Monday, November 2, 2009

On Being a Father to My Children in the Faith

"Father...uh... I... uh.... mean Pastor..."

Of all the titles accorded clergy, the term Father seems to me to be about the most accurate. While some anti-Romans might raise an argument or two, I think of it as a descriptive term as well as one of affection.

Every Pastor alive will tell you that when you see a wandering member in Wal-Mart during the week, chances are you will see that person on Sunday morning in church. Every Pastor alive has had the unique circumstances of teaching the faith to one so new to it all and feeling the spiritual father to a young Christian. Every Pastor alive has been in the situation when every face in the room turned to you to see how you would react to something or what your response might be -- just as a father often speaks for the whole of the family when something trying touches their lives.

I hold babies in my arms at the font, I teach the youth the faith in catechism class, I confirm the catechumens, I hold the hands of the sick and struggling, I advise and counsel those who come to me with troubles, I lead the family through the process of grief and loss and pull them together for the funeral, I exhort and inform the son and daughter who desire to marry, I feel the tears of those whose families are torn asunder for one reason or another... I am, in many ways, a father to those who are in this family of faith that we call Grace Lutheran Church.

Let me make something clear. Being a father figure does not mean I am smarter than others, that I have all the answers, that I am wise beyond my years, that I am better, stronger, more faithful, or a more mature spiritual person than others in the congregation. I am not. But part of what a congregation does in calling a man to be their Pastor is to invest this individual with not only the office but the responsibility to serve as the spiritual head of the family called the Church and to act in a fatherly way toward each of her members. Saying a Pastor is a father figure is not condescending to the people -- it is not that fathers are automatically smarter, stronger, or wiser than others -- it is that their role and responsibility is toward the family in a particular way -- you do not have to be Christian to recognize this and it is not an offense to women who also have a particular rule and responsibility as mothers.

Scripture can attest to this level of the relationship:

"For though ye have ten thousand instructors in Christ, yet have ye not MANY FATHERS: for in Christ Jesus I HAVE BEGOTTEN YOU [i.e. become your FATHER] through the gospel.... "For this cause have I sent unto you TIMOTHY, WHO IS MY BELOVED SON, and faithful in the Lord..." (1 Cor 4:15,17 KJV) "

...as a SON [Timothy] with the FATHER [Paul], he hath served with me in the gospel" (Phil 2:22 KJV)

"we exhorted and comforted and charged every one of you, as a FATHER doth his children" (1 Thess 2:11 KJV)

As a father... to his children. It is a relationship term as well as one that is descriptive of what a father does for his children. The word children does not mean childish or child-like -- I am way more than a half century old and still my father and mother see me as their child and I see them as my father and mother. It is a term of relationship -- when we call a Pastor "Father" we see him through the lens of what He is called to do and to be among the family of God that is this congregation. It is also a term of affection but it is also a term that explains the often multi-faceted way that a Pastor serves his people.

Often when I visit the elderly or walk down the hall of a hospital, someone will call out to me "Father..." It is not that I am old enough to be their "Father" or that they even know me personally. They know the office and so to the one who bears that office they call, "Father" and I come to them to listen, to counsel, to pray...

It is also a protective term. When one of my own is attacked or in need, I instinctively reach out to them to protect them from their trouble, to answer their call, to stand with them in their need, to bear with them the burdens of this life, to come before the Father in heaven on their behalf...

So this Lutheran Pastor does not find anything wrong with the term "Father" for a Pastor -- the Scandinavians have been doing it since the Reformation (and before, they never stopped). When people call me "Father" and then stop abruptly as if they have offended me, I smile and say "That is a fine term and I am honored that you would use it of me..."

19 comments:

Carl Vehse said...

In the three indicated Scriptural passages there is no command to call a pastor "Father."

In his letter to the Corinthians, St. Paul uses the term "father" as a reminder that he established the church in Corinth, analogous to referring to a person as the "the father of a country" or "the father of a city." But Paul does not give to the new pastor, Timothy, nor does he tells the Corinthians to address Timothy by the title, "Father."

