It’s common for most churches to be led by an individual who is recognized as the senior pastor of that church, and that person is usually addressed as Pastor so-and-so, or sometimes just Pastor. This long-established practice is considered a way of showing love and respect. While love and respect are very biblical, addressing a select few within the church by official titles actually goes against the teaching of Jesus. Challenging a practice that is born out of good intentions may seem like nitpicking, but Jesus specifically addressed this issue for good reasons and we should give careful thought to what he said rather than shrugging this off as something trivial.
“But you are not to be called ‘Rabbi,’ for you have only one Master and you are all brothers. 9 And do not call anyone on earth ‘father,’ for you have one Father, and he is in heaven. 10 Nor are you to be called ‘teacher,’ for you have one Teacher, the Christ. (Matt 23:8-10 NIV)
I think it would be consistent with the intent of this passage to also add “Do not be called pastor”. Although addressing someone by a title may seem harmless in itself, when Jesus gives specific instruction through the scriptures, we should think twice before casually dismissing what he said or deciding that somehow it doesn’t actually apply to us. Jesus’ main concern is not believers addressing church leaders by titles, but rather he is concerned with the kind of culture in which this practice takes place. While it’s appropriate to show gratitude and appreciation to anyone who ministers and serves, Jesus was concerned that addressing a select few with titles that carry special honor fosters an unhealthy atmosphere.
In the passage above, Jesus emphasized that we are all brothers, and he wants to protect this relationship of equality. Believers addressing a select few by special titles creates a sense of hierarchical rule, which Jesus condemned (Mark 10:35-44). It promotes a separation between clergy and laity and undermines the fundamental truth that we are all brothers.
In decades of church life I’ve observed pastors in social settings where everything is casual, fun, and friendly. However, I’ve also observed people being fearful to speak straight forward with these same pastors, to candidly ask questions and express concerns. This timidity is not grounded in a healthy fear of God but rather an unhealthy fear of man. It certainly isn’t consistent with the Biblical truth that we are all brothers. I’ve known pastors who genuinely loved God and His people, yet they operated in a manner that promoted hierarchical rule and created an intimidation factor between clergy and laity.
Jesus’ second concern is the most crucial. He wanted to make sure that believers do not look to men to fill a position in their lives that is reserved for the Lord Himself. He said the reason you are not to be called Rabbi, is because we have only one Master. The reason you are not to call anyone on earth ‘father,’ is that we have one Father, and he is in heaven. The reason we are not to be called ‘teacher,’ is that we have one Teacher, the Christ. And staying consistent with this line of reasoning, let me add, don’t call anyone pastor, because you have one Shepherd, Jesus, the shepherd of your soul.
While Jesus had much to say about leaders taking a low position and functioning from a position of true humility, this isn’t his main concern in the above passage. The greater concern is that believers will begin to substitute men for God; to see men fulfilling roles in their lives that only God Himself can fulfill. The ultimate purpose of church leaders is to further every believers personal connection to Jesus the head. But if we don’t take Jesus’ warning to heart we can find ourselves in a culture where believers esteem and relate to church leaders in such a way that actually diminishes personal connection, dependence, and accountability to the Lord.
Adopting a hierarchical style of government and an unhealthy dependence on men is a two-way street. In the passage above, Jesus states “you are not to be called”, but he also says “do not call anyone”. So he warns people on both sides of leadership to be careful about embracing a form of government that elevates men into rolls reserved for God alone.
…the priests rule by their own authority, and my people love it this way. (Jer 5:31 NIV)
Being personally accountable to God is a serious matter. Seeking to know God, to know his will and his ways, requires a commitment of time, focus, and effort. We must have a sincere desire to personally encounter God, spending time in His word, waiting on Him through times of prayer, and then responding with faith and obedience as He leads. Hebrew 11:16 says “He is a rewarder of those who diligently seek Him”. It can be tempting to relinquish this intense responsibility to others, relying on them to build you up, guide you, and oversight how you are engaged in serving God. But in reality, it rests on every believer to approach each day of their life with a strong sense of being directly connected and accountable to the Lord; having an ear that is attuned to His voice, and a heart that is ready to follow His leading. You must be able to strengthen yourself in the Lord, and also capable of being a conduit of His spiritual gifting that enables you to strengthen others. 2 Timothy 2:21 encourages all of us to be “useful to the Master and prepared to do any good work”.
One of the greatest challenges of the Christian walk is to properly balance different truths that are presented in the Bible. The Bible places a high level of importance on one-another ministry. “Love one another”, “honor one another”, “instruct one another”, and “submit to one another” are just a few of the many one-another commands we are given in the New Testament. The Bible makes it clear that life in Jesus involves a tremendous amount of interaction with other believers. The greatest way that the body of Christ is ministered to, is by the body of Christ. So on one hand we are responsible to maintain a vibrant, personal relationship with the Lord, while on the other hand we all depend on interaction with one another to fully experience the life that Jesus desires for us. But as we attempt to balance these two truths, we should bear in mind that one-another ministry is lateral ministry, not top-down ministry. God wants a mutually-dependent, all-participating ministry to flourish in his church. Not a top-down ministry that promotes dependence on a select few leaders. If church leaders are fulfilling what Jesus called them to do, it should result in an explosion of one-another ministry, not in a dependence on them.
And he gave the apostles, the prophets, the evangelists, the shepherds and teachers, 12 to equip the saints for the work of ministry, for building up the body of Christ. (Eph 4:11-12 ESV)