “hyperbole”–exaggeration to hammer home a point.

Jesus’ words about “calling no man Father” was a cultural reference to warn his disciples against false teachers. In their culture there were leaders of sects (as there are today) that gathered together a community of followers who were expected to give him total allegiance and call him “Father”.

So Jesus is warning against false, cult-like sects who would lead people astray. Most of all he was directing their ultimate allegiance to their Heavenly Father. In other words, “Don’t follow any man who sets himself up as your ultimate religious authority. That allegiance belongs to your Heavenly Father.”

I am hearing the Protestant brother who might well say, “This is exactly what you Catholics do!  You call the Pope ‘Holy Father’ and say he is God’s voice on earth–the ‘Vicar of Christ’ for goodness sake! You give him your total allegiance instead of God!”

I hearya.

While this is undoubtedly true for some Catholics it is not the proper understanding of the role of the pope. We love the pope (and ‘pope’ is just a form of ‘Papa’) our Holy Father and we do believe he speaks with the Lord’s authority on earth, but that is the authority of Christ’s Body the Church–not simply and merely the voice of the one who occupies the chair of Peter. Distinctions must be made.

This, in turn, becomes a good teaching point for us Catholics because we can still fall into the trap of listening to an earthly voice of authority rather than our Heavenly Father. If you are so attached to a particular priest, bishop, archbishop, pastor or pope that you have yielded your will and your mind and heart to him, then you’re getting off track. If you yield your powers of reasoning and discernment to some blogger, writer, YouTube guru or Twitter master, then you’re getting off track.

Remember the old gospel song, “Turn your eyes upon Jesus, Look Full in his wonderful face, and the things of earth will grow strangely dim–in the light of his glory and grace.”