A gracEmail reader writes, “I am trying to learn to be more tolerant of other Christians. One area that gives me difficulty is the use by many groups of the terms ‘Reverend’ or ‘Father’ for the clergy. Is this not in conflict with Jesus’ teachings?”
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You refer, of course, to Matthew 23:8-10, where Jesus instructs his followers not to be called “Rabbi” (teacher or master), “father” or “leader” — terms which in the ultimate sense belong only to Jesus himself or to the Father in heaven. This instruction comes in a larger context rebuking the pride and self-glorification of the Scribes and Pharisees. When motivated by pride, “Brother,” “Doctor” or “Minister” (literally “servant”) are no different from “Father” or “Reverend.” Jesus is not listing acceptable and unacceptable titles — he is speaking about the basic attitude his followers should exemplify.
The term “father” has appropriate usages, to indicate respect for a senior (Acts 7:2; 22:1; 1 John 2:13-14), or to express relationship with one who brings another to Christ (1 Cor. 4:15). Believers are “brothers” and “sisters” (1 Cor. 7:15). Because of her Christian service, a woman may be a “mother” without regard to blood relationship (Rom. 16:13). Christ’s mother Mary became “mother” to the Apostle John — and, in some special sense, perhaps also to all others who follow her Son (John 19:26-27). The title “Reverend” means worthy of honor or respect. As an adjective, this word appears only once in the Bible, where it refers to God (Psalm 111:9 KJV). In many circles today, the title signifies that one has earned the degree of Master of Divinity (M.Div.). In other circles, it is considered to be a title denoting profession or occupation.
The whole notion of God’s people paying a specially-trained, licensed or authorized “clergy” to do God’s work in their stead lacks any biblical support. All Christians are “priests” and every believer is a “minister” (1 Peter 2:5; Eph. 4:12). That does not mean, however, that God does not assign particular functions to various individuals. Not every believer has the same gift or calling or ministry (Rom. 12:6-8; Eph. 4:11-12). Christian ordination is thoroughly scriptural — an act of human acknowledgement and divine empowerment (Acts 14:23; 1 Tim. 4:14). Those who give their lives to gospel work are properly supported by those who do not (1 Cor. 9:14; 1 Tim. 5:18). All who serve Christ are called to do so by God’s power, for God’s purposes, and to God’s glory (1 Peter 4:10-11; Matt. 6:13b). That, finally, is the point of Jesus’ statement. It is a point we dare not mistake or avoid.