So about calling our clergy “priests” and having “spiritual fathers”…

Bottom Line, Up Front: regardless of whether you call the person “pastor”, “brother”, “father”, “teacher”, or “priest”, never follow someone who is a self-centered, uncaring hypocrite. Instead follow the example of the person who is a humble servant.

Remember those who rule over you, who have spoken the word of God to you, whose faith follow, considering the outcome of their conduct…. Obey those who rule over you, and be submissive, for they watch out for your souls, as those who must give account. Let them do so with joy and not with grief, for that would be unprofitable for you. (Hebrews 13:7, 17, NKJV)

So I had occasion recently to want to just quickly drop a link to a relatively succinct and “Protestant friendly” discussion of this topic in response to a Facebook comment. A couple of hours of googling later — and after visiting my favorite Orthodox websites — I came up empty. What I found was either too long or too technical, or didn’t exactly address the topic in a way that responded to my friend’s comment. So again I went back to the book I’m currently reading in my Kindle app, Know the Faith: A Handbook for Orthodox Christians and Inquirers by Michael Shanbour. 

So first off — yes Orthodox Christians do believe in the priesthood of all believers (https://oca.org/parish-ministry/theology/laypersons-co-sharers-in-the-ministries-of-the-church). 

So why then do we call the clergy who run our local parishes “priests” if we are all “priests”? The short answer is that while all believers are priests, there are ranks, if you will, in the priesthood of believers. The highest rank, High Priest, belongs to Christ our Lord. After that we have Bishops, Priests, Deacons and laypeople (or the rest of us). For the purpose of comparison, the Assemblies of God denomination breaks this down as follows: High Priest (Christ), District Presbyters, Pastors, Elders & Deacons, laypeople. There are other titles involved in the Orthodox faith (e.g. the Bishop over the Russian jurisdiction of Orthodox Christians is called a Patriarch) and various ways that laypeople can serve (read out the Scripture in a service, sing in the choir, teach a class, etc.), but these are the four overall categories or ranks of service in the Christian priesthood of believers according to Orthodox Christians.

So what is the basis for the specific term “priest” for what Protestants would call a local pastor or minister?

In his book Know the Faith: A Handbook for Orthodox Christians and Inquirers Michael Shanbour points out “In antiquity, the term episcopos was used to designate the chief servant in a large household.” (http://a.co/1c6uzGX)  Episcopos means “overseer” and is used for the role of a bishop, or overseer of the churches within a city or region (http://a.co/jdVya7p). He also notes “In the New Testament, the office of bishop is specifically mentioned in Phil. 1:1; 1 Tim. 3:1–2; Titus 1:7. Jesus is called Bishop (or ‘Overseer’) in 1 Pet. 2:25.” http://a.co/fuA5YRH

After bishops come presbyters, Shanbour points out:

The second major order of ordained leadership is that of ­presbyter, or elder. It is important to note that the New Testament uses the terms “bishop” and “presbyter” interchangeably, and for good reason. In terms of ordination, there is qualitatively no difference between the two. A bishop is the head presbyter or eldest in rank among presbyters. When a new bishop is made, we say not that he is ordained but that he is consecrated, that is, set apart among the presbytery for the ministry of apostolic oversight. http://a.co/48k9AuF

In St. Ignatius’s day, every local church community had a bishop, along with presbyters and deacons all serving in their own capacity. But in time, as the church grew rapidly, a bishop became the overseer of several or many local churches, with the presbyters under his care serving the Eucharist and ministering. This occurred even in the first century… (Letter to the Smyrnaeans, 8). http://a.co/8g4dBbh

(St. Ignatius of Antioch was Bishop of Antioch from 68-107 A.D., https://orthodoxwiki.org/Ignatius_of_Antioch.)

Shanbour points out that soon the term “priest” was used for presbyters.

St. Clement, Bishop of Rome from AD 92–99, uses the term “priest” for the presbyter: “Thus to the high priest [bishop] have been appointed his proper services, to the priests [presbyters] their own place assigned, upon the Levites [deacons] their proper duties imposed; and the layman is bound by the rules for laymen.” (Apostolic Fathers, p. 40). http://a.co/7HvJ9i0

The Orthodox Church has always maintained both priesthoods—the royal priesthood of all the faithful… and the particular ordination of those chosen from within the community of the Church to exercise the priestly ministry of Christ with and on behalf of the faithful. http://a.co/15nRYbn

This same double priesthood existed in the Old Covenant. For the Lord declared through Moses to all the people of Israel: “And you shall be to Me a kingdom of priests and a holy nation” (Ex. 19:6). Yet He also instituted the ecclesial priesthood through Aaron for the carrying out of His prescribed worship (Ex. 29:1–37).” http://a.co/0l2D4Zj

So what about calling someone a spiritual father? The objection to this by Protestants comes from Matthew 23:9, but let’s look at that verse in its context (using the English Standard Version, or ESV).

