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Titles


Jesus lists some titles that we are not to use. They are Father, Rabbi (or Teacher), and Master. But, apart from Rabbi, they are just English translations of Greek (or Aramaic) equivalents. The word Doctor also means Teacher, and Mister (Mr.) is the modern version of Master. Sir is derived from Sire, which means father. Pope and Padre are other variations of Father. So the list takes in most of the titles that we use today. If you include feminine titles like Mother and Mrs. (mistress, or female master), there are few allowable titles left.

But then the question arises as to whether there are exceptions. Some have argued that these titles have only been forbidden for ecclesiastical leaders, and that there is nothing wrong with us using them for secular leaders. But then, why didn't Jesus specify exceptions? On the contrary, he says, "Call no man on earth Father." (Matthew 23:8-10) That sounds pretty much all-encompassing.

But what about our real parents? Did he mean that we could not call them Mother and Father or Mom/Mum and Dad?

Strangely enough, Jesus actually gave us even stronger instructions with regard to them. He says that we must "hate" them (Luke 14:26), apparently in an effort to counter any claims that our relationship to our natural parents should be exempt from his instructions about such things as titles.

As a community, we have made exceptions of young children, because we feel that childhood is like the Old Testament, where people learn to "live under the law" until they reach an age where they can appreciate the contrast and make a decision for themselves to accept the teachings of Jesus. We also think that it is important for young children to understand that two people (Mom/Mum and Dad) have a special interest in them. We believe it is from this relationship that they will learn to appreciate the greater interest that their heavenly Father has in them.

However, we know of other parents who have taught their children to call them by first name from infancy, and it has apparently not had any detrimental effects. So it may be that Jesus actually meant for us to take the instructions to that degree.

But what is the purpose of the rule in the first place? People invariably argue that the title "is just a sign of respect" and so it is harmless. Well, yes, of course it is a sign of respect. Don't they think Jesus knew that when he made the rule? Perhaps he was looking for something deeper, i.e. for genuine respect, as opposed to a "sign" of respect.

We are amazed at how many leaders would rather have the trappings of respectability than the real thing. Yet we have found that dropping titles for people whom we really do respect has caused us to work harder at showing genuine respect to them in other ways.

Jesus may have also have been trying to get us to distinguish between respect and fear. Early Christians often had to die for their faith. But Jesus told them, "Fear not them which destroy the body, but rather fear Him who can destroy both body and soul in hell." (Matthew 10:28) How could we ever die for our faith if we don't even have the courage to call a magistrate "brother" or our own mother Mary (or whatever her real name happens to be)? We need to face these fears, many of which are totally irrational.

Calling someone who is supposedly superior (in age, wealth, power, or education) by their first name is a good step in overcoming fear. Remember... the worst they can do is kill you!

Some people have avoided an actual confrontation simply by using no form of address at all. But if this is overdone, it could be considered an attempt to escape the real test. If you are going to have continued contact with someone, it may be best to get the job over and done with. One day you will probably look back and laugh at how scared you were the first time.

An awkward situation arises when you don't know the person's first name. Rather than call them only by their last name ("Dear Jones", or "Hello, Smith".) you could use the title Brother or Sister.

But then this brings up the question of titles which are not specifically forbidden in scripture... titles like Reverend, Your Honour, Uncle, Pastor, or even Brother and Sister, when those titles are used to distinguish a member of a religious order. This is an area where we have a little more room for personal opinion. Of course, with titles like Reverend or Your Worship, the title actually seems to be worse than the ones Jesus listed, in terms of elevating the recipient. On that basis, they should probably be dropped like a hot potato.

Because the Bible uses masculine language to cover both sexes, we assume that terms like Mother and Mrs. are also taboo. But with other, more benign titles, it may be a matter of just determining whether they are being used by yourself out of fear, or being demanded by the recipient out of pride.

It helps if you can explain your reason for not using a title. If you do so humbly and respectfully, most reasonable people will respect your conscience. (Parents are the ones least likely to respect your conscience!) But even for those who baulk at your decision, you can find other ways to express your love and respect, and perhaps with time they will be won over.

One final comment has to do with using a forbidden word in reference to what a person does as opposed to using it as a title. Your parents are still your parents; a doctor is still a doctor; and teachers are still teachers. So do not feel guilty about using those terms as descriptions of the people. My doctor's name is Jenny. But when I speak to her receptionist, I can either say, "Is the doctor in?" or I can say, "Is Jenny in?" This is particularly helpful with Catholic priests, because if you don't know "Father So-and-so's" first name, you can just say "the priest".

When talking about your parents, you would still refer to them as your mother and your father. You could still give them gifts for Mother's Day and Father's Day, etc. In this way, you still continue to recognise and honour them as your parents, while not using the title... out of greater respect for your heavenly Father.

The problem is usually hardest when it comes to siblings. Brothers and sisters generally use the title (Mom and Dad, or Grandma and Grandpa) when talking to one another about their parents or grandparents. Saying "my father" or "our grandmother" to them would be as awkward as using the real name for these people. However, siblings eventually adjust to your use of real names (probably because they often hear others using these names for parents and grandparents anyway) faster than they adjust to the rather unnatural "our mother" phrase.

In the end, you must work out for yourself how to deal with the finer points of obeying Jesus with regard to titles. But hopefully these comments will be of some help along the way.

(See also Forsaking Your Parents.)

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