A Chapter from a New Book


Cecil Hook

f you are sick and tired of having people challenge your accepted beliefs and practices, skip this chapter. Otherwise, you may become upset again, bringing a sudden rise in your blood pressure. That might cause a stroke to wipe you out, and I would feel bad knowing that you went to meet the Lord in a rage.

To tell the truth, I feel an uneasiness about what I am about to present because I have been conditioned like others in the Church of Christ against giving special recognition and distinctive titles to fellow-disciples. I have looked upon religious titles as a sort of tag that the devil puts on the goats in order to identify them more readily at the judgment.

In considering the use of titles, we immediately turn to the words of Jesus recorded in Matthew 23. There Jesus addressed those who sat in Moses' seat as legal and cultural authorities whose conduct did not conform to their teaching. "They do all their deeds to be seen by men; for they make their phylacteries broad and their fringes long, and they love the places of honor at feasts and the best seats in the synagogues, and salutations in the market places, and being called rabbi by men."

From Jesus' introduction of the subject, we must recognize that his teaching here is corrective of an evil use made of a proper thing instead of its being a condemnation of the thing itself. There are other examples of such correction. Jesus forbade the use of vain oaths without forbidding all oaths when he warned, "Do not swear at all" (Matt. 5:34). Paul dealt with the abuse that wives were making of their liberties in the assemblies without ruling out their praying or prophesying altogether (1 Cor. 11 and 14). To avoid the abuse of making the fellowship meal (in connection with the communion) a reinforcement of party loyalties, Paul instructed, "if any one is hungry, let him eat at home," but that was not a universal prohibition against eating together in wholesome fellowship.

With these thoughts in mind, let us look for the balance in Jesus' teachings and other scriptural references concerning titles, recognition, distinctions, and capacities.

1. "They bind heavy burdens." Jesus had no complaint against anyone teaching the law, but he was striking out against any human being claiming authority to bind interpretations of the law. Surely, those men were not setting aside all of the law, but they were imposing what they thought the law meant. Also, they made some laws of no effect by their traditions. When preachers or elders bind any of their rules on the congregation, they are doing what Jesus was denouncing here.

2. "They do all their deeds to be seen of men." Jesus had previously taught: "Let your light so shine before men, that they may see your good works and give glory to your Father who is in heaven" (Matt. 5:16). Many other passages also urge us to be exemplary in conduct and good deeds before others. Paul "boasted" to the Corinthians about what he had done. The purpose for such visible good works is to show Christ living in us; when they are done to satisfy vanity, then we are condemned by our pride. That is what Jesus was crying out against.

3. "They make their phylacteries broad and their fringes long." Phylacteries were vellum or parchment containers of certain scriptures which they wore on the forehead in compliance with their interpretation of Exodus 13:16 and Deuteronomy 6:8 and 11:18. Tassels, fringes, or borders were worn in response to Numbers 15:38f and Deuteronomy 22:12. These were special reminders. The Pharisees whom Jesus addressed were trying to call attention to their piety by exaggerating those symbols. The wearing of the symbols was not being rejected but the wearing of them for show was. It is like a person today who wears expensive "religious" jewelry for display.

4. "They love the place of honor at feasts and the best seats in the synagogues." Is it sinful to receive honor by sitting at the speaker's table at the church dinner or to sit on the rostrum during the assembly? We are taught to give honor to whom honor is due. That includes honoring our fathers and mothers, honoring certain widows, and certain elders who are to be considered worthy of double honor. Some in the church were "reputed to be pillars," which suggests their recognized status among the disciples.

Jesus was not forbidding the giving of praise but the seeking of acclaim. He devoted an entire parable to teach this in Luke 14:7-11. In it he says that if we take the lowest place of seating as a guest, the host then may honor us by inviting us to the higher place. He concludes it with a declaration: "For every one who exalts himself will be humbled, and who humbles himself will be exalted." Pride was causing those religious leaders to seek honors and to be visible, and that is not an unknown tendency today.

5. "They love ... salutations in the market place." This condemns the same desire for recognition as is mentioned above. Salutations were sent by the writers of certain epistles, and disciples are urged to salute each other with a holy kiss. These are commendable, but they are greetings of love that we give rather than sought-after public recognition that feeds pride.

6. "They love ... being called rabbi by men." This is an extension of the last two headings, but it introduces another forbidden element: "You are not to be called rabbi!" We don't have much trouble with that because only the Jews call one another rabbi. But why is that a forbidden word?

Rabbi, doctor, and master (in Matt. 23:9) simply mean teacher. What is so bad about designating someone as a teacher? We do that all the time.

