In the Bible "father" is used in three ways: as a designation for God, as a model for a group, and for a human parent. When the infrequent reference to God as Father occurred in the Old Testament, it was a symbol of God's parental role to Israel as his children. With his use of the term Abba (Aramaic equivalent to "Daddy"), Jesus added a dimension of intimacy and obedience to the Father that was taken over by the early Church. As a model for a group, Abraham was referred to as "the father of who believe." (Rom. 4:11-12, 16-17) In reference to a human parent, the father "occupied the authoritative position, particularly in matters of property and inheritance, and together with the mother was to be honored and respected within the family. The father in turn was to communicate to his children the story of God's grace to Israel, and together with the mother to provide a general education." [Gentz, The Dictionary of Bible and Religion, p. 355]
American male priests in the Episcopal, Roman Catholic, and Orthodox Churches are usually called "father," although some prefer other designations. Justifications for the custom may be traced to St. Paul's words: "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. I appeal to you, then, be imitators of me." [I Cor 4:14-16] Another New Testament reference is: "I am writing to you, fathers, because you know him who is from the beginning." [I John 2:14] The annotation for the John passage comments: "Fathers, the aged. ...could refer to leaders...of the community." According to Pine, "The term Pope means 'father', and up to the fifth century was used of any bishop." [Titles, p. 150] The Oxford Dictionary of the Christian Church observes: the custom of calling all amenable priests father was "introduced apparently from Ireland in the latter half of the 19th cent." [p. 503] In any case, a male priest's intimate leadership responsibilities in a household of faith could well be gathered up in the best sense of father. Some female priests are using mother and some pastor as expressions of responsibility.