Monday, January 27, 2014

"Call No Man Father:" Luther's Take

Every now and again, the Gottesdienst Crowd™is taken to task for calling Lutheran clergy persons Father. Father H. R. Curtis has the definitive post—self-attributed naturally, but that's how we roll—on the biblical evidence HERE. But we're Lutherans, so regardless of what the Bible says, Luther is more important (NB: this is sarcasm).

Imagine my surprise then, when reading the Large Catechism, which is in the Book of Concord, I stumbled upon this juicy bit. In the section covering the Fourth Commandment, Luther writes:
158 So we have two kinds of fathers presented in this commandment: fathers in blood and fathers in office. Or, those who have the care of the family and those who have the care of the country. Besides these there are still spiritual fathers. They are not like those in the papacy, who have had themselves called fathers but have performed no function of the fatherly office [Matthew 23:9]. For the only ones called spiritual fathers are those who govern and guide us by God’s Word. 159 In this sense, St. Paul boasts his fatherhood in 1 Corinthians 4:15, where he says, “I became your father in Christ Jesus through the gospel.” 160 Now, since they are fathers, they are entitled to their honor, even above all others. But to spiritual fathers the least amount of honor is bestowed. The way the world knows for honoring them is to drive them out of the country and to begrudge them a piece of bread. In short, spiritual fathers must be (as says St. Paul [1 Corinthians 4:13]) like the filth of the world and everybody’s refuse and foot rag.
161 Yet there is need that this truth about spiritual fatherhood also be taught to the people. For those who want to be Christians are obliged in God’s sight to think them worthy of double honor who minister to their souls [1 Timothy 5:17–18]. They are obligated to deal well with them and provide for them. For that reason, God is willing to bless you enough and will not let you run out. 162 But in this matter everyone refuses to be generous and resists. All are afraid that they will perish from bodily needs and cannot now support one respectable preacher, where formerly they filled ten potbellies. 163 Because of this, we also deserve for God to deprive us of His Word and blessing and to allow preachers of lies to arise again and lead us to the devil. In addition, they will drain our sweat and blood. 
164 But those who keep God’s will and commandment in sight have this promise: everything they give to temporal and spiritual fathers, and whatever they do to honor them, shall be richly repaid to them. They will not have bread, clothing, and money for a year or two, but will have long life, support, and peace. They shall be eternally rich and blessed. 165 So just do what is your duty. Let God manage how He will support you and provide enough for you. Since He has promised it and has never lied yet, He will not be found lying to you [Titus 1:2]. (LC I:158–165). 
There you have it guys. Luther says it's okay. He also says that whatever you do to honor your fathers, temporal and spiritual, "shall be richly repaid." Did I mention that Gottesdienst accepts donations? Too much? Well, at least the quotation's good.


  1. Check out how Luther is referred to in Brixius Northanus's subscription to the Smalcald Articles (SA 3:15.27).

  2. I would contend that the far richer and more descriptive theological term for what the holy ministry is and what it does is the term, "pastor."

    It also happens to be the predominant metaphor for the Church's ministry in the New Testament, the one chosen by the Lord Christ Himself after the Resurrection to drive home what the ministry is all about (John 21). It is the charge given by St. Paul in Acts 20:28, etc.

  3. Both are wonderful biblical and confessional images of the holy office. One title is not better than the other. 'Father' emphasizes the ontological element of the ministry, what a man *is* in his vocation; 'Pastor' emphasizes the functional element, what he *does.*

  4. And we don't emphasize one to the detriment of the other.

    The other benefit of 'Father' as a title is that it confesses the male ministry. The word 'pastor' is gender-neutral in English. With Father there is no doubt about whether Pastor Chris is a man or a woman.

    But Jason's point that the usual Protestant exegesis prohibiting Father as a title for a minister is outside of The Lutheran confessional tradition.

  5. I presented a paper at one of our Kansas Pastors' Conferences last year on the office as the office of spiritual father. It was - surprisingly - well received.

  6. Larry, I think the strongest argument for the use of "Father" is that it clearly excludes a woman "father." Good stuff there.

    As for the assertion that a "Father" is what a pastor is and a "pastor" goes to what he does, I am not sure that is necessary true. A "Father" is a "Father" because of what he does too, or, well not to get too graphic, but what he did and does.

    I'd still content for "Pastor" as the label with the richest and strongest pedigree throughout both Old Testament and New Testament, I was thinking of all the OT texts, such as Psalm 23 and Ezekiel 33.

    No, the use of "father" is not "wrong" but it surely strikes me often that those pining after its use are getting just a tad pretentious about it and insisting on it to the point that it becomes a needless source of question and controversy. And they usually neglect the fact that Luther taught that the office of the ministry also derives from the office or parent. Ouch. Kind of tough on the old ontological arguments there.

    I don't see any particularly good or compelling reason to change our terminology that has been long and well used in The LCMS away from pastor.

    But my bottom line on titles is, I don't care what you call me, just call me for dinner.

    1. "I don't see any particularly good or compelling reason to change our terminology that has been long and well used in The LCMS away from pastor.

      But my bottom line on titles is, I don't care what you call me, just call me for dinner."

      Agreed. The people I serve universally call me Pastor. I don't teach them to do otherwise. Though, at the same time, I wouldn't correct anyone who called me Father.

