“Call me Pastor.”

by K.W. Leslie, 15 October

Three years ago I got into a conversation with some guy at a Starbucks. It’s usually in coffeehouses such conversations take place; I’m in them so often. (I’m in one now as I write this.) He asked my name. I gave it. He gave his name as “Pastor Todd”—although Todd isn’t actually his first name, ’cause I changed it for this story, ’cause he’s not gonna look good.

Todd struck up a conversation with me, quickly found out I’m Christian, and we got to talking about our common beliefs. Like most people, he assumed since I’m not clergy, I must know nothing about theology. Which is a really naïve assumption, ’cause there are a lot of dangerously overeducated laymen like me around. Something I learned back in my journalism days: Never underestimate people. But never overestimate ’em either. Find out who they really are.

There are a lot of dangerously undereducated clergy around too. It just so happened Todd is among them. He tried to instruct me in certain areas he clearly knew little about. I expressed doubt, ’cause scripture. Todd tried to correct me, ’cause earnestness. I didn’t fret about it, ’cause Todd wasn’t wandering into heresy. But Todd got more and more anxious, ’cause certain folks believe anyone who disagrees with them is heretic—and think it their duty to rescue us from hell, so he just had to get through to me. I think I kinda ruined his day.

To my point: At some point I addressed him by his given name, which as far as you know is “Todd.” He corrected me there, too.

HE. “It’s Pastor Todd.”
ME. “I’m sorry. Your first name is ‘Pastor’? Or it’s ‘Pastor-Todd’?”
HE. “Pastor’s my title.”
ME. “Oh. But you aren’t my pastor. No offense.”
HE. “Still I’m a pastor, ordained by God. I should be addressed by that title.”
ME. “Fair enough. If you were a doctor I’d call you Dr. Todd.”
HE. “Exactly.”
ME. “But wouldn’t you think it odd if a person walked up to you, gave you unsolicited medical advice, and told you to call him ‘Doctor’? No offense.”
HE. “…If he saw someone in real need of medical treatment, that is his job.”
ME. “It is. But let’s say his treatment sounds a little, well, off. ‘Here, take this strychnine. It’ll settle your stomach.’ ‘Waitaminnit, isn’t strychnine poison?’ ‘Oh, don’t worry about that. I’m a doctor.’ ‘Yeah but I’m pretty sure strychnine is poison.’ ‘Yeah, but “doctor’s” my title.’ You see the problem?”
HE. “You think I’m trying to poison you?”
ME. “No. I think your intentions are good. But good intentions doesn’t mean good doctrine. Apollos was a great, earnest speaker, but Priscilla and her husband still had to correct a few screwy ideas he had.” Ac 18.24-26
HE. “So you think I have a few screwy ideas.”
ME. “Well, I have my doubts. And the whole, ‘You have to call me pastor’ thing doesn’t help. It’s like ‘Don’t look at my reasoning. Look at my title. I’m a pastor. You can trust me.’”
HE. “So you don’t trust me?”
ME. “I just met you. I don’t know you. You just came over here and decided you’re my pastor. I have a pastor. If you were my pastor, I would know your voice. But I tell you the truth, I do not know you nor where you came from.”
HE. “All right. Well you have a good day.”
ME. “You too.”

Yeah, I was loosely quoting Jesus. Jn 10.1-18 I think Todd recognized the bible reference, and that’s why it bothered him. Of course, he might’ve been just as much bothered by the fact I won’t blindly accept his authority over me.

I shouldn’t have to tell Americans, of all people, to watch out for people who wanna claim authority over us. But you’d be surprised how often people assume, “Oh, you’re a pastor. Well then you know what you’re talking about.” Many of ’em do. Some really don’t.

Those who covet titles.

It’s an odd and bothersome little trait I tend to see among Christian ministers of a certain type. They get mighty particular about their titles.

