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Religious Titles

Jill and I went to lunch last week at one of our favorite restaurants. When the manager saw me, he smiled and said, “Hello, Rev.” I smiled back, said hello, and added, “You can just call me Aaron.” The manager looked a little surprised and asked, “Isn’t that what I am supposed to call you?” That question allowed me to take a minute and explain to him why I do not wear religious titles.


One would be hard pressed to list all of the religious titles in existence. Reverend, Bishop, Archbishop, Father, Your Holiness, Your Eminence, Doctor, Pastor, and Elder are just some examples. There are even titles for the preacher's wife (like "First Lady"), and web pages that provide instruction on "clergy etiquette." Below are two excerpts.


Greeting Clergy in Person. When we address Deacons or Priests, we should use the title "Father." Bishops we should address as "Your Grace." Though all Bishops (including Patriarchs) are equal in the Orthodox Church, they do have different administrative duties and honors that accrue to their rank in this sense. Thus, "Your Eminence" is the proper title for Bishops with suffragans or assistant Bishops, Metropolitans, and most Archbishops (among the exceptions to this rule is the Archbishop of Athens, who is addressed as "Your Beatitude'). "Your Beatitude" is the proper title for Patriarchs (except for the Ecumenical Patriarch in Constantinople, who is addressed as "Your All--Holiness"). When we approach an Orthodox Presbyter or Bishop (but not a Deacon), we make a bow by reaching down and touching the floor with our right hand, place our right hand over the left (palms upward), and say: "Bless, Father" (or "Bless, Your Grace," or "Bless, Your Eminence," etc.). The Priest or Bishop then answers, "May the Lord bless you," blesses us with the Sign of the Cross, and places his right hand in our hands. We kiss then his hand.


Addressing Clergy in a Letter. When we write to a clergyman (and, by custom, monastics), we should open our letter with the greeting, "Bless, Father." At the end of the letter, it is customary to close with the following line: "Kissing your right hand…" It is not appropriate to invoke a blessing on a clergyman, as many do: "May God bless you." Not only does this show a certain spiritual arrogance before the image of the cleric, but laymen do not have the Grace of the Priesthood and the prerogative to bless in their stead.


Though the wearing of religious titles is a prevalent practice, many are surprised to learn that such titles are not to be worn by Christians. Below are some reasons why that is so.


(1) They were specifically forbidden. In Matthew 23, Jesus mentioned the special dress, special seats, and special titles of the scribes and Pharisees. Then He said, "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" (vv. 8-10). Notice that Jesus did not want His disciples to wear titles like the religious leaders of the day.


(2) They were not worn in the early church. The first Christians did not use religious titles. Not even the most respected preachers wore them. For instance, Apollos (1 Corinthians 16:12), Timothy (Hebrews 13:23), and Paul (2 Peter 3:15) were simply called “brother.”


(3) They exalt some above others. Disciples are not to elevate themselves above one another. Rather, they are to maintain a servant’s spirit (Matthew 18:1-4; 20:25-28; 23:11-12). By their very nature, religious titles exalt some above others.


(4) They reflect a clergy/laity distinction. There is no such thing as a clergy/laity distinction in the New Testament. However, when men assume titles that elevate them above other members (or wear special clothing, sit in special seats, etc.), such a distinction can hardly be avoided.


The term “reverend” appears one time in the King James Version (KJV). Psalm 111:9 says, “He sent redemption unto his people: he hath commanded his covenant for ever: holy and reverend is his name.” Notice that “reverend” is used in that passage of God. It is a bit presumptuous for men to take a term used only in reference to God and apply it to themselves.


The term Reverend, now in such common use among our people and all other parties, was generally very offensive to Baptists of the old school, and was seldom employed by them in common conversation, in letter inscriptions, or in any other way. Holy and reverend is his name, as a designation of the Divine Being, was a passage often quoted by objectors to giving reverence to men. To the Deity alone, said they, reverence belongs. (50 Years Among the Baptists, David Benedict, p. 286).


The fact that some of the titles worn by men are scriptural terms (like “elder” or “pastor”) does not justify the practice under discussion because they were never worn as titles in the early church. They were used as designations. For instance, Peter referred to himself as simply “a fellow elder” (1 Peter 5:1), not as “Elder Peter.”


Let us refrain from using religious titles. They were forbidden by the Lord and were foreign to the early church. They also exalt some above others and reflect a clergy/laity distinction. So, you can just call me "Aaron!"