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Honorific Titles and Humility

Jesus strongly forbade honorific titles for Christian leaders, yet every major branch of Christianity employs them. Why?

Titles of honor are forbidden in Matthew 23:8-10. Jesus says:

Do not be called Rabbi. Only one is your Guide, the Messiah, and all of you are brothers. And don't address as Father anyone on the earth, for only one is your Father, the one in the heavens. Nor be called guides, for only one is your Guide, the Messiah.
Jozefchurch in Groningen courtesy of skitterphoto

Courtesy of

Protestants are familiar with this passage. They use it to upbraid the Roman Catholics for their most common honorific title: "Father." Ironically, Protestants seem oblivious to the fact that Jesus forbids all honorifics here. "Pastor Jones" is every bit as proscribed as "Father Jones."

The most common words by which the Jewish leaders were addressed were rabbi, father, and teacher or guide. Jesus hits all of these in Matthew 23. The fact that we later added pastor, reverend, and even "your holiness" to the titles we give to our leaders doesn't change anything. Jesus forbids them all.

It is not that we cannot be known as a teacher or pastor. Paul was known as an apostle. James warns that "not many" of us should be teachers, from which we can conclude that it is acceptable for a few of us to be known as teachers. Hebrews tells us to obey our leaders three times.

It is not being known for your role or gifting that is a problem; it is the honorific title that is a problem.

Paul refers to himself as an apostle, but he does not refer to himself as Apostle Paul. Even Luke, in Acts, wrote about the travels of Peter and Paul, not the travels of Apostle Peter and Apostle Paul. Only we do that. Peter called himself an elder in 1 Peter 5:1, but he does not title himself Elder Peter. Acts 15:32 tells us that Silas was a prophet, but Paul never sent a greeting that begins, "Apostle Paul, Prophet Silas, and Disciple Timothy." Instead, you read "Paul, Silas, and Timothy to the church of the Thessalonians."

"Strongly" Forbids?

Why do I say Jesus "strongly" forbade honorific titles?

Look at the context of Matthew 23:8-10. Jesus begins enough by telling the multitudes and his disciples to listen to the scribes and Pharisees, but to ignore their behavior because they don't do anything they teach. They "don't even lift one finger" to carry the heavy burdens they bind on their hearers.

He follows this by accusing them of loving the honor of men, implying that they ignore the approval of God. His commands against honorifics are the conclusion of that accusation.

He then gives a brief teaching on proper attitude. The greatest among us, he says, should be our servant. God will abase the proud and exalt the humble.

Brooklyn Museum - Saint John the Baptist and the Pharisees (Saint Jean-Baptiste et les pharisiens) - James Tissot - overall

John the Baptist confronts the Pharisees.

Public domain image from the Brooklyn Museum.

Things escalate from there. He launches into a tirade, beginning with "Woe to you!" in verse 13. He then excoriates the scribes, Pharisees, and lawyers as pretenders and thieves, turning their disciples into sons of hell.

Our English Bibles says "sons of hell," but the Greek word presents an even worse picture. Jesus chooses γεεννησ as his term for "of hell," a Greek word usually anglicized as "Gehenna."

Gehenna was a reference to the Valley of Gehinnom, Jerusalem's garbage dump. It could be seen from the city (I'm told), and it burned night and day.

Jesus was saying that the Pharisees and their disciples were sons of a garbage dump. Could there be a greater insult to someone's teachings?

This is the context of Jesus teaching on titles of honor. Before he discusses them, he announces publicly that the Pharisees won't "lift a finger" to do the things they teach. He then roars against them in the only tirade we find in any of the Gospels. Jesus was not in a mild temper when he forbade honorific titles. He was angry.

I submit that it is fair to say Jesus detested honorific titles along with all the other things he detested from the scribes and Pharisees.

Honorific Titles and Pride

Why would Jesus "detest" honorifics?

Honorific titles go hand in hand with pomp and with loving the praise of men. It is almost impossible to have one without the other. If you are in a position of honor, secular or ecclesiastic, you are almost certainly going to have a title that reflects that honor. You are almost certainly going to wear clothing, choose surroundings, and schedule events that call attention to your position.

Jesus detests all of this, and he says so repeatedly.

One cannot read the Bible without running across strictures against pride. In 2 Chronicles 25-26, we are told that Hezekiah brought wrath on Judah for his pride, and that wrath was averted when he humbled himself. This was the king of God's people! What higher position could one hold on this earth? Yet even to him pride was forbidden.

Proverbs 6:16-17 tells us that there are seven things that God both hates and are an abomination to him. Top on the list is a proud look. Psalm 40:4 blesses the man who has no regard for the proud but trusts the Lord instead.

