Call Me What?

What do you call one who is called to ministry?” If you know what ministry is like, then you know what to call ministers. Ministry is not being in charge of God’s people. It is more like being charged with God’s people.

To be “in charge” is to take control. To be “charged with” is to take responsibility—and make oneself accountable to God.

Moses is a good example; he did not aspire to lead and was reluctant to take charge. Nevertheless God appointed Moses and charged him with leading the Israelites home.

It’s doubtful that Moses ever felt like he was in control—in fact, Exodus 17:3,4 shows that he was very much out of control: “And the people thirsted there for water, and the people complained against Moses, and said, ‘Why is it you have brought us up out of Egypt, to kill us and our children and our livestock with thirst?’ So Moses cried out to the LORD, saying, ‘What shall I do with this people? They are almost ready to stone me!'” (A plight not unknown to some modern pastors.)

Moses didn’t receive much respect or encouragement from the people he led—but he hadn’t accepted God’s charge to be encouraged or affirmed. God called him to the task and he obeyed.

Taking charge at God’s command is and always should be a simple matter of obedience. Truly spiritual leaders must limit their desire and expectation for recognition and honor.

Matthew 23:1-12 tells of the limitations. In particular, verses 8- 12 carry a serious warning as well as a promise:

But you, do not be called “Rabbi”; for One is your Teacher, the Messiah, 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.

Jesus wasn’t forbidding us to address our male parents as “Father.” However, as a spiritual metaphor the word “father” is limited to our spiritual progenitor who gives and sustains spiritual life. There is only one such spiritual Father. He is in heaven and hallowed (uniquely holy) be His name. That spiritual title or name is so sacred that it is desecrated when spiritually applied to any human being.

So according to Matthew 23:8-10, the spiritual application of the words “Rabbi” and “Father” are reserved for Yeshua (Jesus), our teacher, and for our Father in heaven. We should not use titles for the sake of giving or receiving honor for ourselves that rightly belongs to the Holy One.

“Rabbi” has a connotation that is close to “master” and is not an appointed office of Scripture any more than is “Reverend.” Ephesians 4:11 says that God has given certain gifts to members of His Body that enable them to function as pastors, teachers, etc. God qualifies people for spiritual leadership—for burden-bearing service—rather than conferring honorary status.

Our titles for clergy, whether Rabbi or Reverend, are not required by Scripture. Not many people actually view themselves as slaves, or their rabbis as masters. Likewise, few people who call their ministers “Reverend” actually intend to revere a human being. We shouldn’t make an issue out of those common designations for clergy.

I do believe there is a preferable model. Matthew 23:8 provides us with a title to call one another and by which our ministers should be known to us. That title is “Brother.” The title “Brother” does not exalt one person over others; yet it conveys the respect and acceptance of an important relationship. A brother (or sister) has a closer relationship than a rabbi. He or she shares the burden of the family’s welfare, reputation and destiny.

Whereas a father is entitled to demand or command certain things, and to punish when necessary, a brother has no such right. He may suggest, admonish, and—with permission from his sibling—teach. But when a sibling is a teacher it is only by consent of his student. A brother becomes worthy to teach by his example and because of mastery of a subject, but not from a superior status.

Nevertheless, even the title “Brother” can be misused to elevate a person. Why? The answer is what could be called “The Saul Syndrome.” Israel longed for a man to be king over her, even though God Himself desired to be her King. The Saul Syndrome is not peculiar to my Jewish people. It is human nature. We always want a human being as a symbol of authority. We always want an authority who can look at us when we are talking, who by virtue of his grace and dignity can represent us. But God did not give Israel that man in Saul. He gave that authority in Yeshua. And Yeshua wanted us to be very discerning about the position of religious leaders.

Yeshua said that the scribes and Pharisees “sit in Moses seat” (Matthew 23:2). In ancient usage, a “seat” referred to a throne or place of a judge. The rabbis taught from a seated position and had taken to themselves the authority of Moses to judge Israel. Yeshua said, “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” (v.3).

“Observe and do, but do not do…” sounds like a paradox. In the Hebrew, the word observe always requires some action. To observe the Sabbath is not merely to watch it go by, but to take certain actions and refrain from others as written in the Scriptures. One observes the Sabbath by ordering one’s life around it. Yeshua seems to be saying that we should take notice of whatever the religious leaders tell us from the actual Scriptures (those things that Moses recorded), but we should not order our lives according to the rabbis’ interpretations or their example.

In verses 4 and 5 Yeshua explains why: “For they bind heavy burdens 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 of men.”

Yeshua faulted the religious leaders for seeking to impress people rather than desiring to please God (verses 5-7). They wanted status, not spiritual life. They used the letter of the law to weigh others down and to elevate themselves and their traditions, while neglecting the spirit of the law which truly instructs. They multiplied rules and regulations beyond the required law, and that tradition has continued to this day. We see this not only in Judaism, but in some churches as well.

Jesus taught us to act on the Scriptures, not according to the rabbis’ extra rules and regulations, but according to His own example, and according to the Holy Spirit who inspired the Scripture. Jesus designated the Holy Spirit as the teacher who would come after Him: “But the Helper, the Holy Spirit, whom the Father will send in My name, He will teach you all things, and bring to your remembrance all things that I said to you” (John 14:26).

Yeshua made it clear that there is no use looking for importance in titles or in the number of rules and regulations we can recite. He said if we want to be truly great, we must be servants.

God is not impressed by big shots and He doesn’t seem to want us to be, either. That is why He gave us His Son as the perfect example of humility. He warns us against pride and status seeking…but don’t forget, He also makes a promise: “He who humbles himself will be exalted” (verse 12). When we concern ourselves with lifting God up and giving Him the honor that He deserves, we can rest assured that He will give us more than we deserve or could even ask.


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