The other two Scriptural passages use "father" in an analogy, not as a prescribed title to be used and not that St. Paul has designated himself or any other pastor with the title, "Father."

But there are the words of our Lord Jesus Christ, spoken to His disciples and to the people in Matthew 23:8-10, that refer to the context of titles for religious leaders, and specifically in v.9 to the title of "Father": "And call no man your father on earth, for you have one Father, who is in heaven."

Therefore, while honor is due by congregations to those who have been placed in the office of pastor, or undershepherd, our Savior's own words and the relevant context in which they were given caution against using certain official titles for pastors or other church leaders. Even more so Jesus' words caution against pastors giving themselves or other church leaders the title of "Father," "Holy Father," etc.

Pastor Peters said...

Carl, Did I say that there was the command to use the term Father? As far as the Matthew 23 quote, would that not also preclude calling my dad "father" as well? Is this how you undersand the verse? Apparently St. Paul did not believe that using the term "father" to describe the relationship was against the word of Christ. Again, if you read my post I am speaking about the relationship reflected in that term. Is there anywhere Jesus or anyone in Scripture tells us what to call a Pastor? It may surprise people to note that it was not uncommon for Protestants in America to use the term "Father" for their "minister" some 250-300 years ago.

What Jesus was refering to was specific to the charge laid against the religious leaders of his day -- who demanded honor for themselves but had forsaken the relationship of service. Jesus criticized Jewish leaders who love "the place of honor at feasts and the best seats in the synagogues, and salutations in the market places, and being called ‘rabbi’ by men" (Matt. 23:6–7). His admonition here is a response to the Pharisees’ proud hearts and their grasping after marks of status and prestige.

I do not ask to be called "Father" nor do I demand such honor. I was simply reflecting the appropriateness of such a title given the relationship that exists between a Pastor and his flock. If that offends you, I am sorry, but I do not think I said anything unusual or contrary to Scripture and our Confessions in describing how this term is descriptive in this context.

Janis Williams said...

As a former half-baked Baptist, I understand the Romaphobia about calling your pastor "father." We were taught the verse from Matthew just as Carl has used it. As children, we did almost fear calling our earthly dad that.

It IS a term of honor. I don't think that's the interpretation of the Matthew verse. After all, doesn't the commandment tell us to honor father and mother?

Of course, "pastor" is a title with honor, also. Different metaphor, but honorable. As for me, I will probably always call my "father" "pastor." It's not that I don't honor him as a father figure to me; he is. I just think I fit the description of "stupid sheep" better!

Anonymous said...

I have often heard the Matt. 23 quote used to condemn calling clergy "father." Matt. 23:10 says "And do not be called teachers; for One is your Teacher, the Christ." Christians of many strips use the term "teacher" in secular and religious settings. I have never interpreted these scriptures to be literal.

I was raised in a conservative LCMS congregation and taught to address our clergy as "pastor." However, I would have no objection using the term "father." I have used it on many occasions when speaking to the Orthodox priest who married my wife and I and baptized my first child. It is a term of honor and endearment.

I would certainly defer to the preferred title of the particular clergy. It's interesting though. As I canvas various Lutheran blog sites, I am noting that "father" is used to refer to particular Lutheran pastors. That would have been rare during my youth. That's fine with me. Pastor Peters, does the LCMS have a formal position on the use of the term "father?"

James Donnelly

Pastor Jeff Hemmer said...

If Lutheran Pastors were universally called Fathers, there would be zero discussion about women's ordination. That's not a flippant aside as much as noting that if your view of the ministry is functionalist, all you need is someone capable of carrying out those function. If, however, there's a God-given Office, the Office fits within the divinely given order. Women can no more be pastors that men can be mothers.

I would be humbled and honored if any of my parishioners saw fit to call me Father, but I'm not going to encourage it. Nevertheless, the image is a useful one: pastors are fathers. That shapes how you think about your parishioners, how you pray for them, when you visit them, how you interact with them.