They wanna be addressed as “Pastor.” Or Apostle, Bishop, Brother (or Sister), Deacon, Doctor, Elder, Evangelist, Father (or Mother), Minister, Papa (or Mama), Professor, Prophet, Reverend, Seer, Teacher, Vicar, or what have you. It’s on their business cards. They tacked it onto their first name on social media: On Facebook they’re not “Phil Dillweed” but “Pastor Phil Dillweed” or “Evangelist Phil Dillweed” or “Apostolic Prophet Phil Dillweed” and so forth.

Sometimes the title came with their job; sometimes they appropriated it themselves. Sometimes it’s an honorary degree, but they use it all the time as if they legitimately earned it. My own seminary, which had never been accredited to offer actual doctorates, once gave out honorary doctorates. Gave one to a well-known megachurch pastor. He still goes by Doctor, as if he earned it in grad school. Even Billy Graham went by his honorary doctorates. He later dropped all that, but his staff still kept calling him Dr. Graham out of habit.

Such people get bugged when you won’t address them by their titles. It’s considered a lack of respect.

Well, years ago I had a pastor who preached a sermon entitled, “My First Name Is Not Pastor.” So blame him. Pretty much everyone at that church immediately dropped the habit of calling him Pastor… except some die-hard old-school Assemblies of God matrons who’d never think of addressing Pastor otherwise. Of course it’s been a few decades since, and at his church the habit’s returned. Still, he had a good run there. Thanks to him I dropped the habit. Never got back into it.

In seminary I met both sorts. Some professors and pastors love to be addressed by their given names, ’cause (they think) it means they’ve developed a rapport, some level of comfort and trust, with their students. Others chafe at it, like the doctor who demands you call him Doctor Evil, ’cause he didn’t spend six years in evil medical school to be called “Mister,” thank you very much.

Christ Jesus (see? I used his title) made a few comments about not seeking titles. I like how Eugene Peterson rendered it. Same as everything in The Message, it’s not a precise quote, but it’s definitely Jesus’s sentiment. He was speaking of Pharisee clergy, and of course the idea also fits our clergy.

Matthew 23.6-10 The Message
6 “They love to sit at the head table at church dinners, basking in the most prominent positions, 7 preening in the radiance of public flattery, receiving honorary degrees, and getting called ‘Doctor’ and ‘Reverend.’
8 “Don’t let people do that to you, put you on a pedestal like that. You all have a single Teacher, and you are all classmates. 9 Don’t set people up as experts over your life, letting them tell you what to do. Save that authority for God; let him tell you what to do. No one else should carry the title of ‘Father’; you have only one Father, and he’s in heaven. 10 And don’t let people maneuver you into taking charge of them. There is only one Life-Leader for you and them—Christ.”

We have no record of Jesus ever ordering his students to call him by a title. He acknowledged they called him Master and Teacher—which he is. Jn 13.13 He acknowledged they were correct in identifying him as Christ. Mt 16.16-17 But he didn’t demand respect based on his titles. Just his actions. Jn 10.37 Follow him because he follows the Father. Follow anyone when they follow the Father. Ignore ’em if they don’t, no matter their rank or title.

Those who covet respect.

There are people (again, of a certain type) who chafe at how the United States functions on a first-name basis. It’s common courtesy, they insist, to address strangers as “Miss” or “Mister,” and not by our given names. It’s how they were raised, and those who hoisted this rule upon them told them it was out of politeness and respect.

Of course this is crap. It’s not courtesy to address someone as “Miss” or “Mister.” (And many a woman will be downright annoyed when you call ’em “Ma’am.”) It’s subordination. When you aren’t allowed to address someone by their proper name, either by rule or by custom, it means “I only want a formal relationship with you; let’s be distant and cold.” Sometimes because we’re unfriendly. Just as often because we don’t consider ourselves equals.

If they really are a superior—you’re in the military, or speaking to your boss, or a student addressing a teacher, or a kid speaking to their parents and grandparents and even aunts and uncles—this isn’t so much an issue. There often needs to be some professional distance. But among equals it’s totally inappropriate. Shopclerks are not my subordinates. They’re there to help me, not obey me. And if I’m awful to them, they should be able to order me out of their store.

