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Christians Shouldn't Use Titles for Church Leaders

by Max Aplin  
9/19/2018 / Leadership


In Matthew 23 we find Jesus speaking to the crowds and His disciples about the scribes and Pharisees. He strongly criticizes them for various sins and encourages His listeners not to be like them. 

Matthew 23:6-10 

In verses 5-12 His focus is specifically on the scribes’ and Pharisees’ pride. Verses 6-10 are the most important ones for our purposes in what follows, and they read as follows: 

6 They love the place of honor at banquets and the best seats in the synagogues, 7 to be greeted in the marketplaces and to be called ‘Rabbi’ by people. 

8 But as for you, you are not to have people call you ‘Rabbi,’ for you have one Teacher, and you are all brothers. 9 And do not call anyone on earth your ‘Father,’ for you have one Father, He who is in heaven. 10 Nor are you to have people call you ‘Instructors,’ because you have one Instructor, the Messiah.” 

In verses 6-7 Jesus notes, among other things, that the scribes and Pharisees, in their pride, love being called “Rabbi.” This was a common title in Jesus’ day for a Jewish teacher. 

Then in verses 8-10 He addresses His disciples, including those who would, in time, be in Christian leadership positions. 

In v. 8 He begins by telling would-be leaders to avoid being called “Rabbi.” Then in v. 9 He tells His followers not to call any leader “Father.” And then in v. 10 He tells would-be leaders to avoid being called “Instructor.” The Greek word underlying “Instructors” in my translation could equally well be translated “Teachers.” 

In verses 8 and 10 Jesus tells His disciples what Christian leaders should not allow themselves to be called. And in v. 9 He tells them what not to call Christian leaders. But there is no doubt that each verse is teaching both principles – what not to be called and what not to call others. Christian leaders should not accept being called, “Rabbi,” “Father” or “Instructor”/“Teacher.” And Christians should not call leaders “Rabbi,” “Father” or “Instructor”/“Teacher.” 

The prohibition concerns only titles 

It should be obvious that in this passage the Lord is specifically forbidding His followers to use titles, i.e., to address someone in a certain way and to accept being addressed in a certain way. He is not referring to roles that Christians perform or to how Christians are described. 

The New Testament, for example, refers to believers who are teachers (e.g., in Acts 13:1; 1 Corinthians 12:28-29; Ephesians 4:11). In Matthew 23:6-10 Jesus is not suggesting that this role shouldn’t exist in the church. Nor is He implying that it would be wrong to refer to a Christian as a teacher. It is addressing Christians with the title “Rabbi” or “Instructor” or “Teacher” that He is objecting to. 

Similarly, Paul’s description of himself as a father to the Corinthian believers in 1 Corinthians 4:14-15 doesn’t conflict with Jesus’ teaching in this passage. The Lord isn’t forbidding using the picture of father as a way of describing someone. He is prohibiting the use of the title “Father” as a way to address a Christian leader. 

In verses 8, 9 and 10 respectively, Jesus tells His listeners that they have one Teacher, Father and Instructor. At first sight, this might seem to contradict the passages I have just mentioned, which refer to Christians as teacher or father. 

These statements in Matthew 23:8-10 are not meant to be taken literally, however. Rather, they are rhetorical understatement that is used to stress the supremacy of the teaching, fatherhood and instruction of Jesus or God the Father. Jesus and God are so far above all Christians in their teaching, fatherhood and instructing status and ability, that it is as if no Christian performs any of these roles at all. In reality, however, some believers do perform these roles, but at a vastly lower level. 

The prohibition is about combating pride 

In Matthew 23:6-10, then, Jesus forbids the use of certain titles that could potentially have been used for church leaders in the first century. And the context shows clearly what the reason for this prohibition is. It is all about combating pride. 

As I have noted, in verses 5-12 Jesus’ focus is on the pride of the scribes and Pharisees. They love various things that inflate their egos, including being addressed with titles.  

Jesus doesn’t want Christian leaders to become proud. And so, by forbidding the use of titles, He is aiming to remove a source of temptation towards this. 

The implication is don’t use any titles at all 

As we have seen, in this passage the Lord refers explicitly to several titles and prohibits using them. 

It would be a big mistake, however, to think He means that the early church was only supposed to avoid using the specific titles He mentions. That would be a very legalistic way of taking His words. 

His aim in what He says is to forbid titles that lead to pride. So anything similar to the titles He mentions would also certainly be off limits. 