None among the Jews were addressed as rabbi until near the time of Jesus' ministry. There were many disputed subjects debated by the schools of Hillel and Shammai, noted teachers of their time. Some began to acknowledge their partisan leader, whether Hillel or Shammai, as rabbi the teacher, or infallible teacher! Jesus assured the disciples that they had one master (teacher) and that they were all brothers equals in regard to any special prerogative as a teacher.

Jesus is not forbidding one from being a teacher or being referred to as one. Other scriptural references encourage us to be teachers. The apostles became authoritative teachers by Jesus' appointment. We designate our advanced academic degrees as a master's degree or a doctor's degree. Both master and doctor mean teacher, as does rabbi. It is not being a teacher, the form of address, or the receiving of a degree that is frowned upon, but it is the bold claim to be the authoritative teacher, or the granting of that status to another. Such is an affront to God. Anyone, whether pope, priest, preacher, elder, or whoever, who seeks to bind his interpretations or pronouncements as though they were oracles of God is in violation of Jesus' restriction. We have no religious rulers empowered to legislate, change, loose, demand, or require anything of any individual or group not even to use a certain version of the scriptures or to wear a tie while serving the Lord's Supper!

7. "Call no man your father on earth." While living teachers were called rabbi, those noted teachers who lived before were called fathers. We are not to understand that Jesus denied us the use of that designation, for Paul claimed a father-son relationship with Timothy spiritually, but we must not use that form of address to denote any kind of spiritual authority. In spite of this warning, throughout history, men have accepted that title, claiming to be vicars of Christ or "other Christs" speaking as the living voice of God on earth.

It is not uncommon to hear a speaker say that God revealed a message for him to deliver. By such a claim, he is calling upon you to accept his message as an infallible oracle of God.

In our time, any treatise or book thought to be worthy of our attention must be replete with quotes and footnotes with an impressive bibliography supplied. While we agree that this can enrich the study, we must be cautious that our quoted authors do not gain our undue respect as authoritative experts on the subject. They are not our fathers, sophisticated as the dropping of their names may seem to be.

"Neither be called masters, for you have one master, the Christ." This word translated masters means leaders. Surely, we are to be leaders in that which is good, and Jesus is not ruling against that. But we must look to no church official, preacher, editor, or author as our empowered Leader. Our divisions in the body of Christ have resulted from following partisan leaders.

In all of the above, we see Jesus condemning those who "sit on Moses' seat." Moses was God's spokesman/teacher. The teacher sat when he taught. Men were presuming to sit in Moses' seat as empowered expounders while they bound the Jewish traditions and their own interpretations. Such were to be unseated. None was to make such a claim and none should give them such recognition. So, it is not titles as such that Jesus was decrying, but it is the investing of men in positions of power even the elder"ship"!

After these candid observations, we must admit that our old proof-text of Matthew 23 fails to support our aversion to the use of titles altogether. Are there any other grounds on which a prohibition of all titles is founded? We will look at two other related considerations: "God shows no partiality" (Rom: 2:11 ), and "But if you show partiality, you commit sin" (Jas. 2:9). God shows no partiality/respect of persons, and we are forbidden to do so. Preferment of any person destroys the equality that brothers enjoy, does it not? It is not that simple! Or is it?

Respect of Persons

Even though God is no respecter of persons, he chose Abraham to head a nation. Concerning Jacob's selection over Esau, "Though they were not yet born and had done nothing either good or bad, in order that God's purpose of election might continue, not because of works but because of his call," Rebecca was told, "The elder shall serve the younger" (Rom. 9:11f). God elevated the tribe of Levi to the priesthood. He raised up patriarchs, judges, kings, prophets, and nations. Was that not showing partiality?

God set various men in different capacities: "And God has appointed in the church first apostles, second prophets, third teachers, then workers of miracles, then healers, helpers, administrators, speakers in various kinds of tongues. Are all apostles? Are all prophets? Are all teachers? Do all work miracles? Do all possess gifts of healing? Do all speak with tongues? Do all interpret? (1 Cor. 12:27-30); compare Eph. 4:11 f). Without question, all were not called to equal capacities or empowered impartially.

The impartiality of God must have to do with more specific things. Although he made distinction between Jew and Gentile, he saves them without that regard. Although there are many differences in God's gifts and endowments to us individually, he saves us without regard to that.

When we recognize the different capacities and endowments in various individuals and we give honor to those to whom God gives it, are we not showing partiality? When we defer to those to whom we are taught to submit, are we committing sin? Paul referred to "James, Cephas and John, who were reputed to be pillars" (Gal. 2:9). Was that wrong?

