What about Religious Titles?

What about Religious Titles?

Richard Hollerman

How Religious Titles

conflict with Biblical teaching

and violate the principle of humility


Questions: Do you know anyone with one of these religious titles:





Very Reverend





Reverend Doctor

? ? ? 

Religious Titles

As human beings, we are inclined to exalt ourselves above other people. Man wishes to appear greater and wiser than others. He desires open expression of respect, honor and praise. This inclination to self-exaltation may be plainly revealed in the titles that he assumes.

Perhaps the clearest example of this desire for honor before men is seen in the military. Men covet such titles as Sergeant, Lieutenant, Captain, and General. They usually expect and even demand clear recognition of their rank. Any sign of disrespect is not tolerated! The uniform, the bearing, and the titles all reveal this tendency to prideful superiority.

The Christian, in contrast, is instructed “not to think more highly of himself than he ought to think” (Romans 12:3). Paul warns, “Do not be wise in your own estimation” (Romans 12:16b). He further says, “Do nothing from selfishness or empty conceit, but with humility of mind let each of you regard one another as more important than himself” (Philippians 2:3). Self-exaltation must have no place in our lives as believers.

Christ Himself made it abundantly clear that His followers were to have an attitude of humility rather than a proud, arrogant, and exalted one. He explained the contrast between the way of the world and the way of His followers:

You know that the rulers of the Gentiles lord it over them, and their great men exercise authority over them. It is not so among you, but whoever wishes to become great among you shall be your servant, and whoever wishes to be first among you shall be your slave; just as the Son of Man did not come to be served, but to serve, and to give His life a ransom for many (Matthew 20:25-28).

As we follow Christ in the way of humility, lowliness and service, we will truly be “great” in God’s sight. It is not a matter of placing our “credentials” on the wall, advertising where we have been to school or bragging of our religious degrees. This surely must be a vain display of what we value and boast about.

One chief expression of this prideful attitude of self-exaltation is found in the use of religious titles. The pompous Pharisees of Jesus’ day enjoyed greetings of respect in public places. Our Lord said, “They love . . . respectful greetings in market places, and being called by men, Rabbi” (Matthew 23:6-7). But in the mind of our Lord this prideful attitude was entirely wrong. He proceeded to explain:

Do not be called Rabbi; for One is your Teacher, and you are all brothers. And do not call anyone on earth your father; for One is your Father, He who is in heaven. And do not be called leaders; for One is your Leader, that is, Christ” (Matthew 23:8-10).

In giving this instruction, Jesus did not merely prohibit such titles. He immediately gave the reason for this prohibition: “The greatest among you shall be your servant. And whoever exalts himself shall be humbled; and whoever humbles himself shall be exalted” (Matthew 23:11-12). The way of the cross is the way of humility. Such titles are forbidden since they exalt and glorify self and move one away from humility.

This desire for honor before others was not confined to the first century. Today men and women continue to wear a wide variety of religious titles. The clergy-laity distinction, which perhaps finds its greatest expression in Roman Catholicism and Orthodoxy, and  was inherited to some degree by most Protestant churches, encourages the use of such religious titles. The “Professional Pastor” system, as usually manifested in organized Christendom, elevates a man or woman to a position unknown in the early days of the body of Christ. And with this position comes a special title or special titles. In fact, usually all of the clergy of all ranks and positions are given—or assume—special, exclusive titles of respect.

Examples of Religious Titles

Let’s notice some of the popular titles found in our day. You will see that we are not only addressing the issue of religious titles but sometimes we will show that the positions that the titles are given are actually different from what the New Testament teaches and what the early congregations experienced.

  1. Rabbi

This title today is confined to Jewish leaders but one which the Lord Jesus explicitly forbids His followers (Matthew 23:8).  In Jewish circles, it is just assumed that this is a proper form of address and title to be used. One official source gives as examples: “Rabbi Joel Pine and Rabbi Julia Pine.”[1] But as Jesus said, “Do not be called Rabbi; for One is your Teacher, and you are all brothers” (Matthew 23:8).

  1. Father

This term comes from the Latin, pater. “’Pater’ was originally a description of bishops as ‘fathers in God’ or later of confessors. It seems that due to Irish influence in the nineteenth century the term took on a much wider meaning. The pope is still called ‘the Holy Father. . . .”[2] However, as Jesus declared, “Do not call anyone on earth your father; for One is your Father, He who is in heaven” (Matthew 23:9).