I have, however, used the converse to call men to quit thinking of church as something for women and children while they do more masculine things like hunt, fish, play golf, or just sleep in. Fathers are pastors to their families. There's no excuse for abdicating that role. The faith of your wife and children is, at least in part, the father's responsibility.

Not only have we lost the concept of pastors as fathers, we've lost the notion of what fathers are almost altogether.

Carl Vehse said...

"As far as the Matthew 23 quote, would that not also preclude calling my dad "father" as well? Is this how you undersand the verse?"

No. Please reread my earlier post, which specifically discussed Mt. 23 in its "context of titles for religious leaders." In verses 8-10, Jesus is warning the Pharisees, as well as his disciples and the people, about the use and desire of honorific titles, and Jesus gives three specific examples, including one with which "they love to be greeted in the marketplaces and to have men call them 'Rabbi.'" (v.7)

Given the context, how does one spin an interpretation of Jesus' words to mean "Hey, guys, I was only kidding here"?

Now, one probably shouldn't get bent out of shape if some Lutheran occasionally calls his pastor, "Father," especially if the Lutheran were a recent convert from the Romanist church. But what brings vs. 8-10 to mind is when a Lutheran pastor slaps "Father" all over his business cards, church web pages, personal blogs, correspondence, and other self-references. Such flamboyancy may not be a "command", but it is a pretty obvious how he loves to be greeted in the marketplaces.

"If Lutheran Pastors were universally called Fathers, there would be zero discussion about women's ordination."

There are doctrinal reasons why women are not pastors. Faux Lutherans and heretical churches who choose to ignore such doctrine will not be hindered by a title.

Jonathan said...

So, what would the priestesses call themselves? "Mother"? I see Fr. Hemmer's point here in that it shows a clear ontological dilemma for women trying to stand in the stead of our Father, which, as I understand it, is the real underlying doctrinal basis for why we believe God doesn't call women to serve as overseer.

Pastor Peters said...

Carl, can you cite evidence that the rest of the NT and the early Church understood Matt 23 in this way? Did the use of Rabbi, Teacher, and Father end with Jesus' words in Matt. 23? It would seem to me that historically this cannot be supported. If not, why not?

Carl Vehse said...

Why should I cite evidence for whether the words of Jesus in vs. 8-10 were used or understood literally by the early church, or whether St. Paul later wrote that Jesus told him on the way to Damascus that He changed His mind on what He said in those verses?

My earlier comments pointed out that the three initial Scriptural passages did not apply "Father" specificially as a honorific title for a religious leader. I then included a Scriptural passage that (negatively) did refer to "Father" in the context of a title for (or desired by) religious leaders. Later I pointed out examples of how the literal meaning of Jesus' words in vs 8-10 are ignored today.

I have taken the words of our Lord (vs. 8-10) literally and not given them any figurative interpretation or eisegesis. If you believe such words mean something other than what they literally say in context, or if you have commentaries from the early church that interpret those verses in some different, no­nliteral sense, please provide such interpretations of what Jesus was saying in vs. 8-10 to the Pharisees, His disciples, and to the people.

Jonathan said...

Pastor, what is the Greek word translated as 'father' in the Matt 23 passage?

Carl Vehse said...

A Bible Gateway search of "father," using the ESV translation found 387 occurrences, none of which, other than in v.9, use the title in specifically referring to a NT pastor or religious leader of a Christian congregation or church body. There are references to OT ancestors and founders of Israel, such as Abraham.

What Ever said...

Wow, you've hit on a nerve with this post. My personal preference is to refer to you as Pastor. That's the way I was raised, and that's where I'm most comfortable.

At the same time, I don't feel comfortable with genuflecture, use of kneelers in the pews, nor the use of incense or the existence of crucifixes in the sanctuary.

