Question: "Did Jesus mean that we should never refer to our earthly father as 'father' (Matthew 23:9)? Is it wrong for Catholics to refer to their priests as 'father'?"
Answer: It would be confusing for God to give the fifth commandment in Exodus 20:12: “Honor your father and your mother” and then later restrict us from calling our earthly father “father.” Matthew 23:9 states, “And do not call anyone on earth ‘father,’ for you have one Father, and He is in heaven.” The context of Matthew 23:9 tells us that referring to one’s biological father as “father” is not what Jesus is speaking about.
In Matthew 23:1–12, Jesus is denouncing the Jewish scribes and Pharisees for rejecting Him as their Messiah, in particular for their hypocrisy in elevating themselves above others with titles such as “teacher” and “master.” The Jewish teachers affected those titles because they supposed that a teacher formed the man or gave him real life. They sought, therefore, to be called “father,” as if they were the source of truth rather than God. Christ taught that the source of all life and truth is God, and no one ought to seek or receive a title that properly belongs to Him. No one should be as revered as God is.
This denunciation is equally relevant today. In no way should any person look up to, follow, or elevate a human leader in any religious or church organization above Jesus Christ. Jesus is the Head of the Church, which is His body. He alone is the author of our salvation, source of comfort in difficulties, and strength to live the Christian life. He is the only One to whom our prayers should be directed. No one else has the right to say, “Look to me to meet your spiritual needs.” Jesus’ warning against calling men “father” is a caution against ostentation, pride, and hypocrisy.
Roman Catholics call their priests “father,” and the Pope is the “holy father.” Abbots take their title from the Aramaic word abba, which means “father.” This is clearly unbiblical. The priest as “father” is problematic. In the case of “holy father,” there is no doubt this title is unbiblical. No man can take on the title of “holy” anything, because only God is holy. This title gives the Pope a status that is never intended for any man on earth. Even the apostle Paul made no claim to holiness, referring to himself as the chief of sinners (1 Timothy 1:15). Although as Christians we have exchanged our sin for the righteousness of Christ (2 Corinthians 5:21), holiness will not be attained until we are in heaven and have left the last vestiges of our sin natures behind. Until then, the Pope has no more holiness than the average Christian and is not entitled to be called “holy father.”
What about the apostle Paul’s reference to “our father Abraham” and his implication that he himself is a father to Timothy and Titus? When Paul refers to Abraham as “our father” in Romans 4:12, he is not making the same mistake as the Pharisees. Paul is saying that the promise that saves us was first given to Abraham who in faith believed. Paul is pointing out that God began His plan of redemption of all nations with Abraham and that Abraham is the model of justification by faith, apart from the Law (verse 3). Paul is not raising Abraham to God’s level or assigning an official title to Abraham but merely acknowledging his faith. Abraham is the metaphorical “father” of all who believe in Christ in the sense that he is the prototype of faith.
When Paul calls Timothy and Titus his “sons” (see 1 Timothy 1:2, 18; 2 Timothy 1:2; and Titus 1:4), he is merely stating that he was a father figure to those whom he taught the gospel to. Paul committed himself to teaching, correcting, and training his protégés. He was more than a teacher to Timothy and Titus; he was like a father because he loved them so much and was a guide to them in their ministries. Paul was not putting himself in the place of God, and he never required anyone to call him “father.” In referring to Timothy and Titus as his children, Paul was expressing his love for them. Paul cared for them as a father loves his children and seeks their welfare.
Just as there is nothing wrong with using the word father metaphorically, there is nothing wrong with calling our earthly parents “father” and “mother.” In doing so we are not giving our parents an elevated title or position that belongs only to God. Our earthly parents are worthy of honor, and we are to honor our parents daily in the spirit of Exodus 20:12, Matthew 15:4, and Ephesians 6:1–3.