The Roman Catholic, Orthodox, and Episcopal/Anglican Churches freely use this title for their priests.  The Bible doesn’t use it in the sense of a male parent, for this is permitted and expected (Ephesians 6:2).The Scriptures also use the term in reference to a forefather (Romans 4:1; Luke 16:24) and an older man in the Jewish Sanhedrin of the first century (Acts 7:2). Paul says that he became the “father” of those who received the gospel and were saved through his preaching (1 Corinthians 4:15; cf. 1 Timothy 1:2). But as a religious “title” as used today, it was entirely unknown in the Scriptures. No one would speak of Paul as “Father Paul,” and no one would call Timothy, “Father Timothy.”

Religious Titles?

  1. Pope

This title is employed for the supreme head of the Roman Catholic Church.  The term comes from the Latin papa, from the Greek papas, “father.” One authority says, “[The term formerly denoted] all Christian bishops, the title in the West has from the ninth century been appropriated exclusively by the bishop of Rome. In the Eastern Orthodox Church, however, it is still used for the patriarch of Alexandria, and the term is applied also to ordinary priests.”[3] Since the term simply means “father,” we can see that it also is condemned by our Lord (Matthew 23:9). Along with this, a “Pope” is supposed to be addressed as “Your Holiness!”[4]

  1. Reverend

This term actually means “deserving reverence.”  It is “used as a title and form of address for certain clerics in many Christian churches. In formal usage, preceded by the.”[5]  This title is a favorite one of both Catholic and Protestant clergymen or clergywomen and is usually confined to those duly “ordained” by their denomination or church. “Roman Catholic bishops are usually styled The Most Reverend (reverendissimus); Anglican bishops are styled The Right Reverend; some Reformed churches have used The Reverend Mister as a style for their clergy.”[6] Interestingly, the term isn’t limited to “high church” usage for smaller denominations also employ it, whether Evangelical or Liberal. Some of these “ministers” are offended if it is not used!

The only place where the term is found in the KJV is Psalm 111:9 where it has reference to God Himself. No man is ever referred to as “Reverend” in the KJV Scriptures. However, in the Hebrew text, yare is also used with reference to a nation of people (Isaiah 18:2, 7), a land (Isaiah 21:1), a wilderness (Deuteronomy 1:19), etc. We can observe that the term is used today as a title of exaltation and it would be clearly forbidden by the principles that Jesus set forth (Matthew 23:5-12). The use of “Most Reverend” and “Very Reverend,” as used in the Catholic Church, merely compounds the error! “The Very Reverend John Jones” surely is not a humble way of referring to oneself! While it is true that a husband is deserving of “reverence” or “respect” (Ephesians 5:33), this is far different from elevating him by the use of “reverend” with his name.

  1. Doctor

This term is favored by both Catholics and Protestants who have “earned the highest academic degree awarded by a college or university in a specific discipline.”[7] It may be used not only for those with an earned degree (such as a Ph.D, a Th.D., or a D.Min) but also those with honorary degrees (e.g., D.D.). The term derives from the Latin that means “teacher.” Sometimes arrogant clergy even combine titles, e.g., “Reverend Doctor Smith.” It would seem that a growing number of clergymen assume this title and this sadly includes Fundamentalists!  In all of these cases, ministers may proudly display the term on their marquis, on their letterheads, on their walls, and in their books.  Can we imagine Titus being called “Doctor Titus” or Silas being called, “Silas, Th. D.?  Such self-exaltation obviously is improper for one who seeks true humility!

  1. Apostle

We know that the term “apostle” is not frequently used as a title, although some seem to dare to take it and apply it to themselves. The word comes from the Greek apostolos, meaning “one sent forth.”[8] The word was used with reference to Christ Jesus Himself, as one “sent forth” by God the Father (Hebrews 3:1; cf. John 17:3). The twelve disciples were also chosen by the Lord Jesus during His stay on earth to be His specially picked “apostles,” sent forth on the limited commission (Matthew 10:1-42; Mark 6:7-13; Luke 9:1-6) and then sent on the “great commission” into all of the world (Matthew 28:18-20; Mark 16:15ff). Later Matthias was chosen to fill the place vacated by Judas Iscariot (Acts 1:15-26).

