8 “Don’t let anyone call you ‘Rabbi,’ for you have only one teacher, and all of you are equal as brothers and sisters. 9 And don’t address anyone here on earth as ‘Father,’ for only God in heaven is your spiritual Father. 10 And don’t let anyone call you ‘Teacher,’ for you have only one teacher, the Messiah. 11 The greatest among you must be a servant. 12 But those who exalt themselves will be humbled, and those who humble themselves will be exalted. (Matthew 23:8-12 NLT)
What’s so wrong about calling somebody Teacher? Jesus chastised the Jewish religious elite simply because they enjoyed being greeted as “Rabbi” in the marketplace. Doesn’t seem like such a big deal, but It had become a source of personal pride and satisfaction by setting them apart from other, common Jews. Jesus says that it is not to be this way in the Church.
But what if we greet someone as Pastor? Depending on your church affiliation, you may commonly hear church leaders addressed as “Pastor Bob” or “Prophetess Kim” or even “Apostle Eric.” These titles serve to identify the functions such people hold within the church body, as listed by Paul (the apostle) –
27 All of you together are Christ’s body, and each of you is a part of it. 28 Here are some of the parts God has appointed for the church: first are apostles, second are prophets, third are teachers, then those who do miracles, those who have the gift of healing, those who can help others, those who have the gift of leadership, those who speak in unknown languages. (1 Corinthians 12:27-28 NLT)
If we were consistent, we’d also refer to others as “Miracle-worker Judy” or “Healer Jim” or “Tongues-speaker Kyle.” But we don’t, and we shouldn’t. The problem with using these titles when we greet church leaders is that both we, and they, are in danger of elevating them in rank above the rest of the Church, above the “common Christians.”
It may not be our intention, but every time we greet a church leader using a title we are tempting them to take the same personal pride in their station as the Pharisees had, and we are tempting ourselves to view them as more important (or higher ranking) than other church members.
Jesus says we are all equal as brothers and sisters. The pastor is “Brother Bob” and the janitor is “Brother Alan” and the deacon is “Sister Kate.” You see, there is equality, with no ranking of one above another. The gifts we have, whether Apostle or Pastor or whatever, are given by God’s grace and not based on our own merit, so there is no cause for anyone to be elevated in the eyes of others, or in their own eyes.
If you need an example of what happens when a church begins ranking its members, look no further than the Roman Catholic Church, where the Bishop outranks the Priest, the Arch-Bishop outranks the Bishop, the Cardinal outranks all Bishops, and the Pope outranks everyone, to the extent that all others are expected to “kiss his ring” as a token of obeisance when greeting him.
That is exactly the outcome Jesus warned against. He said that the leaders of the Gentiles (pagans) outrank their subjects and exercise authority to boss them around. Not so with us! The greatest leader must be the humblest servant. Jesus demonstrated this by washing the feet of the apostles – a stinky job normally reserved for the lowest ranking servant in the house. He then admonished us to do the same for one another.
Do you think the Pope cleans his own toilet? The Cardinal? The Bishop? Most certainly not! Lower ranking people are hired for that purpose because it is beneath the dignity of these church leaders. But it wasn’t beneath the dignity of Jesus.
Sure, it’s OK to have a maintenance crew, but it’s also good for the pastor, the elders, the deacons, and the teachers to pitch in and clean toilets, scrub floors, or mow the grass from time to time, so that all can see that they are not above serving at the lowest levels. This should also motivate other church members to pitch in and help, following the example of their leaders.
Jesus demands incredible humility from those who would bear His name, and He gave us an important command to guard against the dangers of pride and rank in the Church:
“Don’t let anyone call you ‘Rabbi,’ for you have only one teacher, and all of you are equal as brothers and sisters.”