"Then Jesus spoke to the multitudes and to His disciples, saying: The scribes and the Pharisees sit in Moses' seat. Therefore whatever they tell you to observe, that observe and do, but do not do according to their works; for they say, and do not do. For they bind heavy burdens, hard to bear, and lay them on men's shoulders; but they themselves will not move them with one of their fingers. But all their works they do to be seen by men. They make their phylacteries broad and enlarge the borders of their garments. They love the best places at feasts, the best seats in the synagogues, greetings in the marketplaces, and to be called by men, Rabbi, Rabbi.' But you, do not be called Rabbi'; for One is your Teacher, the Christ, and you are all brethren. Do not call anyone on earth your father; for One is your Father, He who is in heaven. And do not be called teachers; for One is your Teacher, the Christ. 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." (Matthew 23:1-12)
In considering this important passage, it is critical to realize who Jesus was addressing. Our Lord was speaking "to the multitudes and to his disciples." Two groups were addressed, "the multitudes" and "his disciples." Why is this important? The disciples were close followers of Jesus, those who later became leaders of the Church. The multitudes, on the other hand, were the rank and file, the common mass of believers, those who later became followers in the Church. These words were addressed to all, leaders and followers alike. And what was the message?
After a warning from the bad example of the scribes and Pharisees, our Lord said: "Do not be called Rabbi'; for One is your Teacher, the Christ, and you are all brethren." This was followed by the commonly quoted rule against calling spiritual leaders "father", and then the startling words: "And do not be called teachers; for One is your Teacher, the Christ."" *2 What does all this mean? To understand this passage we must first understand the word "Rabbi." This was a title of respect. John 1:38 says that it means "teacher" (the Greek word didaskale).
Now why, we must ask, did our Lord forbid us to be called "teacher"? Two reasons are given. First, "for one is your Teacher, the Christ." This is the same as the reason for telling us not to call any man on earth "Father." "For One is your Father, He who is in heaven." The first reason, then, is that this is an insult to our Lord. He is our teacher, even as God is our Father, and he is jealous of any man presuming to that position. This is serious, brethren! We little realize how we dishonor our Lord with the titles we claim. When even the title of "teacher" is forbidden, what of grander titles? How many of us have signed our names "The Reverend So-and-So" without the slightest thought as to whether or not this honored our Lord? Even as I write these words I remember with shame the warm glow I have often felt when people have called me "Pastor." How I have loved it when people called me that, but is this really different than "Rabbi"? With these words I formally renounce all titles of respect. Let those who love me call me simply by my name.
But our Lord gave another reason for this prohibition: "and you are all brethren." We must remember that this word is addressed to leaders and followers alike. Before the Lord, there was no difference between the leaders and the followers. They were not to distinguish themselves by titles because they were all brethren. What does this do to traditional ideas of church leadership? What room does this leave for the traditional distinctions between "clergy" and "laity"?
Does this passage really mean what it appears to mean? Did our Lord really condemn titles of respect? Did He really mean that such titles were disrespectful to Himself? Did He really mean that we should not use such titles because we were all equal? How can we tell? There is only one way. We must examine the rest of what the word of God says on this subject.
Let us begin with the closing words of the passage in question: "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." (Matthew 23:11-12)
This concept is presented in each of the gospels:
In Mark 9:34-35 we are told of a dispute among the disciples concerning "who would be the greatest. And He sat down, called the twelve, and said to them, If anyone desires to be first, he shall be last of all and servant of all.'"