Paul was a specially chosen apostle to go to the Gentiles (cf. 1 Corinthians 15:8-10; Acts 9:1-30; 22:1-21; 26:1-18). Later yet, the word “apostle” also was applied to Barnabas (Acts 14:4, 14). Two unnamed disciples are also called “messengers [apostles] of the churches” (2 Corinthians 8:23). Epaphroditus was referred to as a “messenger [apostle] and minister” to Paul’s need (Philippians 2:25). There is a possibility that Silas and Timothy, as well as Paul, were called “apostles of Christ” (1 Thessalonians 2:6; cf. 1:1).

Except for Paul, these later instances of apostleship must have referred to men “sent forth” on a mission for a person or an assembly. Today, the term “missionary” would mean the same thing. (“Missionary” comes from the noun, “mission” which comes from the Latin, meaning “to send off.”[9]) They were not to be classified as an “apostle” in the same sense as Paul and the twelve. To be an apostle in this regard, one was required to actually see the resurrected Christ, and thus be a “witness . . . of His resurrection” (Acts 1:21-22; cf. 1 Corinthians 9:1; 15:8).

Those few who would take a title like “Apostle Smith” or “Apostle Robert” are simply wrong. No one today would meet the qualifications of apostleship that are found in Scripture—seeing the Lord Jesus. Furthermore, Paul gives further evidence of apostleship: “The signs of a true apostle were performed among you with all perseverance, by signs and wonders and miracles” (2 Corinthians 12:12). Paul had this kind of evidence for His apostleship, but people today don’t have this. Just as there were “false apostles” in Paul’s day (2 Corinthians 11:13), there are some who claim to be apostles in our day—but they are false. It is arrogant for one to use such a term as a title.

  1. Prophet

The prophet was a definite gift in the early body of Christ. Paul  wrote, “to each one is given the manifestation of the Spirit for the common good” (1 Corinthians 12:7). One of the gifts given was that of prophecy (v. 10). “God appointed in the church” the gift of “prophets” (v. 28). On the day of Pentecost, Peter said that through the Spirit some men and women would prophesy (Acts 2:17-18). A prophet (Greek, prophetes) was “one who speaks forth or openly,” “a proclaimer of a divine message.”[10]

Prophets were given after apostles (Ephesians 4:11) and were found in the early congregations of believers (cf. Acts 13:1; 15:32; 21:10; 1 Corinthians 12:28-29; 14:29, 32, 37). God’s people, viewed as His “household,” were “built on the foundation of the apostles and prophets” (Ephesians 2:20), especially because the “apostles and prophets” in the Spirit received God’s revelation (3:5). While a few in our day claim to be God’s special spokesmen or “prophets,” not many actually use this term as a title with their name. We can see how inconsistent and unscriptural such usage would be.

Another class of present-day titles may be examined. These titles have been taken from the Scriptures and were terms which referred to works or functions in the early body of believers. However, they were never intended to be official titles preceding one’s name. Notice a few examples:

  1. Bishop

This term is often used for a superior position in various Catholic, Protestant, and Orthodox churches.  “From the vulgar Latin biscopas, the word is often given as a translation of episkopos in the NT.”[11] In other words, this is a poor translation of the Greek term (episkopos) that means “overseer” and comes from epi, “over” and skopeo, “to look or watch.”[12] The KJV uses this term at such places as Philippians 1:1; 1 Timothy 3:1; and Titus 1:7.

These “overseers” or “overwatchers” were appointed to watch over the assemblies from which they had been chosen. They were to “manage” the body of Christ (1 Timothy 3:4-5) and were found in each fully-mature, organized local assembly (cf. Acts 14:23; Philippians 1:1; 1 Timothy 3:1). These overseers were also called “shepherds” or “elders” (notice how the terms were used interchangeably: Acts 20:17, 28; Titus 1:5, 7; 1 Peter 5:1-3).

It probably never occurred to the early believers to use the term “overseer” (KJV, “Bishop”) as an official title before one’s name. Yet some groups today freely use “Bishop” in this manner (e.g., “Bishop Jones”). Some denominations, of course, have created the office of “bishop” as one who rules a large number of congregations or an entire diocese (such as the Methodist Church, the Evangelical Congregational Church, the Mennonite Church, the Catholic Church).

