Christ said, “But you are not to be called rabbi, for you have one teacher, and you are all students. And call no one your father on earth, for you have one Father—the one in heaven. Nor are you to be called instructors, for you have one instructor, the Messiah.” (Mt 23:8-10)
Usually when Catholics are being pointed to the fact that we call our Priests “father”, it is only verse 9 that we see, “And call no one your father on earth, for you have one Father—the one in heaven”. For some reason, those who like to hone in on “call no one your father” are willing to make exceptions for “teacher” and “instructor”, unless they are only reading the KJV, which translates “master” in those instances. But even those are willing to make exceptions for our biological fathers. There is a problem there, however, because this passage makes no distinction between spiritual and biological fathers. It simply says, “call no one your father on earth”.
While some folks may not be willing to allow for exceptions to spiritual fatherhood, it is worth noting that the earliest Christians, including Christ and His Apostles, DID. The reason, as we might explain it, may be in part that Christ was not making a blanket law against calling any man on earth “father” or “teacher”, but was speaking against the hypocrisy of the Pharisees, who liked to have titles of power which puffed up their pride, causing them to forget who their true Father is, usurping God’s supreme Fatherhood. You can get a better idea of what Christ was talking about by reading the immediately preceding verses, 1-7. Altogether, it reads like this,
“Then Jesus said to the crowds and to his disciples: “The teachers of the law and the Pharisees sit in Moses’ seat.  So you must be careful to do everything they tell you. But do not do what they do, for they do not practice what they preach.  They tie up heavy, cumbersome loads and put them on other people’s shoulders, but they themselves are not willing to lift a finger to move them.  “Everything they do is done for people to see: They make their phylacteries wide and the tassels on their garments long;  they love the place of honor at banquets and the most important seats in the synagogues;  they love to be greeted with respect in the marketplaces and to be called ‘Rabbi’ by others.  “But you are not to be called ‘Rabbi,’ for you have one Teacher, and you are all brothers.  And do not call anyone on earth ‘father,’ for you have one Father, and he is in heaven.  Nor are you to be called instructors, for you have one Instructor, the Messiah.” (Mt 23:1-10)
Mt 23:2-3 may give a clue as to why some non-Catholics are quick to overlook the preceding text when pointing out “call no one your father”. Regardless, if a Christian is going to be consistent with the Scriptures, he/she is going to have to admit that there are many exceptions to calling men “father” and that there must have been something deeper that Christ was talking about. The Apostles had no problem at all with using the word “father” in its proper place, whether in a biological or spiritual sense. They not only speak of “fathers” of the OT , and refer to themselves as being *like* fathers, but Paul even refers to himself as a “father”, and some of the Jewish leaders are called “father”.
“And when he had given him licence, Paul stood on the stairs, and beckoned with the hand unto the people. And when there was made a great silence, he spake unto them in the Hebrew tongue, saying, Men, brethren, and fathers, hear ye my defence which I make now unto you.” (Acts 21:40-22:1)
“And he [Stephen] said, Men, brethren, and fathers, hearken; The God of glory appeared unto our father Abraham, when he was in Mesopotamia, before he dwelt in Charran,” (Acts 7:2)
“I am writing to you, little children,
because your sins are forgiven on account of his name.
I am writing to you, fathers,
because you know him who is from the beginning.
I am writing to you, young people,
because you have conquered the evil one.
I write to you, children,
because you know the Father.
