Do Christians Take Honorary Titles?
“Most Reverend”, “Doctor”, “Elder”, “Right Reverend”, “Deacon”, “Father”, “Bishop”, “Reverend”, “Holy Father”
Honorary titles sound good to the ears of man, but do they sound good to the ears of God? The only way to judge these titles is by God’s Word, the Bible. This article shows what God thinks of titles used by clergymen and what it means to you.
PEOPLE are so used to hearing clergymen called “Reverend,” “Doctor” or “Father” that they seldom question the fitness of these honorary titles. Yet if any professed Christian will read his Bible he will discover that Christ Jesus, the Founder of Christianity, absolutely refused creature-honoring titles. The clergy, though, ever since the days of Jesus, have been fond of high-sounding titles. When called just “Mister” or even “Brother,” the clergy often respond with words and mannerisms indicating that they feel they have been addressed in terms beneath their dignity. So there is no doubt that honorary titles tickle the ears; they sound good. The prestige produced by titles such as “bishop,” “deacon,” “Reverend Doctor” and “Father” gratifies a desire for honor and praise of men. Titles also make one feel different, separate from others. Yet Christ said: “All you are brothers.” This should prompt us to search the Bible to find out whether honorary titles befit true Christians.—Matt. 23:8, NW.
To appraise honorary titles intelligently we must know what the effect of using them is. Since they are a designation implying distinction and dignity, they create class distinctions. That is what exists among professed Christians today: the clergy and laity class distinctions. Early Christians were all brothers. They had no class distinctions, not the slightest trace of a hierarchy. If class distinctions cropped up, they were condemned and uprooted. Class distinctions were never condoned, as the Bible writer James showed: “You have class distinctions among yourselves and you have become judges rendering corrupt decisions, is that not so?” (Jas. 2:4, NW) Since honorary titles create class distinctions, could they really befit Christians?
It is noteworthy that James, the brother of the Lord, was given charge over the congregation of Christians at Jerusalem, and on occasions he presided over the councils and announced decisions. (Acts 21:18) After Peter was released from prison by Jehovah’s angels he told some Christians: “Report these things to James and the brothers.” (Acts 12:17, NW) Peter did not say: “Report these things to Father James and the bishops and deacons.” No, Peter recognized all Christians as brothers. So James, even the head of the congregation at Jerusalem, was never called by honorary titles.
“A DISGUSTING THING IN GOD’S SIGHT”
Creature-flattering titles make men look lofty in the eyes of other men. They arouse fear of men. They take away from the fear of Jehovah God. This disgusts God. How do we know? The authority is none other than God’s own Son who told the title-craving Pharisees: “You are those who declare yourselves righteous before men, but God knows your hearts; because what is lofty among men is a disgusting thing in God’s sight.” (Luke 16:15, NW) How disgusting, then, it must be to Almighty God when men flatter one another with a title such as “Reverend”—one of the most popular honorary titles in Christendom!
Really, is any man worthy of the designation “Reverend”? The way to answer this question is to go to the Bible. Do we find any examples of a man’s being called “Reverend”? Not one! In fact, the word “reverend” occurs in the King James, the American Standard and the Rotherham Version Bible just once; and then it is applied only to Jehovah God: “Holy and reverend is his name.” (Ps. 111:9, AS) Yet today clergymen arrogate to themselves a term applying only to God. And even “Reverend,” for many clergymen, does not sound illustrious enough, so they embellish it and call themselves “Right Reverend,” “Very Reverend” or “Most Right Reverend.” Can you honestly picture in your mind Christ Jesus in a long, flowing ecclesiastical robe warmly receiving from his followers high-sounding titles? In truth, it would be difficult to discover in all history any person whose life record and personal habits conflicted more openly with ecclesiastical display than Jesus of Nazareth! Declared Jesus: “I do not accept glory from men.”—John 5:41, NW.
It would have been a disgusting thing in God’s sight had Jesus accepted the honorary titles that were in vogue in his day. Do you know what happened when anyone tried to dub Jesus with an honorary title? Let us go to the Bible: “A certain ruler questioned him, saying: ‘Good Teacher, by doing what shall I inherit everlasting life?’ Jesus said to him: ‘Why do you call me good? Nobody is good, except one, God.’” (Luke 18:18, 19, NW) Why did Jesus, who certainly was a teacher and of all men one who could qualify as good, rebuke the man for calling him “Good Teacher”? Because he was using “Good Teacher” as a formalistic title, for in his heart he did not really believe that Jesus was a good teacher; otherwise he would have accepted Jesus’ teaching. But he spurned Jesus’ counsel. He deserved the rebuke, a rebuke that unquestionably showed honorary titles do not befit Christians.
THE TITLE “FATHER”
Did you ever read in the Bible of one Christian’s calling another “Father” as an honorary title? Search as diligently as you can, and you will find that not even the apostles bore the title “Father.” No authority for using the title “Father” for Christians is given in the Scriptures. Indeed, the title is expressly condemned! By whom? By Christ himself! Speaking of the title-loving clergy of his day, Jesus said: “They like the most prominent place at evening meals and the front seats in the synagogues, and the greetings in the marketplaces and to be called ‘Rabbi’ [“My great one; My excellent one,” footnote] by men. But 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.”—Matt. 23:6-9, NW.
Did Jesus mean what he said? Certainly! He was not uttering idle words. Does it take a mental giant to understand his command? No, his words need no special interpretation, for Jesus was speaking no parable. He was giving clear-cut instructions about creature-exalting titles: “Do not call anyone your father on earth.”
