Pastor so-and-so. Senior Pastor. Bishop so-and-so. Elder so-and-so. Reverend. Deacon Bob. Deaconess Anita. Apostle J. T. Preachsogood. And let’s not forget Doctor. Titles are everywhere it seems. Where there’s a church, there’s no shortage of titles. Sometimes titles are even combined. “Allow me to introduce you to the Reverend Dr. Pastor Jones.” And in some churches even the pastor’s wife gets a title (First Lady). What does Jesus think about all of this? We don’t have to go very far to find out. Jesus actually discussed the whole issue of titles. Matthew wrote it all down for us in the first Gospel.
Before we look at all of what Jesus said though, let’s start by focusing our attention on one particular verse in Matthew 23. In verse 9, Jesus talks about the title “Father.” Now evangelicals absolutely love this verse because it calls out the absurdity of the Catholic practice of calling priests “Father.” Here’s what Jesus said: “Do not call anyone on earth your father; for one is your Father, that is He who is in heaven” (Matthew 23:9). I told you, evangelicals love this one. Big time. Ron Rhodes deals with this verse in his book Reasoning from the Scriptures with Catholics (Eugene, OR: Harvest House, 2000; 112-113). He points out in his discussion how the title “father” was connected to esteeming individuals with honor and highlighted their superiority and authority over others. He goes on to point out how the pope is called not just “Father” but “Holy Father.” He writes:
If what Jesus said holds true for the Pharisees, it certainly must hold true for the pope. . . . Jesus is using the term father in Matthew 23:9,10 in a much more exalted sense [than that of a biological father or a spiritual father, like Paul to Timothy]—a sense requiring holy reverence and unquestioned obedience. (113)
One of the Catholic commentaries on Matthew addresses the issue of the title “Father” and Jesus’ prohibition in Matthew 23:9. This is what Curtis Mitch and Edward Sri write:
Catholics are sometimes criticized for addressing their priests as Father. On the surface the practice does appear to contradict Jesus’ teaching in Matthew 23:9. However, there is reason to think that Jesus is stressing the fundamental equality of his disciples, rather than establishing a literal prohibition against the use of religious titles. (The Gospel of Matthew [Grand Rapids: Baker Academic, 2010], page not known)
He goes on to cite examples of how the early church did not understand this as a prohibition, such as Stephen’s use of the title in Acts 7:2. In my opinion, the criticism of the Catholic church is not unfounded. The Jewish people had a basis for referring to their ancestors as “fathers.” For example, God told Abraham that he would be the father of many nations (Genesis 17:5). And the reference by Stephen to “fathers” was in no way connected to spiritual oversight, nor was it connected to authority. We need to back up to Matthew 23:1 to see who Jesus is talking to. While he is in the middle of a hot discussion with the religious leaders of the day, having just silenced the Sadducees and the Pharisees (Matthew 22:23ff.), and is gearing up to issue a series of woes against the scribes and Pharisees (Matthew 23:13ff.), Matthew 23:1 clearly indicates that Jesus is speaking to the crowds and his disciples. And the commands in Matthew 23:8–10 are instructions for them, not necessarily the opponents of Jesus (who knows they would not change a single thing about their religious hierarchy and system of control over the people). Remember, Jesus has already told his closest disciples that he is going to build his own community of followers (Matthew 16:18). Matthew 23:8–10 is some of that foundational teaching that is supposed to shape and mold the life of that community. I agree with many others before me who have cringed at the thought of people calling an individual their father (excluding of course the use of the word with one’s biological father). But I think evangelicals need to really take a hard look at the context—the verse that immediately precedes verse 9 and the verse that immediately follows—because I think we have some work to do as well on our end. Evangelicals love our titles, perhaps as much as Catholics love theirs.