Writers of the New Testament scriptures showed some respect of persons. Names were listed according to the prominence of the persons mentioned, hence, it was "Peter, James and John," or "Jesus, Peter, James and John." They listed the Father, Son, and Holy Spirit in that order. Early in their tour, Luke writes of Barnabas and Saul, but after Paul became more prominent, it was Paul and Barnabas. When Silas was with Paul, he was mentioned after Paul, but then it became Silas and Timothy when that pair was together. Earlier we read of Aquila and Priscilla, but when Priscilla became the more prominent, the names were reversed. Jews were mentioned before Greeks or Gentiles.

This leads me to conclude that we should be eager to give special notice to honorable persons. The person who seeks distinction does not qualify for it. Authoritative titles would be out of the question for us, because none can claim an endowment of power. Deferential treatment which recognizes true character and service is not akin to partiality shown to persons of position or wealth.

Titles and Appositions

A title is an appellation of dignity, honor, distinction, or preeminence attached to a person by virtue of rank, office, or attainment. An apposition is a grammatical construction in which two typically adjacent nouns referring to the same person or thing stand in the same syntactical relation to the rest of a sentence. For example, Timothy the evangelist is equal to the evangelist Timothy. Biblical writers preferred giving the name of the person followed by an apposition; hence, it was Herod the king instead of the apposition King Herod. It was Philip the evangelist rather than the Evangelist Philip. But what is the real difference in the usages?

Jesus was the savior's name; Christ was his title. He is generally referred to in scripture as Jesus Christ but rarely Christ Jesus. It seems only to be a custom of Hebrew expression that they did not use the title as an appositive, making it Christ Jesus instead of Jesus Christ. But there is little difference to be argued about the two expressions.

With this being true, there is nothing wrong about using such appositions as the apostle, the elder, the bishop, etc. as appositives, making them Apostle Paul Bishop Brown, Elder White, Pastor Black, Evangelist Green, and Teacher Bland. And don't forget Deacon Jones! Even though I contend that these forms of identification are in harmony with Jesus' teaching, I am not proposing that we make them customary among us. None of these functional appellations display the ignorance or arrogance of our customary designation of a man as the minister of a congregation.

Recognizing the capacity in which the Lord has assigned a person to serve, we may and should give him honor, but not authority. It is no more partial or elevating to address a man by the title appropriate for his work than to list his name on the letterhead, bulletin,, or directory as an elder, deacon, or other capacity. An appellation recognizing the function or capacity is no more distinguishing than the actual performing of the function or the filling of the capacity.

We are called upon to give due honor, but we cannot put a man in Moses' or Christ's seat of authority: furthermore, we must not look upon any person as having that capacity whether we give him a title or not. Titles must not be distinguishing; they only identify the person who has already distinguished himself in the capacity and function that the Spirit has assigned him.

It is impossible for us to give equal recognition and praise to all. To give everyone the same applause is hardly to praise at all. To avoid all distinctions, we would have to remain silent and wear identical uniforms. But some people who would not think of wearing an elevating title wear finery and display an affluent lifestyle by which they impress everyone with their distinctive status.

In Paul's epistles, he mentions many persons without feeling the need to give all disciples equal attention. He praises some without pretending to give equal praise to all. Did he not know that he was catering to pride in the persons whom he saluted and creating jealousy in those left out?

"Greet those workers in the Lord, Tryphaena and Tryphosa. Greet the beloved Persis, who has worked hard in the Lord. Greet Rufus, eminent in the Lord, also his mother and mine" (Rom. 16:12f). Think how Sister Persis must have gloated over being called beloved and a hard worker, and think how offended the twin sisters, Tryphaena and Tryphosa, must have been since they were only said to have worked! And just trying to be nice, Paul, poor fellow, put his foot in his mouth again when he described Rufus as eminent in the Lord, giving him prominence over the rest! How foolish we have been! Our fears and stinginess have made us tongue-tied when it comes to praise but verbose in cautioning and finding fault. We should not have to abandon common sense in order to follow the Lord.

The original purpose of robes worn by the religious was to hide the individuality of the person in humble self-effacement. They were to hide the servant in order that the Christ would be exalted. Unfortunately, the robes came to have distinctive decorations to show the rank of the wearer. And that pride is a pitfall which can turn many capacity or function into a means of self-fulfillment.

Outside Our Fellowship

In our general speech it is common for us to speak of Pope John Paul, Archbishop Flores, Father Patrick, Rabbi Kushner, Ayatollah Khomeini, or other titled persons of various religions. Are these usages contrary to Jesus' teaching? I think not. We can use such titles of address detached from any spiritual connotation for ourselves. Jesus said, "Call no man your father." I can use the commonly accepted appellation of courtesy without claiming him as my father just as I can speak of Sunday and Monday without indicating that I claim the sun-god or moon-god as my gods. Commonly used names and titles can lose their original meaning in our personal use. So, I do not associate San Antonio with Saint Anthony; Corpus Christi does not mean the body of Christ to me; my speaking of Christmas does not mean that I approve of a mass for the infant Jesus; and when I speak of the Alamo, I am not thinking of cottonwood trees. I can speak of the Church of God without approving that group as the Lord's church.

