HOW SHOULD WE ADDRESS CHURCH LEADERS?

QUESTION:

Hi, Rick! In Matthew 23 Jesus says not to call anyone “Rabbi, for you have only one master in Heaven…” and on Jesus goes about “father” and “teacher”. Now, taken at face value, this would seem to mean that we cannot address even our own earthly fathers as “father” or those who teach us lessons in school, “teacher”. This can’t be the right application? But I do see problems with the title “Reverend”. Why “revere” a church leader? “Bishop” is another title I don’t know how to process (a chess piece?). “Pastor” seems most apt because a pastor is a shepherd, a lowly servant of God’s flock. Finally, my question is, what is the healthiest, Biblical way to address Church leaders concerning their titles?

ANSWER:

This is a great question. It gets to one of those classic points of contention between a simply biblical faith and one overlaid with 2000 years of church traditions. To take Jesus words in Matt 23 without considering everything else he or his Apostles said, one might assume that our standard titles for Church leaders – especially those named by Jesus, “Father” and “Teacher” – should be verboten in the Church. But then we look to church history and find that not only did the Church NOT take this path, the most common or popular word for Church Leader has been “Father”!!! Against this we can see the meme now, Jesus on the Mount with the caption, “Did I stutter?”

So I think this critique is both insightful and yet too simple at the same time.

REVOLUTIONARY EGALITARIANISM

It is insightful, as it would be a very healthy check on the hubris of Christian leaders to evaluate our chosen titles. What if they (we) always kept before them (us) Jesus’ words – “you are not the Church’s Father; you are not even the Church’s Teacher – I AM!! So remember your humble post and reject all designations that make you anything before my Body except its submitted servant.”

This would reflect Jesus teaching both here and on servant leadership in Matt 20:20-28. It would also keep before the church the stunning, some might say revolutionary egalitarianism which Jesus places on the church: “…you are all brothers.” Wow. Just, wow! The leadership hierarchy of Churches ought to forever be very flat indeed if we take Jesus seriously here. The ownership of the mission likewise, ought to be adopted by all, and not the territory of just a few “experts”.

AVOIDING 2 ERRORS

Now, that’s the principle to be derived from Matt 23. But it is also too simple to then reduce the application to the forbidding of certain titles or a specific two. This would seem to A) miss many ways to violate the larger principle and B) make potentially bad/extreme applications by being overly literal.

1. MISSING THE PRINCIPLE

I mean A) if we ban the Titles “Father” and “Teacher” and “Messiah” alone, does this mean a church leader could be called “Czar”? How about “Supreme Leader”? Is Jesus OK if Church leaders are called “Church Monarchs”? Obviously the principle is not limited to two words (titles) but rather is one of equality in the Church – we know this from Jesus’ concluding tag line, “…for you are all brothers.”

It is therefore a call to not overly inflate the importance of leaders in the Faith Community. They aren’t God, Jesus is saying. They sit in the seat of Moses, so they are God’s mouthpiece in the community, but do not exalt them because they often do not do the very things they tell you to do (things which God himself would tell you to do, thus, you should still obey them!). The issue isn’t then so much with the names of leaders, or even with the need to follow those leaders per se – the issue is with the false exaltation of human leaders and the damage that does to the harmony and honor and importance of the Community working as one in all its manifold giftings in its many members.

This is a great word to a church today plagued by Church leader scandal, because much of the Deconstruction Movement is driven (when you get behind the stories) from people who exalted church leaders, based their faith not on the words of Jesus alone (which those leaders rightly taught) but rather on their status as “special”. Then, when they were found to have feet of clay, a faith based on their fidelity to Jesus necessarily crumbled. So Jesus’ principle must supersede two specific words.

2. LEGALISTIC APPLICATIONS

Also, B) if we do truly “not call anyone on earth father” that would of course include our own earthly fathers. And would Jesus be here asking children to disobey the 5th commandment and NOT honor their own fathers and mothers to make his point about not exalting leaders in the Faith Community? I don’t think so.

