Jesus warned against calling anyone other than God father on earth:

8 But you are not to be called rabbi, for you have one teacher, and you are all brothers. 9 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.
[Matthew 23:8-10 ESV]

However, Paul saw no problem in referring to himself as father of many whom he considered to be his spiritual "children":

18 It is always good to be made much of for a good purpose, and not only when I am present with you, 19 my little children, for whom I am again in the anguish of childbirth until Christ is formed in you!
[Galatians 4:18-19 ESV]

14 I do not write these things to make you ashamed, but to admonish you as my beloved children. 15 For though you have countless guides in Christ, you do not have many fathers. For I became your father in Christ Jesus through the gospel. 16 I urge you, then, be imitators of me. 17 That is why I sent you Timothy, my beloved and faithful child in the Lord, to remind you of my ways in Christ,[d] as I teach them everywhere in every church.
[1 Corinthians 4:14-17 ESV]

Is there a contradiction between Jesus' admonition and Paul's actions?

  • 2
    Up-voted +1. I have often wondered about this. I, myself, have many 'fathers' in the gospel : Paul himself, John the Baptist, John the Apostle, Martin Luther, William Huntington, J C Philpot, Dean John Burgon, Robert Young and others. But no single one whom I would call 'Father' save the God and Father of the Lord Jesus Christ.
    – Nigel J
    Feb 17, 2022 at 19:14
  • I should have known we'd be seeing this question soon =) Feb 18, 2022 at 21:28

3 Answers 3


Use of Rhetoric as a Didactive Method

Jesus makes profuse use of rhetoric, for the simple reason that such more effectively conveys and make readily retainable teachings which taught otherwise are not as memorable or impactful. That is, He does not use rhetoric to impress human persons, but to impress the teachings He wishes to on them.

Among His favorite and most used is hyperbole (or, deliberate exaggeration or use of excessive language to make a point). For example, when teaching that we must avoid the near occasion of sin (i.e. avoidable things which we know in ourselves generally lead us to sin), He teaches it in the following way:

Matthew 18:7-9 Woe to the world because of scandals. For it must needs be that scandals come: but nevertheless woe to that man by whom the scandal cometh. 8 And if thy hand, or thy foot scandalize thee, cut it off, and cast it from thee. It is better for thee to go into life maimed or lame, than having two hands or two feet, to be cast into everlasting fire. 9 And if thy eye scandalize thee, pluck it out, and cast it from thee. It is better for thee having one eye to enter into life, than having two eyes to be cast into hell fire.

To all with a more than elementary understanding of human language, it's obvious that Jesus is not here literally advocating the amputation of limbs and plucking out of eyes to avoid sin, but rather is using it as hyperbolic way of telling Chrisitans to remove the circumstance of sin which are removable, and thus, with such a removal, the chance or likelihood of sin, instead of sinnning and experiencing the circumstance of hell which necessarily must follow sin.

Wherein lies strikingness that makes the teaching memorable? In that it's infinitely and obviously easier to avoid a situation where you might sin using sight, than to pluck out your eye so that situation can never happen. This is why the teaching is so jarring and memorable. And this is why He taught it this way, and not the way in which I just explained above.


Matthew 5:33-37 Again you have heard that it was said to them of old, Thou shalt not forswear thyself: but thou shalt perform thy oaths to the Lord. 34 But I say to you not to swear at all, neither by heaven, for it is the throne of God: 35 Nor by the earth, for it is his footstool: nor by Jerusalem, for it is the city of the great king: 36 Neither shalt thou swear by thy head, because thou canst not make one hair white or black. 37 But let your speech be yea, yea: no, no: and that which is over and above these, is of evil.

What is He teaching? That a society built on honesty and trust should never have need of swearing — not that swearing will not be needed in the less-than-perfect societies in which all, including Christians, live. He is asking Christians to be honest rather than swear, not entirely forbidding the practice. The absoluteness of language is wherein the hyperbole lies, and the memorability: because any time we swear, in our imperfect societies where we can certainly not trust that yeas are yeas and nays nays (inasmuch as we cannot assume or confirm that any given person is a Christian and/or follows this perfect rule of Christ of perfect honesty), we remember that Christ wanted to do otherwise, and imagined a more perfect way for His people to live.

This is the reason He used hyperbole so much, because it is memorable, and more effective.

"Call no man your father"

Matthew 23:1-12 Then Jesus spoke to the multitudes and to his disciples, 2 Saying: The scribes and the Pharisees have sitten on the chair of Moses. 3 All things therefore whatsoever they shall say to you, observe and do: but according to their works do ye not; for they say, and do not. 4 For they bind heavy and insupportable burdens, and lay them on men's shoulders; but with a finger of their own they will not move them. 5 And all their works they do for to be seen of men. For they make their phylacteries broad, and enlarge their fringes. 6 And they love the first places at feasts, and the first chairs in the synagogues, 7 And salutations in the market place, and to be called by men, Rabbi. 8 But be not you called Rabbi. For one is your master; and all you are brethren. 9 And call none your father upon earth; for one is your father, who is in heaven. 10 Neither be ye called masters; for one is your master, Christ. 11 He that is the greatest among you shall be your servant. 12 And whosoever shall exalt himself shall be humbled: and he that shall humble himself shall be exalted.