I can speak of those titled men without recognizing any authority that they may claim in my spiritual life. Surely, every newscaster, writer, or public speaker does not indicate his acceptance of all such titled persons when he reads, prints, or speaks their names publicly in such a gesture of courtesy.

In our society people think to be extending a courtesy in calling a preacher reverend, yet this has been reacted to very rudely many times by preachers who are more concerned about explaining and binding a scruple than about embarrassing or insulting another person because of his sincere intentions.

"Holy and reverend is his name" (Psa. 111:9) we have been quick to explain, stating that in this only use of reverend in the Bible it refers to God's name, and that man dare not wear that name. Such an explanation is a display of ignorance. Reverence is honor or respect felt or shown; reverend is an adjective meaning worthy of reverence. Is no person worthy of honor or respect? If not, we are to be pitied.

To be consistent in argument, we would have to say that it would be sinful to refer to a person as being holy also which we are called upon to be.

The term is misused generally, for it is not meant as a title. Correctly used, it should be The Reverend Mr. John Jones, or some other such use as an adjective. There is no reason why reverend cannot be used in this manner that is, if Mr. Jones is worthy of honor and respect.

In our properly founded aversion to the title of reverend, we have called our preacher Brother John Jones. Even though brother indicates equality, it is used as a title for the preacher to distinguish him. All brothers are equal; some are just more equal than others! So it becomes a quibble over which word we use as a title.

Much to my approval, this generation has gotten away from feeling that we must address all disciples as brother or sister. Now, many of the younger people, especially, address the preacher as Mr. John Jones. But mister means master, and Jesus said for us not to call anyone master. I know that I am begging the issue here. This is not wrong unless we mean by its use to elevate or distinguish the preacher into a place of authority. I need not deal with titles for the minister for there is no such capacity or function in the Lord's congregations.

Secular Titles

There are many secular titles such as President, Senator, Judge, Colonel, Doctor, and Professor. Even though both doctor and professor mean teacher, master, or rabbi, they are not in the scope or Jesus' condemnation for they relate to the secular world rather than the spiritual family of God. In the secular society men may rightly have and exercise authority. They are not trying to sit in Moses' or Christ's seat, yet in our congregation where they are members, they are usually denied any title because it would honor them! Why are we so stingy with honors?

It must be noted that, in spite of Jesus' rebuke of the tendency of the scribes and Pharisees to speak authoritatively, he did later invest some men with that prerogative. His apostles became plenipotentiaries of Christ, fully empowered to deliver the oracles of God. They were given prominence by being appointed "first apostles, second prophets, third teachers, etc." (1 Cor. 12:28). They were to be given special respect as his spokesmen, and we must still respect them as such. There are no successors to their capacity and function.

Then, too, we disciples may delegate leadership and responsibility to others of our number. Paul and Barnabas were sent by the disciples in Antioch to take their contribution to Judea (Acts 11:30). Then the disciples indicated their approval of them and commissioned them by laying their hands on them, thus sending them on a preaching tour. Elders and deacons are approved by those in a group to act on their behalf. Because an appointee is approved by the group and represents it in an ordained capacity, Paul cautioned Timothy, "Do not be hasty in laying on of hands" (1 Tim. 5:22). In this delegation of responsibility, however, disciples cannot empower others to legislate for them.

In concluding this treatise, let us review several observations.

1. Jesus' prohibition was not against certain titles which were taboo, but it was against the taking or giving of legislative power.

2. Catering to pride is forbidden.

3. While the outward display of piety is ruled out, we are called upon to do evident good works to glorify God.

4. God's impartiality is in accepting all people without favoritism even though he has given special calling and prominence to various people throughout history.

5. Our impartiality does not prevent our giving praise and honor to worthy persons, but it does rule out respect of persons based upon unworthy reasons such as wealth, race, or culture.

6. A person may properly be given recognition for his praiseworthy capacity and function either by our identifying his capacity and function in an appositive title before his name or an apposition after his name.

7. We do well to recognize the good and positive and to give honor and acclaim for it rather than being reserved and critical.

Because of my long and rigid conditioning in the simplistic views and practices among my people, find it hard to believe that I have reached the conclusions set forth in this paper. And I will understand if you do not arrive at the same understanding. But we are still brothers sons of the same impartial Father. Captain Hook!