It is a popular mantra in the Protestant Church against the Orthodox to say, “Call no man father!” This is based upon Matthew 23.9, where Jesus says, “Do not call anyone on earth your father; for One is your Father, He who is in heaven.” When the issue is challenged with the obvious, “We all have a father listed on our birth certificate, so the passage can’t mean what you think it means,” in my experience the position is merely repeated with a flippant, “That’s not the same.” So, should we call anyone our father or not?
Beyond the obvious discrepancy between our birth certificate and the Scripture, there is a conflict for those who subscribe to Sola Scriptura when it comes to this issue. In that same passage Christ also says, “do not be called ‘Rabbi’; for One is your Teacher, the Christ.” Rabbi means teacher, and yet we have many teachers in our lives, so Christ couldn’t have meant that either. It is doubtful He was just referencing the spiritual teachers in Judaism, lest we also should remove all our Sunday School teachers in every Church. And then there is today’s Epistle reading from St Paul.
Brethren, God has exhibited us apostles as last of all, like men sentenced to death; because we have become a spectacle to the world, to angels and to men. We are fools for Christ's sake, but you are wise in Christ. We are weak, but you are strong. You are held in honor, but we in disrepute. To the present hour we hunger and thirst, we are ill-clad and buffeted and homeless, and we labor, working with our own hands. When reviled, we bless; when persecuted, we endure; when slandered, we try to conciliate; we have become, and are now, as the refuse of the world, the off-scouring of all things. I do not write this to make you ashamed, but to admonish you as my beloved children. 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. I urge you, then, be imitators of me. – 1st Corinthians 4.9-16
We don’t even need our daily lives to challenge the mantra in this case. St Paul refers to himself as having become our father in Christ. Could St Paul have been in direct disobedience to Christ? I doubt it since the Holy Apostles would have surely corrected him as they did on the topic of circumcision. Then St Paul gives the greatest advice, “Be imitators of me.” What does it mean to imitate St Paul?
In today’s reading we could surmise that we are to accept the same buffetings and persecution that he accepted. He never gave up teaching the truth about Christ, and he never gave up living the struggle in his own life. He asks us to do the same, just as any good father would ask.
If you don’t have a spiritual father, I encourage you to find one sooner than later. Your spiritual father will, through his own personal spiritual journey, be able to guide you and encourage you. You will come to imitate him, not out of flattery, but out of respect for the life he lives in Christ. A spiritual father has a responsibility to lead us to Christ, not to himself, and St Paul was a great example.
A father is also charged with protecting his children, and your spiritual father wants to protect you. Think about the times as a child when your father scolded you for behaving in a dangerous way. He was doing this to protect you for danger, and to teach you a better way. Your spiritual father will do the same.
One final comment based on today’s reading. St Paul said, “You do not have many fathers.” It is a dangerous to seek spiritual advice from multiple sources, as if to gather options from which to choose. If this spiritual father gives this advice, and that gives that, then I can choose which I like better. This is dangerous, and ultimately is why St Paul said HE was their father. In Corinth in those days, just as in America today, there were many divisions and competing ideologies. St Paul was warning them not to shop around for their favorite advice.
We live in a multi-cultural, multi-religious, secular world in which many different ideologies are competing for our loyalty. This is true even within the Christian population. As of 2015 it was estimated the world had 45,000 different denominations all competing for our loyalty. We are not supposed to follow all those sources.
It is more important now than ever before for us to have a single spiritual father in the Church. You would do well to make sure he is following the Church, and imitating the Saints, before you choose to imitate him. Remember, even St Paul had to conform to the Holy Apostles as the leaders of the Church. When your spiritual father conforms to the same Church, you will not be led astray.