What Is the Bible’s View?
Is It Right to Call Men by Titles?
DIRECTING his words primarily to suffering Job, the young man Elihu said: “Let me not, please, show partiality to a man; and on an earthling man I shall not bestow a title; for I certainly do not know how I can bestow a title; easily my Maker would carry me away.” (Job 32:21, 22) Are we to conclude from this that it is wrong to use titles when addressing men? Or, is the use of titles appropriate under certain circumstances?
It should be noted that Elihu associated the bestowing of a title with the showing of partiality. In his comments to Job, therefore, he did not resort to any form of flattery. Nor did he permit the person of the afflicted Job to sway what he said. Elihu observed the principle of the Law that was later given to Israel: “As for the lowly one, you must not show preference in a controversy of his.” (Ex. 23:3) Also, though young, Elihu did not side with Job’s companions out of regard for their age and position. He presented matters as they really were, not flattering Job’s companions by bestowing a title upon them and then allowing this to influence his speech.
Elihu’s example well illustrates that it would be wrong to originate flattering titles. Such partial treatment results in acting unjustly and incurs God’s disfavor. Elihu recognized this, as is evident from his words: “Easily my Maker would carry me away,” that is, in his wrath.—Job 32:22.
Since the Christian congregation is an “association of brothers,” any title that elevates one Christian above another would be totally out of place. (1 Pet. 2:17) Besides, the congregation has only one God-appointed head, Jesus Christ. The Son of God said to his disciples: “You, do not you be called Rabbi, for one is your teacher, whereas all you are brothers. Moreover, do not call anyone your father on earth, for one is your Father, the heavenly One. Neither be called ‘leaders,’ for your Leader is one, the Christ.”—Matt. 23:8-10.
These words of Jesus have generally been ignored by clergymen of Christendom. However, not all have been so bold as to take titles to themselves. Well-known Bible commentator Albert Barnes, for example, personally rejected the title “Doctor of Divinity” as being contrary to Christ’s teaching. He wrote: “Jesus forbade his disciples to seek such titles of distinction. The reason he gave was that he was himself their Master and Teacher. They were on a level; they were to be equal in authority; they were brethren; and they should neither covet nor receive a title which implied either an elevation of one above another, or which appeared to infringe on the absolute right of the Saviour to be their only Teacher and Master. . . . [The] title [Rabbi] corresponds with the title ‘Doctor of Divinity,’ as applied to ministers of the gospel; and so far as I can see, the spirit of the Saviour’s command is violated by the reception of such a title . . . It tends to engender pride, and a sense of superiority in those who obtain it; and envy and a sense of inferiority in those who do not; and the whole spirit and tendency of it is contrary to the ‘simplicity that is in Christ.’”
If professing Christians seek to be addressed by such titles as “Doctor of Divinity,” “Father,” “Reverend” and the like, this is, of course, something for which they will have to answer to God. It certainly does not oblige others to address them as such. Those who take Jesus’ words seriously would, in fact, refuse to do so. They would not want to give the impression that they are in any way upholding the use of unscriptural titles.
Does this make titles of all kinds wrong? No, this is not the case. There are titles that simply acknowledge the secular office that a particular person may occupy. This would be true of titles applied to governmental officials or persons pursuing certain professions, for example, in medicine, law or science. The basic rule that should guide Christians in the use of such titles is Jesus’ statement: “Pay back . . . Caesar’s things to Caesar, but God’s things to God.”—Matt. 22:21.
There would surely be no objection to addressing rulers by their titles, as long as such titles did not attribute to them honor that rightfully belongs only to the Most High. Mortal humans are not the saviors of Christians nor the ones through whom all blessings flow. Titles that attribute such things to men would therefore be objectionable to the servant of God.
Nevertheless, there are many titles of respectful address that Christians may use with a good conscience. The apostle Paul, for instance, called Roman governor Festus “Your Excellency.” (Acts 26:25) Similarly, true Christians today do not object to applying to men in high judicial or governmental station such titles as “Your Honor,” “Your Excellency,” “His Majesty,” and the like. Their use of these titles is in agreement with the Scriptural counsel: “Render to all their dues, . . . to him who calls for honor, such honor.” (Rom. 13:7) “For the Lord’s sake subject yourselves to every human creation: whether to a king as being superior or to governors as being sent by him to inflict punishment on evildoers . . . Honor men of all sorts.”—1 Pet. 2:13-17.
The offices of governor, judge, king, president and the like are, of course, human creations. They are man-made positions. But Jehovah God has permitted the governmental authorities to come into existence. Hence, Christians rightly respect the positions that men fill, giving them the honor that is appropriate to their office. There is no reason for Christians to oppose an arrangement that Jehovah God has allowed. So, in evidence of their subjection to ruling authorities, they use the customary titles that officials can rightly claim for themselves.—Rom. 13:1, 2.
A Christian’s use of titles of respectful address would not imply the condoning of wrong practices. It is not his responsibility to judge men of the world. (1 Cor. 5:12, 13) While certain individuals may be corrupt, this does not change the fact that they occupy a position that calls for a particular title or titles. If any person misuses his authority, the Christian has no right to act disrespectfully toward such an individual. The Bible’s advice is: “Do not avenge yourselves, beloved, but yield place to the wrath; for it is written: ‘Vengeance is mine; I will repay, says Jehovah.’”—Rom. 12:19.
The Scriptures thus make it plain that the use of titles that acknowledge a person’s authority or rightful position are wholly appropriate. However, Jesus’ words at Matthew 23:6-12 clearly rule out the use of flattering titles among those claiming to be his followers.