Faith & Spirituality

A Clean Break with Titles

A couple of Sundays ago, I heard a sermon on Matthew 23. I don’t know why, but for some reason it always raises questions for me that no one else seems to have — or at any rate, that no one else seems willing to answer.

In this passage, Jesus is taking the Pharisees to task for hypocrisy. In verses 8-12, he addresses His disciples:

“But you are not to be called ‘Rabbi,’ for you have one Teacher, and you are all brothers. And do not call anyone on earth ‘father,’ for you have one Father, and he is in heaven. Nor are you to be called instructors, for you have one Instructor, the Messiah. The greatest among you will be your servant. For those who exalt themselves will be humbled, and those who humble themselves will be exalted.”

So I’m reading along in my Bible and thinking: Hmm, I wonder what Jesus would say about the titles some of us use for ourselves in the church today? “Pastor”, for instance…?

I must have been thinking these thoughts very loudly. Clearly the pastor heard me, because right away he said, “Now, please understand — Jesus is not against us having titles or positions. He just doesn’t want us using them to try to get ourselves noticed or to have people serve us.”

Well… I don’t know about that. What I hear Jesus saying about taking special titles is: Don’t do it. Period. With the implication that if you do, you are usurping Christ’s rightful place. I see no indication (at least in this particular text) that taking whatever title or position you want is okay as long as you have good intentions.

But wait, there’s more!

According to the pastor — and this was news to me — church leaders aren’t actually “over” anyone else at all! They’re leaders, yes, but they’re servant leaders: they’re there to make your life easier, not to lord it over you. In fact, church leaders should actually be serving more than the average churchgoer. They should be at church every time the doors are open, the first to come and the last to leave at every event. They should be available for anything and everything. Even on short notice. Even when no one else is.

Sounds good, right? Actually, it sounds like a fast track to burnout. Worse yet, it robs others of the opportunity to serve in their own areas of giftedness, because the Holy Spirit’s gifts and callings don’t fall neatly into line with our artificial clergy/laity divisions. (Don’t believe me? Try volunteering to take over some of the preaching on Sundays and see what your pastor says.)

The old adage that “ten percent of the people in church do ninety percent of the work” holds true — and will continue to do so, as long as we believe that church leaders should be working harder than everyone else.

Here’s a novel idea: What would happen if all of us in the church were able to serve according to our gifts, with no man-made restrictions whatsoever? What’s the point of hiring religious professionals whom we then obligate to be “on call” more than anyone else? Is this how we make ourselves feel better about our titles and positions that Jesus explicitly told us not to have — because we’re (supposedly) using them for good?

I wonder if we’re rationalizing. I wonder if we might be taking things God does not want us to do and baptizing them in our good intentions to make them acceptable.

Besides, just imagine the alternative. What would the church look like if there were no hierarchy? No titles? No special positions occupied by individuals who believe themselves to be “more of a servant than you are”?

How much better would we be at making disciples? How much more effective in “bearing one another’s burdens”? How much more attractive to a broken, hurting world would we be if our churches didn’t resemble just another corporate business setting with “important people” and “nobodies”?

Seriously, if we dropped all of that and simply related to each other as brothers and sisters, what’s the worst that could happen?

So far, most of us haven’t been willing to find out.

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