Also, when reciting the creeds, instead of the current "holy catholic and apostolic church," I still find myself pulling from the days of memory work in cathechism "holy christian and apostolic church."

Again, these are examples of the way I and members of my age group were raised and taught, and like the proverbial "old dog," its hard to teach some of us new tricks.

Pastor Peters said...

With respect to the titles, we know that the NT continued to use teacher: "For this I was appointed a preacher and apostle . . . a teacher of the Gentiles in faith and truth" (1 Tim. 2:7); "For this gospel I was appointed a preacher and apostle and teacher" (2 Tim. 1:11). He also reminds us that the Church has an office of teacher: "God has appointed in the church first apostles, second prophets, third teachers" (1 Cor. 12:28); and "his gifts were that some should be apostles, some prophets, some evangelists, some pastors and teachers" (Eph. 4:11). There is no doubt that Paul was not violating Christ’s teaching in Matthew 23 by referring so often to others as "teachers."

Paul also uses the term father: Paul also referred to other of his converts in this way: "To Titus, my true child in a common faith: grace and peace from God the Father and Christ Jesus our Savior" (Titus 1:4); "I appeal to you for my child, Onesimus, whose father I have become in my imprisonment" (Philem. 10). None of these men were Paul’s literal, biological sons. Rather, Paul is emphasizing his spiritual fatherhood with them. You may call it a "title" but I would say, as I did in the blog, it was a term descriptive of the relationship.

A couple of other passages note the use of father by Paul and Stephen: In his speech to the Sanhedrin, Stephen addresses the Jewish religious leaders as fathers. Acts 7:1-2 Then the high priest asked him, “Are these charges true?”To this he replied: “Brothers and fathers, listen to me! St. Paul also addresses the Jewish religious leaders as fathers. Acts 22:1“Brothers and fathers, listen now to my defense.”

Catholics know that as members of a parish, they have been committed to a priest’s spiritual care, thus they have great filial affection for priests and call them “father.” Priests, in turn, follow the apostles’
biblical example by referring to members of their flock as “my son”
or “my child.”

Surprisingly, most Protestants endorsed this synthesis before the mid-nineteenth century. In postcolonial America, Protestant ministers were most commonly referred to as “father.”

Just a bit of history at the end to frame it all...

Pastor Peters said...

What Ever,

Pastor is a wonderful and the ordinary term used for Lutheran clergy -- wouldn't want to change it. Was merely describing how "Father" is also descriptive. Most folks don't have a clue what they are saying when they say "Pastor" -- its agrarian roots in shepherd are lost to most of us.

As for genuflection, it hardly occurs in Lutheran parishes though it had a long and solid history even among Lutherans... kneeling is what I grew up with in a Lutheran church on the prairie and is actually quite common now as it was even long ago... incense is used only occasionally among Lutherans though its place in Scripture and Christian history is large... crucifixes are actually more common than an empty cross among Lutheran... and catholic in the creed is the word that the creed uses, Christian being a more modern variation... I say this not to challenge what you say but to suggest that it it not a particular age group to which these may or may not be familiar as much the difference in geographic and ethnic custom among Lutherans... and the American experience in particular...

My Luther's Catechism was published in 1943 and it instructs me to make the sign of the cross morning and night, teaches me what catholic means and how it is used in the creeds, shows an incenser in the section on the Lord's Prayer, and a picture of a crucifix in it as well... I wonder if I was as aware of this when I was first instructed in it 44 years ago as I am now?

Jonathan said...

But, what of Carl's point about those Lutherans who have elected to take the title? Is that meet-right-salutary if it didn't come of its own via parisioners? I mean, it just seems to be 'en vogue' among the high-churchly 'uber-confessionals.'

Pastor Peters said...

Carl seems to have a bug about this all and makes mention of those who flamboyantly use the title Father and Jonathan has brought up fad and "uber" folks...

