Sunday, July 23

On being called 'Rabbi' (the use of titles within the Body of Christ)

This will probably be a strange post for most who take a moment to read what follows. If all will be seated, I will now rise to take my place up on my soapbox. I confess this issue is one of my personal "quirks" but here goes...

I think some of the most ignored words of Jesus are to be found in Matthew 23:1-11, especially verses 6-11...

"They love the place of honor at banquets and the chief seats in the synagogues, (7) and respectful greetings in the market places, and being called Rabbi by men. (8) "But do not be called Rabbi; for One is your Teacher, and you are all brothers. (9) "Do not call anyone on earth your father; for One is your Father, He who is in heaven. (10) "Do not be called leaders; for One is your Leader, that is, Christ. (11) "But the greatest among you shall be your servant...

I'll mail anyone reading this a s/.100 bill (not to be confused with US $100 it's an old extinct Ecuadorian bill worth about $0.004) if they can show me anywhere in the New Testament where servants of God are referred to by a title before their name, rather than by description of their giftings or functions. For example, Paul never refers to himself as the 'Apostle Paul', it is always something like:

Paul, a bond-servant of Jesus Christ (Rom.1:1)
Paul, called as an apostle (I Cor.1:1)
Paul, an apostle of Christ Jesus (II Cor.1:1)
Paul, an apostle (not sent from men...) (Gal.1:1)

You can look up the rest of Paul's epistles for yourselves. In every case he describes his calling, gifting, function within the Body of Christ--AFTER his name, not as a title proclaiming his accomplishments or importance.

In Christ's Kingdom we are all on the same level as brothers and sisters in Christ. We are all "bond-servants" of Jesus Christ. The only thing that differentiates us is our gifting, or function within the Body of Christ.

If this is the biblical pattern, why do we continue to practice the use of honoring one another with titles such as Dr. So-And-So, or Rev. So-And-So? Why do we refer to servants as "Pastor John" or as they do here, "Licenciado Pastor Reverendo Pedro Gomez" (they tack on ALL of the titles they can think of to make sure everyone knows how important they are!)

Is this not in clear violation of Christ's words in Matthew 23 in his condemnation of the Pharisees who loved the "place of honor" and "chief seats" and "respectful greetings" and "being called Rabbi?" The above are COMMANDS of Christ, not suggestions. According to Jesus we are not even to be called 'leaders'!

My own job title is "Strategy Coordinator" but I insist on this being a description of my assignments, not a title. I don't feel I am any more qualified or special than any other missionary out there serving.

In our own mission work we only use the terms "hermano" (brother), and "hermana" (sister) for everyone. We try to be very careful to not give the impression that some of us are somehow more important, or "more called" than others. In any of our meetings ANYONE is welcome, even those meetings of a sensitive nature. We don't want to do anything that would give an impression that some are more qualified or more important to deal with matters than others. As a result, our poorer, uneducated brethren are often used of God to accomplish extraordinary things as they are encouraged to use their spiritual gifting, rather than something they have been made to feel inferior about through no fault of their own.

At first glance it may seem I am making a big deal about nothing. But is it a big deal? I think so. Allow me to put forth my case a bit more, I'm just getting warmed up! :-)

Galatians 3:28 speaks of, "There is neither Jew nor Greek, there is neither slave nor free man, there is neither male nor female; for YOU ARE ALL ONE in Christ Jesus." James 2 speaks about not holding an attitude of personal favoritism towards those more fortunate than the poor by making "distinctions among yourselves." Are not titles a distinction amongst us?

All of us have heard introductions of fellow believers beginning something like...

"Today we have with us one of the most influential and respected pastors in America. His church has grown from 0 to 50,000 in just five years...certainly one of the most humble men on the planet...and one of the most insightful visionaries in Southern Baptist life today, it is a great honor for me to present to you Dr. John Doe (applause)... Why can't we simply introduce each other as, "John Doe, a dear brother serving our Lord in Oklahoma...?"

Am I against successful ministry, or education and learning? No, certainly not. I strive for these things in my own life. We highly encourage everyone we work with to get as much training, education, learning as they possibly can throughout their lifetime and within their means to do so. We rejoice in the victories and successes of those we co-labor with.

The problem comes that education, titles, ordination, recognition, and degrees have a way of separating us from one another. We unintentionally create religious "castes" amongst ourselves. We invite the "pastors" to come to certain meetings, or the "professionals" to a prayer breakfast. We single out "leaders" for certain events, and so forth. All of this has a subtle way of silently killing off the "priesthood of all believers."

