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The Titles and Trappings of the Christian Leader

The Titles and Trappings of the Christian Leader December 2, 2021

If I’m being honest, it was a pretty cool feeling the first time someone called me “Pastor Chris.”

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I was 21 and had just started bible college while joining my home church part-time on staff. Although I hadn’t finished my training or been credentialed yet, some people began calling me “Pastor Chris” because I was part of the pastoral staff team, and it felt awesome! I greatly respected the men and women in my life that carried the title of “Pastor” and felt very proud to join their ranks.

However, over time, the title began to feel less exciting. We don’t typically go around calling other people by their job description (“Teacher Julia,” “Plumber Ian,” “Accountant Beth,” etc.). It feels a little weird to be doing it for pastors and no one else.

Also, although being a pastor is a big part of who I am, it’s not the most important part of my identity. If we’re trying to teach and model the message that, “God doesn’t love you because of what you do,” (which is true and important), then it is indeed odd to take some of His leaders and give them a title permanently attached to their name that is all about what they do. I am called “Lead Pastor” as my job description, as someone needs to be in this role, and it is indeed what I do, but it alone should not be the defining quality of who I am.

As well, it became clearer over the years that sometimes this title was desperately sought after by those looking for power and position, as well as other titles like “Prophet Jones” and “Apostle Smith,” etc.

But the biggest problem for me, honestly, came from the teachings of Jesus Himself, in a passage where He is publicly correcting the Pharisees and teachers of the law, the religious leaders of His day, for some of their actions and attitudes:

“Everything they do is done for people to see: They make their phylacteries wide and the tassels on their garments long; they love the place of honor at banquets and the most important seats in the synagogues;  they love to be greeted with respect in the marketplaces and to be called ‘Rabbi’ by others.

“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.” (Mt 23.5-12)

I remember reading this passage a number of years ago and thinking, “OK, so Jesus pretty clearly says that leaders in His Kingdom should have: a) no special titles; b) no special clothes; and c) no special seats. And yet I see churches everywhere where leaders: a) have special titles; b) wear special clothes, or at least their “Sunday best” clothes; and c) sometimes even have special seats of prominence in the sanctuary, or special parking spots, or pictures of them around the building, etc.”

And all of this would seem to be the exact opposite of what Jesus taught.

Of course, there is an attitude towards our leaders that can be honouring and respectful. Hebrews 13.17 says, “Have confidence in your leaders and submit to their authority, because they keep watch over you as those who must give an account. Do this so that their work will be a joy, not a burden, for that would be of no benefit to you.” We are all called to submit to spiritual authority in our lives, and so to follow respectfully after those that God has placed over us in indeed a biblical idea.

But the teachings of Jesus warn us of the dangers of exalting people too highly. This applies not only to professional ministers, but any church leader in our lives.

Beware the ones who are seeking prestige and power. Beware the ones chasing platforms and titles. Beware the ones elevating themselves and climbing the ladder. Special clothes don’t make a Kingdom leader, special seats are not actually the sign of God’s favour, special titles like “Rabbi” or “Father” (or “Pastor”) are not necessary for a true leader in God’s house.

The world’s way of leadership is power and dominance – Jesus tells us that His leaders will look very different than this (Mt 10.25-28). Even Christ Himself did not come to be served, but to be a servant, and to lay His life down for the sake of others (v.28). If the leaders that we follow are not acting in the same manner, then we should rightly question how well they are following in the ways of Christ.

We are to look for the leaders who humble themselves. We are to look for the leaders who serve. We are to be wary of the self-elevating; we are to be drawn to the foot-washers (Jn 13.1-17).

So, today, if someone calls me Pastor Chris, I usually gently respond, “Just ‘Chris’ is fine.” I won’t make a big deal of it, but it is a small way that I remember the teachings of Christ, and remember the way of Jesus.

Christian leaders lay aside titles, trappings, and seats of honour, and choose the lower and humble path of the Son of God. When we don’t, we look like the world. When we do, we look like the Son, and that, of course, is always our goal.

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