And call no man your father on earth, for you have one Father, who is in heaven” (Mt. 23:9).
It seems strange that Jesus tells us to call no man on earth father, when Scripture gives many examples of godly men calling others and being called father (2 Kgs. 2:12; 5:13; 1 Cor. 4:15; Eph. 6:4), and God himself calls earthly men our fathers in the Fourth Commandment. But Jesus is teaching not that we have no fathers here on earth, but rather that all fatherhood comes from our one Father, who is in heaven. Thus St. Paul writes, “I bow my knees before the Father (πατέρα, patera), from whom every fatherhood (πατριὰ, patria) in heaven and on earth is named” (Eph. 3:14). Likewise, St. Paul writes in Romans 13, “For there is no authority except from God, and those that exist have been instituted by God.” The Apostle here speaks of fatherly authority.
There is no father on earth who did not receive his fatherhood from the one Father, who is in heaven. This elevates the position of fathers on earth as well as directs them in their duty. Fathers are not fathers for their own pleasure, but must exercise the authority given them by everyone’s true heavenly Father.
We learn from Luther’s Large Catechism that the fathers on earth can be divided into three estates, each of which has authority and responsibility from God: The Domestic Estate (the housefather), the Ecclesiastical Estate (the church father), and the Civil Estate (the state father). And Scripture makes clear that there is an order by which our heavenly Father delegates this fatherhood. The first and primal earthly father is the housefather. To the housefather God has given authority and responsibility over the bodies and souls of his household (1 Tim. 5:8; Eph. 6:4; Dt. 6:6-7). The church father has authority over the soul, but not the body. The state father has authority over the body, but not the soul. And these secondary fathers, the church and the state, receive their respective authority from God through the primal housefather.
This means that the household is the proto-church and the proto-state. We see this clearly in the Patriarchs of Genesis. Adam, Noah, Abraham, Isaac, Jacob, and Judah received from God their heavenly Father fatherly authority on earth: not only that which is commonly associated with the domestic estate, but that which we now consider to belong to the ecclesiastical and civil estate. Besides being housefathers, these patriarchs were preachers and prophets. They carried out priestly duties such as sacrifice and intercession. They also carried out stately duties. They waged war, passed judgment, sanctioned marriage, etc. The housefather is the primal earthly father. So while it is certainly true that the civil and ecclesiastical estates have no authority except that which God has given, it is also true that these secondary estates have no authority that has not been ceded to them by the housefather.
This cession of authority and responsibility can either be done by divine mandate or voluntarily. At the time of the patriarchs, it was the authority of the housefather to carry out capital punishment, as we see when Judah condemned Tamar to death by burning (Gen. 38:24). However, when God established the nation of Israel, the authority of capital punishment was taken away from fathers and given to the state. Fathers and mothers were then required to bring their offending children before the elders for execution, but they were not allowed to unilaterally judge and condemn them. God had given this authority to the state. Likewise, all the patriarchs preached and offered sacrifices, but when God established the priesthood of the Levites, he greatly limited who could offer sacrifices and where, and he established offices for public preaching. God had taken authority away from the housefather and given it to the church. Cession of authority can also be done voluntarily, as when a father sends his child to school or when he sends his children to the pastor for instruction in the Catechism.
Yet, whether certain duties are mandatorily or voluntarily ceded, the responsibility over both body and soul still rests primarily in the housefather. The head of the home was the one who brought sacrifices to the Levitical priests to be offered on the altar. Likewise, although Scripture and our Lutheran Confessions teach that no one should publicly teach, preach, or administer the Sacraments without a rightly ordered call (Rom. 10:15; AC V), it remains the responsibility of the Christian father to bring his children to be baptized, to instruct them at home, and to bring them to church to hear the preaching of God’s Word. This applies to the civil estate as well. Fathers may not put their children to death or incarcerate them for decades. But they do have the responsibility to teach their children to be law abiding citizens. A father can’t leave it to the government to train his child not to be a thief or a murderer. This responsibility still rests within the domestic estate.
And here lies the practical application of this biblical teaching. Not only has God given authority and responsibility over the body and soul to the housefather, but it is disastrous for a housefather to give up his God-given responsibility to the Church or the State. The state cannot train your child to fear God and love his neighbor. Even though God has given the government considerable authority over our bodies, and even if a parent uses the government school system, the responsibility to raise God-fearing, neighbor-loving sons and daughters remains in the home. The father stands between his children and the judge and executioner. God has taken the right to wage war away from the domestic estate and has given it to the state, yet it still rests upon the housefather to teach his sons what is worth fighting for and protecting: family, church, and property. That God has given the pastor the authority to preach, teach, and administer the Sacraments does not mean that parents can neglect teaching God’s Word at home. Pastors know they cannot replace what is done (or not done) at home. More than this, the housefather does not have the right to subject his children to false preachers. A housefather must take his children out of a catechism class and church where heterodoxy is taught and bring his children to an orthodox church to be instructed.
Even if some authority is ceded to the state or church, by divine mandate or voluntarily, the Christian father remains the first protector, teacher, and earthly father to his children in exercising authority over their bodies and souls. The concept of separation of church and state has wreaked havoc by convincing Christians that it is not God’s business what the government does. Even more damaging, however, is the concept that fathers are not responsible for the spiritual care and education of their children, as if these responsibilities have been doled out to others.
Earthly fathers represent the one heavenly Father. Children should see their heavenly Father in their earthly fathers. But no one can see the Father, unless he knows His Son, Jesus Christ (Jn. 14:7-9; Mt. 11:27). Therefore, the primary duty of every housefather is to teach his children the Gospel of Christ and to make sure that his church father proclaims Jesus and that the state father does not hinder Jesus’ teaching. When housefathers act in this way, children learn to see and love their heavenly Father.