Those without the public recognition of their "importance" begin to feel and ACT like second-class Kingdom citizens. They begin to expect only those "Rabbis" with the titles to do the work of the Kingdom. Since they are just "ordinary" Christians, the attitude quickly becomes one of mediocrity and complacency, and business as usual. I am not "called" so therefore it is not my responsibility...

Therein lies the reason that 2000 years after Christ gave us the Great Commission, we are no closer to fulfilling the task! Imagine what would happen if every single Christian really understood themselves as a "CHOSEN RACE, A royal PRIESTHOOD, A HOLY NATION, A PEOPLE FOR God's OWN POSSESSION...?" Knew they were a front-line soldier in the advance of the Kingdom? That the Great Commission is not just for the Drs. the Revs. the Pastors, the professionals, but for ALL OF US!

'Nuff said on the subject for now. Now you know why they ship us quirky missionaries off to the far extremes of the earth. We are indeed weird and "out of touch" with reality. :-)


Ken James said...


Glad you got the CD's okay. Thanks so much for the kind words about our music.

We played last night at Swadley's, and we play next Sunday night at the First Baptist of Hennessey, Oklahoma. It will be a fun time of fellowship.

As always, we're praying for you guys as you spread the gospel of Jesus Christ to the world. You guys are the real "heroes" for taking the gospel to those who need to hear it.

Thanks for all that you do!

mr. t said...


Scoot over, I like this soap box. Like you, I have observed what the separation of clergy and laity does to affect the spread of the gospel. It kills initiative among the "ordinary" folk. They don't feel qualified to do all the Lord has commanded His followers to do. So, I agree with you.

However, in this real human world, we just naturally tend to separate people according to their personality and ability... taking a positional (as opposed to a functional) approach in the church. Just like the world. Even though Jesus told His disciples, "Yet it shall not be so among you; but whoever desires to become great among you shall be your servant" (Mk. 10:43).

The challenge is to model and develop functional leaders (not positional). Leaders are gifts to the body of Christ, they have their function. So, we don't want to discourage that important function as we encourage humble servant leaders.

Ken Sorrell said...

Whoa! I really wish you would stop being so evasive and diplomatic in your posts and tell us how you really feel! :-)

Seriously, excellent insights concerning a very touchy subject for many. For example, there are some churches that will not consder a pastoral candidate unless they have a doctorate. At the same time I know many folks who have post-graduate degress but you would never know it unless they told you, and normally they will not mention it. Listen to the nominations speeches at any state or the national convention and you will hear exactly what you have described in your post.

Now to bring a counterpoint to your post I would make one exception to your position knowing that I may still be falling into the trap you have so well described. That is the place of using a title as a term or respect. For example, I have a really hard time referring to or addressing our President of the IMB as "Jerry". I normally refer to him as Dr. Rankin. This is not to say he is any better or worse than myself or anyone else, but I was raised that people in authority are not greeted or addressed like they are your bestest buddy.

By the way, I normally have folks address me as "Master and Commander".

mr. t said...

Oh, Guy, I forgot to sign my post above ...

the most honorable reverend mr. t

Anonymous said...

How about this typical oxymoron?: "Hoy tenemos con nosotros un gran siervo del Señor." ("Today we have with us a great servant of God.")

Paul Burleson said...


Will You and Mr. T please make room on that S.B. for me? I began having real problems with this in 1976 when I began pastoring Southcliff Baptist three minutes from SWBTS. It irritated me like a major rash.

One sunday John and Virginia Seelig, then VP of SWBTS and voice professor, [Virginia] joined our fellowship. As I introduced them to the church I simply said, "here are two people joining us, John and Virginia Seelig. What can I say about them? They are two sinners saved by Grace like the rest of us."

The church broke into applause and John and Virginia hugged me and have been like family since. Some walls fell that day in that church.

"Let the Name of the Lord be reverenced" is still the biblical and wise use of titles. Good words on that

Paul Burleson

GuyMuse said...

Ken James--still listening to those great CDs you sent. We'd love to hear you guys live in concert!

Hon.Rev. "Mr.T"--I think you've hit the nail on the head with the need for functional leaders, not so much the positional. The Lord knows we need leaders, leaders who are first and foremost servants.

