A bit back I wrote a post on congregationalism, and within it stated of pastors: They are elders, in part, because they are trustworthy men of character who have proven themselves good managers through the care of their families and can therefore care for the church in a loving, fatherly way. In the comment stream there was an objection that the love of a pastor should be seen as the brotherly/sisterly love of equals as opposed to a fatherly love, since such a “fatherly” position is reserved for God alone.
Though the passage was not referenced, in my mind behind such objection would be based on Matthew 23:1-12 where in his criticism of the actions of the Pharisees Jesus says, “And call no man your father on earth, for you have one Father, who is in heaven.”
Due to various circumstances I didn’t have time to respond to that comment stream when the post was not as buried behind others; but I would like to address this now.
Certainly, Jesus’ words tell us that no man in the church should carry the title “father.” But I think the broader point with this is: ministry is not about titles that we should love to seek because of special honor or distinction (23:5-8). Instead ministry is about exaltation from God through humility towards him and towards others (23:11-12).
Yet, I don’t believe this precludes the idea that the leadership of pastors contains a fatherly love for the church. There are two main reasons:
First, spiritual parent/child relationships are not foreign to the life of the church in the New Testament. In Matthew 12:46-50, a man tells Jesus his mother and brothers are looking for him. Jesus replies by pointing to his disciples and saying, “Whoever does the will of my Father in heaven is my brother and sister and mother.” Paul states in 1 Timothy 5:1-2 that we are to encourage and treat older men like fathers, younger men like brothers, older women like mothers, and younger women like sisters. Paul also refers to Timothy (2 Timothy 1:2) and Titus (Titus 1:4) as his beloved child and true child in faith. He tells the Thessalonians that his and his ministry helpers’ work among them was like the gentle care of a mother, and exhortation and encouragement of a father while they remain brothers (1 Thessalonians 2:7-12). And in 1 Corinthians 4:14 he tells the church he wrote to them to admonish them “as my beloved children.”
In all of these things, both Jesus and Paul show and promote the existence of spiritual parent/child relationships within the church, though at no time is there an exhortation in contradiction to Matthew 23 in which they say, “Call me father” or “Call so-and-so father.” Yet, we clearly see that fatherly love can and should exist between one member and others within the church. A person can exercise fatherly love towards those who are spiritually his brother/sister equals.
Second, the Bible requires pastors to be men who manage their homes well in order that they can manage the church well. In the qualifications for pastors, Paul says, “He must manage his own household well, with all dignity keeping his children submissive, for if someone does not know how to manage his own household, how will he care for God’s church” (1 Timothy 2:4-5). With this passage, Paul directly compares the care of the overseers for the church to one’s managing of his house specifically in terms of his care for his children. Since the church is the household of God (1 Timothy 3:15), the leaders of the church (the office of pastor/elder/overseer) are first tested and proven in their own households. If they are not good fathers then they will not be good pastors. Thus, Paul intrinsically connects fatherly love/care and the pastorate.
In Conclusion… The Bible, of course, prohibits pastors or any church leaders from receiving the title of “father.” This however does not contradict the fact that in the church as the household of God we treat older men like we would our fathers; and it does not preclude the reality that pastors are to have a fatherly love for the church they care for, similar to the way they manage their homes.
Yes, as brothers and sisters under the one Father, we are spiritual equals. Yet there are brothers who lead with fatherly love reflecting the love of the Father. Just as we are fellow sheep under the guidance of one Chief Shepherd, yet there are fellow sheep who lead as under-shepherds reflecting the guidance of the Chief Shepherd.