All Revved Up

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It seldom fails, dealing with funeral homes or other businesses where secular and religious intermingle, that Rev. slips into the printed announcements or verbal introductions. Sometimes the question is asked, “do you want to be introduced as Reverend or Pastor?” The answer is, just use my name, or if you really need a title, “Brother” will do. But it seldom sticks. Many well meaning folks just don’t understand. But let’s think a little bit about titles and descriptive terms.

In Matthew 23:1-12, in the prelude to the “woes” Jesus pronounced against the Pharisees and Scribes, Jesus sternly warned his disciples not to take religious titles upon themselves such as Rabbi, Teacher, or Father. In that warning – which I think Jesus meant quite seriously – he said that rather than being exalted with titles, we should know that we are all brothers, and serve one another. He reminds us that we have one Rabbi (Master) and Teacher, the Christ, and one Father, God.

The titles men take upon themselves, or impute to one another, are sometimes quite remarkable. Reverend is one such title, remarkable in its implications. The King James Bible has the word reverend in one place, “He sent redemption unto his people: he hath commanded his covenant for ever: holy and reverend is his name.” (Ps 111:9 KJV) Now, it’s not too hard to see that the one whose name is “holy and reverend” is God. The next verse continues with the declaration that “The fear of the LORD is the beginning of wisdom: a good understanding have all they that do his commandments: his praise endureth for ever.” (Ps 111:10 KJV) Clearly the word reverend is appropriate to God, and not to any man. This word is rendered “awesome,” “terrible,” and “awe-inspiring” in other versions. What person who has the wisdom of fearing the LORD would want to have such a title attached to their name, or would want to attach such a title to any human? In fact the same (Hebrew) word turns up in the first verse of Psalm 112 as fear, “Praise the LORD. Blessed is the man who fears the LORD, who finds great delight in his commands.” (NIV)

So Jesus told his disciples to abstain from exalting themselves or each other with religious titles, and the commonly used religious title “reverend” is a word that is only befitting of God himself. It refers to one who is awesome or worthy of fear, and again Jesus taught that only God is worthy of fear, Luke 12:4-7, but that we are important to God, and so we should not be afraid.

I wonder, how about substituting awesome or terrible or awe-inspiring as a religious title? Instead of Reverends we might have the Awesome Bob Smith or the Terrible John Jacobs or the Awe-inspiring Bill Tong. Hopefully this seems absurd, but this is just what “reverend” means. The desire to honor servants of God with honorific titles is, according to God’s word, a mistake, in fact, a sin. The way to honor servants of God who are placed in leadership, according to His word, is to “imitate their faith” (Hebrews 13:7) and “submit to their authority” (Hebrews 13:17).

Another word used a lot today, that deserves some comment, is pastor. In the Bible of course pastor is a lower case word, that is, not a title, but a description. It’s found in Ephesians 4:11 of most English versions. In fact several descriptive words are used in that passage, including apostle, prophet, evangelist, pastor, and teacher.

Most of us make the mistake from time to time of using one or more of these words as titles, honorifics, instead of descriptions. It is not Biblical, for example, to refer to the Apostle Paul or the Apostle Peter. Rather, it is Peter, an apostle or Paul, an apostle. The word is a descriptive term, not a title, and it means “one sent.” I can’t find any example in my Bible of the word being used as a title. On the other hand, while the words Lord and Christ are also descriptive words, I find numerous times when they are used as titles applied to Jesus, directly attached to his name. Jesus is Lord (Rom. 10:9) and he is the Lord Jesus (Rom. 14:14). He is the Christ (anointed one, Matt. 16:16) and he is Jesus Christ (Matt. 1:1) and Christ Jesus (Acts 24:24) and the Lord Jesus Christ (Acts 11:17).

Thus, while it is consistent with the example and teachings of the Bible to say Christ Jesus or Lord Jesus, it is not consistent to say Apostle Paul or Pastor Smith. But it is in the Biblical pattern of things to describe someone as an apostle, or a prophet, or an evangelist, or a pastor and teacher.

As briefly mentioned, the word apostle means someone who is sent, and it is particularly applied to that group of men, including Paul, who were sent out as witnesses of Jesus, by Jesus himself. It is not used as a title or honorific in the Bible, but as a descriptive word, and is used in reference to some other men, including Barnabus, who was sent out by the church (1 Cor. 9:5-6, Acts 11:22). The same usage is found with the word prophet (generally one who speaks the word of God). Using an NIV Bible I had to wonder whether in fact the word prophet was sometimes attached to a name as a title, since the NIV has examples of such usage as the prophet Jeremiah or the prophet Elijah, but the literal reading in each case is in fact Jeremiah the prophet, Elijah the prophet, and so forth in both Old and New Testaments, not titles but descriptions. Just as apostle and prophet are not used as titles, neither is evangelist (one who brings good news, a preacher or proclaimer) nor pastor (a shepherd).

While the word pastor(s) as a noun only occurs once in most English Bibles (Eph. 4:11) the Greek word actually occurs 18 times. Every other time it is rendered shepherd(s) as in John 10:2. There is also a verb form of this word which is rendered shepherd, or tend, or take care of, or feed in John 21:16, Acts 20:28, 1 Cor. 9:7, and 1 Pet. 5:2, in reference to caring for the Lord’s flock, his church. These verses are in reference to 1) the work of Peter, an apostle of Jesus Christ, 2) the elders or bishops of a congregation, 3) Paul and other apostles and church leaders (including the Lord’s brothers and Barnabus), and 4) again the elders or bishops of congregations. So again, pastor is not used as a title, and in Eph. 4:11 is a descriptive term (along with teacher) referring to elders. But the word pastor or shepherd is an appropriate Biblical description of work done by those sent out to preach the word of God and those who lead within congregations (as Peter and Paul, sent by Jesus; and Barnabus, sent by a church; and James the Lord’s brother, an elder of a congregation; and Jude the Lord’s brother, a prophet and teacher sent out by a church; and all the elders of the Lord’s churches).

The Lord Jesus is concerned about the spirit with which we view him, the Father, ourselves, and each other. In that concern he admonishes us not to take or use titles or honorifics, but to do our work (serve) and view each other as brothers. This is the core relationship of the Christian church, brothers in the same family, of equal value to our Father and our Savior.

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