Rethinking Church, Part Two: The Pastor's Calling, Authority, and Our Use of Honorific Titles

This is part two of a five-part series I'm calling Rethinking Church. In this post, we're going to talk about a pastor's calling, authority, and why we feel the need to use honorific titles when referring to pastors. As a reminder, I'm writing this series from the point of view of a former pastor with 20+ years experience pastoring various institutional churches. This post is a closer look at one more way institutional church has elevated the role of pastor by insisting he or she has a special, elite calling that the rest of us don't have. This is further reinforced with the pastor being given unlimited authority within the congregation as reflected in the required use of honorific titles. This top-down approach to doing church has been handed to us by hundreds of years of church tradition, not by any mandate found in scripture or coming from God. 

From my own experience and my conversations with others, I see at least five areas where I believe the institutional church has erred to varying degrees, opening the door to a structure within the church that is crippling it and causing disillusionment in those that have left. I'm writing this series in the following order:

I strongly urge you to read these in the order written as each one builds on the previous.

 We talked last time about

how in his zeal to detour divisions in the local assembly, Ignatius of Antioch set in motion a false structure of top-down leadership designed to dole out punishments for non-compliance and rewards for compliance. This hierarchy of authority that Ignatius implemented was centered around one pastor as the sole individual who possessed unquestionable authority in the local assembly and without whom, the assembly could not function. This system was firmly in place by the mid-third century and is still with us in most institutional churches today, where there is a top-down authority structure in place. There are certain actions in the body of Christ that Ignatius decided can only be performed by the church's sole lead pastor which is why he could say, 

"Let no one do anything in the church apart from the bishop. Holy communion is valid when celebrated by the bishop or someone the bishop authorizes. Where the bishop is present, there let the congregation gather, just as where Jesus Christ is, there is the church." 

But this idea is foreign to the New Testament and comes to us via tradition alone. There is no mandate in scripture for such thinking. In fact, quite the opposite is true. Note Jesus' words that we alluded to at the end of Part One in this series:

But Jesus called them to him and said, “You know that the rulers of the Gentiles lord it over them, and their great ones exercise authority over them. It shall not be so among you. But whoever would be great among you must be your servant, and whoever would be first among you must be your slave, even as the Son of Man came not to be served but to serve, and to give his life as a ransom for many.” (Matthew 20:25-28, emphasis mine) 

Jesus' words, "It shall not be so among you" are a clear and concise warning against establishing any kind of authoritative hierarchy within the church that divides sheep from other sheep. We either don't believe Jesus' words, choose to ignore them, or have spiritualized their intended meaning to the point that our top-down authority structures somehow fit into it without compromise. We've been told through the years that because a pastor has a special calling unlike the rest of us, he or she has been given blanket authority over us. We've been told that so many times and for so long that we accept it without question. We believe it without blinking. But tradition has given us this, not the Bible, and we've been teaching tradition as the commands of God for so long, that we've blurred the lines between the two and we can't tell the difference. Let's look closer. 

What Does Scripture Say About a Pastor's Calling and Authority? 

One of the things I participated in on occasion as a pastor was ordination councils. Ordination councils vary from denomination to denomination, but a few things are consistent in most of them. An ordination council is where a group of previously ordained pastors and other invited attendees examine a newbie (usually someone right out of school) who feels called to pastor - called into ministry. One denomination defines the job of an ordination council this way: 

“Ordination is the process by which individuals are consecrated, that is set apart as clergy to perform various religious rites and ceremonies.” 

Sound familiar? This has Ignatius of Antioch's spiritual DNA all over it. There are several assertions in this description that I think are bad and misleading. First, the very idea of ordination, as we think of it in the modern sense (a set-apart clergy caste within the church, clearly separated from the laity) doesn't appear in the New Testament. More on that in a moment. Second, the "various religious rites and ceremonies" refers to communion, baptism, and probably church discipline (I hate that term! It needs re-named or jettisoned altogether). Guess where that idea came from. Hint: Ignatius (see in Part One). The idea of a special class of church clergy being the only ones authorized to perform certain tasks in the church has been handed to us by tradition and tradition alone. There is no precedence in scripture for such an idea. None. You're free to hold to that model if you like, but you don't have to. Any believer has been qualified by the Holy Spirit to do these things. Modern ordination rituals intentionally produce a clergy/laity caste system that cripples the church by creating a top-down authority structure that is foreign to the New Testament, thereby separating the professional Christians from the non-professional ones in direct opposition to Jesus' words, "It shall not be so among you.

Preserving and perpetuating the clergy/laity separation that exists within the church is what most modern ordination councils promote, whether intentionally or unintentionally. Thank God there are those who have undergone the ordination process who reject the clergy/laity distinction and the resulting top-down authority structure it produces. 

