This past week, one person asked me about religious titles. As most people know, church leaders and workers are called by numerous titles and honors in the religious world. The individual asked, “Is the use of titles, in religious circles, in harmony with New Testament teachings?” I personally have been called a number of different names, such as: pastor, preacher, minister, reverend, etc… Not all of them accurate. However, in different churches religious leaders are called priest, pope, elder, pastor, bishop, arch-bishop, angel, prophet, brother, sister, etc… It can be hard to keep it all straight. However, biblical terminology should be important for everyone to consider because how a person uses the words in the Bible can exalt or condemn a believer (Matt. 15:11; Eph. 4:29).
Titles of honor, whether earned or unearned, whether taken from the Bible or taken from the imagination of man are utterly foreign to the spirit and ambition of Christianity; and their use unquestionably falls under the ban of the Lord. In Christ’s scathing denunciation of the Pharisees, He says, “They love…greetings in the markets, and to be called of men, Rabbi, Rabbi. But be not ye called Rabbi: for one is your Master, even Christ; and all ye are brethren” (Matt. 23:5-8). It is one thing to call someone “brother” (“all ye are brethren”) as a term of endearment, but another to call someone by an honorary title as if to elevate their importance in the church. The Jewish people bestowed the term “Rabbi” as a title to eminent teachers of the law among their people, a title of honor and dignity, denoting their authority and ability to speak.
Jesus does not forbid the use of these titles because they were empty and unearned; He condemns them because they served to set up distinctions where none should be (Gal. 3:26-29). People, like the Pharisees, can get consumed in titles and honors in the church. Some preachers have gone so far as to buy degrees and titles, so they can be called “Doctor” or “Reverend” just to feel important. Honorary titles in the church tend to engender pride and a sense of hierarchy in the church; and the whole spirit and ordination of titles conflict with the “simplicity that is in Christ” (2 Cor. 11:3). When titled Christians feel puffed up, they unfortunately slide into the rule of opinion rather than scriptural authority (1 Cor. 4:6). Such arrogance inevitably leads the church into division or apostasy (1 Cor. 1:11-13).
The Bible mentions certain members of the first century being called by their work or office in the church, but never where these names turned into honorary title to make hierarchical distinctions in the church. Epaphroditus was called “brother and fellow-worker and fellow-soldier, and your messenger and minister” (Phil. 2:25); Tychicus was called “the beloved brother and faithful minister and fellow servant of the Lord” (Col. 4:12); Peter, James, and John were called “pillars” (Gal. 2:9); Luke was called “the beloved physician” (Col. 4:14); there existed many descriptive names given to the church members of the first century. While someone can be called a “brother” or “minister” or hold the office of a bishop or deacon, such terms of affection should not grow into honorary titles that only serve to puff up recipients into vanity (Eph. 4:17; Rom. 12:3). Sometimes religious teachers or leaders demand the name “brother,” not as a term of endearment, but as a title of respect. If a person must demand certain titles of respect, he/she likely doesn’t deserve them. Let all remember the words of Christ, “And whosoever shall exalt himself shall be abased; and he that shall humble himself shall be exalted” (Matt. 23:12). While there is nothing wrong with being called what you are, none should demand special titles of dignity to be uplifted in the church.