Ken--Thanks for the thoughts. To me "brother/sister" are terms of high honor and endearment, clearly stating we are part of the same family. If any of those we honor/respect (like Jerry Rankin) were to come here for a visit, I wouldn't think we were demeaning them in any way by introducing them as "Brother Jerry Rankin." That's just me and what I feel Scripture teaches.

Paul--Virginia Seelig was my voice teacher in seminary. One of my fondest memories of seminary days were the times when all her students met together and she would lead us in a cappella singing of hymns. I can never sing "Leaning on the Everlasting Arms" without her coming to mind as she helped us understand how real those words truly are.

sembrador said...

I am not sure that I share the sb. After working for some time with youth who had no one to respect, I have found that they need a model. Many of our people have never learned to respect their parents, the police, or any one else. They need clear examples of respect. Maybe, you are asking if it is biblical. 1Pt 3:6 comes to mind.

I see the need to knock down the wall of laity/clergy split, however, I am not sure that this is the way to go about it.

Another thought, it is one thing to earn a title through love and self sacrifice, and another to acquire a title through manipulation, and control.

GuyMuse said...

SEMBRADOR--I agree with you fully that we need models, we need to respect one another, these issues are not being questioned. What I am attempting to communicate though is that, in at least our context overseas, titles tend to create a wall between what has been termed "clergy" and "laity." It's more an issue of how we use our titles. Are we known by our title, or by our love and service for one another? I have seen both operating and have tried to address this abuse. John 13:1-17 comes to mind where Jesus commands those who are his followers to "do as I did to you."

Paul Burleson said...


The idea of respect being needed is certainly valid. But the words of scripture seem to indicate that respect was more through character, especially genuine love, than through a position or a title.

In fact, the first diciples were so impressive not because of titles of Dr. or Rev. being used, but more because of how obviously they took seriously loving one another.

The culture even recognized that they were ignorant and unlearned people yet so different. That is not to say we're talking about a sloppy, touchy, feely, brand of love, as much as it was a love willing to confront like Paul did Peter and even endure hardship from people they loved as Jesus did Peter a denier and Paul did Mark a deserter.

I think respect is more of a God caused thing brought on by character than a title thing in any culture.

Paul Burleson

GuyMuse said...

Bro. Paul,

You express well this point. The early followers of Jesus were not known for their titles, they were known by their character and love for one another.

Alan Cross said...

I agree with you, Guy. I don't let anyone but the children call me "Pastor Alan," only because I don't want to be called "Mr. Alan!" My basis is exactly the same as what you listed. Sometimes, I'll put my name as "Pastor Alan" in print (like on our website) for those who don't know me, because it is too much to explain outside a conversation. But, I always introduce myself as "Alan."

If Paul was Paul, and Peter was Peter, then I can be Alan. I agree 100%. We are all the same, we just have different functions. My role is as a servant to the body, not as it's supreme head. We are totatlly out of balance with the cult of personality that has developed. Good words.

sembrador said...

Wanna see the lights come on in the eyes of a child, call him sir, or her maam! I believe that you ay be suprised at how they respond to you. The respect thing works for everyone.

GuyMuse said...

Alan and sembrador--Thanks for stopping by and enriching the dialogue with your comments. What you both write is well taken.

Brent Davis said...
This comment has been removed by a blog administrator.
Brent Davis said...

It has become obvious to me that most Southern Baptists believe in the priesthood of every believer, yet most do not know what it means.

For many it means nothing more than getting to "vote" in a business meeting. For others, it means they get to pray to God themselves, but it sure is nice to run the really important prayer requests by the pastor. After all, he is closer to God because he is "called" to be a man of God.

Though Southern Baptists believe in the priesthood of every believer, they do not practice it (having been one for 23 years I had an inside view). The use of titles is just the tip of the iceberg. The priesthood of every believer and a professional clergy cannot co-exist.

I am not picking on the SBC, hardly any evangelical group truly practices the priesthood of every believer. Why, because they all have a professional clergy that stands between the "laity" and God.
Oh well, I probably have done enough damage for one comment.

Your Brother,

R. L. Vaughn said...

Amen. Good post; good thoughts. When all is said and done, and the smoke clears, the Scriptures still say "Do not be called..."

ajesusman said...

Guy, you are quoting the wisdom of God: while I do agree in the fullest sense with your comments on this topic, it is not necessary for me to understand; it is enough for me to obey God!

You've told us what GOD SAID (commanded).

There will always be sound rationalizations and justifications for not obeying Him in this world: but not the next.

I fully endorse obedience as detailed in the holy texts!