By Mike Willis
When some people learn that I preach, they refer to me as “Reverend” or “Rev.” I understand that they are trying to show respect and courtesy toward me. Such religious titles are commonly worn by the “clergy” of the denominations and, judging the churches of Christ to be just another denomination, they refer to gospel preachers just like they refer to the denominational clergy. Nevertheless, I refuse to accept the religious titles commonly worn by denominational clergymen.
Here are the reasons why I reject the wearing of religious titles:
1. There is no New Testament authority for the practice.
Though there were many gospel preachers in the first century, not one of them accepted and wore a religious title. I cannot read where Paul was ever called “Reverend Paul,” Peter was ever called “Archbishop Peter,” James was ever called “Pope James,” Timothy was ever called “Pastor Timothy,” or John was ever referred to as “The Right Reverend, Dr. John.” The wearing of religious titles is a practice that arose centuries later. They were never worn with the approval of God by those in the Lord’s church. Consequently, I refuse to go beyond the things which God has revealed that we should do in our worship of Him (2 Jn. 9-11; 1 Cor. 4:6; 1 Pet. 4:11; Rev. 22:18-19).
2. Wearing religious titles is expressly condemned.
The Lord Jesus forbade the practice when He said,
But be not ye called Rabbi; for one is your Master, even Christ; and all ye are brethren. And call no man your father upon the earth: for one is your Father, which is in heaven. Neither be ye called masters: for one is your Master, even Christ (Matt. 23:8-10).
The wearing of religious titles to elevate one brother above another was soundly condemned by Jesus. The practice is contrary to the spirit of Christianity that “all ye are brethren.”
Long ago Job said, “Let me not, I pray you, accept any man’s person, neither let me give flattering titles unto man. For I know not to give flattering titles; in so doing my maker would soon take me away” (Job 32:21-22).
3. Wearing religious titles exalts man too highly.
Paul warned us “not to think of men above that which is written, that no one of you be puffed up for one against another” (1 Cor. 4:6). Man should not be an object of worship. Peter would not allow Cornelius to bow to him (Acts 10:26); an angel would not allow John to worship him (Rev. 22:9). Man steps outside his proper bounds of his habitation when he allows himself to be worshiped.
When man exalts himself through flattering titles such as “reverend,” “right reverend,” “worshipful master … .. most worshipful,” etc., he encourages others to offer praise to him, rather than giving praise to God. In this practice, man sins.
4. Wearing religious titles exalts one brother above another.
Jesus condemned the scribes and Pharisees saying that they “love the uppermost rooms at feasts, and the chief seats in the synagogues, and greetings in the markets, and to be called of men, Rabbi. But be not ye called Rabbi: for one is your Master, even Christ; and all ye are brethren” (Matt. 23:6-8). By “all ye are brethren,” Jesus forbade exalting one brother above another (also see Gal. 3:27-28; Jas. 2:14).
5. Wearing religious titles contributes to a clergy-laity distinction.
The first century church did not have a clergy separate from the members. In Cyclopedia of Biblical, Theological, and Ecclesiastical Literature, McClintock and Strong wrote,
In the apostolical Church no abstract distinction of clergy and laity, as to privilege or sanctity, was known; all believers were called to the prophetic, priestly, and kingly offices in Christ (1 Pet. v. 3). The Jewish antithesis of clergy and laity was at first unknown among Christians; and it was ‘only as men fell back from the evangelical to the Jewish point of view’ that the idea of the general Christian priesthood of all believers gave place, more or less completely, to that of the special priesthood or clergy (McClintock and Strong, Cyclopedia of Biblical, Theological and Ecclesiastical Literature, Vol. II, p. 386).
In the years since the New Testament was written, a clergy has developed. The clergy is composed of those ordained for performance of Christian worship and teaching. The ordained clergy has these jobs to perform; (1) interpret the Bible for the people, (2) administer the sacraments (usually defined as the Lord’s supper, baptism, marriage, etc.), and (3) administer excommunication.
Only those who meet certain qualifications can become part of the clergy. In the Presbyterian denomination, a man must have a diploma from college, a diploma from an approved seminary, and be willing to submit to the teachings of their accepted creeds in order to become a member of their clergy. The Wesleyan Methodists encourage their men to attend a 4-year ministerial school operated by their denomination, hold membership in the Wesleyan Church and pass an examination from their denominational hierarchy. Neither Jesus nor one of His apostles could have been part of the clergy of the modern denominations of men.