In contrast, in the first century, there were a plurality of overseers in each mature assembly, as reflected in the New Testament Scriptures (cf. Acts 11:30; 14:23; Titus 1:5; James 5:14; etc.). So instead of having an unscriptural office with an unscriptural title (“Bishop Smith”), New Testament assemblies today simply have qualified men who oversee God’s flock (Acts 20:28).

  1. Elder

This is the term given to a man who was a presbuteros, “an older person.”[13] The early Christians would refer to the overseers (see the previous listing) as the “elders” in each assembly (cf. Acts 14:23; 20:17; James 4:14; Titus 1:5). These persons were men or males (not women) who possessed specific spiritual, moral, and marital qualifications (see 1 Timothy 3:1-7; Titus 1:5-9). As we mentioned, the term means “an older person,” thus a younger man would not be qualified to serve as an elder, overseer, or shepherd. “During the Middle Ages the term ‘presbyter’ was shortened to ‘priest’” and this is the term used in Catholicism and Anglicanism (Episcopalianism) today, although the modern office of “priest” is very different from the New Testament position.[14]

Occasionally the term “elder” is used today as an official title (e.g. “Elder Johnson”). An example would be the young Mormon missionary “elders” who knock on your door. They insist on using the term as a title before their last name! It is quite incongruous to call a young man an elder! Certain other groups have occasionally used Elder as a title. In the early American Restoration Movement, there was “Elder Benjamin Franklin” and others. The Primitive Baptists use Elder as a title to refer to overseers and preachers, e.g., “Elder Jones.” Some Baptist churches may refer to “Elder Tony” or “Elder Stevens.”

Of course, the New Testament knows nothing of using “elder” as a title with a person’s name. It is simply a common noun that refers to the position, age, and maturity of one who has been appointed to be a shepherd or overseer in an assembly of Christians.

  1. Deacon

This term is the transliteration of the Greek diakonos, meaning “servant.”[15] In the early believing community of saints, these servants were selected on the basis of prescribed qualifications (1 Timothy 3:8-13). They served along with the overseers in the assembly (Philippians 1:1).  The term was simply a common noun that referred to a person chosen to serve in an assembly of the first century. Sometimes it is elevated in our day to be used as a title, such as in Roman Catholicism: “Deacon Thomas.”[16] The “permanent deacon” uses the title, such as “Deacon Johnson.”[17] The Orthodox Church also may use “deacon” as a title with a person’s name. In some Protestant circles it is permissible to use “Deacon” as a title, just as they refer to “Pastor” Jones or “Bishop Thomas.”[18]

  1. Evangelist

This position is based on a term from the Greek, euangelistes, meaning, “a messenger of good” or a preacher of the good news (gospel).[19] God provided for certain men to be proclaimers of good news (Ephesians 4:11). In the early days, we read of “Philip the evangelist” (Acts 21:8) and Paul encouraged Timothy to “do the work of an evangelist” (1 Timothy 4:5). One source points out that “the term has perhaps wrongly been employed sometimes of those who do virtually the work of a pastor [shepherd] but with a lower status, usually on educational grounds. In fact, in the NT the roles of evangelist and pastor [shepherd] seem to be distinct but related, one being a ‘fisher of men,’ the other a shepherd of Christ’s flock.”[20] Thus, the common practice of calling a shepherd (the overseer or elder) the “evangelist” is incorrect. As to the use of evangelist as a title, we know of no church that regularly does so but probably there are a few.

  1. Pastor

You will recognize this as a favorite way of addressing a clergyman or clergywoman in Protestant circles.  Thus, we would have, “Pastor Richardson” or “Pastor North.” But is this right?  The word “pastor” comes from the Greek poimen, meaning “a shepherd, one who tends herds or flocks.”[21] The English word has its origin in the Latin, pastor, meaning “shepherd.”[22]  We might remember that the Latin Vulgate dominated the Western Church for a thousand years and the term would have become quite familiar in this Catholic Church because of this usage and dominance. Strangely, this Latin term became the acceptable term even in Protestantism for a church office. The KJV uses it and this seemed to place an endorsement on its usage for millions of people until this very day.