James 4:6, quoting Proverbs 3:34, tells us that God opposes the proud and gives grace to the humble. 1 Peter 5:5 quotes the same passage. Proverbs 29:23 tells us that a man's pride will bring him low.

Of course I could go on and on. Anyone who has read the Bible knows that pride is either at the top or near the top of sins that offend God.

I submit that we all know there is a bond between pride and honorific titles that is almost impossible to break. I don't have to argue the point, though. Jesus drove it home in Matthew 23.

The Practice of Humility

Jesus gave specific instructions for the behavior of Christian leaders:

Jesus called [the twelve] and said to them, "You know that those who are regarded as ruling the nations lord over them, and their great ones exercise authority over them, but this shall not be among you. Instead, whoever wants to become great among you shall be your servant, and whoever wants to be first shall be everyone's slave. For the Son of Man did not come to be served, but to serve and to give his life a ransom for many. (Mark 10:42-45)

A friend of mine used to refer to this passage a lot. He focused on the words "this shall not be among you." He liked to say, "I want to line up all the Christian leaders and ask them, 'Was it so among you?'"

His antipathy toward authority was overboard, but Jesus' antipathy toward pride was not.

Paul apparently understood Jesus' attitude. Here's how he put it into action.

Silver, gold, or clothing I asked of no one. You yourselves know that for my needs and those who were with me I labored with my hands. In all this I showed you that by working to exhaustion like this we should participate with the weak ones to remember the words of the Lord Jesus, that he said, "It is more blessed to give than to receive." (Acts 20:33-35)

Paul found Jesus' teaching about being great in God's kingdom important enough for him to deny himself the right to be supported by those he taught. He taught the Corinthians that it was not only permissible but appropriate to pay with physical things the ones who taught them spiritual things(1 Cor. 9:7-11). but he goes on to say neither he nor Barnabas took advantage of this right because it might hinder the Gospel (v. 12).

His teaching to the Ephesian elders in Acts 20, cited above, goes even further. He tells those elders, the "pastors" in the churches he started, that he provided for himself as an example to them.

Every branch of Christianity teaches that it is more blessed to give than to receive, but have you even once heard a sermon informing you that the context of this saying is church leaders working for their own income?

I am not saying that it is wrong for church leaders to receive wages or a salary. We read in the Gospels that Jesus took support for himself and the apostles (Luke 8:1-3). The Gospels make it clear that he barely had time to eat, much less work for his food. His only labor was teaching.

It is certainly telling, however, that none of us have been told the context of "it is more blessed to give than to receive."

The Ultimate Example of Humility

Despite being the true Teacher holding all authority in heaven and earth, Jesus chose to display humility. He also told us to mimic him:

Jesus, knowing that the Father has given all things into his hands and that from God he came and to God he is going, rises from supper, lays aside his garments, and having taken a towel, wraps it around his waist. Then he pours water into the basin and began to wash the feet of his disciples and to wipe them with the towel around his waist. ... Then, when he had washed their feet and put on his garments, he reclines again and said to them, "Do you know what I have done for you? You call me the Teacher and the Lord, and you are speaking well, for I am. Therefore, if I washed your feet, the Lord and Teacher, you also should wash one another's feet. For I gave you an example, so that as I did for you, you should do also." (John 13:3-5, 12-15)

Notice how John begins this passage. Jesus, he says, knows that the Father has given him everything and that he is from God and going to God. Why is he pointing this out?

There is only one apparent reason. Despite the fact that Jesus knew that he had authority over everything, he still got on his knees and performed one of the lowliest of services, washing the feet of the guests.

This is the behavior of Jesus. This is the behavior he asked the apostles to mimic. This is the behavior Paul mimicked and asked the elders of Ephesus to mimic.

The leaders of the churches of our Lord and King were trained by Jesus and the apostles to serve in order to be great, to humble themselves in order to be exalted, and none of them adopted honorific titles.

Are We Disciples of the Apostles or the Pharisees?

Jesus said the Pharisees loved the highest rooms at a feast and the best seats in the synagogue. They loved to be in the marketplace and be greeted as "Rabbi."

The question we have to ask ourselves as shepherds and teachers in the church is whether we have inherited the traditions of Jesus and the apostles or the traditions of the Pharisees.

Every one of us needs to sit on that for a while.

Jesus' Parable on Humility

One of Jesus' parables touches on this subject of the best seats at feasts and in the Christian meeting.