Jesus used hyperbole A LOT: Cut off your right hand. Camels and needles. Millstones and necks. Sell all. Pluck out your eye. Hate your father and mother. I think it’s certain that here is another case of Jesus making his point by overstatement, which is a very Jewish thing to do, BTW. He doesn’t mean you can’t call anyone a Rabbi anymore. He doesn’t mean you should now address your dear Father as merely “hey, Bob. Sup?”.

He is simply exalting himself (think of the staggering hubris of this single claim if he ISN’T really the Messiah!) to the position of Sole Authority in the Church (AKA its only real Teacher). He is exalting God the Father as SOLE source of the Church’s life and name (AKA its only real Father). Just like when he tells us to “hate father and mother or else be unworthy of me,” here he wants your respect for HIS fatherhood and HIS leadership and HIS teaching to trump all other affections or loyalties in your life, so that by comparison to your devotion to him, your devotion to all others – even family – looks like hate. So, given that understanding, I am still free to call my dad, “Dad”. I just know I only have one real dad and it’s not Howard Thiessen.

WHICH TITLES ARE APPROPRIATE?

Now, you ask, given this staggering egalitarianism among us, and the staggering exaltation of Jesus leadership and Word, what are good titles for Jesus leaders and teachers?

You suggest “Pastor. “

This is a good one because “pastor” denotes a function more than a status. Pastors literally “shepherd” – the verb. This is a particular named gifting in the New Testament, as Peter calls Church leaders “shepherds” (1 Peter 5). “Pastor” also underlines a leaders needed humility and servanthood and selflessness.

WHAT BIBLE TITLES MEAN

Now, I think given the larger principle of Matt 23, we could use other names too, especially if there’s a scriptural precedent in the early Church. So, “elder” is a title used by the early church. “Presbyter” means elder – just transliterated from Greek. “Elder” denotes that the Church leader is not a neophyte, but has been trained, has experience, is wise, is mature in Jesus. “Deacon” is another leader title from the Bible and it means “servant.” So this also is an apt title as it highlights the spirit of Matt 20 & 23 nicely. “Overseer” is also a title Paul uses for church leaders; it seems to be interchangeable with “elder” (Titus 1:7) and it comes from a Greek word from which we get the word “Bishop” (not from chess as it turns out).

You specifically call out “Reverend” as problematic given the principle of Matt 23. I see you point. I once wrote a letter to my denominational Heads denouncing the practice of calling Church leaders “reverend”. This was done just as I was in the process of becoming a “Reverend”. Full disclosure: I went through that ordination process so my official title is currently “Reverend Rick”, ha!

But I will not let anyone call me that. I do, however, see the value of the process by which we vet church leaders, so that some become “duly recognized officials in the Body of Christ”. This fits Paul’s call to, “let them first be tested” (1 Tim 3:10). This gives the Church greater confidence, knowing what they hear from certain voices has been vetted against Apostolic messaging and authority and Church history. And this gives the church leader an authority the Church should respect (Hebrews 13:17).

SHOULD WE “REVERE” OUR LEADERS?

HOWEVER, the root idea of “REVEREND” is not “she’s been tested and approved” but rather to “revere” and that seems altogether too strong a word. It seems out of step with Jesus’ point about the dangers of exaltation of human leaders and our fundamental equality in the Church. Certainly, the word “revere” can be used merely as “admire profoundly with deep respect.” But it more commonly means something like, “presupposing an intrinsic merit and inviolability in the one honored and a veneration or worship.” That’s WAY too strong!

Yes, Paul will call the church to “honor” church leaders – and to those who work full time, give “double” honor – but his meaning in context is not about reverence. To “honor” is to be provided a living wage for their work of preaching and teaching (1 Tim 5:18).

Because of Matt 23, I don’t even like people calling me “Pastor Rick.” If people insist on calling me “pastor” in order to “honor” me as Paul says, I jump straight to this line. “That’s cool, and I’m humbled, but your generous gifts to our Church mean I’m free to express my calling to “preach and teach” – that’s honor enough!” If they don’t actually give to the church, well, they don’t tell me and I don’t ask! But the moment gives me a chance to both deflect titles and “specialness”, AND to challenge that person to give the kind of “honor” Paul had in mind.