Let’s start with Matt. 23:8. Jesus tells his disciples, “Don’t ever be called Rabbi because One is your Teacher, and you are all just brothers and sisters.” The title of rabbi was an important one in the first century. “Rabbi” is the Semitic word for teacher. The two are synonymous. A rabbi was the scholar of the day for Jewish communities. In the present day, we might think of people who graduate from a university or seminary with a doctorate and called as a result “Doctor.” But it’s not just the doctors of the world. Better even might be the connection to those who complete a theological program like an M.Div. and as a result, after joining the staff of a local church, are called “Pastor” or “Senior Pastor” (we’ll come back to this last one before we conclude). And maybe it has nothing to do with any program of study at all. Did you know that the greatest prophet who ever lived was once addressed as “Rabbi” (John 3:26)? There was a tendency to ascribe titles to those who teach. In fact, this tendency has probably always existed. It definitely extends to the present day—and not just to the occults and the false religions of the world. It comes much closer to home than we might have ever thought. One thing is crystal clear—Jesus told his disciples to not let people call them by this honorific title. It wasn’t a suggestion. It was a command.
It’s important to pay attention to why Jesus tells his disciples to not be called by this title. The answer is two-fold. First, we have a teacher. That teacher is God. I think we often get distracted from the teaching ministry of God in our lives. But it’s true. He is our teacher. Sure, the Body of Christ is given teachers for the equipping of the saints for works of service (Ephesians 4:11–16). And James does not condemn the role of teachers, just warns that it is a very serious role and not many should serve in this capacity because of the seriousness of what is expected of them (James 3:1). But even though we have teachers, we need to remember that they only teach us as much as what the Lord is teaching us through them. The real teacher is the teacher who taught the teacher. They teach us what God has first taught them. Their teaching does not originate in them, but in God. He is the teacher. The first part deals with who God is and who we are in relationship to him. The second part deals with the identity of Jesus’ followers and who they are in relationship to one another. Jesus says we are just brothers and sisters. I can boil this point down into one word—equal.
Alright, I’m running out of space and time. So let’s look at verse 10. Jesus says this: “Do not be called leaders because one is your leader, namely the Christ.” We have the same problem with the issue of leadership that we do with teaching. We tend to look for the physical manifestation of a leader and ignore the spiritual. Behind any individual who takes the shape of a leader should be the real leader, the one who is being followed and has absolute sovereignty and control to lead his church where he so pleases. Let me tell you a quick story real fast. I’ll never forget harping on the whole issue of the title “Senior Pastor” at this one particular local church. The pastor really loved the title. I used to just suggest getting away from the whole idea of the title. Well one day the pastor came up to me and said he was getting rid of the title. I felt like maybe I was getting through to him. I told him, “That’s great. Very cool.” Then he told me he was changing the title to “Lead Pastor.” I immediately thought to myself, “It’s a step, but not a step forward.” More like a step sideways. He had a different title, but the same issue. We’re running out of space here, so I’ll just point you really quickly over to 1 Peter 5:4. That verse is the reason why I cringe when I hear the title “Senior Pastor.” You see in that verse how Peter refers to Jesus as the “Chief Shepherd.” Well, what’s a synonym for “chief”? –Senior. What’s a synonym for “shepherd”? –Pastor. I.e., Chief Shepherd = Senior Pastor. Do you see the problem?
Does Jesus hate titles in our local churches? I know one thing. Jesus likes when people obey what he says. This whole issue of titles is one of those areas where Jesus wants to be obeyed. In the Body, do we really need them? Couldn’t we communicate very important theological truths if we would just obey Jesus in this regard? Truths like God is our Teacher, the Christ is the Shepherd, Christians who do the will of Christ are brothers and sisters in his church. I think so. But it means we have to let go. We have to surrender the titles. We have to encourage others—sometimes constantly—to call us by our name without the titles. I think God would do some pretty remarkable things in our local churches if we went this route. I really do. Words matter. The ones we use and the ones we don’t. These matter. Hi, my name is Thomas. Call me Thomas or Brother Thomas. It’s nice to meet you. I actually don’t want to be called the Rev. Dr. Thomas W. Hudgins, or as some might be tempted to do in the Spanish-speaking world, el Estimado Querido Pastor Doctor Thomas W. Hudgins. Let’s just kill the titles. I’m Thomas. And if you’re in Christ, I’m your brother.