In addition to the full barrage of theological and doctrinal questions thrown at a pastoral candidate in an ordination council, are the inevitable questions regarding the person's special call into professional pastoral ministry. "Describe your call to ministry" or "Tell us how God has called you into pastoral ministry" are expected questions in almost any ordination council. A pastoral candidate's "call into ministry" is usually tied to their testimony in some way. It's expected of them to address the idea (and to convince those on the council) that at some point in their Christian life, they received some sort of call to this special role of professional pastor. But if this kind of top-down position is foreign to the New Testament scriptures, and in fact cautioned against by Jesus himself, why would there be a "call" to it?

Another problem I see with this is that scripture doesn't use the words call, called, or calling in that way. I think that's important to note because this idea of a pastor's special calling has come to us via traditions, creeds, and denominational practices. If pastors possess some type of authoritative calling unavailable to the rest of us, we need to know about it and such an important claim should be easy to see in scripture. Scripture uses calling or called in the following ways: 

  • In referring to one's station in life (1 Corinthians 1:26, 7:17, 20) 
  • The call to salvation (Acts 15:17, Romans 1:6-7, 8:30, 9:24, 11:29, 1 Corinthians 1:2, 9, Galatians 1:6, 15, Ephesians 4:1, 2 Peter 1:10) 
  • The free offer of the gospel (Matthew 22:14) 
  • The audible, verbal voice of God (1 Samuel 3:10, Acts 13:2, 1 Corinthians 1:1, Hebrews 11:8) 
  • Paul's call to preach the gospel in Macedonia as a direct result of a vision (Acts 16:10) 
  • Paul's credibility as an Apostle (1 Corinthians 1:1) 
  • A Christian's call to suffer (1 Peter 2:21) 
  • A Christian's call to be a blessing (1 Peter 3:9). 

While the Bible is silent with regards to a pastor having a special authoritative call or anointing on their life, as a setting apart of the pastor as the sole holy guy or gal from the rest of us, it is not silent in encouraging one's desire to serve the body of Christ in this way and labeling that desire a noble thing. Scripture uses terms like aspiration or desire with reference to pastoring, not calling. 

"The saying is trustworthy: If anyone aspires to the office of overseer, he desires a noble task." (1 Timothy 3:1) 

There is no mention of special calling in the sense that we most often think of calling. We've been told so many times that a pastor has a special, almost mystical calling that others in the local assembly don't have, that we believe it and assume it's true. Our insistence on this supposed calling has given us the infamous clergy/laity distinction and we don't question it. We assume its authenticity. On one hand, I get it. If someone has a passionate desire or aspiration to be an elder (I did), it's easy to jump from desire to calling in a church culture that requires you to have a special calling. And in an ordination council, you'll be expected to tell us all about your calling. So we brush up on our calling ahead of time. Because of this supposed calling, we've elevated the role of pastor to one that is harmful and unfair to both the pastor and the rest of the church. What I've seen and from stories I've heard from others, is that "I have a special calling and anointing as your pastor" has become a fall-back position to be used when needed to guilt, coerce, manipulate, win an argument, or threaten someone into submission or behavior modification to further some agenda. It promotes and reinforces a plethora of abusive ecclesiastical models where money flows up and power flows down. Is it any wonder so many are leaving the institutional church? 

Earlier I mentioned that our modern concept of ordination doesn't appear in the New Testament. Here's what I meant by that. In modern ordination councils, there is a setting apart of the clergy from the laity, the academically trained professionals from the rest of the church (more on that in Part Three of this series). The supposed clergy are set apart for special work that they are told only they are equipped to do, or that only they are authorized to direct others to do under their direct supervision because they alone have been called with a special calling and are now ordained. Modern ordination is often thought of as the transference or instilling of some sort of supernatural authority or ability to the one being ordained. Again, this concept isn't in scripture. It's roots are in Ignatius and tradition. The Bible doesn't take us there. Tradition does. We are free to embrace these complicated systems of top-down authority if we want to, but we don't have to, and I suggest we don't. 

However, the Bible does speak of recognizing those gifted to serve the local assembly as elders by the laying on of hands (Acts 14:23, Titus 1:5). This laying on of hands is a public recognition of the Holy Spirit's work in already having gifted an individual with shepherding gifts, apart from formal education or special training. There is no hint of anything mystical going on in the process, separating the supposed clergy from the assumed laity or imparting special authority, calling, or power to one group of people in the church over another, or the placing of someone into a special "office." Such an idea is contrary to Jesus' words. 

