On Titles for Church Leadership

Published June 21, 2013 by Andrew Lindsey in Bible study
Texts

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. 10 Neither be called instructors, for you have one instructor, the Christ. 11 The greatest among you shall be your servant. (Matthew 23:8-11 ESV)


But you are a chosen race, a royal priesthood, a holy nation, a people for his own possession, that you may proclaim the excellencies of him who called you out of darkness intohis marvelous light. (1 Peter 2:9 ESV)



Paul and Barnabas appointed elders for them in each church and, with prayer and fasting, committed them to the Lord, in whom they had put their trust. (Acts 14:23 ESV)

This is why I left you in Crete, so that you might put what remained into order, and appoint elders in every town as I directed you— (Titus 1:5 ESV)

Commentary

As recorded in Matthew 23:8-11, Jesus prohibits His followers from distinguishing themselves by the use of honorific religious titles. Jesus' words in this passage come in the context of denouncing the behavior of the scribes and Pharisees- in view of their hypocritical and self-serving religious activities- so it is clear that religious titles are the subject of this passage (in other words, the Lord is not here prohibiting children from saying "Daddy" to their earthly fathers). Specific religious titles that the Lord prohibits for His followers are "rabbi," "father," and instructor."

As the direct commandment of Jesus prohibits any Christian minister taking on "father" as a religious title, clear New Testament teaching also speaks against any specific group of Christian ministers distinguishing themselves from other church members by taking on the title of "priest." As Skarsaune notes in relation to 1 Peter 2:9,

"The new people of God are not in a temple, attending a service led by priests, they are the temple and they are its priests, themselves conducting the service... since the whole people is priestly, all leadership ministries are called by entirely non-priestly, non-cultic terms." [Skarsaune, In the Shadow of the Temple, 162. Quoted in James M. Hamilton, God's Indwelling Presence: The Holy Spirit in the Old And New Testaments (Nashville: B&H Academic, 2006), 123-124.]


The prohibition against honorific religious titles, and the lack of "priestly" or "cultic" terms for church leadership does NOT mean, however, that the church has NO way of speaking about the men who help teach, counsel, and guide church members. All things must be done decently and in order (1 Corinthians 14:40), and if the church lacks recognition concerning WHICH men were qualified for leadership roles, then orderliness will quickly vanish. And so the Lord, through His apostles, has given qualifications for church leadership in passages such as Titus 1:5-9. Church leaders are referred to as pastors, overseers, bishops, or (perhaps most commonly in the New Testament) elders.


Application


Followers of the Lord Jesus Christ obey His commands. Followers of the Lord Jesus Christ who are in church leadership will not insist on being addressed with an honorific religious title such as "rabbi," "father," or "instructor" in DIRECT VIOLATION of Jesus' command. Followers of the Lord Jesus Christ will not follow someone who refers to himself as "Father [So-and-So]," etc., because they will recognize that man as someone who does not care about the clear command of Christ.


As the New Testament avoids priestly terms in referring to church leadership- calling the entire church "a royal priesthood," and naming Jesus as the ultimate high priest who fulfills all the sacrificial functions once and for all (Hebrews 4:14-16; 10:11-14)- followers of the Lord Jesus Christ should avoid systems of religion in which the ministers are referred to as "priests."


Followers of the Lord Jesus Christ should seek out churches in which the congregational leadership actually meets the qualifications for church leadership mentioned in the New Testament and churches in which leaders are called by simple, New Testament terms such as "pastor," "elder," etc.

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