02 May 2024

“Call me Pastor.”

Twelve 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. He asked my name. I gave it. He gave his name as “Pastor Athenodoros”—although Athenodoros isn’t actually his first name, ’cause I changed it for this story, ’cause he’s not gonna look good.

Athenodoros 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. Never overestimate ’em either. Just find out who they really are.

There are a lot of dangerously undereducated clergy around too. It just so happens Athenodoros is among them. He tried to instruct me in certain areas… in which he clearly knew very little. I expressed doubt, ’cause scripture, which I quoted where appropriate. Athenodoros tried to correct me, ’cause earnestness, although he couldn’t really think of any proof texts. I didn’t fret about it, ’cause Athenodoros wasn’t wandering into heresy. But Athenodoros did fret about it. Y’see, certain folks believe anyone who disagrees with them is heretic, and think it’s their duty to rescue such heretics from hell; so Athenodoros just had to get through to me and convince me of my errors. 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 “Athenodoros.” He corrected me there, too.

HE. “It’s Pastor Athenodoros.”
ME. “I’m sorry. Your first name is ‘Pastor’? Or it’s ‘Pastor-Athenodoros’?”
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. Athenodoros.”
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 Athenodoros recognized the bible reference, which is why it bothered him. Of course, he might’ve been just as bothered by the fact I wouldn’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. Some will even tacke 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. Peter Marshall, the famous Senate chaplain (whose wife wrote A Man Called Peter about him) was regularly called Dr. Marshall despite it being an honorary title. Even Billy Graham went by his honorary doctorates. He later dropped all that, ’cause he realized it’s hypocrisy. But his staff still kept calling him Dr. Graham out of habit, and respect.

And such people get bugged when you won’t address them by their titles. ’Cause of that respect thing. They covet it.

Contrast ’em with a pastor I had, who one week preached a sermon entitled, “My First Name Is Not Pastor.” 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 old habit has 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; it’s not just older people, ’cause I’ve met such people of all ages) who chafe at how the United States functions on a first-name basis. They insist this isn’t appropriate; it’s more correct to address strangers as “Miss” or “Mister.” Certainly not by our given names. They were raised with this sort of formality, and were taught it was done out of politeness and respect. Today?—nobody respects people.

Of course this thinking, and reasoning, is horse manure. 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 a person refuses to let you address them by their proper name, either by rule or by custom, it means “I want only a formal relationship with you. Let’s be distant and cold.” Sometimes because they are distant and cold; they’re unfriendly, if not hostile. Just as often it’s because they want everybody else to recognize them as our betters; certainly not our equals.

Okay. If you actually are unequal—if we’re talking about people in the military, an employee talking to the boss, a lawyer addressing the judge, a student questioning a teacher, or a kid speaking to their parents, grandparents, even aunts and uncles—yeah fine; this isn’t an issue. There often needs to be some professional or courteous 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 wanna 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 forcing others to 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 roles once 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 American 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 as Paul acknowledged, their titles still meant something. 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 more hypocrisy.

So what do we do when people order us to use their titles? Bluntly, it’s a sign of their spiritual 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 indicates 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 either ’cause they don’t know you… or they do know you, and you’re not worthy.

Same with Pastor Athenodoros. 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.

It’s not that I never call my pastors “Pastor.” Sometimes I do. Partiularly when people who don’t know they’re pastors oughta know that’s what they do: If a newbie isn’t aware Mumba is a pastor, I just call her “Pastor Mumba,” and now they do. In conversation with her, she already knows she’s a pastor, so there’s no point in using her title.

And in the past several churches I’ve been a part of, none of my pastors ever said a thing about my not addressing them as “Pastor.” Not one. ’Cause they don’t care! Okay, maybe they did, but they never said anything; they knew better than to demand my petty respect. Hopefully they all knew they already had my respect, whether I called ’em Pastor or not. I demonstrate my respect not through calling ’em Pastor, but by backing ’em up. Whereas hypocrites are mighty quick with the title, but do they support their pastors? Not behind their back they don’t.

However, 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 would never address Pastor in any other way than “Pastor.” One or two of them have actually rebuked me. “He’s not ‘Fergus.’ 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. Same as those folks who call Jesus their Lord, yet do nothing he instructs. Lk 6.46

So why do these people badger me to use titles? Sometimes it’s for the same reason they support tax cuts for the wealthy: At some point they wanna be wealthy, and wanna benefit from those same tax cuts. And at some point they’re gonna get a title, and want everybody to use it.

More often it’s for the same reason as those people who insist on being called “Miss” or “Mister”: They wrongly think it’s a respect thing, and not using the title is therefore a disrespect thing. And they wanna make sure this little snippet of bad religion definitely gets passed down.

In contrast, good religion is respect our leaders in deed as well as word. When they lead our churches in godly directions, 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.