It is important to note too that nowhere else in the Bible do we find church leaders being addressed with titles. All the evidence suggests that the early church consistently avoided doing this. 

We should therefore have no hesitation in saying that in Matthew 23:6-10 Jesus is teaching His disciples not to use any special titles for church leaders, and that this fits with the practice of the early church. 

What should we do today? 

This brings us to today. Should we follow Jesus’ instructions in in this passage? Or does this teaching no longer apply? 

The answer is simple. Titles lead to inflated egos as much today as they did in the days of the early church. So we should certainly follow these instructions. 

Sadly, however, what the Lord teaches in Matthew 23:6-10 is routinely disregarded. In fact, this is surely is one of the most neglected passages in the entire Bible. Titles are widely used for Christian leaders throughout the church. 

It is distressing, firstly, that in this passage Jesus explicitly tells His followers not to use the title “Father,” yet Roman Catholics do precisely this! They just seem to ignore the Lord’s command. 

However, many of those who rightly criticize Catholics for this custom need to take a look at their own practice. 

Take, for example, the title “Reverend,” which is commonly used throughout the church. This word stems from the verb “revere.” 

It is true that language is constantly evolving and that the meanings of words often evolve away from their original meanings. Nevertheless, this doesn’t seem to have happened with “Reverend.” When this word is used today, it seems to include a connotation of revering the person it is applied to. It includes the sense of “revered one.” 

Using a title like this is exactly the sort of thing that Jesus is opposing in the passage we have been looking at. In fact, I think that if the equivalent of “Reverend” had existed as a title in His day, He would have been even more opposed to its use in the church than any of the titles He mentions, since it exalts leaders to such a high degree. 

Other titles are frequently used today as well. “Pastor” is a very common one. “Elder” and “Bishop” are also used. 

Using any of these titles, however, conflicts with what the Lord teaches in Matthew 23:6-10. Titles present a temptation to become proud, and pride is a grave and grievous sin. So His solution is simple: avoid titles for church leaders altogether. 

This prohibition applies to titles in both spoken and written forms. And it applies both to how leaders refer to themselves and to how they are addressed by non-leaders. 

Exceptional situations 

Despite all that I have said, I don’t believe that we should rigidly refuse to use titles for church leaders in absolutely all circumstances. 

In much of the church today, leaders routinely expect to be addressed using titles. And they usually seem either not to know or not to have understood Jesus’ teaching in the passage we have been looking at. So there are times when not using a title might make it seem as if we are being rude, although that is not our intention. 

If, for example, I get in touch with a Christian leader who I don’t know, I would almost certainly use a title, at least the first time I contact them. 

There is no place for idealism in the Christian faith. We live on planet earth, not planet ideal. And so we often encounter situations where it is better to do things that we would prefer not to. And sometimes this applies to using titles for church leaders. 

However, we should certainly keep use of titles in the church to a minimum. If possible, they should be avoided. 

This is not a trivial issue 

I think some readers of this article might think that this whole issue is really quite a trivial one. 

That would be a big mistake, however. If it were trivial, the Holy Spirit would surely never have inspired the verses of Scripture we have been thinking about. 

Besides, we must never underestimate the seriousness of pride in God’s sight. The world sees this sin as a minor vice, but God sees it as a truly awful thing. Avoiding titles is all about combating pride, and the more pride a leader has, the less effective his ministry will be. 

Leaders and non-leaders on first name terms 

Finally, if cultural factors permit it, I believe that all adult Christians in a church congregation should be on first name terms. 

Even for non-leaders to address a leader as, say, “Mr. Smith” is, I believe, a mistake. 

It is true that “Mr.” doesn’t lead to pride in the way that other titles do. But it is still too formal. 

In v. 8 of the passage we have examined, Jesus says “and you are all brothers.” As we have seen, He is referring to those who would in time be church leaders along with those who wouldn’t. And, as we have also seen, He is speaking in the context of forbidding titles. 

Given who Jesus is speaking to, and given the context, He seems to be implying that Christians should no more use titles for each other than physical brothers (or sisters) would. Obviously, brothers and sisters are on first name terms. Therefore, so should adult Christians be, whether leaders or non-leaders.

 

See also my articles: 

Beware of Becoming Attached to Church Traditions 

The Gravity of the Sin of Pride 

Christians Need to Put Everything to the Test 

Is It Wrong for Women to Be Church Leaders?

I have been a Christian for over 30 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. Check out my blog, The Orthotometist, at maxaplin.blogspot.com

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