Jesus stated precisely why it is people seek titles: They want to be flattered. They want to seize authority over you. They don’t want to earn your respect; they want it the quick ’n dirty way, by assuming a title and making us use it.

In the scriptures, only parents receive honor automatically. Ex 20.12 Kings and leaders only get it because they can kill you. Pr 20.2 Everybody else is expected to be worthy of it. Christians should only be put into leadership when we have the appropriate character, 1Ti 3 and should only be honored when we rule well. 1Ti 5.7 We get honor by following Jesus and producing his fruit, whether we have a title or not, whether we’ve reached a certain age or not, whether we’ve defended a doctoral thesis or not.

Nope, this isn’t how the rest of the world works. Rank has its privileges. The President might be a rotting chancre of a man, but people are expected to treat him with respect (though if he’s in the opposition party, they don’t bother) because, they argue, his office merits honor. And y’know, there’s some precedent for this in the bible. In Jesus and Paul’s days, the head priests of Jerusalem were regularly corrupt and evil and irreligious. But their titles still meant something, as Paul acknowledged. Ac 23.5

But while people might give this explanation for why they deserve honor and respect, it’s never what they practice. If a pastor is a turd, only cult members will shrug, “Turd or not, he’s still Pastor.” Everybody else will either quit the church, or try to get Pastor fired, defrocked, jailed—whatever it takes to throw the bum out. The honor is very much attached to the person, not the job. Claiming it’s really meant for the office, is just plain hypocrisy.

So what do we do when people order us to use their titles? Bluntly, it’s a sign of their immaturity. And immaturity disqualifies people from leadership. Christian elders are supposed to be worthy of respect, Tt 2.2 but demanding respect is a whole other deal, and means they’ve not yet earned it. No matter how much they think they have. I’ve known schoolteachers who’ve rebuked bratty kids with, “I deserve your respect”—but knowing those teachers, no they haven’t. Adulthood doesn’t grant you honor. Respect is earned. If kids don’t respect you, it’s ’cause they don’t know you—or they do know you, and you aren’t worthy.

Same with Pastor Todd. Only thing he earned was my apprehension: Now I’m suspicious of him, and can’t recommend anyone go to his church, much less follow him.

Those who covet titles on others’ behalf.

In the past several churches I’ve joined, none of my pastors ever said a thing about my not addressing them as “Pastor.” Not one. ’Cause they don’t need it. Either they’re humble people, or they know they already have my respect. I demonstrate it through my support.

Not that I never call them Pastor. It is their title after all. But I only use the title to clarify things: When someone isn’t aware Sarah’s a pastor, I call her Pastor Sarah. In conversation with her, she already knows she’s a pastor, so there’s no point.

The only people who get bent out of shape about my calling my pastors by their given names, tend to be fellow church members. Like those old-school matrons who’d never think of addressing Pastor in any other way than “Pastor.” One or two of them have actually rebuked me. “He’s not ‘Jimmy.’ He’s ‘Pastor.’ You call him Pastor. He deserves your respect.”

To which I usually respond with Jesus’s bit about titles. Mt 23.6-10 Titles aren’t respect. I might address someone as “Pastor Butthead,” and clearly I’m not showing the man respect. Likewise I could be like certain church ladies, call the leaders Pastor all day long, yet quietly undermine them in word and deed. Y’know, like those folks who call Jesus their Lord, yet do nothing he instructs. Lk 6.46

So why do these people badger me to use their titles? Because at some point in the past, they were badgered into it. And, totally unaware of what they’re really doing, they just wanna make sure this little snippet of dead religion gets passed down. Because “respect.”

In contrast, living religion is to truly respect our leaders. If they lead our churches in a godly direction, support ’em! With more than lip service: Actually pitch in and help out. If you can’t—you’re too busy or too poor—that’s understandable, but you really need to sort out your priorities. And if you won’t, again with sorting out priorities—or maybe you oughta consider switching to a church where you can get behind your leaders.

’Cause making sure you always call ’em “Pastor” or “Sister” or “Bishop” or “Prophet,” or whatever their title is, is only of value to the superficial. Not to a mature Christian, and never to Jesus.