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Thursday, May 22, 2014

Irrationalization: Call No Man Father

There are two ways for, let’s say, a flabby, aerobically-inadequate middle aged blogger to approach a task like getting over a six foot hurdle. One way is to recognize that he is horribly out of shape and begin regular exercise and training.

The other way is to lower the bar … or maybe even remove it entirely.

I have always been fascinated by our ability when reading the Bible to explain away that which would be perfectly clear if understood in its natural sense. Sadly, doing so is almost always a recipe for spiritual disaster. A much safer practice is to confirm that the word of God says what it says, even when it condemns us. To let God be true and to let every man be a liar, and let the theological chips fall where they may.

All to say, I happened across a spectacular piece of religious rationalization this morning.

Religious Rationalization

While the tendency toward religious rationalization goes right back to the fall of man, nowhere is the convoluted, corrupt and manipulative reasoning of the would-be faithful more exposed than in the teaching of Christ himself:

Religious rationalizers are notoriously inconsistent interpreters of Scripture. They like to read the word of God literally when it suits them, as when the Pharisees were condemned by the Lord for tithing mint, dill and cumin and neglecting the “weightier matters of the law”. Since giving a tenth of one’s herbs to God is manifestly an easier task than practicing justice, mercy and faithfulness on a daily basis, the literal, legalistic interpretation was embraced.

The Lord’s response to people who treat his word this way is “Woe to you”. They strain out a gnat and swallow a camel.

Literal or Figurative, as Convenient

Then when a literal understanding proves inconvenient, religious rationalizers embrace the figurative. The Pharisees were again condemned by the Lord for their intellectual gymnastics with respect to the practice of what was called corban. A plain reading of the Old Testament law led a devout Jew to take care of his parents, financially and otherwise. But because it lined their own pockets, the Jewish authorities adopted the practice of interpreting the law figuratively in this instance, teaching that a Jew could fulfill his duty to the temple and to his parents with the same gift, given to the temple instead of to the immediate, practical needs of the family.

So if you gave to “God” (and this was about as euphemistic and figurative a use of the word “God” as is linguistically possible considering the level of corruption then current in Judaism), you were freed from the obligations an obvious, literal reading imposed.

The temple administration got richer, the average Jew halved his financial obligations … and elderly parents were shortchanged. But the Lord declared, “You have a fine way of rejecting the commandment of God”.

Religious rationalizers do not explain. They explain away.

Not Tough, Unless You Want It To Be

In 2004 a fellow named Robert H. Brom wrote a little tract entitled Call No Man Father? My interest here is not to gratuitously slam Mr. Brom. But real-world examples are so much more practical and useful than discussing an issue hypothetically.

Here, first, is the Lord’s plain teaching on the subject Mr. Brom attempts to take up. Seems pretty concise and easy to parse from where I sit, but your mileage may vary. Have a look. Of the scribes and Pharisees the Lord says:
“… 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. 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.”
A quick glance suggests that the Lord is here forbidding the taking of honorary titles by religious authorities and the use of honorifics by their followers (“you are not to be called” and “call no man”). So regarding religious titles, don’t take ’em and don’t give ’em.

Not tough, unless you have a reason to make it tough.

Best Seat in the House

His reasoning for forbidding religious titles is also clear. It’s a way of getting honor for yourself that properly belongs to God. It’s evidence of a rotten, self-indulgent spirit that is inappropriate in the service of God. They “love the place of honor”, he says. They love the “best seats”. They love “being called rabbi”. Such pretensions are out of line in the kingdom of heaven, where “the greatest among you shall be your servant” and “Whoever exalts himself will be humbled, and whoever humbles himself will be exalted.”

Am I alone in finding this interpretation of the Lord’s words fairly obvious? Surely not.

But Mr. Brom is about to spend 2,323 words explaining away 72 or so.