The establishment of a clergy undermines the New Testament concept that all believers are priests (1 Pet. 2:5, 9), having the right to approach God directly in worship without the intervention of a human intermediary. Jesus is the only High Priest we need through whom to approach God (Heb. 2:17-3:1). Every man can read and understand the Bible; he has no need for an official interpretation by a church official.
The only biblical passages which could be used to authorize a separate priesthood must be found in the Old Testament. To appeal to those passages for authority for a separate priesthood is to revert to Judaism with its animal sacrifices, rather than accepting the all-sufficiency of the blood of Christ as revealed in the New Testament.
Noted Religious Titles Worn Today
Here are some of the religious titles which men wear today. All of them are unauthorized by the New Testament.
Reverend Right Reverend
Masonry has always shown a propensity for flattering titles. The master of a symbolic lodge is addressed as “Worshipful Master.” The prevailing title of a Grand Master is “Most Worshipful.” A thirty-second degree Mason is “Sublime Prince of the Royal Secret.”
The New Testament teaching on wearing religious titles condemns the practices of most denominations and the Masons.
New Testament Terms Show What A Man Does
A man is a “doctor” because he doctors the sick; a man is a plumber because he plumbs; a man is a builder because he builds. These terms explain what a man does and are not titles. In the same way, the New Testament uses terms to describe what men do. A preacher (1 Tim. 2:7; 2 Tim. 1:11) preaches (2 Tim. 4:2). An evangelist (Eph. 4:11; 2 Tim. 4:5) evangelizes. (There is no difference in a preacher and an evangelist in the New Testament.) Overseers (Acts 20:28, sometimes translated “bishops”) oversee a local congregation. “Pastors” (Eph. 4:11) tend or shepherd a flock (Acts 20:28; 1 Pet. 5:1-3). These are not religious titles to exalt one brother over another; they are descriptive terms which tell what a man does.
A preacher does not oversee the affairs of a local church and is never called “The Pastor” in the New Testament. Bishops, overseers, pastors and elders are different terms for the same work – the work of guiding and directing the affairs of a local church. This office or work is limited to the local church and is not to be confused with the evangelistic labors of a preacher. A preacher has no right or authority from God to pastor or oversee a church; therefore he is not properly called “The Pastor.” God ordained that each local church has a plurality of elders, bishops, or pastors – men chosen within the local membership – to oversee the local congregation. Preachers are not to usurp that office for themselves. Like all other members in a local church, the preacher serves under bishops, elders, or pastors. If we properly understand the work of a preacher and the work of a pastor, we will not confuse the two terms.
A generation which does not learn the thoughts and language of New Testament Christianity will soon embibe the thoughts and language of modern denominationalism. Like the Israelites in Nehemiah’s day who began speaking the speech of Ashdod (Neh. 13:24), untaught Christians will begin speaking the language of denominationalism.
This has already happened in the Christian Churches. Isaac Errett, former editor of Christian Standard, received a silver doorplate which read, “Rev. l. Errett.” Errett displayed the door-plate and J.S. Lamar, his biographer, justified it saying that “the Savior’s words do not prohibit the use of any designation which simply makes known the fact that the man to whom it is applied is a preacher. It is distinctions among preachers – the acceptance of highsounding titles which elevate the parties above their brother ministers – that the divine word seems to forbid” (Memoirs of Isaac Errett, Vol. 1, pp. 277-278). Wearing religious titles is accepted practice among the Disciples of Christ denomination.
We will do well to be reminded of the danger of wearing religious titles, even in incipient form, among us. Sometimes men who have academic degrees are advertised as gospel preachers with these titles: “Dr. . .” The term “brother,” which is used in the Bible to refer to a relationship sustained by all Christians, is sometimes reserved only for the preacher. Others are introduced by their names but the preacher is introduced as “Brother .” We must never forget that “all ye are brethren” (Matt. 23:8).
The wearing of religious titles is a practice condemned of God. Let us avoid every form of evil (1 Thess. 5:21). Let us resolve to call no man father who is not our fleshly parent, who is neither married nor has children, and who does not teach the gospel which enables children to be begotten of God (1 Cor. 4:15); to call no man reverend who does not revere what God spoke about wearing religious titles (Matt. 23:9); to call no man pastor who does not meet the qualifications of 1 Timothy 3 and Titus 1 but usurps to himself the rule over a local congregation; to call no man bishop who oversees a collectivity of churches unknown to God’s word; to call no man cardinal who exalts himself as if he held a chief office in the church; and to call no man pope for God alone is our Father.
Let God alone be exalted among those who profess to serve Him.
Guardian of Truth XXXI: 10, pp. 290, 310-311
May 21, 1987