Question: "Did Jesus mean that we should never refer to our earthly father as 'father' (Matthew 23:9)? Is it wrong for Catholics to refer to their priests as 'father'?"
Answer: It would be confusing for God to give the fifth commandment in Exodus 20:12: "Honor your father and your mother, so that you may live long in the land the LORD your God is giving you” and then later in the Bible to restrict us from calling our earthly father “father.” Matthew 23:9 states, “And do not call anyone on earth ‘father,’ for you have one Father, and He is in heaven.” The context of Matthew 23:9 tells us that referring to your biological father as “father” is not what Jesus is speaking about.
In Matthew 23:1–12, Jesus is denouncing the Jewish scribes and Pharisees for rejecting Him as their Messiah, in particular for their hypocrisy in elevating themselves above others with titles such as “teacher” and “master.” The Jewish teachers affected that title because they supposed that a teacher formed the man, or gave him real life, and they sought, therefore, to be called “father,” as if they were the source of truth rather than God. Christ taught them that the source of all life and truth is God, and they ought not to seek or receive a title which properly belongs to Him.
This denunciation is equally relevant for today. In no way should any person look up to, follow, or elevate a human leader in any religious or church organization above Jesus Christ. Jesus is the Head of the Church, His body, and our one and only Master and Teacher. He alone is the author of our salvation, source of comfort in difficulties and strength to live the Christian life, and the only One to whom our prayers should be directed.
Roman Catholics call their priests “father” and the pope is called “the holy father.” This is clearly unbiblical. The priest as “father” is problematic. Catholic priests are doing precisely what Matthew 23:9 condemns by allowing the term “father” in a spiritual sense be applied to them. In no sense is a priest or pastor a “spiritual father” to a Christian. Only God can cause a person to receive “spiritual birth”; therefore, only God is worthy of the title of “Father” in a spiritual sense.
In the case of the “holy father,” there is no doubt this is unbiblical. No man can take on the title of “holy” anything, because only God is holy. This title gives the pope a status that is never intended for any man on earth. Even the apostle Paul referred to himself as the chief of sinners (1 Timothy 1:15) and cried out, “Who will deliver me from this body of death?” (Romans 7:14). Clearly, Paul made no claim to holiness. Although as Christians we have exchanged our sin for the righteousness of Christ (2 Corinthians 5:21), holiness will not be attained until we are in heaven and have left the last vestiges of our sin natures behind. Until then, the pope has no more holiness than the average Christian and is not entitled to be called “holy father.”
But there is no reason not to call our earthly parents “father” and “mother” because in doing so we are not giving them an elevated title or position that belongs to God. Our earthly parents are worthy of honor, not just on one special day of the year (Father’s Day, Mother’s Day), but we are to honor our parents daily in the spirit of Exodus 20:12, Matthew 15:4, and Ephesians 6:1-3.