      I suspect that the rise of the Father terminology is a response to everyone and his brother or sister being called pastor these days. Every Tom, Dick, and Harry; every Sally, Patty, and Jill is a pastor. We have youth pastors, geriatric pastors, pastors of assimilation, etc. But as Larry said, the image of having a spiritual father conveys the honor due clergy.

      My point in this regard was not so much a call to restore the title, but rather a call to stop saying this is not Lutheran by quoting that bit from our Lord "Call no man father." This is not the sense of the rest of Scripture nor the sense it is understood in our own confessions.

    2. Dear Paul, I've never heard of a single instance of an LCMS guy insisting on being called Father or bring pretentious about it.

      I find it a humbling thing to be called pastor, father, reverend, brother, preacher, etc.

      In New Orleans, the traditional term priest and the address father is helpful as sometimes people view only Roman pastors as truly in the holy office.

      I also find wearing clerical garb to be a helpful confession of what our church teaches and who we are.

      As far as ontology and function, a man can be ordained and serving the church without being a parish pastor (as you are). The title 'pastor' can be a bit confusing in such cases. Most presbyters are pastors, though some are editors, professors, and other servants of the church while not being called to a parish. And yet such presbyters are spiritual fathers.

      And likewise, once a father, always a father. Even if all of a man's children are grown or if they die.

      A pastor can retire and no longer be 'pastoring' (shepherding) a flock, but he will always be an ordained presbyter, a father of the church.

    3. As far as 'changing our terminology' goes, language is fluid and changes on its own in an anarchic way without any central committee or authority.

      I think we're seeing some terms change based on things like international contacts, cultural forces, and other things like increased exposure to the confessions and church history.

      No language tsar made us quit saying 'thy' or added 'ginormous' to the lexicon. Language is fluent, and it's simply going to adapt to times and cultures.

      I think the women's 'ordination' issue - which has made 'father' a confession of biblical fidelity - more commonly used among American Lutherans.

      Even our hymnal has adapted its terminology between LW and LSB, as LW actually had the word 'Negro' in it - which has fallen out if favor in today's vernacular.

  7. Sorry for the typos....and a question...

    Isn't it traditional in some Anglican circles to call their priests, Father? And if so, what do they call women priests? Anyone know?

    1. Late for dinner? ;-)

      They intuitively know that 'mother' doesn't work. I've seen them use the title 'Rev.'

    2. I find it interesting that the Society of the Holy Trinity shuns the use of 'father' - even though they tend toward ecumenical outreach to Rome and liturgical traditionalism.

      Of course, the lady 'pastors' can't use the title 'Father' so they stick with 'Pastor.'

      If nothing else, using the title 'Father' at least on occasion is a confession that traditionalism and liturgical piety divorced from scripture is a dead letter.

    3. I remember sensing, when I first came into contact with Christian refugees from Iraq, the affection (which to me seemed to shine through at least as much as, and probably more than, respect for an authority) with which they would refer to their priests, and to myself, as "father". It seemed to me that there was something very healthy about the affection, as well as the attitude to which it obligated a clergyman thus referred to.

      On another note, appropriately or not, I remember already in high school finding a strange delight in combining the affectionate title with the first names of alleged Pastors: "Father Elisabeth" and "Father Shirley" and "Father Marianne" ...

      I am still not convinced that there is not something appropriate about the obvious impropriety ...

    4. By the way, thinking of the practice so common among older pastors of encouraging the laity to consider younger pastors (who might very well, depending on the age of their elders, be well into middle age) as dumb kids who just need to be put down and put in their place by their parishioners so as to outgrow their theological convictions, and certainly should not be taken seriously as preachers and teachers of the truth of God - I wonder if it would have been quite so successful and set root quite so easily, had the perception of the Pastor as a kid in need of discipline and disrespect been commonly countered by the practice of referring to him as "Father" ...

  8. Perhaps a bit late to the game here, but here goes:

    I began calling my current pastor "Father" immediately after he accepted the call to my congregation. This transition was hardly difficult, given my previous pastor for nearly 23 years was my biological father. There is something very comforting about calling one's shepherd "father," especially during confession and absolution. The fact that my current pastor is Italian only make it all the more easy. Not sure why. Ha ha, I joke.

    I would like to mention that our sister churches in India and Sri Lanka address their pastors as "Father," to the exclusion of the title "pastor" not only because the latter title has connotations of Charismatic Christianity or mainline protestantism, but, unfortunately, "pastor" has implications of corruption. Therefore, my biological father is now addressed as "Father" by the congregations in his call to Sri Lanka.

    One last thought - perhaps us American Lutherans shy away from calling our pastors "father" not only by force of habit, but because we have an inclination to fear anyone who claims to be a spiritual head. Thus, in India and Sri Lanka, where the men are considered the natural heads of the household, congregations more easily translate this to churchs as well - there must be spiritual father in a church, just as there is a head of a household. We Americans, on the other hand, have trouble even recognizing that the husband and father is the leader of a household. Our fear of male leadership in our culture is even more glaring in our churches.

  9. This is adiaphora (indifference practice). I think Rev. McCain is correct that it only adds offense and we should try to avoid such a practice. It also confuses the two kingdoms since the Pastoral Office comes from the kingdom of the right and the Office of Father from them kingdom of the left. With that said, let's worry about preaching Christ and not the Pastor.


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