And Do Not Be Called “Leaders”
Jesus taught His disciples and the multitudes not to be called, “leaders (καθηγηταί).” In His discourse against the religious establishment (Matthew 23), Jesus also warned them not to be called “father” or “rabbi.” Jesus was in the heat of debate with the scribes, the Sadducees, and the Pharisees (Mt 22). He silenced them with His arguments on the issue of Christ, the Messiah (Mt 22:46). He then turned to the people with instruction (Mt 23:1).
First, Jesus explained what the religious leaders were doing (Mt 23:2). They seated themselves in the chair of Moses. The allusion was to a chair in every synagogue that was reserved for the leaders. It was called the chair of Moses. There is an excellent example of this at the ruins of the synagogue at Chorazin, on the north shore of the Sea of Galilee. It was the chair reserved for the one who taught and led the people.
Second, Jesus further explained that the teaching of the Law was important (Mt 23:3). Jesus had a very high view of the Law of Moses. The people should do and observe what was taught; but Jesus then explained that the example set by the leaders was not to be followed (23:3b). His reason for the disconnect pertained to the religious leaders’ hypocrisy (23:3c). They taught what was right, but they did not live it. In fact, they did the opposite (23:3d).
Third, Jesus demonstrated how the leaders’ hypocrisy played out. The leaders told the people to do this and not do that, but the leaders themselves did not lead by example. They were busy making a show out of religion (23:5), but they were deficient in keeping the Law. They had missed the main thing in preference for the appearance. They loved being leaders. They enjoyed the attention it gave them. They reveled in the praise of men. They wanted to make a name for themselves. They resided in their ivory towers, babbling on about religion. Pride and position were everything to them, but they had no love for God in their hearts (Jn 5:42).
Fourth, Jesus addressed the issue of titles (23:8–10). I remember working for a financial corporation. This company loved titles. Everyone had a title, and the exalted titles were fairly easy to attain. Vice Presidents abounded at this firm. In particular, Jesus prohibited His disciples from taking on the title “rabbi,” which means “teacher.” He also prohibited the title, “father.” The third title which was off limits to Jesus’ disciples was “leader.”
If one looks closely at the text and the titles (vv. 8–10), there is an appearance of the Trinity. Jesus Christ is our leader (23:10). We have One who carries the title, “Father.” We pray to God, “Our Father…” The Holy Spirit is our Teacher (Jn 14:26; 1 Jn 2:27), who discloses the truth of God (Jn 16:13–15). God the Father, God the Son, and God the Holy Spirit retain the titles men take for themselves.
Immediately, the question arises, “Should we take Jesus literally here, or is he just speaking in figurative language?” The three titles in question are reasonably easy to understand. A teacher, a father, and a leader are titles we use, today. They represent functions performed by people, who typically have the titles attached to them. My children will go to school today and listen to their teacher. I will be a father to them in both name and function. Leaders are recognized by the fact they have people following them.
The key to the text of Matthew 23 is found in Matthew 23:11. Jesus Christ, our leader, wants us to follow His teaching. He gave the principle for all Christians to understand and abide by, “But the greatest among you shall be your servant.” Here is the essence of Christianity without religious hierarchy. We serve one another. Even those identified as elders are not to lord over anyone (1 Pet 5:1–5) in performing their service to the Lord and to His church.
So, what is all this talk of pastors, teachers, priests, fathers, bishops, archbishops, and popes? What should we do with the privilege of paying $75 to attend the next “leaders” conference? Should we be part of the, “leadership network”? My spirit cringes when I write these words because I sense the church is so far from Jesus’ teaching. We laugh when we hear some titles brought together in crasis, “doctor apostle” so and so. Really? Some dear brothers in Africa mock the perversion of titles by referring to one another as, “the bishop of Africa.” Titles are a joke.
On a move to Michigan a number of years ago, a missionary medical doctor and his wife in our town rounded up a few hulking men at their church, to help our family move into our new home in our new town. He was neither a medical doctor nor a missionary in helping us. He was being the servant Jesus spoke about in Matthew 23:11. His wife brought us enough food to eat for two days. “Larry” and “Lori” is what everyone called them. They are servants of the Most High God. They get it. They walk humbly with their God. Larry has a heart condition. It did not stop him from lifting one box after another. He was relentless in serving us. He argued for a salubrious service as unto the Lord. He inspired other servants to join him. One man was a high wire electrician. Another was a farmer. They bore our burden for us in our time of need.
How should we then live? How should we go about our days living as Jesus Christ would have us to live? There is a warning in Matthew 23:12, “And whoever exalts himself shall be humbled, and whoever humbles himself shall be exalted.” The paradox is profound. Titles are dangerous disobedience. Men love them. How about you? Do you need a title? For what purpose do you allow others to call you by that title?
I am not a doctor, but I might offer a prescription. When we see the office of deacon and elder in the New Testament (1 Tim 3; Tit 1), we should embrace the idea of doing service unto God and unto the church. These are called, “offices.” An officer serves and protects, but he does not lord over. When he serves, this fulfills the office. There is no title necessary. Note that proistamenos is the Greek word translated “leadership” in Romans 12:8; 1 Thess 5:12 and means “to provide care.”
The adoption of titles by the church is an unfortunate incorporation of hierarchy from the world. Hierarchy simply does not exist in Christ’s church. We are brothers and sisters. We are co-heirs with Christ. We are sheep in His pasture. We are children. Jesus referred to us as, “little ones.” Shame on us for identifying the “clergy” versus “laity.”
The world knows the church by our bad behavior in the ways of the world. We are very worldly, and we are not very good at it. They do not know us by our love for one another because we are not serving one another in love. We, like the scribes, Sadducees, and Pharisees are lusting after power and position. We are hypocrites. I know my own heart, so I will be the first to cast a stone at myself as the chief of sinners in this regard. I liked to be called, “pastor.” I was so bad at being a pastor that I have been fired three times by three different churches. Therefore, I disassociate myself from the title, “pastor,” today. Good exegesis will tell you that “pastor” is not a position, it is an action of service to God’s flock.
Muhammed Ali self-titled, “the greatest,” was brought low with disease. Be aware of others who push the issue of titles. No one should be called, “father,” “rabbi,” or “leader” in the church of Jesus Christ. No other titles are needed either. We are members one of another. We need every member in the body. We must do unto others as we would have it be done to us. If they receive any such title for the sake of their position, then they are none of these; for we have One Father, who is God, and One Lord and Leader, Jesus Christ, and One Teacher, who is the Holy Spirit. They are the Greatest, and they will not share their glory with another. If we insist on titles in the church then, “woe unto us.”
David E. Norczyk
Spokane Valley, Washington
February 2, 2021