The Roman Catholic clergy water down the force of Jesus’ command by saying that his words cannot be taken literally, otherwise we could not call our male parent “father.” Is their reasoning sound? Hardly! Read the context. From the setting it is unmistakably clear that Jesus was not condemning the use of “father” for the male parent, for he himself repeatedly referred to the male parent as “father.” (Matt. 15:4-6; 19:5; 21:31) His condemnation was of the honorary title.
To defend the use of “Father” for priests the Catholic clergy claim that a priest becomes a spiritual father when he baptizes a person. They point to one particular scripture as authority for disregarding Jesus’ explicit command. This scripture is Paul’s statement to the Corinthians: “For although you have ten thousand tutors in Christ, yet you have not many fathers. For in Christ Jesus, through the gospel, did I beget you.” (1 Cor. 4:15, Dy) Was Paul here telling the Corinthian Christians to begin addressing him as “Father Paul”? Obviously not! Nowhere in the Bible is he ever called “Father Paul.” Peter called him “our beloved brother Paul.” (2 Pet. 3:15) Unlike Catholic priests Paul did not claim to have become a spiritual father by reason of having baptized someone. As he himself says, he did very little baptizing. (1 Cor. 1:13-16) But it was by virtue of Paul’s being the first one to instruct the Corinthians in the truth of God’s Word that he begot them through the gospel.
Paul was using the earthly relationship in the human family to illustrate the true picture of his position relative to the Corinthian congregation. His use of the term “father” was not disobeying Jesus’ command because no one ever addressed him as “Father” and because he himself used it not as a title but as an illustration.
Further, it is enlightening to note that the Roman Catholic translation of the Bible by R. A. Knox, at 1 Corinthians 4:15, reads: “You may have ten thousand schoolmasters in Christ, but not more than one father; it was I that begot you in Jesus Christ, when I preached the gospel to you.” Now Catholics do have more than “one father.” Indeed, they have more than “ten thousand” fathers, for every priest, regardless of whether he was the first to bring their religion to them, is still called “Father.” So the practice of calling clergymen “Father” is still in direct violation of Jesus’ command and is not supported by Paul’s illustration to the Corinthians.
What, now, are we to think of the title “Holy Father” that is applied to the pope? We can only think the way Christ Jesus would think: that it is ridiculously wrong. For no man is holy. “All have sinned and fall short of the glory of God.” (Rom. 3:23, NW) True, Christ Jesus did use the term “Holy Father,” but he did not apply it to a man; he knew that Jehovah God alone is worthy of that name: “Holy Father, watch over them out of respect for your own name.” (John 17:11, NW) Receiving or using the honorary titles “Father” and “Holy Father,” as it is done in Christendom today, is a detestable thing in the eyes of Jehovah God.
BISHOPS, DEACONS AND ELDERS
Common today is the title “Bishop.” The word does appear in some translations of the Bible, especially those translated from the Greek two hundred to three hundred years ago. But the word is not in the original Bible text. For “bishop” is simply a mistranslation of the Greek word “epískopos.” This word was never intended to be an honorary title. It was used to designate a privilege of service within God’s organization. The word really means “overseer.” Why, then, did some Bible translators render “epískopos” as “bishop”? Because many translations were made by men who were members of religious organizations having so-called “bishops.” Naturally these translators inserted such words into the English translation of the Bible in order to give seeming support to their ecclesiastical system of offices. Accurate modern translations do not use the word “bishop.”
So likewise the title “Deacon” is a mistranslation of the Greek “diákonos,” which really means “ministerial servant.” To the Philippians Paul wrote: “To all the holy ones in union with Christ Jesus who are in Philippi, along with overseers and ministerial servants.” (Phil. 1:1, NW) This, as is quite evident, is not a flattering title.
What, now, of the title “Elder”? The Greek word translated “elder” in the King James Version Bible is presbýteros. Literally it means “older one” or “more aged one.” So it really is not a title. Paul said: “Make appointments of older men [“elders,” AV] in city after city.” (Titus 1:5, NW) Note carefully that those appointed to special privileges of service were not appointed to be elders but because they were elders or older men. The rule was that those who were to be appointed to be overseers (epískopos) over the flock of God were required to be “older men,” namely, those whose fruits of word, doctrine and conduct proved them to be “older men” or mature ones in a spiritual way. So the Bible gives no authority for using “elder,” “bishop” and “deacon” as honorary titles.
Since God’s Word condemns honorary titles, would it be wrong for a Christian to address a king as “King” or a judge as “Your Honor” or “Your Lordship”? No. When Christians address rulers and judges, they are addressing them as civil servants and not in worship or as spiritual leaders. When before King Agrippa, the apostle Paul said: “Concerning all the things of which I am accused by Jews, King Agrippa.” And when before Festus, the procurator of Judea in the reign of Nero, Paul said: “I am not going mad, Your Excellency Festus.” Though Paul paid official respect to civil servants, he never addressed Christians or non-Christian spiritual leaders by special titles.—Acts 26:2, 25, NW.
What does all this mean? It means that those who want to serve God in his prescribed way will stop addressing clergymen with titles such as “Reverend” and “Father.” True Christians do not use any kind of honorary titles. It means much more: the use of honorary titles is a sign of false religion. Abandon such false religion. Practice true religion by associating with the New World society of Jehovah’s witnesses. There are no class distinctions among these true Christians; all are brothers. All abide by the principles of God’s written Word, and that includes the principle set forth by God’s prophet at Job 32:21, 22 (AS): “Let me not, I pray you, respect any man’s person; neither will I give flattering titles unto any man. For I know not to give flattering titles; else would my Maker soon take me away.”