Matthew 23:1 Then Jesus said to the crowds and to his disciples, 23:2 “The experts in the law and the Pharisees sit on Moses’ seat. 23:3 Therefore pay attention to what they tell you and do it. But do not do what they do, for they do not practice what they teach. 23:4 They tie up heavy loads, hard to carry, and put them on men’s shoulders, but they themselves are not willing even to lift a finger to move them. 23:5 They do all their deeds to be seen by people, for they make their phylacteries wide and their tassels long. 23:6 They love the place of honor at banquets and the best seats in the synagogues 23:7 and elaborate greetings in the marketplaces, and to have people call them ‘Rabbi.’ 23:8 But you are not to be called ‘Rabbi,’ for you have one Teacher and you are all brothers. 23:9 And call no one your ‘father’ on earth, for you have one Father, who is in heaven. 23:10 Nor are you to be called ‘teacher,’ for you have one teacher, the Christ. 23:11 The greatest among you will be your servant. 23:12 And whoever exalts himself will be humbled, and whoever humbles himself will be exalted.

23:13 “But woe to you, experts in the law and you Pharisees, hypocrites! You keep locking people out of the kingdom of heaven! For you neither enter nor permit those trying to enter to go in.”

Fr. Richard Ballew (St. Stephen Antiochian Orthodox Church) points out the implications of this context as follows.

Therefore, in saying we should call no one “father” and “teacher”, except God the Father and Christ Himself, the Lord Jesus appears not to be taking issue with the use of these particular titles in and of themselves. The context of the passage gives us the interpretive key we are looking for. In this “call no man father” passage, our Lord is contending with certain rabbis of His day who were using these specific titles to accomplish their own ends. And had these same apostate rabbis been using other titles, such as “reverend” and “pastor”, Jesus, it seems to me, would have said of these as well, “Call no one reverend or pastor”.  http://www.antiochian.org/spiritual-director-guide-and-mentor

From the context of Matthew 23 the rabbis that were mentioned were of poor character, in particular hypocritical show-offs who were attention seekers lacking in compassion. (If you have the time, I recommend reading Fr. Ballew’s entire article.) Obviously the intent here was to tell us to not submit ourselves to self-aggrandizing hypocrites and even more, not to become like them, but rather to become humble servants.  This was not a prohibition of the titles “father” or “teacher” per se. Certainly we still call our male parents “fathers”! But what of “spiritual fathers”? This brings me back to Shanbour’s book.

For even the Apostle Paul refers to himself as the spiritual father of the Corinthians. As he admonishes them in the Lord, calling them his “beloved children,” he writes, “For though you might have ten thousand instructors in Christ, yet you do not have many fathers; for in Christ Jesus I have begotten you through the gospel” (1 Cor. 4:15). http://a.co/cG4FLP9

The term is also given to holy ones who have come before. The apostles refer to the saints of the Old Testament as “fathers” on numerous occasions, especially in the Book of Acts but also in the epistles (e.g., 1 Cor. 10:1). The Apostle Peter seems to use the term for Christian leaders who have fallen asleep in Christ (2 Pet. 3:3–4). Our Lord Himself does not hesitate to use the term in his parable of Lazarus and the rich man, speaking of “Father Abraham” not once but twice (Luke 16:24, 30). http://a.co/2nFXh0p

Commonly among Orthodox Christians a person’s spiritual father is his or her priest, but it can also be a layperson, such as a wise, knowledgeable older Christian, or perhaps the priest’s wife may be spiritual mother to a Christian woman in that parish.

So the use of the terms “priest” or “father” for a local clergyman is far from unbiblical and based in the earliest traditions of Christianity.

Want to know more?

Christians as priests and kings:
https://oca.org/parish-ministry/theology/laypersons-co-sharers-in-the-ministries-of-the-church
https://oca.org/orthodoxy/the-orthodox-faith/worship/the-sacraments/holy-orders

Orthodox priesthood:
https://orthodoxwiki.org/Presbyter

Calling priests “father”:
http://www.protomartyr.org/our-faith/call-no-man-father/
https://theorthodoxlife.wordpress.com/2014/03/24/call-no-man-father/

Differences between Orthodoxy and Catholicism:
http://www.ocf.org/OrthodoxPage/reading/ortho_cath.html

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