What is this teaching? That those who love fame, honor, respect, and titles, will be humbled by God and are the least in the kingdom, because they are proud. That those who humble themselves, are the true followers of God, and the titles can be true or false when used of them, but they do not revel in said (after all, a true teacher is truly called teach, and a true Rabbi is therefore truly called Rabbi, and a true spiritual father, Father, etc.). Therefore, "Be not you called" and "Call no man" are said with respect to those who harbor and love titles themselves, and those who love to devote themselves to spiritual leaders in a disordered way, respectively.

It is not the prohitition of identifying as a spiritual father, humbly, as St. Paul, nor agreeing with or consenting to the custom of calling Elders "Father" East and West in the Church, nor, therefore, of the title "Father" in and of itself (for a title which accurately describes someone cannot be false in any way or form), but of the seeking of titles, of the reveling in them, and of the inordinate use of them with respect to mere men.

"Neither be ye called" is with respect to the desire to have yourself called, and not a prohibition of being called—period.

The immediate context makes this amply clear, as well as the New Testament witness to the meaning.

Spiritual Fatherhood in the New Testament

Jesus Himself refers to the physical and spiritual father in faith of the Jewish people as "Father Abraham":

Luke 16:24 And he cried, and said: Father Abraham, have mercy on me, and send Lazarus, that he may dip the tip of his finger in water, to cool my tongue: for I am tormented in this flame.

He also brought out the more spiritual aspect of this fatherhood when He implied that his "children" would do what He did (which is not to be taken for granted for merely physcial children of a man):

John 8:39 They answered, and said to him: Abraham is our father. Jesus saith to them: If you be the children of Abraham, do the works of Abraham.

Likewise St. Paul:

Galatians 3:29 And if you be Christ's, then are you the seed of Abraham, heirs according to the promise.

Romans 4:16-17 Therefore is it of faith, that according to grace the promise might be firm to all the seed; not to that only which is of the law, but to that also which is of the faith of Abraham, who is the father of us all, 17 (As it is written: I have made thee a father of many nations,) before God, whom he believed, who quickeneth the dead; and calleth those things that are not, as those that are.

So many of Jesus' teachings are misunderstood because so many are ignorant of His use of hyperbole: people confuse what He "literally" said, with what He was conveying by what He said. Hyperbole consists in the absoluteness of language, and therefore any argument against seeing it as hyperbole which relies on such things as, "But He said x, which suggests He meant it literally" overlook the very essence and substance of hyperbole.

Rather than claiming that Paul disagreed with Jesus, we should let Paul the first century Jewish follower of Jesus personally, and directly, and an acquaintance and friend of those who also met Him personally and saw Him during His ministry and afterwards when He rose, speak and tell us the meaning of the teachings of Christ. Anything else is hubris. Instead of 'Paul contradicting Jesus' maybe it's us who have misunderstood what both are saying, and how the two mutually acknowledge the validity of the other? After all, why are we, 2000 years later, in a better position to understand the teaching of Jesus than someone who conversed with the Apostles themselves, or who in any case lived 2000 years closer to the culture and freshness of the doctrine? It's simply absurd and doesn't even deserve humoring—in disagreeing with Paul's interpretation of Jesus, you are merely making yourself an alternative Paul who has at best equal claim to be able to interpret Jesus, and at worst (and in reality), no claim in comparison.

  • The figurative discourse is not unique to Jesus. Everyone was used to it if we study the rabbinic teachings. Try to use Web or ESV new versions for better readability instead of old English. It would be better if you avoid capitalization of personal pronouns.
    – Michael16
    Mar 12, 2022 at 2:43
  • Thanks a lot. I didn't know that
    – Vinícius
    May 31, 2023 at 19:14

This is another "old chestnut" that requires some delicate theological balancing. First, the OP stopped quoted too little, so let me quote a slightly larger section of Matt 23:

5 All their deeds are done for men to see. They broaden their phylacteries and lengthen their tassels. 6 They love the places of honor at banquets, the chief seats in the synagogues, 7 the greetings in the marketplaces, and the title of ‘Rabbi’ by which they are addressed.

8 But you are not to be called ‘Rabbi,’ for you have one Teacher, and you are all brothers. 9 And do not call anyone on earth your father, for you have one Father, who is in heaven. 10 Nor are you to be called instructors, for you have one Instructor, the Christ. 11 The greatest among you shall be your servant. 12 For whoever exalts himself will be humbled, and whoever humbles himself will be exalted.