Here Come Four Bad Arguments

Let the straw-manning begin!
“No one would deny a little girl the opportunity to tell someone that she loves her father.”
No, quite so. Nobody would. The Lord certainly doesn’t. Remember, the subject we are dealing with here, the subject the Lord was actually addressing, is the Taking and Usage of Religious Titles of Honor, not the use of terms of affection for literal fathers by their daughters. Next!
“The concept of God’s role as Father would be meaningless if we obliterated the concept of earthly fatherhood.”
… which nobody but Mr. Brom has remotely suggested. Next!
“… in the Bible the concept of fatherhood is not restricted to just our earthly fathers and God. It is used to refer to people other than biological or legal fathers, and is used as a sign of respect to those with whom we have a special relationship.”
True, but completely and utterly irrelevant. The Lord is not discussing literal fathers. He is not discussing metaphorical fathers in contexts other than the religious, like when some cultures refer to a distant ancestor as “father”. Such uses are perfectly fine, and men of God in Scripture engage in them, as Mr. Brom correctly points out. Next!
“Job indicates he played a fatherly role with the less fortunate … God himself declares that he will give a fatherly role to Eliakim …”
And we are not, once again, discussing “fatherly roles” either. The subject is the Taking and Usage of Religious Titles of Honor. Nothing else. Nothing more. Next!

Things Fundamentalists Argue
“Some Fundamentalists argue that this usage changed with the New Testament — that while it may have been permissible to call certain men ‘father’ in the Old Testament, since the time of Christ, it’s no longer allowed. This argument fails for several reasons.”
No doubt “some Fundamentalists” argue all kinds of neat things. Mr. Brom unfortunately references none of them. But let’s say he’s right about their position. The only position we’re interested in is the Lord’s position, right?

There are certainly examples in the Old Testament of individuals using the word ‘father’ in what was most likely a religious sense (though it may have been nothing more than an affectionate and respectful way of referring to an older man). I’ll even give you one, which is more than Mr. Brom does: Elisha, when Elijah was taken up to heaven. Elisha’s use of the term, like all such uses, tells us nothing whatsoever about whether the speaker was right or wrong to use the term that way. It is a mere historical record, not doctrine from the mouth of the Lord himself.

And, as we have established, when we understand the actual issue the Lord is addressing and do not attempt to make the subject matter wildly broader and more encompassing than he did, we realize that not only was it permissible to call certain men ‘father’ in the Old Testament, it remains entirely permissible to call certain men ‘father’ today: genetic fathers, stepfathers, adoptive fathers, fathers-in-law and metaphorical ‘fathers’ such as ancestors — in fact, fathers in absolutely any context other than the religious.

Just NOT those who presume to exercise religious authority. Next!

Excuse Me, the Subject Was RELIGIOUS TITLES
“Second, there are numerous examples in the New Testament of the term ‘father’ being used as a form of address and reference, even for men who are not biologically related to the speaker. There are, in fact, so many uses of ‘father’ in the New Testament, that the Fundamentalist interpretation of Matthew 23 (and the objection to Catholics calling priests ‘father’) must be wrong.”
Mr. Brom is correct; there are hundreds of uses of the word ‘father’ and its plural and possessive variants post-Matthew 23. And every one of them refers to (i) God himself, (ii) a literal father or (iii) an ancestral forefather.

Not a single use — none, zero, nil — is in the sense the Lord here condemns. Next!

Three More for the Road
“Third, a careful examination of the context of Matthew 23 shows that Jesus didn’t intend for his words here to be understood literally.”
Hoo boy. We’re in dangerous territory when we speculate about how the Lord ‘intended’ his words to be understood. And since I’ve already examined the context of the Lord’s teaching here, I won’t belabor the point. If Mr. Brom “carefully examined” the context of the Lord’s teaching, he wouldn’t have written his article. Next!
“The first problem is that although Jesus seems to prohibit the use of the term “teacher,” in Matthew 28:19–20, Christ himself appointed certain men to be teachers in his Church.”
Appointing someone to teach is not the same as taking the title “Teacher Bob”. Appointing someone to function as a pastor is not the same as taking the title “Pastor Fred”. Appointing someone to leadership is not the same as taking the title “Leader Ted”.

Even appointing someone to function as a spiritual father is not the same as taking the title “Father Joe”.

