"And do not call anyone on earth 'father,' for you have one Father, and he is in heaven. Nor are you to be called 'master,' for you have one Master, the Christ." Matthew 23:9-10
This passage supplies a pertinent illustration of something we make reference to occasionally in these pages—namely, the danger of being misled by the sound of a verse through failing to ascertain its sense, and understanding it in a way which is contrary to the Analogy of Faith. According to the sound of its words, this passage prohibits the believer from designating his sire "father," or his employer "master"; and by parity of reason, forbids him to be so addressed by others. But obviously, that cannot be its meaning; for if it be divorced from its context, and its terms taken absolutely at their face value, Scripture would be made to contradict itself.
Christianity does not set aside the ordinary relations of life—but ennobles them. Christian sires are specifically called "fathers," and their responsibilities as such are enforced (Ephesians 6:4-5). As Matthew 23:9 is not a rescinding of the child's duty unto his parents, neither is it to be regarded as repressing believers from having respect and affection for their spiritual "fathers" (2 Kings 2:12; 1 Corinthians 4:15).
In Ephesians 6:5 and Colossians 4:1, the Holy Spirit expressly terms Christian employers "masters" and presses their duties upon them; while in 1 Timothy 6:1 and Titus 2:9, servants are instructed how they are to conduct themselves unto them. Thus, in the light of these passages, it cannot be wrong for workmen to address their employer as "master," or for a Christian employer to allow his men to call him such. Having pointed out what Matthew 23:9-10 does not mean, let us explain what it does signify.
As a father is one to whom God has given authority over his children and is required to nurture and discipline them, so also a master is one who has the right to give orders to those whom he employs and to apportion the work of those men whom he hires—that is, in the natural sphere: in the home and workshop. But it was concerning the religious realm that Christ was here legislating, forbidding His disciples to look up to any man who posed as a pope, to subject themselves unto a tyrant who sought to have dominion over their faith, or regulate their conduct. "Do not allow anyone to usurp authority and rule over you," is the force of Christ's injunctions.
The key to Matthew 23:9-10 is found in the context. The Lord Jesus, who came not to destroy the Law but to fulfill it, was giving instructions "to the multitude, and to his disciples" (Matthew 23:1), to the former in verse 3; to the latter in verses 8-11. "The scribes and the Pharisees sit in Moses' seat" (Matthew 23:2); that is, they occupy positions of authority and demand full and implicit subjection from their followers. Whatever they enjoined—which was a legitimate enforcing of the Mosaic law—must be dutifully complied with.
But they exceeded their rights, usurped authority, and set themselves up as tyrannical dictators, "They tie up heavy loads that are hard to carry and put them on people's shoulders" (Matthew 23:4). By their self-devised enactments and traditions, such as the washing of hands, etc. (Matthew 15:2), they invented a system of outward and ceremonial sanctity, which was stricter and more irksome than the Levitical law—their design being to gain a reputation of super-eminent piety before men (Matthew 15:4-7). Now, says Christ to His disciples: Do not be like unto such hypocrites in any of these respects—and refuse allegiance or submission to any who imitate them!
Such a word of warning has ever been needed by the Lord's people, who are, for the most part, simple and unsophisticated, trustful, and readily imposed upon. And in each succeeding generation, there have appeared men of a domineering spirit, who aspired to leadership and demanded subserviency from their fellows. Such men, when endowed with natural gifts above the average, become founders of new sects and parties, and insist upon unquestioning obedience from their disciples. Their interpretations of Scripture must not be questioned, their punctilios of piety must not be challenged, their dicta are final; in a word, they demand subjection to themselves as "fathers" and "masters." Everyone must believe precisely what they teach, and regulate their conduct in all details according to their rules—or be branded and condemned as heretics. There have been, and still are, many little "popes" in the Protestant circles who consider themselves entitled to implicit credence and submission, whose decisions must be accepted without question.
"But you are not to be called 'Rabbi,' for you have only one Master and you are all brothers" (Matthew 23:8). No Christian—whatever be his gifts or graces—has any right to set himself up as an authoritative "rabbi" and give orders to his fellow-believers, for all of them are brethren—equal in rights, in privileges, and in their standing before God. For one to act as a Diotrephes (3 John 9) is to usurp the prerogative of Christ (Colossians 1:18). Therefore, any who would attempt lordship over those whom Christ purchased by His blood are to be steadfastly opposed, their pretensions ignored, and their claims disallowed.
"And do not call anyone on earth 'father,' for you have one Father, and he is in heaven" (Matthew 23:9). Do not allow any man to be the director of your faith, or the governor of your life, any further than he produces a plain and decisive, "Thus says the Lord" as the foundation of his appeal. "Not that we lord it over your faith" (2 Corinthians 1:24), said the chief of the apostles unto the saints. Faith rests not on the testimony of man, nor is it subject to any man—but to God alone.
"Nor are you to be called 'masters,' for you have one Master—the Christ" (Matthew 23:10). All Christians are equally dependent upon and subject to one common Lord; and any man who sets himself up as a spiritual dictator is demanding that honor to which none—except the Redeemer—is entitled. And we are a party to his wicked presumption, if we yield deference to him and submit to his rule. To give place to his whims and wishes—is to renounce our Christian liberty and to become serfs to a man.
To illustrate: If your pastor requires you to abstain from eating meat on Friday, or prohibits the lawful use of things (such as wine) which God had not interdicted; and you yield to his demands—then you are "calling" him—owning him—as your "master."
Romans 14:3-4 helps us to interpret Matthew 23:10. Certain Judaisers sought to bind burdens on Gentile saints, which God has not appointed, and condemned them for a non-compliance with their demands. To them, Paul said, "Who are you that judge another man's servant?" He is not under your dominion, he owes no subjection to you. Then he added, "to his own master [which you are not] he stands or falls." Thus, the simple meaning of Matthew 23:8-10 is, 'Let no Christian arrogate unto himself the right to frame laws and rules—and then require the submission of his fellows to them; for that is to usurp the right which belongs alone unto Christ. Also, you are to allow no man to have dominion over your faith, to lord it over your conscience, to dictate unto you how you shall order the details of your life.'
"You are bought with a price [and belong to the Purchaser]; do not become the servants of men" (1 Corinthians 7:23). Allow none to bring you into the bondage of "the commandments and doctrines of men" and "Touch not; taste not; handle not…" (Colossians 2:21-22).
"Stand fast therefore in the liberty with which Christ has made us free" (Galatians 5:1). Be regulated solely by the precepts of God's Word. Allow no pope or sect to rob you of the right of private judgment; and do not infringe on the right of your brother.
In the past, we have pointed out that the conditions which occur in the profane world—are but a repercussion of those which prevailed first in the professing world; that the state of things in the political, industrial, and social realm—is only a reflection of things in the ecclesiastical realm. God's Law was banished from the pulpit and the assembly, before lawlessness became rife in the community. Discipline ceased to be enforced in "the house of God" (the local church), before it disappeared from the home. Religious infidelity between those bearing the name of Christ and His open enemies was widespread, before martial infidelity became so general. A famine of hearing the Word of God, preceded the world-wide food shortage, which we are now witnessing. And those who set up themselves as "masters" and "fathers" over the saints, were the forerunners of national and international dictators. Christians at large took the line of least resistance and yielded much of their spiritual liberty; and now the rank and file of people are "directed" and "controlled" by the state. Having sown the wind—it is inevitable we should reap the whirlwind (Hosea 8:7).