Note that we have here several "problems" in Bible usage

  • call no one an "instructor"/"teacher" - yet Paul regularly talks about teachers; see Luke 6:40, James 3:1, 2 Tim 1:11, Acts 13:1, 1 Cor 12:29, Heb 5:12, etc. Does this mean that modern titles like "doctor", "reverend", "most reverend" are out of place?
  • call no one "father" - yet we have a number of people referred to as such; see 2 Kings 2:12, and many others quoted by the OP. Does this mean that modern titles like "Father", "Abbot", "Bishop", etc (all based on "Father" in some way) are out of place?

Yes and no!

There is doubt that the law requires us to show honor where honor is due:

  • Rom 13:7 - Pay everyone what you owe him: taxes to whom taxes are due, revenue to whom revenue is due, respect to whom respect is due, honor to whom honor is due.

So how should we understand what Matt 23 is discussing?

  • The instruction in Matt 23 and its seven woes is directed as the narcissistic behavior of the scribes and pharisees - it was this seeking of honor by those who were unworthy of it was the subject of Jesus' barbs and woes.
  • There is nothing to prevent one being a teacher; indeed, this was one of the functions of apostles, prophets and church leaders. The problem here is that some people took these as titles of honor; Paul never did nor did any of the other apostles - they simply were what they were and we never hear any of them being referred to "Apostle Paul". He was simply, "Paul, an apostle called by ..."
  • Similarly, no one is given the formal title "Father", but that does not prevent the fact of someone being a spiritual father to those he teaches as the OP's examples make clear.

Barnes' comments on Matt 23:8 is helpful here -

Be not ye ... - Jesus forbade his disciples to seek such titles of distinction. The reason which he gave was that he was himself their Master and Teacher, They were on a level; they were to be equal in authority; they were brethren; and they should neither covet nor receive a title which implied either an elevation of one above another, or which appeared to infringe on the absolute right of the Saviour to be their only Teacher and Master. The direction here is an express command to his disciples not to receive such a title of distinction. They were not to covet it; they were not to seek it; they were not to do anything that implied a wish or a willingness that it should be appended to their names. Everything which would tend to make a distinction among them or destroy their parity - everything which would lead the world to suppose that there were ranks and grades among them as ministers, they were to avoid. It is to be observed that the command is that they were not to receive the title - "Be not ye called Rabbi." The Saviour did not forbid them giving the title to others when it was customary or not regarded as improper (compare Acts 26:25), but they were not to receive it. It was to be unknown among them. This title corresponds with the title "Doctor of Divinity" as applied to ministers of the gospel; and, so far as I can see, the spirit of the Saviour's command is violated by the reception of such a title, as really as it would have been by their being called "Rabbi." It makes a distinction among ministers. It tends to engender pride and a sense of superiority in those who obtain it, and envy and a sense of inferiority in those who do not; and the whole spirit and tendency of it is contrary to the "simplicity that is in Christ."

Thus, Jesus' teaching in Matt 23 should be taken, in modern terms, as an instruction against elitism. Such should be completely absent in the Christian community.


Look back at the previous verse…

MAT 23:8 But you, do not be called ‘Rabbi’; for One is your Teacher, the Christ, and you are all brethren.

As explained in John 1:38, the term “rabbi” [teacher] primarily meant “master,” although it could refer to a doctor or teacher. Jesus’ statement that we should not call any person “master” (Matthew 23:8 and 10) is not to be taken that we should not submit to those in authority over us, for that would violate many scriptures in God’s Word (Romans 13:1-7, Ephesians 6:1-9, Colossians 3:20-4:1, and 1 Peter 2:13-20).

Ephesians 6:5, 9; and Colossians 4:1 even use this terminology in referring to human relationships. Therefore, this must be speaking of making some person a master in the sense of Lordship and not of a social or civil situation.

Likewise, Jesus told us not to call any man on earth “Father” (Matthew 23:9). This is not speaking of a physical, father-child relationship, since the Apostle Paul applied this term to people often (Romans 4:11-12, 16; 1 Corinthians 5:1; Ephesians 5:31, 6:2; 1 Thessalonians 2:11; 1 Timothy 1:9, 5:1; Hebrews 7:3, 10, and 12:7).

Paul even referred to himself as being a father to the believers in Corinth in a spiritual sense (1 Corinthians 4:15). However, Paul made it clear that the head of every person is Christ (1 Corinthians 11:3). Therefore, Paul was not emphasizing the sovereignty of a father but rather referring to the part he played in their spiritual births.

In both of these instances, the point that Jesus was clearly making was not to seek self-exaltation or recognition through titles. As Proverbs 27:2 so aptly puts it, “Let another man praise thee, and not thine own mouth; a stranger, and not thine own lips.” Trying to apply these statements with an unreasonable literalism could make us just like these Pharisees Jesus was rebuking who “strain at a gnat, and swallow a camel” (Matthew 23:24).

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