Religious Titles


     The use of titles in religion is a common occurrence. In fact, religious titles are so common that they are expected and questioned when not present. There are many such titles or appellatives in use. Such terms as "Your Eminence," "Reverend," "Your Holiness," "Your Grace," "Reverend Father," "Father," "Your Piety," and "The Venerable." Perhaps the apex of religious titles would be, "Lord, God, the Pope." Over time, certain behavior is expected toward what people call the clergy. In preparing this article, I came across one Web site that provides "clergy etiquette." Consider the suggested "clergy etiquette."

     "The following is a guide for properly addressing Orthodox clergy. Most of the titles do not exactly correspond to the terms used in Greek, Russian, or the other native languages of the national Orthodox Churches, but they have been widely accepted as Standard English usage.

     "Greeting Clergy in Person. When we address Deacons or Priests, we should use the title 'Father.' Bishops we should address as 'Your Grace.' Though all Bishops (including Patriarchs) are equal in the Orthodox Church, they do have different administrative duties and honors that accrue to their rank in this sense. Thus, "Your Eminence' is the proper title for Bishops with suffragans or assistant Bishops, Metropolitans, and most Archbishops (among the exceptions to this rule is the Archbishop of Athens, who is addressed as 'Your Beatitude'). 'Your Beatitude' is the proper title for Patriarchs (except for the Ecumenical Patriarch in Constantinople, who is addressed as 'Your All–Holiness'). When we approach an Orthodox Presbyter or Bishop (but not a Deacon), we make a bow by reaching down and touching the floor with our right hand, place our right hand over the left (palms upward), and say: 'Bless, Father' (or 'Bless, Your Grace,' or 'Bless, Your Eminence,' etc.). The Priest or Bishop then answers, 'May the Lord bless you,' blesses us with the Sign of the Cross, and places his right hand in our hands. We kiss then his hand."

     In many circles, it is considered not only rude not to use, acknowledge, and engage in the use of religious titles and etiquette, but also irreligious. The question is, how do the scriptures relate to such and what relevant biblical principles are found?

     Jesus taught against the spirit of self-elevation. Jesus often addressed the attitude of humility. It seems that his disciples were continually competitive and carnally ambitious, seeking the glory and recognition of men. They asked the Lord, "Who is greatest in the kingdom of heaven?" (Matt. 18: 1). Jesus' reply was not expected. Jesus said, "Whosoever therefore shall humble himself as this little child, the same is greatest in the kingdom of heaven" (vs. 4, see vs. two and three). James and John besought the Lord to grant them special places of esteem and recognition in the kingdom (Matt. 20: 20). Even their mother made a similar request regarding her sons (Mk. 10: 35). Jesus said, "For whosoever exalteth himself shall be abased; and he that humbleth himself shall be exalted" (Lk. 14: 11).

     Jesus unmistakably condemned the use of religious titles of ascendancy. Some of the Jews and Pharisees of Jesus' day were given to praise and titles of recognition. Here Jesus as he plainly teaches about the use of religious titles:

     "5: But all their works they do for to be seen of men: they make broad their phylacteries, and enlarge the borders of their garments, 6: And love the uppermost rooms at feasts, and the chief seats in the synagogues, 7: And greetings in the markets, and to be called of men, Rabbi, Rabbi. 8: But be not ye called Rabbi: for one is your Master, even Christ; and all ye are brethren. 9: And call no man your father upon the earth: for one is your Father, which is in heaven. 10: Neither be ye called masters: for one is your Master, even Christ. 11: But he that is greatest among you shall be your servant. 12: And whosoever shall exalt himself shall be abased; and he that shall humble himself shall be exalted" (Matt. 23).

     Jesus is not addressing the use of such terms as rabbi, master, and father as terms of simple designation (cp. Jn. 1: 38; Matt. 22: 23; 23: 32). These were terms being used by these Jews as religious titles of distinction. Notice also Jesus' reference to "special clothing" of separation (Matt. 23: 5). Commentator Matthew Henry makes the following observations regarding Matthew 23: 5-12:

      "They loved greetings in the markets, loved to have people put off their hats to them, and show them respect when they met them in the streets. O how it pleased them, and fed their vain humour, digito monstrari et dicier, Hic est—'to be pointed out, and to have it said, This be he,' to have way made for them in the crowd of market people; 'Stand off, here is a Pharisee coming!' and to be complimented with the high and pompous title of 'Rabbi, Rabbi!' This was meat and drink and dainties to them; and they took as great a satisfaction in it as Nebuchadnezzar did in his palace, when he said, 'Is not this great Babylon that I have built?' …that the Jewish teachers, the masters of Israel, had assumed the title of 'Rabbi', 'Rab', or 'Rabban', which signifies 'great' or 'much'; and was construed as 'Doctor', or 'My lord'. And they laid such a stress upon it, that they gave it for a maxim that 'he who salutes his teacher, and does not call him Rabbi, provokes the divine Majesty to depart from Israel;' so much religion did they place in that which was but a piece of good manners! …(2.) He cautions his disciples against being herein like them; herein they must not do after their works; 'But be not ye called so, for ye shall not be of such a spirit,' v. 8, etc." (Complete Commentary on the Bible).