Again, in Luke 22 we read that "there was also a dispute among them, as to which of them should be considered the greatest. And He said to them, The kings of the Gentiles exercise lordship over them, and those who exercise authority over them are called benefactors.' But not so among you; on the contrary, he who is greatest among you, let him be as the younger, and he who governs as he who serves. For who is greater, he who sits at the table, or he who serves? Is it not he who sits at the table? Yet I am among you as the One who serves.'" (Luke 22:24-27)
Our Lord demonstrated this in John 13, when he washed the disciple's feet. "So when He had washed their feet, taken His garments, and sat down again, He said to them, Do you know what I have done to you? You call me Teacher and Lord, and you say well, for so I am. If I then, your Lord and Teacher, have washed your feet, you also ought to wash one another's feet. For I have given you an example, that you should do as I have done to you. Most assuredly, I say to you, a servant is not greater than his master; nor is he who is sent greater than he who sent him.'" (verses 12-16) The meaning of this last sentence is clear. We should not consider ourselves too good to do low ranking jobs, for Jesus Himself was willing to do them. He then added these weighty words; "If you know these things, blessed are you if you do them." (John 13:17)
Church leaders often apply these words to their followers, but how many apply them to themselves? Each of the last three passages was addressed to the apostles or disciples, not the multitude. That is, in each of these passages our Lord was talking to leaders, not followers. Christian leaders are repeatedly warned of this. Christian leaders are told: "If you know these things, blessed are you if you do them."
In Corinth, gifted leaders were making much of themselves at the expense of the unity of the body. (see I Corinthians 1:12-13 and 3:3-7) What was the Holy Spirit's answer? "For who makes you differ from another? And what do you have that you did not receive? Now if you did indeed receive it, why do you boast as if you had not received it?" (1 Corinthians 4:7) Paul told them that he had "figuratively" transferred these things to himself and to Apollos "that you may learn in us not to think beyond what is written, that none of you may be puffed up on behalf of one against the other." (1 Corinthians 4:6)
The Apostle Peter wrote:
"The elders who are among you I exhort, I who am a fellow elder and a witness of the sufferings of Christ, and also a partaker of the glory that will be revealed: Shepherd the flock of God which is among you, serving as overseers, not by compulsion but willingly, not for dishonest gain but eagerly; nor as being lords over those entrusted to you, but being examples to the flock; and when the Chief Shepherd appears, you will receive the crown of glory that does not fade away. Likewise you younger people, submit yourselves to your elders. Yes, all of you be submissive to one another, and be clothed with humility, for
'God resists the proud, But gives grace to the humble.'
"Therefore humble yourselves under the mighty hand of God, that He may exalt you in due time." (1 Peter 5:1-6)
In this passage the elders were charged with the responsibility of feeding the flock of God, and of "serving as overseers." But they were forbidden to take the attitude of lords, that is, rulers, over those entrusted to them. The younger were told to submit to them, and then comes a most remarkable statement: "Yes, all of you be submissive to one another, and be clothed with humility, for 'God resists the proud, But gives grace to the humble.'" The context of this statement plainly shows its meaning. Even the elders were to be subject to the others. "Yes, all of you" are to "be submissive to one another." Thus we see that the elders are told to be subject to the younger brethren. The leaders are to be subject to their followers. Why? Humility! "be clothed with humility, for 'God resists the proud, But gives grace to the humble.'"
We have seen this instruction in the writings of Matthew, Mark, Luke, John, Paul, and Peter. Could the Holy Spirit have made it more plain? The leaders of the church are not to claim titles. They are not to seek respect, but are to be as servants, even to the point of disgusting labor. They are not to consider themselves rulers over those entrusted to their care. And when the occasion calls for it, they are even to submit to their followers. In short, they are to be humble.
"Let this mind be in you which was also in Christ Jesus, who, being in the form of God, did not consider it robbery to be equal with God, but made Himself of no reputation, taking the form of a bondservant, and coming in the likeness of men. And being found in appearance as a man, He humbled Himself and became obedient to the point of death, even the death of the cross. Therefore God also has highly exalted Him and given Him the name which is above every name, that at the name of Jesus every knee should bow, of those in heaven, and of those on earth, and of those under the earth, and that every tongue should confess that Jesus Christ is Lord, to the glory of God the Father." (Philippians 2:5-11)
*2The Greek word translated teacher in this verse (Matthew 23:10) is kathegetes (once in its plural form kathegetai). This word literally means leader, but was often used in the sense of teacher. Of the authorities charted in the back of this book, nine translate this word as teacher or instructor both places in this verse, while thirteen give leader. Return
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