Jesus was speaking to His disciples and to the crowd about their church leaders. After explaining that they don't practice what they preach, and that they aren't motivated by love, but just want people to look up to them, He made these curious statements:
- Do not be called teacher.
- Do not call anyone on earth your father.
- Do not be called leaders.
What was Jesus getting at? First off, He wasn't saying we can't use language to make reference to those people that talk to students in schools, or a male parent, or those people that are in positions of government. These are real things and it is appropriate to use these words to communicate about them. The context of this teaching was about corrupt religious leaders—about not becoming like them, and not being misled by them. The first and the third statements here concern what we allow others to call us, while the second regards what we call others, but they all involve the same principle—not putting men in roles that rightly belong exclusively to God.
In the case of being called teacher or leader, we must admit that some Christians are expected to perform these functions; we are to teach and to lead (the Christian leads by serving). It seems, though, that the Christian teacher or leader is to make sure his students or followers understand the transitory nature of these functions, and that the only valid teaching or leading is that which faithfully conveys God's teaching and leading, and that those performing these functions have no intrinsic rights to these titles, roles, or positions.
In the case of calling anyone on earth Father, the responsibility falls on each of us. Other than in the Catholic church, which is an extreme example, we don't tend to find people in church leadership asking to be addressed as "Father," neither was this the case in Jesus' time. So what did He mean? In Jesus time, much more than in our own, calling someone by a title was about what qualities you ascribe to them, rather than about the generic title itself. So let's consider what a father is, in its essence. A father, speaking physically, is the source and sustainer of the life of another, who is like himself.
Even speaking of our physical fathers, these functions are only derived from God. The ability to reproduce was handed down to us genetically from the first man, who was given this ability from his creator. And however well our earthly fathers provided for us, they did it with the resources God made available to sustain all of us.
But Jesus was talking about church leaders. How does this metaphor apply in a spiritual context? Besides being the Father of all physical life, God is also the spiritual Father to all who choose to trust in Him. In other words, if we allow God, who is spirit, to govern our lives, with truth communicated from the spiritual realm, we have become God's "spiritual" children. In the old covenant, He gave the law, for our good, with the promise that if we keep it, it will sustain our lives, preserving our relationships with God and with each other. The law is basically a description or definition of loving behavior.
We did not keep the law, allowing it to do what it was intended to do, sustain our lives, because we sinned and did not put our trust in God's love.
In the new covenant, God gave His Son to die for us that He might justly forgive our sins, thereby communicating God's great love for us. God's goal was that in this expression of His love for us He would turn our hearts from selfishness to love. With our hearts changed and submitted to His will, He can guarantee us that He can sustain our lives forever.
When we become Christians we become God's spiritual children and He begins to sustain our spiritual lives with truth and love. We also become like Him in His character, practicing righteousness, loving God and one another. This is my understanding of how Jesus wanted us to think of God as Father—the source and sustainer of our lives, and the one whom we are like.
Who is Jesus concerned about? Who are the ones on earth whom He thinks we might put in the role of father? Anyone who might appeal to us as the source or sustainer of our spiritual lives, or as someone we should be like. This could be any of a number of different people or even groups. It may be different for each of us, and may be a variety over the course of our lives. Commonly, it will be the one, or the ones, who led us to the Lord, or first instructed us in being a disciple of Jesus as they naturally seem to be essential to our relationship with God. Sometimes it will be that which we perceive as being our security against falling into error, or heresy, such as a denomination, a congregation, a creed of a council of church fathers, or an author that we've come to rely on. It may be our church pastor, a preacher, or others. We should not consider any of these to be our source and sustainer of our spiritual lives, nor the one whom we ultimately want to be like. We should call no one on earth "father."
Many of those in permanent positions of authority in churches have an obligation to maintain and teach a certain set of beliefs that the denomination holds to be true, or they will lose their jobs. If they come to understand scripture to be teaching a different view, and talk about or teach their different opinion, they may be in danger of losing their jobs and being unhirable in the field they've been educated in.
God Has Rights
God has the right to govern each and every one of us directly. And He has the desire to do so. If our allegence is to someone else first, He cannot do so. No human being has perfect knowledge, and most have imperfect hearts, so human beings are not qualified to be our ultimate authority. God is, and always will be, the source of our physical and spiritual lives. He is our provider of nourishing and tasty food; and He is our provider of relationship-sustaining and joy-producing truth and love.
It is the Holy Spirit's desire to lead us into all truth. If we are not submitted directly to God, we can only get as far with the truth as our human authority can take us. This creates a barrier to our receiving God's love an enjoying Jesus' presence in our lives. It also creates a barrier to God's will being done on earth as it is in heaven.
But God has done away with all barriers between the individual and Himself through the death of Jesus. There was a time for priests to intercede on behalf of men before God, because of their sin. At that time, only the priest could go into the temple, into God's presence—and that he could only do by taking with him the sacrifice that was a symbol of the love that Jesus would one day show us on the cross. Now Jesus has suffered and died on the cross for us, and drawn us to Himself, by the influence that that act has on our minds and hearts. Now, if we put our trust in His love for us, we turn from our selfishness, and love God and keep Jesus' words. Then God can justly forgive our past sins, and come and live in us, individually (and collectively). We can be His temple, in which He lives. And Jesus, by His dying and turning our hearts to God, has performed the role of the priest. Now, there is no one on earth required to intercede for us to bring us into a relationship with the Father. Do not call anyone on earth your father.