     The origin of the use of religious titles. Such titles as "Reverend" have not gone without question and challenge, even among denominational people. Consider the meaning of "Reverend," "Worthy to be revered; entitled to reverence. Pertaining to or characteristic of the clergy" (The Random House College Dictionary, pg. 1130). Of course, "reverend" is a biblical word. Notice the only occurrence of "reverend" and how it is used: "He sent redemption unto his people: he hath commanded his covenant for ever: holy and reverent is his name" (Ps. 111: 9). God deserves to be called reverend because of his essential nature and deeds. However, it is audacity in the extreme for man to arrogate to himself such a term as reverend (the milder of many of the religious titles used today). Consider the warning issued by the Baptist Standard regarding such titles.

     "Some of the words used by the Baptists of today in their preaching, writing, and conversation are altogether alien to the verbiage of the early Christians. Who could imagine Onesimus going to Philemon and talking to him about 'The Reverend Paul?' Who could imagine Gaius writing to the 'Reverend John' to give him a good report about the 'Reverend Demetrius?' Yet modern Baptists use the term 'Reverend' every day in speaking of preachers or writing of them….If the Baptists of the medieval age could hear it today they would cry against the use of this title which has been borrowed from an ecclesiastical hierarchy that would draw a line between the laity and the ministry. When the word 'Reverend' is used in the Bible, it refers to God, for He alone is to be revered." (Baptist Standard, April 9, 1955, Editorial Section, pg. 2.)

     Hence, such titles of self-praise had their origin in the vanity and carnal ambition of men.

     The use of "Reverend" among churches of Christ. Shortly following the Civil War, the term Reverend began to be used by some in churches of Christ. Isaac Errett was the first preacher of popularity to use Reverend. History tells us that when Errett began preaching for the church in Detroit, he had a silver doorplate inscribed with "Rev. I. Errett" on it. In defense of the use of Reverend, J. S. Lamar reasoned:

     "…It is (the word Reverend, dm) coming to be more and more widely understood that the Saviour's words (referring to Matthew 23, dm) do not prohibit the use of any designation which simply makes known the fact that the man to whom it is applied is a preacher….The word Reverend before a man's name is universally understood to indicate simply that he is a minister of the gospel. It bears no significance to personal superiority or official eminence" (Memoirs of Isaac Errett, by J. S. Lamar, Vol. 2, pg. 278).

     It was fortunate that while a number of preachers in the church of Christ followed the example of the influential Esaac Errett, there were those who did challenge and refused the use of the religious title Reverend.

     In all honesty, there are terms that are not normally religious apellatives that can be used as religious titles. Brother, Pastor, Elder, Preacher, and Evangelist are sometimes used as distinguishing and elevating modifiers. "May I introduce to you Pastor Smith," is such an example. Such a use of "Pastor" also often intimates the "pastoral system" of church government (the preacher in charge of the local church). I must again stress, though, that some terms are by their very nature religious titles, while other terms become titles by use. For instance, John refers to himself simply as "The elder" (2 Jn. 1). "Elder," in this case, just means John the aged.

     Religious titles and the clergy concept. Religious distinctions of ascendancy reflect the clergy/laity concept that is so common. As a matter of fact, "clergy" in the sense of a group of ordained persons (preachers) enjoying a lofty position over the "laity" is not in the vocabulary or concept of the scriptures. However, the Greek word kleron (plural of kleros) is found. Kleron is translated "God’s heritage" in I Peter 5: 3. Peter is instructing elders (not preachers, as such) not to be lord’s over God’s heritage, the church. The interesting point is our English word clergy derives from kleros, the word the Spirit used to designate the people of God in general (what man calls "laity") and not a select, distinguished group.

     It is often the case that not only do some crave special recognition, but also they are not even content with their titles of prominence. The title "Reverend" has been given degrees in an effort to develop gradation of distinction. There is "Reverend," "Very Reverend," "Right Reverend, and "Most Reverend." On still another occasion, the disciples were involved in strife as to who was the greatest among them (Lk. 22: 24 ff.). Jesus said, "…But he that is greatest among you, let him be as the younger; and he that is chief, as he that doth serve" (vs. 27). The real rule of greatness is, "…for he that is least among you all, the same shall be great" (Lk. 9: 48). The greatest man to have ever lived said of himself, "Even as the Son of man came not to be ministered unto, but to minister, and to give his life a ransom for many" (Matt. 20: 28). The use of religious titles such as described and discussed in this material reflect a pride and haughty spirit and create sinful distinctions of elevation.