Let me say this as my final word on the matter... I began by saying the term Father was both descriptive and affectionate -- just as St. Paul used it... I do not believe this violates Matt 23 anymore than St. Paul obviously did... I am not commanding its use, I am seldom accused of being trendy, I am hardly "uber" anything, I do not know of any Lutheran or LCMS stance on the term Father for clergy, I stand by what I have written without apology and I am frankly mystified at the attention given to what was a reflective post... It appears to me that Carl and Jonathan have other things bugging them, which this post seems to have aggravated but to which I cannot speak...

Past Elder said...

Growing up in the preconciliar RCC, we of course called priests "Father". We were taught to call the EO priest across the street "Father" too in recognition that his orders were as valid as our priests'. We were taught to call Episcopal priests "Father" as well as a mark of respect even though they weren't really priests.

I never remember any Lutheran clergy ever being referred to as "Father", or wearing Roman collars for that matter.

Calling Episcopal priests "Father" hasn't stopped WO in the least.

Being a Lutheran now, I would vastly prefer to call my pastor "Pastor". I can handle the collars, but a suit and tie would be just fine.

Seems to me it takes a whole lot more explaining to explaining how we can dress and refer to our clergy like Catholic priests but they aren't Catholic priests that to explaining "pastor".

Carl Vehse said...

"With respect to the titles, we know that the NT continued to use teacher..."

With respect to the titles, we know that in v. 10, the Greek word "kaqhghtai" (kathegetes) is used for Jesus' statement, but in the referenced NT passages Paul uses the word "didaskaloV" (didaskalos). Apples and oranges!

In Acts 7:1-2 and 22:1, Stephan applied the phrase "brothers and fathers" to the Sanhedrin who then had him killed, and Paul used the phrase toward the Jewish mob who had tried to kill him and then screamed for his death after he was rescued by the Roman soldiers. I don't think these honorific examples are something that servants of the Word should want to use as precedent on which to hang their mitres.

As for the title used for early church pastors and religious leaders, try Acts 21:17,20; 1 Corinthians 16:12; Colossians 1:1; 1 Thessalonians 3:2; and 2 Peter 3:15. That title was also used for fellow Christians as well.

Even though Paul said "my child, Onesimus, whose father I have become," it would be silly to stretch this into a claim of "Father" as the honorific title Paul wanted to be called by the Church (or even Onesimus or Philemon), when in the same letter (vs. 16 and 20) Paul calls both of them "brother."

Again, if the plain literal meaning of vs. 8-10 in their context is not correct, then what interpretation is acceptable? One would think that simply ignoring our Lord's words, based on a bit of Protestant history, is not an acceptable exegesis.

christl242 said...

I say this not to challenge what you say but to suggest that it it not a particular age group to which these may or may not be familiar as much the difference in geographic and ethnic custom among Lutherans... and the American experience in particular...

With this I would agree. The Lutheran Church in Germany where I was baptized retained crucifixes and other historic, "catholic" ecclesiastical appointments. The Lutheran Reformation was conservative and not iconoclastic. American Lutherans have experienced pietism and the influence of the Protestants/Evangelicals around them.

My Luther's Catechism was published in 1943 and it instructs me to make the sign of the cross morning and night, teaches me what catholic means and how it is used in the creeds, shows an incenser in the section on the Lord's Prayer, and a picture of a crucifix in it as well... Same here.

But, I have to admit I prefer the term "Pastor" too. True, we are no longer an agrarian culture but surely it is not difficult to convey the meaning of the Pastor as shepherd, in imitation of the Good Shepherd who leads His Church? It is a thoroughly Biblical image.

I don't ever remember the term "Father" being used in any Lutheran parishes I attended in Europe or the U.S. It does beg the question as to what the female clergy of the Church of Sweden are called, especially now that they have a female bishop.

True, when a Catholic parish has a good relationship with their priest they feel a filial affection for him as their spiritual "Father." That is not always the case, however, although the average Catholic knows to distinguish between the man and the office, keeping in mind that the priest is appointed by the bishop, not called by the parish laity.

Christine