Matthew 23:8 But you are not to be called rabbi, for you have one teacher, and you are all brethren. 9 And call no man your father on earth, for you have one Father, who is in heaven. 10 Neither be called masters, for you have one master, the Christ. 11 He who is greatest among you shall be your servant; 12 whoever exalts himself will be humbled, and whoever humbles himself will be exalted.
Catholic Biblical Association (Great Britain). (1994). The Holy Bible: Revised Standard Version, Catholic edition (Mt 23:8–12). New York: National Council of Churches of Christ in the USA.
For we have one Father. If you were new to the faith, and wanted to know God better, you might set out to visit 10 churches and ask them to tell you about the “one” Father. Would you come back with “one” definition? You might come back more confused than when you started!
As Christians, this should concern us greatly. Have you ever stopped to worry about whether you were being like the Pharisees and not be able to identify God when He is right in front of you? Afraid of being apart of the wrong Church, afraid you are part of the Church that has misidentified who God is? Before we allow that concern to build, maybe we should also answer a few preliminary questions…
What is a church? What defines it?
If we are to know the answer to these questions, we should then start with this issue that Matthew chronicles in the above verse, one that has pestered me until recent months. Call no man father? No! My issue is the fact that the Pharisees and the Sadducees were standing right in front of Jesus and still did not chose to be apart of His Church. What bothered me was that they just knew that they were apart of God’s chosen; His Church. They were sure of it! Such a life, to be born Jewish, educated Jewish, and called to ministry of the Jews, only to have Jesus come and totally change their entire life! What were they to do? Quit? Who would hire them? How would they support their families?
This concern has followed me through ministry; how would I know if God was changing things up? Now quickly you might respond that God does not change, and you would be speaking a powerful truth; He does not, we do. Man changes all the time, and given a few centuries, 40 by the time Jesus came for His sacrifice, mankind had a lot of time to change. So our answer to the how could the Pharisees and Sadducees know that they were in the wrong church is to know that God does not change. They (Pharisees and Sadducees ) taught from their own wants and needs, using Abraham their father as their authority. Jesus was trying to teach them that it is from God that all authority stems, not Abraham. Call no man father! Except for your Father in heaven. Jesus was speaking about Abraham.
Paul would come later and ask that his disciples call him father:
1 Cor 4:15 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.
Catholic Biblical Association (Great Britain). (1994). The Holy Bible: Revised Standard Version, Catholic edition (1 Co 4:15–16). New York: National Council of Churches of Christ in the USA.
To some this would seem a contradiction of Jesus telling no man to call any man father, but Paul is stating that his teaching comes from God, he also tells his disciples to imitate him, as he, Paul, lives his life to Christ; therefore his life is worthy of imitation. Paul, in living a godly life and offering his life to God in ministry, should be called our father in God. The Catechism states:
1548 In the ecclesial service of the ordained minister, it is Christ himself who is present to his Church as Head of his Body, Shepherd of his flock, high priest of the redemptive sacrifice, Teacher of Truth. This is what the Church means by saying that the priest, by virtue of the sacrament of Holy Orders, acts in persona Christi Capitis: (875; 792)
It is the same priest, Christ Jesus, whose sacred person his minister truly represents. Now the minister, by reason of the sacerdotal consecration which he has received, is truly made like to the high priest and possesses the authority to act in the power and place of the person of Christ himself (virtute ac persona ipsius Christi).
Christ is the source of all priesthood: the priest of the old law was a figure of Christ, and the priest of the new law acts in the person of Christ.
1549 Through the ordained ministry, especially that of bishops and priests, the presence of Christ as head of the Church is made visible in the midst of the community of believers. In the beautiful expression of St. Ignatius of Antioch, the bishop is typos tou Patros: he is like the living image of God the Father. (1142)
Catholic Church. (2000). Catechism of the Catholic Church (2nd Ed., p. 387). Washington, DC: United States Catholic Conference.
Jesus warns us not to call anyone else God (Father), except for God Himself, or those acting on His behalf. We are to live our lives to Him and no other.
So how does this inform us on what a Church is? A Church first and foremost is One. It is not enough to simply be “one in community”, as so many churches spring up with a strong community only to crash when parts of that community leave through life circumstance. We must be firstly one with the Father.
From where does your churches authority derive? When your pastor speaks, on whose doctrinal behalf does he speak? Many will say, “on Scripture, which is God’s Word, on God’s behalf”! Didn’t the Pharisees say this? They absolutely did. Abraham was their father and those that stemmed from him wrote and passed down the law, and that is what they followed and taught. But they had changed God’s Word, had they not? Along the way God’s Words had been changed by man; parsed, redacted, translated and distorted by those who would have God be in their own image.
We are told not to say we have a man, Abraham, as our father. But how many theologians have done this? The Jews said they spoke on behalf of Abraham’s teaching. Many today will say they follow John Calvin, many follow the teachings of Martin Luther, many more are Campbellites, one of the fasting growing sects are followers of Joseph Smith, I could go on and on, but suffice it to say there are a million men who have taught an “improved” version of the Gospel than that which they found when they entered Christianity. What Jesus was saying in Matthew is let no man take the place of God, but then, and now, we have those who have done just that. Catholics may well call our pastors father,(as St. Paul taught) but how many denominations actually ignore the real teaching that Jesus was trying to impart?
When a priest goes to the altar to say mass he is “in persona Christi”, in the person of Christ. He is putting himself in the place of God the Son, so that God’s great mysteries in the sacraments might be gifted to His faithful. He does this not of his own accord, not of his own talents, but by calling and form. His calling to the priesthood allows him, through his bishop to speak the words spoken by Christ, and the form he uses in obedience to mother Church allows him to act in Christ’s person. The Eucharist is one in many examples within the Catholic Church of man acting in God’s Word. Acting not newly or of his own will, but in imitation of Christ, in a centuries old tradition. God does not change. A Catholic does not change God’s Word, but instead preserves it. He points to no earthly teaching in the sacraments, but only to God’s Word and our duty to imitate Christ.
So a Church is one. It is One with God. How do we know we are apart of God’s Church and not in error as the Pharisees and Sadducees? By seeing centuries of oneness in the Church Catholic. By knowing that the Church is founded on scripture and not the pastor. By knowing that the Church is founded on two thousand years of tradition and Biblical study. By knowing that your pastor is under authority, as is his bishop, as is his arch bishop, as is even the pope, who is Christ’s vicar here on earth.
When looking for a church, ask yourself on whose authority does the pastor speak? If it is by his own thoughts on scripture, beware. If your pastor has some new takes on scripture, beware. If your pastor seems to be preaching from his own book, beware. Your church should resemble the first churches in Acts, breaking bread and making disciples.
The Church is one, in Christ. It is one when it works through all theological decisions by careful study of scripture and prayerful guidance from the Church hierarchy. It is one by submission of it’s laity. As lay Christians we are called to submit to Christ and His teachings, all of them. The Church is one when laity and clergy all work as one to baptize seekers and to disciple them in the ways of Christ.
This is elusive in the modern day. The devil does his very best divide us. But oneness is a blessing we should all strive for. The oneness of a great marriage is desired by all, the oneness of a solid family is admired by all. Sometimes we think that we have to win life’s lottery to gain these blessings, but they are available to all, through one Church. We should strive with all we have to be one with Christ, and one with our family the Church. All blessings stem from a Church that is one, so let us not be the Pharisees following a man, or have a church divided by men’s teachings. Let us be one and know the Church that God intended us to enjoy.