Obviously, poimen should be translated “shepherd” in our English versions instead of the term Pastor.” Christ Himself is called our “Shepherd” (1 Peter 2:25). In the new covenant Scriptures, the elders or overseers in the local assembly were the shepherds of the flock (1 Peter 5:2). In fact, the “elder,” the “overseer,” and the “shepherd” were terms referring to the same position in the assembly (Acts 20:17, 28; 1 Peter 5:1-3). These servants were all men/males (see 1 Timothy 3:1-2 and Titus 1:5-6) and were local men who equipped the saints to serve others (cf. Ephesians 4:11-12).

Today the term “pastor” is much abused. It is widely used as a title (“Pastor Roberts” or “Pastor Joan”), something that is foreign to the early body of Christ. Further, it is used for an entirely different position than what it was in the first century. It is sometimes used to refer to a young, unmarried, childless man (even woman!) who is imported from another area and who alone “pastors.” In the early assembly, however, the shepherd (the elder or overseer) was older (Acts 20:17), married (1 Timothy 3:2; Titus 1:6), a father of believing children (Titus 1:6; 1 Timothy 3:4-5), chosen from the local saints (Acts 14:23; Titus 1:5), and one who served with other shepherds rather than alone (Acts 20:17, 28, Philippians 1:1; Titus 1:5). Why would we not practice this today?

A third group of contemporary titles also have their origin in the Scriptures. But just as in the former class, these titles are sometimes used to exalt man and are used in a manner different from the way they were in the Bible. Here are a few:

  1. Saint

This term in our Bibles comes from the Greek hagios, meaning “set apart” or “separated” from sin and the world to God and His service. It is used of individual Christians in Philippians 4:21 but commonly it was used in the plural.  “As used of believers, it designates all such and is not applied merely to persons of exceptional holiness, or to those who, having died, were characterized by exceptional acts of ‘saintliness.’”[23] The point here is that “saint” is used of every faithful follower of Christ, whether living or dead, and does not refer to certain Catholic “holy” people who have been officially canonized after death. It definitely should not be used as a title.

Today we read and hear of the apostles and other New Testament writers being called such names as “Saint Paul,” “Saint Peter,” Saint John,” or “Saint Matthew.” The older translations of the New Testament (such as the KJV) promoted this wrong use of the term. Additionally, the Catholic Church and Orthodox churches even use “Saint” to refer to other “important” leaders and “holy” people of the past, ones who were canonized and elevated after death: “Saint Barbara,” “Saint Ann,” “Saint Augustine,” or “Saint Thomas Aquinas.” Even an angel can be labeled as “Saint Gabriel” or “Saint Michael”!  This is also reflected in many cities of the world (e.g., Saint Petersburg, Saint Louis, Saint Paul, San [Saint] Francisco, San [Saint] Diego, San [Saint] Antonio, etc.) We can see that “saint” is often used in a way different from the way it is used in Scripture. It was never used as a title!

  1. Brother

The Greek word here is adelphos, a “brother.” Often it was used without respect to gender (cf. Acts 1:15; Romans 1:13).  Jesus said, “One is your Teacher, and you are all brothers” (Matthew 23:8b). But sometimes the term adelphos refers exclusively to male believers (cf. Acts 1:16; 15:7, 13).

It is important to note that “brother” was used for all Christians and not just for certain religious men, as in Catholicism.  In some Protestant churches, people use the term “brother” only with reference to the leadership of a congregation. Thus, so-called “Pastor Jones” may receive mail addressed to “Brother and Mrs. Jones.” He receives the term “brother” but she only receives “Mrs.” More often, the term is used as a title to refer to any male member of a congregation. This is so particularly in more fundamentalist, evangelical, or black congregations; seldom, if ever, is “brother” used in the larger, liberal, mainline denominations.

