Clearly, the teaching of Jesus is not against calling anyone’s human father by that name, but against using the term as a religious title – as we see by looking at the context where he tells his disciples they are not to be called “Rabbi” (Matthew 23:8), “Father” (Matthew 23:9), or “Teacher” (Matthew 23:10). These were all elevated religious titles in Jesus’ time, and he continued by stressing that his disciples were to be servants rather than elevating themselves above others (Mathew 23:11-12).
So where does this place Paul’s comment? Was he not putting himself in a position inciting the Corinthians to call him “father”? The answer is – not at all. Just as the author of the book of Hebrews speaks of our human fathers (Hebrews 12:7, 9), the apostle John understood that there was nothing wrong with addressing human fathers by that name (1 John 2:13; etc.), and the apostle James knew that it was not wrong to refer to Abraham as his father (James 2:21).
What Paul says to the Corinthians is that he was fulfilling the role of a spiritual father to them. He addressed the Corinthians as “my dear children” (1 Corinthians 4:14). Two verses after telling them “I became your father through the gospel,” Paul speaks of his assistant Timothy in the same way: “For this reason I have sent to you Timothy, my son whom I love” (vs. 17).
Paul was certainly not telling the Corinthians that they should use the religious title “father” in their relationship with him, but rather he simply tells them how he feels he relates to them spiritually. Just as Jesus, after forbidding the use of father as a religious title, went on to say “The greatest among you will be your servant” (Matthew 23:11), so Paul frankly tells the Corinthians “What, after all, is Apollos? And what is Paul? Only servants” (1 Corinthians 3:5), and “This, then, is how you ought to regard us: as servants of Christ” (1 Corinthians 4:1).
It was clearly the furthest thing from Paul’s intention to set himself up and to encourage or incite the use of elevated titles for himself or other apostles. As a true pastor, Paul guided and admonished his Corinthian congregation with a father’s concern and love and was moved to express his fatherly feelings to them in what he wrote.
In 1 Corinthians 4:15 Paul is not talking about the Corinthians calling him “father” – he was simply using a clear and apt analogy about his role as a spiritual parent to his flock. This is an identical situation to that which we find in the book of Ephesians where Paul is hardly inciting the Ephesians to call him “teacher” when he writes “You were taught, with regard to your former way of life, to put off your old self” (Ephesians 4:22).