The Bible’s Viewpoint
What About Honorary Titles?
AS FIRST-CENTURY Christians went about their daily activities and preached the good news of God’s Kingdom, they came into contact with a number of government officials—some minor and some high-ranking. Among themselves, Jesus’ followers used no titles to distinguish position, or station, in life. It was common back then, however, for individuals in power over their fellow men to be addressed with titles. The Roman emperor was referred to as “the August One.”—Acts 25:21.
So when appearing before government officials, how did Jesus’ disciples consider the use of honorary titles? How should we?
Honor, Not Approval
The apostle Paul counseled fellow believers to “render to all their dues, . . . to him who calls for honor, such honor.” (Romans 13:7) This included addressing officials by their titles. Today such titles as Your Excellency and Your Honor are also customarily used to address those holding public office. But some may ask, ‘How can I address a person in such a way when I suspect that his conduct is neither honorable nor excellent?’
Many public officials discharge their duties conscientiously, yet not all of them inspire confidence. Even so, the Bible urges us to subject ourselves to kings and governors “for the Lord’s sake.” (1 Peter 2:13, 14) Hence, acknowledging the position of authority that an official occupies with God’s permission would move us to show respect and render the required honor.—Romans 13:1.
An official’s personal conduct is not at issue in this context. That is not the reason for rendering honor. Addressing an official by his honorary title does not indicate tacit approval of his conduct. This is shown by an episode in the life of the apostle Paul.
Paul’s Use of Titles
The apostle Paul was arrested in Jerusalem on trumped-up charges and was led before Felix, governor of Judea. Felix was hardly an exemplary public official. The Roman historian Tacitus wrote that Felix “thought that he could do any evil act with impunity.” He was more interested in receiving a bribe than in rendering justice. Even so, during his two years in custody, Paul showed respect for the governor, and the two men conversed often—Felix hoping for money, which never came, and Paul using the opportunity to preach.—Acts 24:26.
When Festus succeeded Felix, the new governor heard Paul’s case in Caesarea. To win favor with the Jewish leaders, Festus suggested that Paul be tried in Jerusalem. But Paul knew that he could not get a fair trial there, so he took advantage of his Roman citizenship, declaring: “I appeal to Caesar!”—Acts 25:11.
Festus was unsure of how to explain the accusations against Paul to Caesar, but help came when King Agrippa II paid Festus a courtesy visit and expressed interest in the case. The next day, with great pageantry, military commanders and local dignitaries accompanied the king into the audience chamber.—Acts 25:13-23.
When invited to speak, Paul used the title “King” in his opening comments and acknowledged Agrippa’s expertise in customs and controversies among the Jews. (Acts 26:2, 3) At the time, Agrippa was widely reputed to be involved in a scandalous, incestuous relationship with his sister. Surely Paul was aware of Agrippa’s tarnished reputation for being morally bankrupt. Still, Paul accorded him the honor due a king.
During Paul’s defense, Festus exclaimed: “You are going mad, Paul!” Instead of being provoked, Paul responded calmly, addressing the governor as “Your Excellency.” (Acts 26:24, 25) Paul showed him the respect that was due his position. These examples, however, raise the question, Is there a limit to the honor that should be shown?
Governmental authority is relative, as indicated at Romans 13:1, which says: “The existing authorities stand placed in their relative positions by God.” Thus, the honor due governmental representatives is also relative. Jesus established the limit to the honor that ought to be rendered to others when he told his disciples: “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.”—Matthew 23:8-10.
The contrast between the religious and the secular thus sets the limit when it comes to according appropriate honor. In the event that secular officials adopt titles of a religious nature, Paul’s counsel to render them honor would not extend to the use of such titles. A person who follows Scriptural counsel would treat such officials respectfully. However, his Bible-trained conscience would motivate him to refrain from using any religious titles, since he is obliged to “pay back . . . God’s things to God.”—Matthew 22:21.
HAVE YOU WONDERED?
▪ How did Jesus’ followers view the secular authorities?—Romans 13:7.
▪ What kind of titles did Jesus disapprove of?—Matthew 23:8-10.
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How did Paul address Agrippa?