Are Preachers To Be Called “Reverend”?
Article description: Is the use of a clerical title,
e.g., “Reverend,” “Father,” “Rabbi,” or “Doctor”—within
the framework of religious service—consistent with
the will of God? This week’s question discusses this issue.
”Do you have information as
to when various denominations began to apply the term “reverend” to
The title “Reverend” has been
adopted in many English-speaking denominations as a courtesy
designation for clergymen. Higher orders are designated
as “Very Reverend,” “Right Reverend,” or “Most Reverend.”
Professor Burton S. Easton,
of the General Theological Seminary of the Episcopal Church,
has briefly discussed this matter. He notes that only in
recent times has the Catholic Church begun to employ “Most
Reverend” for its Bishops and Archbishops, while certain
priests (of the “Monsignor” rank) are addressed as “Right
Reverend.” The Professor contends that the Catholic practice
began in Ireland and subsequently spread to America. He
believes the usage commenced among Protestants in England
in about 1865, and has grown since then (Vergilius Ferm, An
Encyclopedia of Religion, New York: The Philosophical
Library, 1945, p. 661).
Those who seek to follow the
apostolic pattern will reject the use of special name-associated,
religious “titles” for two reasons.
First, there is no New Testament
authority for the use of such nomenclature. This argument
will carry no weight with those who are unconcerned with
operating within the bounds of the Lord’s authority; yet,
apostolic teaching is clear that one must not venture into
the domain of presumptuous religious activity (1 Cor. 4:6
ASV; Col. 3:17; 2 Jn. 9). Christians are warned against
religious conduct that is grounded in their personal “will” (cf. “will-worship” – Col.
Second, in principle, the
use of “Reverend,” as a clerical title, is condemned by
the Lord. In a scathing rebuke of the scribes and Pharisees,
Jesus spoke these words:
“But all their works they do
to be seen of men: for they make broad their phylacteries,
and enlarge the borders of their garments, and love the
chief place at feasts, and the chief seats in the synagogues,
and the salutations in the marketplaces, and to be called
of men, Rabbi. But be not ye called Rabbi: for one is your
teacher, and all ye are brethren. And call no man your
father on the earth: for one is your Father, even he who
is in heaven. Neither be ye called masters: for one is
your master, even the Christ. But he that is greatest among
you shall be your servant. And whosoever shall exalt himself
shall be humbled; and whosoever shall humble himself shall
be exalted” (Mt. 23:5-12).
Clearly the Savior has condemned
the use of pompous titles by which Christian men exalt
themselves above their fellows. R.C.H. Lenski, a Lutheran
scholar, noted: “Any title that is contrary to [the] equality
of brethren in Christ Jesus, even the desire for such a
title and honor, is wicked usurpation as far as our one
real Teacher is concerned” (Commentary on Matthew,
Minneapolis: Augsburg, 1943, p. 899).
Albert Barnes, the noted Presbyterian
commentator, expressed a similar sentiment, suggesting
that titles like “Doctor of Divinity” fall into the same
Nor is it appropriate to refer
to the apostles as “Saint Peter” or “Saint Paul” —as some
writers and speakers are accustomed to doing. I once heard
a flamboyant preacher saturate his sermon with allusions
to “Saint Paul” and “Saint Peter.” He slipped up along
the way, however, and quoted a passage from “Saint Galatians”!
More than a century ago, A.
Lukyn Williams, who authored the scholarly work on Matthew
in the Pulpit Commentary series, commented that
the wearing of such titles partakes of “that sectarian
spirit which began in the primitive Church, when one [person]
said, ‘I am of Paul; another, I of Apollos,’ etc. (1 Cor.
1:12), and [this disposition] has continued to this day
in the divisions of the one body into innumerable sects
and parties, ranged under various leaders, and generally
bearing their founder’s name” (Grand Rapids: Eerdmans,
1950, p. 397).
The use of a descriptive phrase,
e.g. in this sentence, “John Doe, an elder, lives in Chicago?,” is
not wrong. But to utilize special titles, “Elder John Doe,” “Rabbi
Samuel Goldstein,” or “The Reverend Bob Smith,” cross the
line, thus demonstrating the very attitude that Christ
rebuked. One might add, as an aside, that distinctive attire
falls under the same sort of condemnation (e.g., the use
of robes, clerical collars, special rings, etc.).
In commenting upon the context
of Matthew 23, A.T. Robertson, a Baptist writer, observed
that some religious leaders are afflicted with “an itch
for notice.” He specifically takes note of both “pope” and “priest” who
covet the religious recognition of “father” (Word Pictures
in the New Testament, Nashville: Broadman, 1930, I, p.
Third, New Testament precedent
is against the august titles that the “clergy” so relish.
If there was any teacher of the primitive church who might
deserve a special appellation, should such have been permissible,
surely it would have been Paul, whose scholastic achievements
eclipsed those of his Jewish kinsmen (cf. Gal. 1:14; Phil.
3:4ff). Yet, when Peter had occasion to refer to his fellow
apostle, he did not allude to “Rabbi Saul” or “Doctor Paul,” but
simply as —“our beloved brother Paul” (2 Pet. 3:15).
As a concluding point, we must
not fail to notice that while there is ample evidence against
men using the title “Reverend” to set themselves apart
from others, a common argument against the use of this
expression is exegetically flawed.
It is not unusual to hear this
“Psalm 111:9 says, ‘Holy and
reverend is his [God’s] name.’ It is therefore wrong to
apply to man that which belongs exclusively to the Lord.”
Though the motive behind the
admonition is noble, namely, to reserve appropriate honor
to the Creator, the argument is specious.
The Hebrew form rendered “reverend” is yare, from
the root yr'. The term signifies “terror,
to be afraid of, to be awed by, to honor, worship,” etc.
The stem form is used 485 times in the Old Testament. Most
of the time it refers to God (about 80%), though it is
used of human beings as well (see: Dictionary of Old
Testament Theology & Exegesis, Willem A. VanGemeren,
Ed., Grand Rapids: Zondervan, 1997, Vol. 2, pp. 527ff).
The Israelite was to “fear” (respect, honor) his parents
(Lev. 19:3). Jehovah’s “sanctuary” was to be reverenced
(Lev. 19:30). Both Moses and Joshua had been “feared” (revered,
honored) by the Hebrew people (Josh. 4:14).
So it is not correct to contend
that yare was
a sacred term reserved exclusively for God.
Moreover, note that in Psalm
111:9 “reverend” and “holy” are joined together. If one
contends that “reverend” is restricted to God alone, he
might as well allege that the term “holy” should never
be used of man. And yet, clearly, that is not the case
(cf. Lev. 11:44; 1 Pet. 1:15).
While the sincere Bible student
wishes to reserve appropriate honor for his Creator, and
thus refrain from using unauthorized titles that elevate
men beyond what is appropriate, he wants to make sure that
his reasoning is sound. This should be borne in mind when
dealing with “reverend” in Psalm 111:9.
Note: This article is not intended
to suggest that professional titles, such as “Doctor” or “Professor” are
inappropriate in medical and/or academic environments.
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