USING ACADEMIC TITLES AS RELIGIOUS TITLES

By

Shelby G. Floyd

In the latter part of the life of Christ, his disciples were concerned about the question, “Who is the greatest in the kingdom of heaven” (Matthew 18:1)? They had been discussing among themselves for some time which of them would be accounted greatest in the coming kingdom. Their conception of the kingdom was worldly in nature. Jesus had just announced to them his impending suffering and death in Jerusalem; but they could not hear and understand what he had to say because of their concern over who would be the greatest. Jesus answered them on this occasion by calling a little child unto him, and setting him in the midst of them, saying,

“Assuredly, I say to you, unless you are converted and become as little children, you will by no means enter the kingdom of heaven. Therefore whoever humbles himself as this little child is the greatest in the kingdom of heaven” (Matthew 18:3-4 NKJV).

Jesus answered the question, not by pointing out the person who would be the greatest in the kingdom of heaven, but the type of character which would be accounted greatness. Therefore, everyone may be great in the kingdom of heaven by bearing the character of a little child.

THE USE OF HONORARY TITLES TO EXALT ONE ABOVE ANOTHER

One of the ways in which men exalted and distinguished themselves from other people in the days of Christ was by the use of honorary titles. Since the apostles were concerned about which of them would be the greatest in the kingdom of heaven, Jesus warned them about wearing honorary titles to exalt and distinguish them above other men. The scribes and Pharisees did just about anything to gain the attention of the people; they were fond of the popular applause which was poured out upon them who wore honorary titles; they delighted to be seen of men, and therefore, they distinguished themselves by making broad their phylacteries and the borders of their garments. All of this tended to make them a special class among the Jews, and gave them special power over the people. This was clearly wrong, and Jesus condemned such in no uncertain terms. He said that they loved,

“…greetings in the marketplaces, and to be called by men, ‘Rabbi, Rabbi.’ But you, do not be called ‘Rabbi’; for One is your Teacher, the Christ, and you are all brethren. Do not call anyone on earth your father; for One is your Father, He who is in heaven. And do not be called teachers; for One is your Teacher, the Christ” (Matthew 23:7-10).

RABBI

Concerning the use of the word Rabbi as an honorary title, Albert Barnes said,

“This was a Jewish title inferred somewhat as literary degrees now are, and meaning literally a great one, and was applied to a teacher or master in the Jewish schools. It corresponded with the title Doctor. Our Savior solemnly forbade his disciples to wear that title” 1

Concerning the word Rabbi, Barnes further remarks,

“It was a title given to eminent teachers of the law among the Jews; a title of honor and dignity, denoting authority and ability to teach. They were gratified with such titles, and wished it given to themselves as denoting superiority. Every time it was given to them it implied their superiority to the persons who used it, and they were fond, therefore, of hearing it often applied to them. There were three titles in use among the Jews – Rab, Rabbi, and Rabban – denoting different degrees of learning and ability, as literary degrees do among us” 2

DOCTOR

It is becoming more and more common to see preachers in the church of Christ addressed as Dr. so and so. For instance, in a bulletin which crossed my desk, we read:

“Dr.________ _________ preached the word with clarity and force each service. It is easy to see that he is the most practiced evangelist in the church.”

This is clearly a violation of the teaching of Christ in Matthew 23:7-12. If it is permissible to address a preacher of the gospel as Dr. so and so because that person has a Dr.’s degree, then would it not also be permissible to address a man who has a Master’s degree as Master so and so? But why should we stop here? If a person who is a minister of the gospel has a Bachelor’s degree, why should he not be addressed Bachelor so and so? Why is it that we have reserved the use of honorary titles for those who have a Dr.’s degree only and have excluded all the rest? The truth is they all should be excluded as religious titles!

But someone will say the only reason you criticize those who have Dr.’s degrees is because you are envious and would like to have one yourself? For the sake of argument, suppose that this might be true. Would that nullify the soundness of one’s criticism? Furthermore, if that argument were true, then Christ could be accused of being envious of the doctors of the law, for he criticized the use of such titles. Did Christ criticize them because he was envious of the titles which they wore? Jesus was often called by his friends and disciples Rabbi and Master, but he never once condemned the use of those titles when applied to himself. However, he absolutely prohibited his disciples to wear those titles and call each other by those titles (See Matthew 23:1-12)!

FATHER, TEACHER, REVEREND, PASTOR, POPE, ETC.

While Jesus does not mention such titles as Reverend, Pastor, Pope, Dr. and other titles of modern usage, they are clearly condemned in principle just as much as Rabbi, Master and Father. It is noteworthy that we do not read in the Bible of Archbishop Timothy, the Right Reverend Barnabas, Pope Peter or Dr. Paul. Jesus said that the relationship which obtains between the members of the church is that of brethren:

“But you, do not be called ‘Rabbi’; for One is your Teacher, the Christ, and you are all brethren” (Matthew 23:8).

N. B. HARDEMAN

N. B. Hardeman presented a series of gospel sermons in Nashville, Tennessee at the Ryman Auditorium in 1922. He was head of Freed-Hardeman College and one of the best preachers of the 20th century. In his sermon, Theory and Practice, he presented these words about the use of honorary titles among our preachers:

Ladies and gentlemen, in the church of God there is no place for class distinction, no place for social distinction. “Whosoever shall do the will of my Father which is in heaven, the same is my brother, and sister, and mother.” That is the relationship that exists in the church of God tonight. I submit, therefore, that is not “my Father who art in heaven,” but every child of God can voice the sentiment, “our Father – not “my church,” not yours. It is the church of Jesus Christ, in which all of God’s children are standing up on equal terms. There is no such thing as a distinction between the clergyman and the layman. I am not one whit better by virtue of the fact that I try to preach than the humblest and most insignificant member of the church of God unless I do better, and that does not always happen. I want no honor other than simply that of being a Christian. Sometimes people (and I appreciate their motive to give me honor) speak to me as “Doctor.” Friends, I am no doctor. Sometimes they say “Reverend.” My name is not “reverend.” That word is found only one time in all of God’s book, and David says: “Holy and reverend is his name.” Mine is not. And if I shall even merit the simple term “brother,” I count myself fortunate in such recognition and such relationship. 3

Let us be content with the affectionate and simple appellatives, “brother,” “sister” and “brethren.” Have we outgrown the title which Jesus authorized his people to wear and call each other? Have we come to the place where we are too great, or too good, to wear that simple title and must find some worldly title to distinguish our ministers and members from one another?

1 Albert Barnes. 1958. Notes on the New Testament. John. Page 187. Grand Rapids: Baker.

2 Albert Barnes. 1958. Notes on the New Testament. Matthew. Page 242. Grand Rapids: Baker.

3 N. B. Hardeman. 1922. 1969. Hardeman’s Tabernacle Sermons. Theory and Practice. pages 280-281. Gospel Advocate Company: Nashville, Tennessee.

*Copyright © 2018, Shelby G. Floyd, All Rights Reserved. Shelby G. Floyd originally published this article March 7, 1976. It is just as true today as long ago!

Shelby G. Floyd

Heartland Church of Christ
1693 West Main Street
Greenwood, Indiana 46142

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