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A few times in my life—not many—I have felt a bit envious when a Christian told me that a particular believer is his or her spiritual son or daughter. I thought that would be such a fulfilling relationship to have. Envy is a sin, but my sin meter was less finely tuned in those days; and somehow it seemed like a good envy to have. The problem with my desire to have a spiritual son was that it placed me in direct conflict with how Jesus thinks about such relationships.

But you are not to be called rabbi, for you have one teacher, and you are all brothers. And call no man your father on earth, for you have one Father, who is in heaven. Neither be called instructors, for you have one instructor, the Christ. The greatest among you shall be your servant. Whoever exalts himself will be humbled, and whoever humbles himself will be exalted. (Matthew 23:6–12).

Jesus’ command about fathers is succinct, and the reason given is simple: You have one Father. He’s in heaven, by the way, which means He is sovereign over all things, can do all things, and is supremely adequate for all your needs, both physical and spiritual. People are never to be considered replacements for that sufficiency. So, we should tell those who are looking for a spiritual father to read this passage in Matthew and think on it.

Jesus is not saying we shouldn’t call our biological fathers, father. What Jesus is commanding relates to a spiritual and religious hierarchy that requires a person to regard it as a necessity for spiritual life. And when Paul told the Corinthians that he was their spiritual father, he was not advocating to be the all-sufficient source of their spiritual lives. He said this because he was the first man to bring them into the truth of the gospel and they should therefore imitate him (1 Corinthians 4:15–16). He had made it clear earlier in that letter how he was their servant and “nothing.”

Secondly, I will admit that I have been gratified through the years when people have told me that I’m a good teacher. I doubt my first thought was, “All good things you have heard from me came from Him.” Is there a desire in me to be the necessary truth-teller to my listeners? Well, everybody needs to be needed. Sinful again. Jesus commands here that we are not to call anyone teacher. Why? Because “you are all brothers,” and Christ Himself is our teacher. He is our essential truth-teller. No one else is. If we pause a bit to think about why Jesus used “Christ” here, I think we will understand that He is referring to Isaiah 53, where Christ is the Suffering Servant. “Out of the anguish of his soul he shall see and be satisfied; by his knowledge shall the righteous one, my servant, make many to be accounted righteous, and he shall bear their iniquities” (Isaiah 53:11). The greatest among them, Jesus taught, is their suffering servant, not their “father” or “teacher.” Jesus is telling us that no one is to be exalted or lifted up over another. He knew the dangers of that exaltation well, since He knew the nature of mankind and its leaders, the kings of Israel and Judah, and those He addressed in the verses that precede His commands about fathers and teachers:

The scribes and the Pharisees sit on Moses’ seat, so do and observe whatever they tell you, but not the works they do. For they preach, but do not practice. They tie up heavy burdens, hard to bear, and lay them on people’s shoulders, but they themselves are not willing to move them with their finger. They do all their deeds to be seen by others. For they make their phylacteries broad and their fringes long, and they love the place of honor at feasts and the best seats in the synagogues and greetings in the marketplaces and being called rabbi by others (Matthew 23:2–7).

The issues Jesus addresses here concerning the scribes and Pharisees help us understand His prohibitions about calling others fathers and teachers. Those prohibitions have to do with how the elevation to those positions put leaders in danger of falling into hypocrisy and pride. Power and status are heady intoxicants. All Christian pastors, leaders, and mentors should take heed and consider themselves vulnerable to such dangers. Are they called great teachers? Do they like to sit in the places of honor? Do they promote the ministries of their churches so they will “be seen by others”?

To the Christian reader, I repeat Jesus’ admonition. Do not call any man your spiritual father or teacher. You are all brothers. And if leaders and pastors promote their ministries, do what Jesus commands. Do what they tell you but do not do the works they do.

 

1All Scripture quotations are from The Holy Bible: English Standard Version. (2016). Wheaton, IL: Crossway Bibles.

Gif courtesy giphy.com

 

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