What about authority? Don't elders (pastors) possess authority in the church? For the sake of our discussion, the New Testament uses authority in the following ways: 

  • Jesus has all authority in heaven and on earth (Mat. 28:18, Jn. 5:27, Eph. 1:21). 
  • The 72 were given authority to cast out demons and preach the gospel (Lk. 10:17-20). 
  • The 12 were given authority to cast out demons and heal the sick (Mat. 10:1). 
  • Governments have been given authority to govern (Rom. 13:1-7). 
  • The Apostles have authority for building up the church (2 Cor. 10:8, 2 Cor. 13:10, 3 Jn. 1:9). 
  • The elders (pastors) have authority in church matters to protect and preserve the simplicity of the gospel of grace from that which would dilute it (Acts 15:6, 22). 
  • Wives have authority over their husband's bodies and husbands have authority over their wives’ bodies (1 Cor. 7:4). 

The New Testament is silent concerning any top-down authority structure within the assembly that leads to a clergy/laity division; the professional Christian vs the non-professional Christian. As seen above, the authority the Apostles possessed was primarily for serving and building up of the body of Christ to promote unity in the gospel. Any authority structure that leads to a division of one group of people from another, or gives power to one group of people over another, violates Jesus' clear instructions, is ripe for abuse and needs to be jettisoned from our thinking. It's a problem that's contributing heavily to the Dones leaving the church. As I pointed out at the beginning of this post, Jesus is very clear about this:

But Jesus called them to him and said, “You know that the rulers of the Gentiles lord it over them, and their great ones exercise authority over them. It shall not be so among you. But whoever would be great among you must be your servant, and whoever would be first among you must be your slave, even as the Son of Man came not to be served but to serve, and to give his life as a ransom for many.” (Matthew 20:25-28, emphasis mine) 

It shall not be so among you. Do we really believe that? Many do and many are leaving the institutional church because they do and are finding authentic community outside of its four walls. 

Rethinking Our Use of Honorific Titles 

One of the ways we perpetuate and promote the ongoing division of pastors over the rest of the church is in our perpetual use of honorific titles in day to day conversation. When we speak of Pastor So-And-So or Reverend So-And-So, we immediately reinforce the wall of division that separates us from them: the professional clergy from the lowly laity. We do it all the time. Jesus spoke these words with regards to honorific titles being used in the church: 

"But you are not to be called rabbi, for you have one teacher, and you are all brothers. And call no man your father on earth, for you have one Father, who is in heaven. Neither be called instructors, for you have one instructor, the Christ. The greatest among you shall be your servant. Whoever exalts himself will be humbled, and whoever humbles himself will be exalted." (Matthew 23:8-12)

While the title pastor isn't specifically mentioned in Matthew 23, Jesus' opinion of the use of honorific titles in the church is inescapable. Our justification of the use of honorific titles is evidence that we don't really believe this verse, or we've explained it away in favor of tradition. Why do we use honorific titles in the church? Because we've been told to. It's another thing that's been handed to us by tradition (thank you Ignatius) and we don't question it. But honorific titles bring with them, division, and exalt one group of people (the pastors) over another (the rest of the church). The very thing Jesus cautioned against. We either don't believe this verse, or again, we've spiritualized its meaning to the point where we're able to ignore it because we have too much to lose by taking it at face value. 

Why do we take spiritual giftedness and make it into an honorific title? Why do we call Phil, who has been given a gift of shepherding, Pastor Phil? Why do we only do that with the pastors? What about Gary who doesn't like attention, but who has the gift of giving? Why not call him Giver Gary? Perhaps we should address Hank, who has the gift of hospitality, as Hospitality Hank. Or address Mary, who has gifts of mercy, as Mercy Mary. Why don't we call Tanya, who has a gift for teaching, Teacher Tanya? Why will we introduce Phil to others as "my pastor Phil" but we don't introduce Gary to others as "my giver Gary?" Sounds silly doesn't it? My point is simply to say if we're going to misuse one spiritual gift by making it into an honorific title, lets at least be consistent and do it with all of them! 

But didn't Paul claim the honorific title of Apostle? No. Paul and the other Apostles described themselves as Apostles but never used the term as an honorific title. The difference between saying "Paul, an Apostle" and "the Apostle Paul" is huge. The former is a description; the latter is an honorific title intended to intimidate. We use the latter when talking about Paul and the other Apostles but Paul and the others used the former. It's one thing to say Phil is a pastor and quite another to say pastor Phil.

Jesus said he who humbles himself will be exalted, but we've turned that into he who exalts himself will look humble. All because that's what we've been told to do. The use of honorific titles creates an "us and them" mentality in the assembly which is supposed to be a congregation of equals. It's time to rethink this. It's one reason people are leaving the institutional church and finding more authentic community outside its four walls. 

Next up: Rethinking the Clergy/Laity Distinction

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