“Brother” generally precedes one’s name, such as “brother Tom” or “brother Bill.” It has become so formal in usage that it is often used with the last name (“brother Smith”) and it is often capitalized (“Brother Jones”). It may even be abbreviated: “Bro. Jones” or “Bro Tom.” This contemporary raising of a simple, common noun (brother) to a formal usage may not have many negative consequences (it may be a reminder that we are all brothers in God’s family). On the other hand, it is likely without Scriptural precedent or support.  2 Peter 3:15 appears to use “brother” with Paul in a descriptive way and not as a title. If Acts 9:17 does use the title as a title, it is probably used in a national or ethnic manner (cf. Romans 9:3), rather than a Christian sense, since Paul was as yet unsaved (Acts 9:18-19 with 22:16). In summary, it is probably better to not use “brother” as a title as has become popular in some Protestant circles of our day. In other words, Tom may be a “brother” in Christ—rather than “Brother Tom” or “Bro. Tom.”

  1. Sister

This term in the Greek is adelphe, a sister.[24] In Scripture, it refers to all female Christians and not a select few of them (cf. 1 Corinthians 7:15; James 2:15). We know that the Roman Catholic Church, the Lutheran Church, and others use the term with reference to a portion of their female membership who specially dedicate themselves to a religious life in service to the church and the world. This agrees with the accepted definition: “A member of a religious order of women; a nun.” Further, it is “used as a form of address for such a woman, alone, or followed by the woman’s name.”[25]  We can see that this exclusive use of “sister” is totally without Biblical support. Further, the use of “sister” as an official formal title (as in “Sister Mary” or “Sister Smith”) is also without Scriptural support. Similar to “Brother” or “Bro.,” the term has become so formalized in some circles that we read of “Sis. Jones” or “Sis. Sally.”

Additional Titles

Religious Titles?

The foregoing are some of the more popular titles used in the religious world today.  However, there are others widely used that could be mentioned that either totally contradict Biblical principles, or violate express commands, or refer to positions unknown in God’s Word. Notice a few of these:

  • Cardinal
  • Chief Bishop
  • General Overseer
  • Monsignor
  • Archbishop
  • Mother
  • Mother Superior

We also know that there are certain positions or offices that man have devised that generally are not used as titles, although they may be:

  • President
  • Councilman (councilwoman)
  • Steward
  • Parson
  • Rector
  • Vicar

As we examine the subject further, we discover that religious leaders have devised a wide array of different positions, offices, and titles that clearly conflict with Biblical principles.[26] A few would be:

  • Chaplain
  • Chancellor
  • Lord Chancellor
  • Prince Bishop
  • Abbot
  • Vicar General
  • Judicial Vicar
  • Prior
  • Abbess
  • Prioress
  • Metropolitan
  • Archpriest
  • Ecumenical Patriarch
  • Primate
  • Presiding Bishop
  • Major Archbishop
  • Lord Bishop

Local Examples

Religious Titles?

Maybe it would be helpful to see what we mean by citing some local examples of churches that freely use religious titles for their officers. These are drawn from congregations near where I live. I’ll simply list the congregational name and after this we’ll give the officer and title:

  • Matthew’s Lutheran Church
  • Pastor Michael Masterson
  • Destiny Church
  • Pastor James R. Womack
  • St Bartholomew Catholic Church
  • Father Jim Pemberton
  • Deacon Gary Brooks
  • Sister Yolanda Pineda
  • Sister Silvia Serrano
  • Barbara’s Orthodox Church
  • Father Basil Zebrun
  • Archbishop Dmitri
  • Patrick Catholic Cathedral
  • Monsignor Joseph Pemberton
  • Bishop Delaney (past)
  • Fort Worth Presbyterian Church (including the past)
  • Reverend Brim
  • Doctor Robert Jones
  • Pastor Bohl
  • Reverend Dana Jones
  • Reverend Karl Travis
  • Hallmark Baptist Church
  • Pastor Mike Haley
  • Arborlawn United Methodist Church
  • Reverend Ben Disney
  • Reverend Bryan Bellamy
  • Reverend DeAndrea Dare
  • Reverend Judy Williamson
  • Reverend Verne Fuqua
  • Reverend Tom Stoker
  • Genesis United Methodist Church
  • Doctor Jim Conner
  • Pastor Beth Evers
  • Pastor David Griffin
  • Wedgwood Baptist Church
  • Doctor David Mills
  • Pastor Al Meredeth
  • Mosier Valley Seventh-day Adventist Church
  • Elder Federico Williams
  • Sister Armilla Brooks
  • Elder Linwood Murphy
  • Elder Alexander Negonde
  • Sister Katie Ates
  • Westminster Presbyterian Church
  • Doctor Donald Hogg
  • Reverend C. L. Altfather (past)
  • Christ Church Assembly of God
  • Pastors Darius and Cindy
  • Pastors Steve and Joy Bryant
  • Great Commission Baptist Church
  • Reverend Douglas E. Brown
  • Sister Marilyn J. Johnson
  • Reverend Terrence D. Howard
  • Reverend Anthony R. Estell
  • Reverend Roy Edwards
  • Sister Beverly Walker
  • Deacon Randy Davis
  • McKinney Memorial Bible Church
  • Doctor Samuel T. McKinney (past)

