A Question about Matthew 23
July 13, 2023, 12:00 PM

Question: If Jesus says in Matthew 23:8-10 do not call men “Rabbi, teacher, or father,” why do we call ministers “pastor” or reverend?”

Answer: This is a good question because on the surface, it seems we should avoid calling anybody by any titles. But is that what Jesus is really getting at in this passage? I would say the answer is “no.” We need to understand the context of Matthew 23 before we can come to a proper interpretation of Matthew 23:8-10. As I remember from my seminary days, the first three rules in biblical interpretation are “context, context, and context.”

So, what is the context of Matthew 23? The timing of the passage is the final week of Jesus’ life. He triumphantly enters Jerusalem in Matthew 21, and in Matthew 21-22, Jesus has several confrontations with the chief priests, the scribes, the Pharisees, and even the Sadducees. In Matthew 22:46, after His final argument, we read, “And no one was able to answer Him a word, nor from that day on did anyone dare question Him anymore” (Matthew 22:46). They had questioned Jesus relentlessly, and He answered every single challenge. When Jesus asks one question to the Pharisees, they are stumped. It is at this point that Jesus turns to His disciples and speaks about the scribes and Pharisees (Matthew 23:1). So, everything Jesus says about the Pharisees is being said to His disciples as a warning (yet I’m pretty sure the Pharisees were within earshot of Jesus as He was speaking).

Matthew 23:1-12 is particularly directed to the disciples as Jesus speaks about the hypocrisy of the scribes and Pharisees. The rest of the chapter is a series of seven “woes” (dire pronouncements of curse for their hypocrisy). The first thing Jesus says is that they (the scribes and the Pharisees) “sit in Moses’ seat.” That’s a reference of their official authority over the Jewish people. Jesus essentially says observe what they tell you, but do not do what they do. In other words, they are hypocrites; they say one thing, yet do another. Everything they do is for show. They want to be seen and heard and honored. That is the context of Matthew 23:8-10. Now let’s look at the passage and see what we can draw from it.

[8] "But you, do not be called 'Rabbi'; for One is your Teacher, the Christ, and you are all brethren. [9] "Do not call anyone on earth your father; for One is your Father, He who is in heaven. [10] "And do not be called teachers; for One is your Teacher, the Christ. (Matthew 23:8-10 NKJV)

When Jesus tells His disciples this, it’s in the context of His denunciation of the scribes and the Pharisees. Do not be called “Rabbi” (a word derived from the Hebrew word for “great, strong.” It eventually came to be understood as “teacher”) in the sense that the Pharisees are called “Rabbi.” They love being called “Rabbi” because of the honor and prestige it gives them. They use the title to lord it over the people for their own benefit. Don’t be like that, Jesus is saying. Don’t be called “Rabbi” (great one), “father,” or “teacher” (master) in the sense that the Pharisees wanted to be called those things. The key to understanding this in the context is found in vv. 11-12: “But he who is greatest among you shall be your servant. And whoever exalts himself will be humbled, and he who humbles himself will be exalted.” The church of Jesus Christ is not about exalting oneself over others but serving and loving one another.

So, how does this apply to today when we call ministers “pastor” or “reverend?” A couple of things can be said about this. First, the word “minister” comes from Latin, and it means “servant or attendant.” A minister is one who ministers or serves in the church. Similarly, the word “pastor” also comes from Latin, and it means “shepherd.” Now I can’t think of two better words that describe a “pastor” or “minister” than servant-shepherd. Our role in the church is not to rule the church, but to serve the church under the supervision of the Great Shepherd, Jesus Christ.

Given that, we must also understand that while Jesus said what He said in Matthew 23:8-10, that doesn’t mean there is no organizational or leadership structure in the church. The Apostle Paul, in his letters to Timothy and Titus, gives instruction to those two men to appoint “elders” or “overseers” in the churches. The terms “elders” and “overseers” are often considered synonymous. The point being, the church is to have qualified men to oversee the church, to shepherd the church, to serve the church in their leadership roles. Over the years, this has evolved into what we call in Reformed Theology, the three special offices of pastor, elder, and deacon. Pastors and elders are both responsible for the spiritual oversight of the church. The pastor and the elders (important that “elder” is plural) are equal in biblical authority, but the pastor is specifically responsible for the administration of word (preaching and teaching) and sacrament. The deacons are responsible for the physical, or material, affairs of the church. For example, the maintenance of the church property and the ministry of mercy toward the church.

Finally, let’s look at the word “reverend.” It may not come as a shock, but that’s also a word that comes to us from Latin and it means “worthy of respect, to be revered.” On the face of it, this would seem to violate the admonition of Jesus we looked at earlier. But over the years, the word “reverend” has evolved to be a title for ordained clergy. Just like you call a medical doctor “doctor” or a person with a PhD “professor,” you call a clergyman “reverend.” As a man who has been ordained to gospel ministry, I don’t particularly feel “worthy of respect,” but I understand that the office of pastor or elder is one that is worthy of respect in the church. These are men called and gifted by God and ordained in the church to serve. So out of respect, I call ministers “Rev. So-and-So.” But, for myself, I prefer to be called “pastor” because I see my role as a shepherding role under the headship of the Great Shepherd Himself, Jesus Christ.

I hope this helps.

~ Pastor Carl