Part 3 of the Series:
Questioning Church Authority
by Don Enevoldsen
My experience with church leaders and their desire for titles indicates that the spirit of the Pharisees is alive and well—and that we are all susceptible to its influence. Being a good Pharisee was largely defined by achievement, status and the recognition attached. Jesus indicted their attitude in strong language:
“Everything they do is done for men to see: They make their phylacteries wide and the tassels on their garments long; they love the place of honor at banquets and the most important seats in the synagogues; they love to be greeted in the marketplaces and to have men call them ‘Rabbi.’” (Matthew 23:5-7)
If Jesus spoke those words about church leaders today—and I have no doubt that is one of the things he would say—he would be labeled as judgmental and told that a good Christian honors and obeys his spiritual leaders. In other words, he would get the exact same criticism he got then. Yet his analysis would strike the heart of the matter. They love recognition. They love titles.
Jesus told his followers not to seek any of the labels the Pharisees reveled in. “But you are not to be called ‘Rabbi,’ for you have only one Master and you are all brothers” (verse 8). The word “Rabbi” is often translated “Master.” It meant “great one” or “honorable sir.” It was a title used to give distinction and elevation.
A second title was “father.” Jesus said, “And do not call anyone on earth ‘father,’ for you have one Father, and he is in heaven” (verse 9). While Protestants often use this verse to criticize Catholics for calling priests by the title of father, the point regarded the elevated status attributed to a leader. The Greek word is pater. It refers to a progenitor, the founder of a race. The source of our life and our understanding is in God, not another human being. Jesus warned his followers to never look upon any man as necessary or as the source for their spirituality.
A third title continues that idea. “Nor are you to be called ‘teacher,’ for you have one Teacher, the Christ” (verse 10). Jesus declared himself to be the teacher we ultimately look to for knowledge. The apostle John must have understood this. He wrote, “As for you, the anointing you received from him remains in you, and you do not need anyone to teach you” (1 John 2:27).
In other words, no human being should be revered to such an extent that we depend on him. Our dependence should be on God.
None of this means we should not recognize and honor leaders. The emphasis in these verses is on the insistence, the requirement, by the Pharisees that they be honored. I have often recognized and commented on the achievements of others. I saw their efforts and was moved to admiration. It is a very different thing when they demand my recognition.
During my tenure on a large church staff, the senior pastor added the title Doctor to his resume. While the merit of a doctorate obtained by mail could be disputed, nevertheless, he did have to write a thesis and do some work. I was never bothered by the title itself. If the truth be told, I wish I had one.
However, the day the staff was ordered to use the title at all times in order to promote respect among the congregation, and specifically to use the pastor’s first name after the title, I felt a wave of revulsion. And I never called him Doctor again. It became clear his doctorate was not an academic achievement, but something done to be seen by men. He didn’t wear phylacteries or tassels on a prayer shawl that could be lengthened, but he certainly went to some trouble to lengthen his accolades.
There are two messages here. Leaders who demand that people follow them and respect them are not only very poor leaders, they are acting completely outside of their biblical authority. They want to take the place of God in the lives of others.
Secondly, for all of us, we have a biblical responsibility to use some discernment. We are never to put any human being in the place of God in our own lives and our attitudes. If you want to call someone by a title in order to honor him/her, that’s fine. If that leader requires it of you, there is something wrong.
Next, Part 4: The Fivefold Ministry
Go to the beginning of the series, Questioning Church Authority: Part 1, False Prophets
Do you have an additional thought on this subject that will assist our search for truth? Please join the discussion and share your insights.