In Matthew 23:5-12 we find Jesus criticising the scribes’ and Pharisees’ pride, and urging humility among His followers, especially among those who, in time, would be in leadership positions. In verses 8-10 He instructs: ‘Do not be called ‘Rabbi’, for One is your Teacher, and you are all brothers. And do not call anyone among yourselves on earth ‘Father’, for One is your Father, He who is in heaven. Nor be called instructors, because you have one Instructor, Christ.’
I think these three verses are probably some of the most neglected in the church today. Although Jesus gives three specific examples of titles that Jewish leaders, and by implication Christian leaders, should not use, it would be wrong simply to suppose that we should avoid using only these three titles. That would be a very pedantic way of taking things. Jesus’ teaching here is surely that no titles at all should be used for Christian leaders that in any way put them on a pedestal, whether in the way leaders are addressed or, by implication, as a title placed before leaders’ names.
How different this is from Christianity today! It is striking, firstly, that in this passage the title ‘Father’ is explicitly forbidden by Jesus for church leaders, yet Roman Catholics use this very one. However, those who rightly criticise Catholics for this need to beware of their own practice. Take, for example, the title ‘Reverend’, meaning ‘Revered One’, very common throughout the church. I think that if an equivalent of this title had been used in Jesus’ day, He would have been even more opposed to its use in the church than any of the titles He mentions in this passage, since it exalts leaders to such a great degree.
Jesus was well aware of the danger that pride could pose to people in church leadership. Giving a leader an exalted title of any kind, whether ‘Reverend’, ‘Pastor’, ‘Father’, ‘Bishop’ or whatever, can be a temptation to many to exalt themselves in their own eyes. In some parts of the world cultural factors make this more of a problem than in others, but there is surely no country where this practice is without danger. Human nature is too prone to pride. So, Jesus’ solution is simple: avoid titles for church leaders altogether. If we do, we are taking away a temptation to pride and following Jesus’ command.
Of course, the focus in this passage is simply on avoiding titles. Theses verses are not denying the existence of the roles of pastor, teacher etc. in the church, nor are they saying that it is wrong to describe Christian leaders as such (see, e.g., Rom 12:7; 1 Cor 12:28, Eph 4:11). Besides, it would be wholly impractical to try to do this. Similarly, Paul describes himself as a father to Corinthians (1 Cor 4:14-15). However, it is noteworthy that nowhere in the New Testament do we find Paul or any other apostle or leader accepting or being given a title, whether as a mode of address or otherwise.
It is important to stress that the prohibition in these verses applies specifically to contexts of church leadership. There are times and places outside a church context where titles of the kind that we are considering are used, but that is not the focus in this passage. For example, in South Korea if Mr. Kim is a school teacher, it is customary for other adults to refer to him as ‘Teacher Kim’. I think it would be a mistake for Christians to refuse to follow this custom on the basis of these verses in Matthew. Jesus’ teaching here is about the use of titles in a church setting.
Despite Jesus’ prohibition of using titles for church leaders, I think there may be times when we might actually cause more harm than good if we rigidly refuse to use them in absolutely all circumstances. I believe therefore that we should show some tact and sensitivity to God’s leading in order to avoid offending people when it is not in the best interest. However, we should certainly keep the use of titles to a minimum.
This is not a trivial issue, since if it were, the Holy Spirit would never have inspired these verses of Scripture. It is all about humility, something that is so important for church leaders. Giving leaders titles does not help foster humility and can lead to pride. Crucially, the more pride a leader has, the less effective his ministry will be.
Finally, if cultural considerations permit it – and in at least many Western countries they surely do permit it – I believe that all adult Christians in a church family should be on first-name terms. Even for non-leaders to address a leader as, say, ‘Mr. Smith’ is, I believe, not in the spirit of the New Testament. (I am not saying that in other circumstances the title ‘Mister’, or its foreign language equivalents, should be avoided, since clearly this title is not a temptation to pride as others are.) Besides, in this passage itself Jesus tells us that we, leaders and non-leaders, are all brothers, and we would expect brothers to address each other informally.
I have been a Christian for over 25 years. I have a Ph.D. in New Testament from the University of Edinburgh. I am a UK national and I currently live in the south of Scotland.
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