I write to you, fathers,
because you know him who is from the beginning.” (1Jn 2:12-14)
“As you know, we dealt with each one of you like a father with his children,” (1Thess 2:11)
“It is for discipline that you endure; God deals with you as with sons; for what son is there whom his father does not discipline? But if you are without discipline, of which all have become partakers, then you are illegitimate children and not sons. Furthermore, we had earthly fathers to discipline us, and we respected them; shall we not much rather be subject to the Father of spirits, and live?” (Heb 12:7-9)
“For this reason it is by faith, in order that it may be in accordance with grace, so that the promise will be guaranteed to all the descendants, not only to those who are of the Law, but also to those who are of the faith of Abraham, who is the father of us all, (as it is written, “A father of many nations have I made you”) in the presence of Him whom he believed, even God, who gives life to the dead and calls into being that which does not exist.” (Rom 4:16-17)
Even Christ used “father” in its proper context regarding man, showing us that every use of the word in relation to man is not forbidden:
“Whoever comes to me and does not hate father and mother, wife and children, brothers and sisters, yes, and even life itself, cannot be my disciple.” (Lk 14:16)
“He said, ‘No, father Abraham; but if someone goes to them from the dead, they will repent.’” (Lk 16:30)
Paul and others show us more examples of their spiritual fatherhood to their “children”, and then Paul explicitly shows us the very context in which Catholics use the word for Priests:
“My little children, of whom I travail in birth again until Christ be formed in you,” (Gal 4:19)
“To Titus, my loyal child in the faith we share: Grace and peace from God the Father and Christ Jesus our Savior.” (Tit 1:4)
“To Timothy, my true child in the faith: Grace, mercy and peace from God the Father and Christ Jesus our Lord.” (1Tim 1:2)
“I am giving you these instructions, Timothy, my child, in accordance with the prophecies made earlier about you, so that by following them you may fight the good fight,” (1Tim 1:18)
“You then, my son, be strong in the grace that is in Christ Jesus.” (2Tim 2:1)
“My dear children, I write this to you so that you will not sin. But if anybody does sin, we have an advocate with the Father—Jesus Christ, the Righteous One.” (1Jn 2:1)
“I have no greater joy than to hear that my children walk in truth.” (3Jn 1:4)
“I am appealing to you for my child, Onesimus, whose father I have become during my imprisonment.” (Philemon 1:10)
“I am not writing this to make you ashamed, but to admonish you as my beloved children. For though you might have ten thousand guardians in Christ, you do not have many fathers. Indeed, in Christ Jesus I became your father through the gospel.” (1Cor 4:14-15)
We even have Old Testament examples of men being called “father” in their proper spiritual sense, without detracting from God’s Fatherhood. And since we know that “…all Scripture is inspired by God, and profitable for… instruction…” (2Tim 3:16), here are some examples:
“So it was not you who sent me here, but God; he has made me a father to Pharaoh, and lord of all his house and ruler over all the land of Egypt.” (Gen 45:8)
“I was a father to the needy, and I championed the cause of the stranger.” (Job 29:16)
“Elisha saw this and cried out, “My father! My father! The chariots and horsemen of Israel!” And Elisha saw him [Elijah] no more. Then he took hold of his garment and tore it in two.” (2Kng 2:12)
“And the king of Israel said unto Elisha, when he saw them, My father, shall I smite them? shall I smite them?” (2Kng 6:21)
Even God, Himself, says that He will appoint a man to be “a father” to the Jews:
“On that day I will call my servant Eliakim son of Hilkiah, and will clothe him with your robe and bind your sash on him. I will commit your authority to his hand, and he shall be a father to the inhabitants of Jerusalem and to the house of Judah.” (Is 22:20-21)
Was God speaking against His own future command to “call no one father” when He spoke through Isaiah?
Did Christ give scandal and contradict Himself by referring to earthly and spiritual fathers as “father”?
Was Stephen wrong to call the Jewish leaders “fathers”?
Was Paul wrong to call himself “father” to the Gentiles and Onesimus?
No, none of these are misuses of “father” and none of them contradict what Christ taught in Mt 23. Catholics call their Priests “father” in the exact same sense as what is shown in Scripture, and in the same way condoned and used by God and the Apostles.
John Martignoni of the Bible Christian Society sums it up like this:
“If you interpret this passage from Matthew 23 as an absolute ban against calling anyone your spiritual father, then there are some problems for you in the rest of Scripture. For example, Jesus, in the story of Lazarus and the rich man in Luke 16, has the rich man referring to Abraham as "father" several times. Paul, in Romans chapter 4, refers to Abraham as the "father" of the uncircumcised, the Gentiles. That's referring to spiritual fatherhood, not biological fatherhood.
In Acts 7:1-2, the first Christian martyr, Stephen, referred to the Jewish authorities and elders who were about to stone him as brothers and "fathers," as does Paul in Acts, chapter 22. This is referring to spiritual fatherhood. So, if you interpret Matthew 23 as saying we cannot call anyone our spiritual father, then you have a problem with Jesus, Paul, Stephen, and the Holy Spirit...they must have all gotten it wrong.
It is okay to call priests "father", just as it was okay for Jesus and Paul to call Abraham "father" and for Stephen and Paul to call the Jewish elders "father." As long as we remember that our true Father is God the Father and that all aspects of fatherhood, biological and spiritual, are derived from Him. And as long as we do not allow anyone else to usurp that role in any way, shape, or form, as the Pharisees and Scribes were prone to do.” (J. Martignoni, Bible Christian Society, emphasis mine)
(*At biblegateway.com you can select whichever translation you prefer and see how your favorite edition translates these passages. I used NASB, NRSVCE, NIV and KJV. )