To those who were invited [Jesus] spoke a parable. Paying attention to how they were choosing the most honorable places, [he was] saying to them, "When you are invited by someone to wedding feasts, do not recline in the most honorable place, in case a more esteemed person than you was invited by him and the one who invited [both] you and him say to you, 'Give place to this person,' and you head with shame to take the least honorable place. But when you are invited, recline in the least honorable place so that if the one who invited you comes, he may tell you, 'Friend, come up higher.' Then there shall be glory for you in front of those who recline at the table with you." (Luke 14:7-10

Does this apply only to the average Christian? Or does it also apply to shepherds, teachers, and the appointed servants (deacons) of the church? Are shepherds and teachers only to teach with words, like the Pharisees, or by example, like Jesus and his apostles?

To Protestants, I say, "What a thought!" Wouldn't it be something if the pastor walked into the congregation and took a seat among them?

In the earliest churches, this had to be the pattern, since they met in houses. In a house, unless it is very large, people generally sit in something of a circle or square so they can see each other. This would explain Paul's instructions in 1 Corinthians 14 allowing every member of the church to prophesy. Such an arrangement would also allow one person talking to stop for the sake of another member who wanted to say something, also commanded by Paul in 1 Corinthians 14.

Even as early as the third century, many churches were too large for this kind of procedure. The Apostolic Constitutions, which I understand was put together between the late third century and the early fifth, gives seating arrangements for larger churches. Leaders—bishops, elders, and deacons— sat in the center of that seating arrangement.

Despite everything that I have said, I don't object to such a seating arrangement. I understand the need for practicality.

I also understand the need for obeying our Master Jesus.

Obeying Jesus in Non-Liturgical Churches

How can we obey the teachings of Jesus on humility?

I'm sure you can come up with better answers than I can. I'm part of a home church. It's easy for me to dress like and be among my brothers and sisters. Besides that, Protestants don't typically give titles to teachers like me, just to pastors. I really don't face the temptation to use an honorific title.

For most Protestant pastors, the task is more difficult, but you have to start somewhere. Getting rid of your honorific, "Pastor," would be a good start. You could tell the congregation, "Jesus said it wasn't okay for us to be addressed with titles. Please stop calling me Pastor Such-and-Such and call me ________ instead." Seating yourself somewhere in the midst of your congregation—during the time you are not up front teaching—might also be a good start.

It is very likely that pastors will find what I am writing offensive. Do we really need to throw a wrench in a smoothly operating machine?

I think we do.

Some may be offending, but I find it offensive, disappointing, and perhaps even horrifying that Christian leaders behave far more like Pharisees than disciples of Jesus. I find it even more offensive that they can be offended by the idea of acting on Jesus' command to display humility and to consider themselves equal in rank to their brothers and sisters in the Messiah.

The written word, especially on the internet, can be a less-than-adequate vehicle for communication, so let me say, "If the shoe fits, wear it." If you're not among the evangelical pastors who have been eaten with unseen pride because of their honorific title (e.g., Pastor or Reverend), then enjoy the reminder about Jesus' command to take the lowest place. If you have been infected, you should want a cure. It was a big deal to Jesus.

Don't think you have immunity from a Matthew-23 tirade from our Lord.

Liturgical Churches

Liturgical churches have a lot more difficult path. Their system is so pharisaical, it's hard to imagine any "priest," whatever his rank, being able to follow the command of Jesus in regard to honorific titles without leaving his position or joining a monastic movement.

Maxim of Bulgaria 2011 1

Maxim, Patriarch of the Bulgarian Orthodox Church

Used with permission. See terms of license.

Being given the honorific title "Father" is a violation of a command of our Lord. Addressing someone by the honorific title "Father" is an even more direct violation.

Is it possible to correct that in a Catholic or Orthodox environment?

The ornate robes and the crowns would have to go. It is one thing to wear a plain robe when everyone else is wearing one, as the apostles did, and it is quite another to wear royal attire in the church as a mark of honor. It is acceptable for kings, but it is not acceptable for church leaders who are supposed to be leading us in following Jesus.

Let's get real here. The tradition of ignoring Jesus and the apostles on the subject of humility in leadership is ancient and fully ingrained. To the grandiose hierarchies of the Catholic, Orthodox, and other ancient churches, I'm like a mouse squeaking in a distant corner of a grandiose cathedral. I'm barely perceptible and certainly not worth engaging.

They aren't listening to the eternal voice of Jesus, why would they listen to me?

I really need to add a caveat:

Orthodox Traditions

While Orthodox traditions have trampled Jesus' teaching in regard to pomp and honorific titles, the rest of us are in desperate need of other teachings and history that the Orthodox have preserved. Our need for guidance in how to approach and understand the teachings of the primitive churches is even greater. We cannot let this glaring error cost us teachings they have preserved that have been lost to the west.

Where To Go from Here

If you don't hate me at this point, my favorite part of the site is the Articles page. All my articles are categorized there by subject and can be easily browsed.