Obviously we could continue on and on here, but this is sufficient to get an idea of how widespread the use of religious titles is in institutional churches all around us. You will find this to be the case in your own city, community, or church!

Concluding Thoughts

We encourage you to refrain from the use of titles that especially exalt man (or woman). Elihu’s counsel might be applicable: “Let me now be partial to no one; nor flatter any man. For I do not know how to flatter, else my Maker would soon take me away” (Job 32:21-22). We can show respect without employing certain objectionable terms which simply flatter a person. What can we do in writing? Perhaps we can show some disapproval of titles and yet communicate accommodatively with the use of quotation marks or other means, e.g., “Pope” John, or “so-called Pope Benedict.”

Another observation may be made. An undiscerning “legalist” could read Jesus’ instructions (Matthew 23:8-10) and only object to the use of the terms that He specifically forbids. This would miss Christ’s point. Since He is condemning pride, self-exaltation, and vain display (vv. 5-12), Jesus would actually frown upon any title that would express such an attitude whether a given title was used in the first century or not.

Someone may ask whether it would be possible for one to use a religious title and yet maintain an attitude of humility. We think that there may be some possibility—to a degree. However, most exclusive titles we have mentioned either manifest a wrong self-exaltation or at least incline a person in that direction. Therefore, we would discourage their use altogether.

The main point that we would like to stress is that the Lord wanted His followers to recognize their equality with one another. They were all brothers (Matthew 23:8b). Jesus wanted the disciples to be clothed with humility (1 Peter 5:5-6). Self-exaltation is of the flesh whereas self-humiliation is of the Spirit. He did not mean that there would be no distinction with regard to position, work, or function. But He did emphasize that even “the greatest” should regard himself as the “servant” of others (Matthew 23:11; cf. 20:25-28). Religious titles tend to exalt the man or woman and create pride—the very trait that the Lord finds an abomination (Proverbs 16:5; cf. v. 18).

We need to see the fallacy of the clergy-laity distinction that is pervasive in institutional, formal, false religion. While it is true that not every believer is an overseer in the assembly (or a servant, preacher, teacher, etc.—Romans 12:4), each of us has free and direct contact and fellowship with God through Christ. We are all priests (1 Peter 2:5, 9; Revelation 1:6). We are all sons of God (Galatians 5:26, 29). We are all one in Christ (Galatians 3:28). We all have access to God through Christ (Ephesians 2:18). We are all servants of God (Romans 6:16, 18, 19, 22). We do not need a special class of people to function as priests as in God’s organization with Israel.

Besides showing hat Christian humility disallows prideful and self-exalting religious titles, we have attempted to explain briefly now certain popular titles of today were not “official titles” in the early days of the way of Christ.  They were terms of description but were not meant to preface one’s name. Further, some of the titles employed today refer to positions entirely unknown in the early body of saints. Perhaps if some were to use Biblical terminology more consistently they would find no place for the offices they have created. The result would be a more thoroughly Biblical arrangement in the local assembly. There would be no room for extra-Biblical organization and structure. Are we thinking too idealistically? We think not. Let it be our settled goal to serve God in humility and in Biblical simplicity as we carefully follow the directives and examples of Scripture—given by our God!

A Final Plea

Religious Titles?

We have a final word for clergymen and other religious professionals who find themselves caught up in the maze of established extra-Biblical organization. You perhaps can see the point we have discussed on these pages regarding religious titles—unless the enemy of our soul has blinded your mind and conscience. But you now find yourself deeply entrenched in a human religious denominational or church system that expects you to teach, preach, and practice just what the religious authorities dictate.

