Monday, November 20, 2017

Don't Call Me "Rabbi!"

Jesus said not to use honorific titles--does that apply to "pastor?"

But you are not to be called rabbi, for you have one teacher, and you are all brothers. And call no man your father on earth, for you have one Father, who is in heaven. Neither be called instructors, for you have one instructor, the Christ.
Matthew 23:8-10
A few days ago I was asked, but not for the first time, about this passage, and its prohibition on the use of titles like "rabbi" or "teacher" or "father" among the followers of Jesus. Since he spoke this prohibition himself, it certainly ought to be obeyed. So, when we call someone (for example, me) "Pastor," are we disobeying the Lord? And should Christian institutions give up such titles as "Doctor" or "Professor" as being unbiblical?

I'm not going to speak to the educational situation and titles, although the same principles below may apply to them in intentionally Christ-centered organizations. But I've wrestled with this question for myself ever since going into vocational ministry. The passage, for example, tells us we are all brothers (stressing equal standing), but often when we use such titles we create hierarchy among believers. And it's not just basic titles like "pastor," either. We sometimes create other titles that can be used similarly. I know that our previous church association had a "national representative" that wasn't called "President" or "Superintendent" because that seemed too authoritative, and yet even the more cumbersome title was used by many in tones of deference to authority. It's just how people are--we seem to gravitate toward "pecking orders" and titles help establish that process. If you are "assistant" anything, you are under someone else, so we know you have some power, but not the most.

When I was first ordained, I was working as an assistant pastor, was responsible for youth, and was in my early 20's in a church with half its people more than twice my age. They called me "Craig" before and after ordination, and I was happy with that. My work was respected, and I didn't have any trouble being "followed" when teaching or leading.

In my only other senior pastorate, which was a church replant, I kept that practice going, preferring to be known by my name and not a title. This passage had some influence on my thinking, but so did the idea that "pastor" is one of the gifts given to the church according to Ephesians 4:11. Since we don't tend to call most people by their occupation or their spiritual gift ("Plumber Paul" or "Helpful Henry"), I was happy to be just plain Craig.

Later, some parents said they didn't want their children calling me by my first name but to show some respect to me as an adult with a title. I suggested that "Pastor Craig" might be a good option, as long as "Pastor" was seen more as an honorific like "Uncle"--and that thought came from my visits to mission fields, where all the kids of missionaries called all the missionary adults and visiting pastors and wives "uncle" or "aunt."

I suggested the same ideas when I came here, but because this is a long established church, what people call me is all over the map. For some, I am "Craig," for others "Pastor Craig," and others use "Pastor Miller." Some address me simply as "Pastor." Some of you may have other names for me, but I don't need to hear them! :)

But is the use of such titles as "Pastor" or "Reverend" wrong? At first look, this passage would seem to say, "yes." Jesus wanted his followers to see themselves on equal footing, all learning and following one true authoritative teacher--himself as the Messiah.

But if we think about the context and history, we may be a little less certain. In the days of Jesus, religious Jews were sharply divided into various camps. We know about Sadducees (mainly priestly families who denied much of what we would consider basic spiritual truths in favor of an ethical, non-supernatural emphasis on the Temple observances) and the Pharisees (teachers of the Law who were zealous for obedience to the Law and strong believers in the supernatural). But Pharisees divided into lots of different, competing groups, following particular rabbis and traditions. These groups often viewed other such groups as being in error. Thus people allied themselves with their own rabbis and these groups were often at odds over who was right. And their "rabbis" were all too happy to have such followers, who would treat them with great honor and deference. They would call them "father," too, and often such men conducted themselves with a great sense of their own importance. When they were crossed, they had very little hesitation about putting the one who disagreed in his place. Your rabbi was not just a teacher you liked--he was an authority you deferred to and obeyed, and who often required his followers to show appropriate respect and obedience.

Jesus is rebuking the idea that any man (or woman) should be viewed as  the authoritative teacher on the truth of God on earth, and by extension that any person should take such authority to himself, with one clear exception. It was Jesus alone to whom believers were to look as their authoritative teacher/explainer of truth, and Jesus who was to receive that kind of honor and obedience.

Interestingly, Jesus told his disciples that in his kingom they would sit on thrones judging the twelve tribes of Israel, so he wasn't saying there would be no authority exercised on his behalf among his followers. The apostles clearly understood that Jesus, by his authority was commanding them to go, teach, and baptize people--having already told them that they could "bind" or "loose" things on earth with heavenly power. So it isn't just authority that is in view here.

Rather, it is the exercise of control by a spiritual leader as if he is the ultimate word on all matters of faith. It is self-promotion and self-aggradizement that is in view here--wanting not just the title, but power and respect from others.

So, I believe that using a title like "pastor" need not be considered wrong, as long as the person using it or being called by it is simply acknowledging God's call to fill this role for the benefit of the church. I've had some people say they see the title as showing respect for the calling or "office" of pastor. What must be avoided is the idea that there is, inherent in the person referred to by the title, an authority and power that should only belong to Christ. And pastors need to recognize that their only authority and power comes as they speak what the Word says and apply it as Christ directs. If the "Pastor" is the big shot and everyone else is expected to follow without question, then we are back in the very circumstance that Jesus was rebuking.