On the Use of Titles in the Church

It is a natural human tendency to give and receive honor, but mostly to receive it. This can be seen in nearly every walk of life and in every culture. It was equally common in the ancient world. For example, the kings of ancient Mesopotamia were fond of titles like “king of the four quarters of the world” or “king of kings.”

Silver bowl of Artaxerxes I, honoring him as “the great king, king of kings, king of lands,” circa 450 BC; from the Metropolitan Museum of Art.

The rulers of the Roman world were little different. Although they generally avoided the title “king” for political and historical reasons, they collected many other titles. This inscription from Athens honors the emperor (Autokrator) Hadrian as “savior and benefactor.”

Inscription from Athens, honoring Hadrian as “savior and benefactor,” circa AD 125. Photo by George Koronaios, via wikimedia.

This inscription heaps even greater praise on Hadrian, describing him as “the Father of the Land, and the Savior of the Universe.”

Inscription honoring Hadrian as “Father of the Land, and Savior of the Universe,” from Lycia, Turkey, circa AD 125; photo by Carole Raddato, via Wikimedia.

There are several examples of the use of titles in the NT. When Judas wanted to avoid being fingered as the one who would betray Jesus, he said, “Surely it is not I, Rabbi?” (Matt 26:25). Again, when Judas was in the process of betraying Jesus, he greeted him with the salutation, “Greetings, Rabbi!” (Matt 26:49; Mark 14:45). The disciples of John the Baptist addressed him as “Rabbi” (John 3:26), and Jesus’s disciples sometimes did the same when they addressed him (e.g. Mark 9:5; John 1:49; 4:31). A possible example from the secular world is found in the letter written by the tribune Claudius Lysias to the Roman governor Felix. He addressed him as “the most excellent governor Felix” (Acts 23:26).
However, Jesus specifically and strictly forbade the use of titles in the church. Speaking of religious leaders in his own day, Jesus said, “They love the place of honor at banquets, the front seats in the synagogues, greetings in the marketplaces, and to be called ‘ Rabbi ‘ by people. But as for you, do not be called ‘Rabbi,’ because you have one Teacher, and you are all brothers. Do not call anyone on earth your father, because you have one Father, who is in heaven. And do not be called masters either, because you have one Master, the Messiah. The greatest among you will be your servant. Whoever exalts himself will be humbled, and whoever humbles himself will be exalted” (Matt 23:6-12; CSB).
What Jesus forbids is the use of titles. And what is a title? It is the use of a position or similar descriptor as a name or a form of address. As Donald Hagner observes, “The point here is not to deny that the Christian community has teachers but rather to put up a barrier against the elevation of some above others and the pride that so naturally accompanies such differentiation” (Word Biblical Commentary, v33B, p660). Positions are often mentioned in the NT (e.g. apostle, elder, teacher, overseer, deacon, etc.) but these are merely descriptive unless they are used as a name, part of a name, or in direct address.
It is important to observe that when the writers of the NT referred to themselves, they did not take on titles. There are cases where they used terms like “apostle” or “slave” or “brother” as descriptors, but they did not use titles for themselves. This distinction, between a title and a descriptive term, is important.
It should be noted that the authors of the NT also avoided titles when speaking of or to each other. No NT author or figure refers to another as “Rabbi James” or “Deacon Stephen” or “Father Andrew” or “Apostle Paul.” The closest they come to using a title is the word “brother,” which is applied to any fellow believer and is a term of equality and endearment rather than an actual title.
So, for example, Peter spoke of “our beloved brother Paul” (2 Pet 3:15). Referring to the leaders of the church at Jerusalem, Paul said, “James and Cephas and John, who were reputed to be pillars, gave to me and Barnabas the right hand of fellowship, that we might go to the Gentiles” (Gal 2:9). Note that simple names are used for all the people who are cited, but no titles, even though they are the leading authorities in the church. John referred  to himself simply as “I, John, your brother and fellow partaker in the tribulation and kingdom and perseverance which are in Jesus” (Rev 1:9 ). Luke spoke of the activities of “Paul and Barnabas” (e.g. Acts 13:42), not “the Apostle Paul,” or “the Reverend Barnabas.” The man whom Paul commissioned to go and appoint elders in various churches in Crete (who thus had a position of even greater authority than an elder) he referred to simply as “Titus, my true child in a common faith” (Titus 1:4).
The purpose of using a title is to grant  honor or respect for that person, or to recognize their authority. So how do we fulfill Paul’s command, “Let the elders who rule well be considered worthy of double honor, especially those who work hard at preaching and teaching” (1 Tim 5:17)? First, in the context of 1 Timothy 5, the answer would be to support them financially: “For the Scripture says, ‘You shall not muzzle the ox while he is threshing,’ and ‘The laborer is worthy of his wages'” (1 Tim 5:18). But there are many other ways to honor church leaders that do not involve the use of titles. The author of Hebrews said, “Remember those who led you, who spoke the word of God to you; and considering the result of their conduct, imitate their faith” (Heb 13:7). Paul ended 2 Corinthians by saying, “Finally, brethren, rejoice, be made complete, be comforted, be like-minded, live in peace; and the God of love and peace shall be with you” (2 Cor 13:11). Or as he said to the Ephesians, “I, therefore, the prisoner of the Lord, entreat you to walk in a manner worthy of the calling with which you have been called, with all humility and gentleness, with patience, showing forbearance with one another in love, being diligent to preserve the unity of the Spirit in the bond of peace” (Eph 4:1-3). Obedience to these sorts of directives is perhaps the best way to honor those who have oversight. Bring joy to your pastor, elder, deacon, overseer, or teacher in this way: “I have no greater joy than this, to hear that my children are walking in the truth” (3 John 1:4).
Want to help your pastor? Follow the teaching of the NT and use his name, not a title.

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