Our plea to you is to do what you now know you should do—regardless of the consequences. Paul the apostle said it well and succinctly: “Am I now seeking the favor of men, or of God? Or am I striving to please men? If I were still trying to please men, I would not be a bond-servant of Christ” (Galatians 1:10). Would you be willing to say the same thing? Are you willing to assume an unscriptural position and take an unscriptural title that you know is displeasing to God? Will you continue to call yourself “Pastor Jones,” “Father Brown,” “Bishop “O’Flannery,” or “Reverend Smith”?

Or will you step out in faith and refuse to allow established religious traditions to squeeze you into their denominational mold?  The question of “titles” is actually only “the tip of the iceberg.” As you seek to discover the essence of New Testament Christianity, God will reveal even more to you. Keep your eyes on God and His written Word and He will reveal even more clearly His will for your life and service.

A Final Word to Church Women

One final word to the women who find themselves in religious service of some kind. We know that there are many thousands of devoted women who fill positions in churches and take religious titles of many kinds: “President Cathy Smith,” “Bishop Cynthia Jones,” “Pastor Barbara Johnson,” or “Sister Josephine Williams.” We have written other literature (such as The Discipleship of Devoted Women, and The Service and Position of Women in Christ) that explores this more deeply.

Simply stated, we know certain facts. We know that all of the apostles that Jesus chose were men (males) (Matthew 10:2-5). All of the writers of the Old Testament books and New Testament books were men. Only men were to fill the position of “overseer” (1 Timothy 3:1-2; Titus 1:5-6). This was another term for the “elder” (presbyter) or “shepherd” (pastor). Thus, the overseer/elder/shepherd (bishop, elder, pastor) must be a man.  Only men were to be deacons (1 Timothy 3:8-13). As far as we know, only men were evangelists or preachers (cf. Ephesians 4:11; Acts 21:9; 2 Timothy 4:5). We also know that women were not to teach or exercise authority over a man, but were to remain quiet and were to be submissive (1 Timothy 2:11-12). Women were to be submissive and silent in the assembly (1 Timothy 14:33-37). Further, only the men/males were permitted to pray publicly (1 Timothy 2:8).

If you reject the truth that the Word of God is inspired and authoritative, then you are free to do whatever you wish (cf. 1 Thessalonians 2:13; 4:2; 2 Timothy 3:15-17; 2 Peter 1:20-21; 3:2). But if you do accept the Bible as inspired of God and your authority, this question of what is God’s will is settled. What will you do?

“All of you, clothe yourselves with humility toward one another, for God is opposed to the proud, but gives grace to the humble” (1 Peter 5:5b).



[1] formsofaddress.info/CLE.html

[2] The New International Dictionary of the Christian Church (Grand Rapids: Zondervan Publishing House), p. 370.

[3] Ibid, p. 793.

[4] formsofaddress.info/CLE.html

[5] The American Heritage College Dictionary.

[6] en.wikipedia.org/wiki/The_Reverend

[7] Ibid.

[8] Vine’s Complete Expository Dictionary of Old and New Testament Words.

[9] The American Heritage College Dictionary.

[10] Vine’s Complete Expository Dictionary of Old and New Testament Words.

[11] The New International Dictionary of the Christian Church.

[12] Vine’s Complete Expository Dictionary of Old and New Testament Words.

[13] Presbutes means “old man, aged man” (Bauer, Arndt, Gingrich, Danker, A Greek-English Lexicon of the New Testament).

[14] The New International Dictionary of the Christian Church

[15] Vine’s Complete Expository Dictionary of Old and New Testament Words.

[16] forums.catholic.com/showthread.php?t=584466


[18] formsofaddress.info/Deacon_Christian_Orthodox.html

[19]Vine’s Complete Expository Dictionary of Old and New Testament Words

[20] The New International Dictionary of the Christian Church.

[21] Vine’s Complete Expository Dictionary of Old and New Testament Words

[22] The American Heritage College Dictionary

[23] Vine’s Complete Expository Dictionary of Old and New Testament Words.

[24] Vine’s Complete Expository Dictionary of Old and New Testament Words.

[25] The American Heritage College Dictionary.

[26] Such a list can be found at Index of religious honorifics and titles (en.wikipedia.org/wiki /Index_of_religious_honorifics _and_titles).


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