Bible Answer

Should we take literally Jesus’ command to “not call anyone on earth your father”?

Regarding Matthew 23:8-10, Jesus is speaking to the multitudes and the disciples and tells them to not call anyone on Earth "father" because there is only one Father Who is in Heaven, and don't be called Rabbi because only Christ is our teacher. How literally should I take this passge? Am I not to call my biological parents "mother" or "father"? What do I call my school/college teachers?

Jesus was speaking literally in Matthew 23:1-10, but the meaning of His words are different than your interpretation. Here is the scripture in context:

Matt. 23:1 Then Jesus spoke to the crowds and to His disciples,
Matt. 23:2 saying: “The scribes and the Pharisees have seated themselves in the chair of Moses;
Matt. 23:3 therefore all that they tell you, do and observe, but do not do according to their deeds; for they say things and do not do them.
Matt. 23:4 “They tie up heavy burdens and lay them on men’s shoulders, but they themselves are unwilling to move them with so much as a finger.
Matt. 23:5 “But they do all their deeds to be noticed by men; for they broaden their phylacteries and lengthen the tassels of their garments.
Matt. 23:6 “They love the place of honor at banquets and the chief seats in the synagogues,
Matt. 23:7 and respectful greetings in the market places, and being called Rabbi by men.
Matt. 23:8 “But do not be called Rabbi; for One is your Teacher, and you are all brothers.
Matt. 23:9 “Do not call anyone on earth your father; for One is your Father, He who is in heaven.
Matt. 23:10 “Do not be called leaders; for One is your Leader, that is, Christ.
Matt. 23:11 “But the greatest among you shall be your servant.
Matt. 23:12 “Whoever exalts himself shall be humbled; and whoever humbles himself shall be exalted.

Notice that the context for these instructions was Jesus speaking about the religious leaders and teachers of Israel. Jesus says the scribes and Pharisees seated themselves in the chair of Moses, meaning they had assumed the position of authority within Israel including the right to judge whether others observed the law correctly. Since they had this authority, Jesus commanded the people to obey them, just as scripture tells us to obey those appointed over us (see Romans 13).

However, Jesus goes on to describe how these same men were hypocrites in their behavior. They demanded that others obey the law of Moses scrupulously while they themselves gave little regard to it. Their hearts were selfish and egotistical. They ruled the people not out of a love for God or for justice but merely to gain honor and attention for themselves. Notice in vs.5-7 Jesus says these men sought the praises of the people and respectful greetings in public settings. 

Though such behavior was common practice for the learned religious leaders of Jesus day, Jesus wanted His disciples to set a different example. Instead of seeking public recognition and competing for personal honor, the disciples of Jesus were to exhibit humility before men. Jesus says in v.12 that those who humble themselves in service to God will be exalted by God in the Kingdom. 

To illustrate His point, Jesus cites three examples of religious hypocrisy common in His day in vs.9-10. As part of their efforts to secure honor among the people, the scribes and Pharisees demanded to be called Rabbi (meaning teacher), leader (meaning ruler), and father (meaning spiritual father). These titles suggested that these men were the sources of spiritual wisdom, spiritual authority and spiritual blessing among the people of Israel. 

Obviously, there is nothing inherently wrong with these titles in everyday situations. We are certainly permitted to address our earth father as “father," our 3rd grade math teacher as “teacher,” and our president or prime minister as “leader” etc. On the other hand,  Jesus was saying that we may not use these titles in a religious context, because someone greater already possess these titles, spiritually speaking.

Notice that each of these titles corresponds to a member of the Godhead. According to Scripture, the Father is our spiritual father, the Son is our leader, and the Spirit is our teacher, as scripture affirms:

Eph. 4:6 one God and Father of all who is over all and through all and in all.
Eph. 5:23 For the husband is the head of the wife, as Christ also is the head of the church, He Himself being the Savior of the body.
John 14:26 “But the Helper, the Holy Spirit, whom the Father will send in My name, He will teach you all things, and bring to your remembrance all that I said to you.

Since each of these titles already belongs to a member of the Godhead, we ought not take them for ourselves nor confer them upon another in a spiritual context. Therefore, the proper interpretation of this passage understands that these terms are prohibited in a religious context. For example, Christians may not address a Catholic priest as “father” nor a Protestant pastor as a spiritual “leader” nor even a Sunday School instructor as our spiritual teacher. Instead, we acknowledge the Godhead alone in these things. 

On the other hand, using these terms in a nonreligious context is still proper. For example, addressing your earthly parents as “mother” or “father” is entirely appropriate. Even Jesus used the term “mother" in His instructions to John on the cross:

John 19:26 When Jesus then saw His mother, and the disciple whom He loved standing nearby, He  said to His mother, “Woman, behold, your son!”
John 19:27 Then He  said to the disciple, “Behold, your mother!” From that hour the disciple took her into his own household.

We encourage you not to imagine “creative” uses for the instructions of this scripture, especially when you leave the context of scripture behind. If you should decide to refrain from addressing someone as mother, doctor or even sir, you not only misinterpret scripture, but you also diminish your witness for Christ. Failing to honor your parents (by addressing them properly) or failing to show proper respect for other authorities is both sinful and likely to offend others, thereby reducing your opportunities to witness for Christ.