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Volume 7, Issue 4: Presbyterion

The Rev. Rabbi

Douglas Wilson

All [ministers] should take their titles and names only (lest they be exalted and puffed up in themselves) which the Scriptures give them as those which import labor, travel and work, and are names of offices and service, and not of idleness, dignity nor worldly honor or preeminence, which by Christ our Master is expressly reproven and forbidden."

    Andrew Melville
    The Second Book of Discipline
For some the ministry is an indoor job with small amounts of heavy lifting. Our Lord refused to give His blessing to such hirelings; elders are forbidden by the Lord to be "in it" for the money (John 10:12; 1 Pet. 5:2). But money is not the only lousy motivation. The Bible also teaches that vainglory is a great and dangerous snare for those in the ministry. For example, in one passage Christ lampoons the clerical stuffed shirts of His day by making fun of their clothes (Mark 12:38). Apparently some of the scribes thought that ecclesiastical poobahs should look like circus horses. Christ thought differently: "Beware of the scribes, who desire to go around in long robes, love greetings in the marketplace . . ." Now of course Christ was not requiring rabbis to wear trousers (everyone wore robes) any more than He was requiring them to be cranky and sullen in the marketplaces, refusing to return greetings. But He was identifying a sin which has been common to the ministry in all eras--practicing religion and spiritual leadership for an audience of men--vainglory.
"But all their works they do to be seen by men. They make their phylacteries broad and enlarge the borders of their garments. They love the best places at feasts, the best seats in the synagogues, 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. But he who is greatest among you shall be your servant. And whoever exalts himself will be humbled, and he who humbles himself will be exalted" (Matt. 23:5-12).
Christ first describes numerous examples of the basic sin--that of looking for applause from the cheap seats and not seeking the approval of God. But in different eras, the inhabitants of the cheap seats have applauded different things. We must be careful. We no longer care how broad someone's phylactery is, but we do comment on how underlined his Bible is. We no longer cheer when he calls himself Rabbi, we just nod approvingly when he calls himself a brother. Way to be humble, bro. If he keeps it up, we could start calling him the Rev. Bro. The problem is ecclesiastical showboating, and the raw material for this is always available at hand. Christ's teaching is violated whenever one finds out what is respected in his church (and there is always something), and then maneuvers to gain the applause of men by displaying that particular thing.
The question whether Christ was absolutely prohibiting the use of any ecclesiastical titles shows the importance of understanding the context of the first-century synagogue. The prideful abuses of the rabbis in Christ's day were simply unbelievable. Edersheim relates one story of a discussion in Heaven between God and the heavenly Academy about purity. Because they were at an impasse, a certain Rabbi was summoned from earth to decide the point! Christ was condemning a rampant sin in His day, and which, of course, also afflicts any minister filled with balloon juice in any era. He did not say the synagogue was wrong for having best seats; He simply said that people who were driven to sit in them had a spiritual problem.
This means pastors should not worry about it if they are in a church where they are addressed by others with such names--provided the focus is on the work, and there is no idolatrous adulation. Men who are indignant and greatly put out if they are addressed "improperly" should never have been entrusted with such titles, still less with the care of souls. Ministers of any church should not suffer guilt attacks when they receive mail from someone trying to be nice, addressing them as the Rev.
Those ministers in a church which does not use such titles should remember two things. First, the absence of the titles does not mean the absence of vainglory. Comrade Stalin and Citizen Robespierre come to mind. For this reason brother Smith needs to take care that he does not become the biggest blowfish in his little ecclesiastical pond, title or no title. The second thing to remember is that there is no biblical requirement or reason to adopt our more common cultural titles like Rev. But one can appropriately decline such a title without insisting that others who have not declined are guilty of the sin Christ proscribed here. That depends on what they love--it is not what goes on a mailing label that defiles a man.
In the first verse of chapter 23, Matthew points out that Jesus was speaking to the multitude and to His disciples. Christ was denying any one of His disciples' preeminence over the others--contra Rome. Among the Twelve there was to be parity; they were not to drift into a rabbinical hierarchy. The way to greatness for the Twelve was through service to all. And in their obedience, they set a pattern for all true future ministry.

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