Jesus says in Matthew 23:9, “Call no man your father on earth, for you have one Father, who is in heaven.”
Some have misused this verse to denounce the Catholic practice of calling priests “Father.” Jesus’ words here are not meant to be taken literally, though. They are an hyperbole designed to emphasize our heavenly Father’s sovereignty: that He is the true source of life and wisdom (see Paul’s Letter to the Ephesians 3:14-15).
We know the Apostles did not take Jesus’ words in Matthew 23:9 literally, for they called themselves Father!
Saint Paul, for example, wrote in his First Letter to the Corinthians, “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” (4:15).
Paul considered himself the “father” of the Corinthians because he had spiritually begotten them through the Gospel. This is the same sense in which the title is used by Catholic priests today. We call priests “Father,” not because they somehow take the place of God the Father, but because they are meant to serve as witnesses, living reminders, of His love, guidance and authority in our lives.
The fact is, the interpretation of Matthew 23:9 goes against the overwhelming evidence of Scripture.
Judges 18:19, for instance, says, “Come with us, and be to us a father and a priest.” In First Thessalonians 2:11, Paul writes, “You know how, like a father with his children, we exhorted each one of you.” (See also Matt. 1:2 ff.; 15:4-5; Luke 14:26; Acts 7:2; 21:40-22:1; Rom. 4:11 ff.; 1 Cor. 4:14-16; Eph. 6:2; Phil. 2:22; 1 Tim. 1:2; Titus 1:4; Philem. 1:10; Heb. 12:9; Jas. 2:21; 1 Pet. 5:13; 1 John 2:1, et al.).
The practice of calling priests Father continued in the early centuries of the Church. In about 107 A.D., for example, Saint Ignatius, the Bishop of Antioch implored the faithful to “respect the bishop as a type of the Father” (Letter to the Trallians 3:1).
In 177, the leaders of the Church of Lyons wrote to Pope Saint Eleutherus, saying, “We pray, Father Eleutherus, that you may rejoice in God in all things and always” (Letter of the Holy Martyrs of Lyons; Eusebius Pamphilus, History of the Church 5:4:2).
Coincidentally, the title “Pope” (Greek, Papa), which means Father, was for a time commonly used for all bishops, but eventually came to refer exclusively to the Bishop of Rome.
Given the biblical and historical evidence, Catholics might rightly ask why others do not call their spiritual leaders “Father.”