Why the term “Father” is used for a Priest in the Orthodox Christian Church

Since the early days of the Christian Church, Bishops and Priests have been called “Father” because  of their “fatherly care” for their congregations, their spiritual children.  Those who have realized that they are called by God to serve Him in the Priesthood do not take this charge lightly.  St. Gregory of Nazianzus was so overwhelmed by the realization of the responsibility to God that he would have as a Presbyter that he actually fled immediately after he was forcibly ordained to the Priesthood by his father who was Bishop of Nazianzus on Christmas Day in 361 AD.  St. Gregory loved the solitude of Pontus where he was studying about the faith and living a monastic lifestyle with his best friend St. Basil. 

Gregory reconsidered his action and he returned to the community to serve at his father’s side before Easter 362 AD.  The congregation of Nazianzus accused him of shirking the office and work of a priest through ambition for other more worldly distinctions.  St. Gregory wrote an  Oration that became known as, “In Defense of His Flight to Pontus” which he gave to the congregation in Nazianzus upon his return listing four reasons for his withdrawal.  Those four reasons were:  he was astounded at being forcibly Ordained; he had an eager longing for the monastic life and wanted to return to it; he had a feeling of shame in realizing that there were priests who entered into the ministry as a means of livelihood rather than a pattern of virtue of which the Priest must give account before the Lord; and, he said, “lastly….I  did not, nor do I now, think myself qualified to rule a flock or herd, or to have authority over the souls of men”.  

After considerable prayer and reflection, St. Gregory did discern that he was answering God’s call to the Priesthood and as history records, he served the Lord in this capacity as a good and faithful servant.  Our Bishops today do not forcibly Ordain men to the Holy Orders.  As a matter of fact, there is considerable prayer and discernment on the part of the Bishop and the candidate before Ordination can occur.   Just as a father is the head of the family and takes care to see to the needs of his children,  so too do our Priests act like fathers, Spiritual Fathers, taking care of and seeing to the spiritual needs of their parishioners, their spiritual children, the children of God.

References:  Oration II, “In Defense of His Flight to Pontus”, St. Gregory of Nazianzus.  Six Books on the Priesthood by St. John Chrysostom.  The Ministry of the Church, Image of Pastoral Care, Joseph J. Allen.