The Lord is not condemning anyone serving him; in fact, he encourages us to do so. But he says in this context “the greatest among you shall be your servant”. And servants don’t take titles. Servants don’t need titles. They just serve. Functioning in the role is not the same as taking a title. Next!
“Fundamentalists themselves slip up on this point by calling all sorts of people ‘doctor’.”
As already established from the context, any non-religious honorific is perfectly fine. However, I would not call a doctor of theology ‘Doctor Smith’. That one’s a bit too close to the line. Next!

Demonstrably Hyperbolic
“Since Jesus is demonstrably using hyperbole when he says not to call anyone our father — else we would not be able to refer to our earthly fathers as such — we must read his words carefully and with sensitivity to the presence of hyperbole if we wish to understand what he is saying.”
There are, no doubt, plenty of uses of hyperbole in Scripture. But indiscriminately applying the label ‘hyperbole’ becomes a way of allowing anyone to dismiss absolutely anything. It might be a whole lot more consistent and logical to simply recognize the context of the Lord’s words here and limit the discussion to that. Next!
“Paul regularly referred to Timothy as his child”.
As he did to others. And he also described his own role as ‘fatherly’. What he did not do was take an honorific title. Next!

Oh, wait. We’re done.

*  *  *  *  *

You see how it’s accomplished, this familiar process of ‘explaining away’: You construct multiple straw men. You ignore context. You do everything but address the actual subject. You suggest that those who disagree with you “believe this” and “believe that” without attribution and without letting them speak in their own words. You dismiss fantastical arguments that nobody is actually making.

Mr. Brom has spent a good chunk of blog space essentially ridding us of the words of the Lord on this particular subject entirely. Jesus was, in Mr. Brom’s opinion, merely “warning people against inaccurately attributing fatherhood — or a particular kind or degree of fatherhood — to those who do not have it.”

So in his opinion you are welcome to give anybody a religious title of honour, provided that you think they deserve it.

I’ll leave it to you to decide whether that interpretation accurately represents the Lord’s position.

And, okay, you knew it was coming: Mr. Brom more frequently goes by the title ‘Bishop of San Diego’.

See the problem?

2 comments :

  1. I am forever amazed that people who have their only authority -- indeed their only usefulness at all -- as a byproduct of our need to understand and learn how to obey Scripture can turn around and use the most unscriptural authority structures and titles to do it.

    I.C.

    The usual excuse is, "Well, it's not Biblical, what we're doing, but it's not contrary to the Bible either -- it's allowable innovation." However, this argument has so many flaws you could drive a truck through any one of them. Firstly, if it's not mentioned in the Bible, we have no guidelines or regulations for it at all from God. But secondly, as you have so aptly pointed out, Tom, IT'S NOT TRUE. In this matter, there are specific Biblical instructions against it. We're not to have unbiblical titles of esteem. That's spelled out plainly.

    But what about "pastor"? There is but one passage in all of Scripture (Eph. 4:11) that uses the single word, and it's mistranslated by Latinization there. In fact, "pastor" means "shepherd"; and in every other place in Scripture, the only legitimate human "shepherds" are a) the Great Shepherd Himself, and b) His designated undershepherds, the elders of the church.

    There is zero warrant in Scripture for one-man ministry. There is zero warrant for a single man in any congregation being called "pastor." So how come those men who go to seminary for years and study to become "Doctors of Divinity" fail to notice this one bald fact -- that they are seeking an unbiblical office and privilege for themselves?

    Can we think it is anything other than pride and love of being exalted among men? Or could we also say it is the salary they are seeking? It's certainly not obedience.

    A man who is doing the Lord's work does not need to call himself Pope, bishop, father, pastor or any other title. He just needs to get to work, in conjunction with his fellow elders, and have a bit more humility.

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    1. My take on it, like yours, is that the Lord's three examples here are not exhaustive, but merely illustrative of the types of religious titles that ought not to be taken. So, yeah, "pastor" is another one. The work of shepherding the flock requires the call of God, the exercise of heart, the meeting of Scripture's qualifications and the agreement of the sheep. Nowhere does Scripture teach that it requires or benefits from an official designation, and in fact this very designation frequently if not always becomes a hindrance and a stumbling block rather than any sort of help to the work.

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