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 The Bible’s Viewpoint

Should Christians Use Religious Titles?

Should Christians Use Religious Titles?

MUCH is said about a shortage of clergymen in Christendom today, but there is hardly a shortage of religious titles among them. Some titles are simple; others are pretentious. Here are a few examples:

  • Clergyman: “Reverend.”
  • Anglican bishop: “Right Reverend the Lord Bishop.”
  • Roman Catholic bishop (in Italy): “His Excellency, the Most Illustrious and Most Reverend Monsignor.”
  • Cardinal: “His Eminence.”
  • The pope: “Most Holy Father.”

The titles “reverend” and “bishop” have been in use for such a long time that they do not grate on the ear of most church members. But are such titles authorized by the Bible?

“Reverend,” “Bishop,” and “Cardinal”

In the King James Version, the term “reverend” appears only once, at Psalm 111:9, which says: “Holy and reverend is his name.” Whose name? The next verse says: “The fear of the LORD is the beginning of wisdom.” (Psalm 111:10) In one Catholic version, these two passages read: “Holy and awesome his name. The root of wisdom is the fear of Yahweh [Jehovah].” (The New Jerusalem Bible) Hence, according to God’s Word, godly fear, or reverence, belongs exclusively to Jehovah, the Almighty. Is it correct then to give it to humans?

“If a man desire the office of a bishop, he desireth a good work,” wrote Paul to Timothy. (1 Timothy 3:1, KJ) However, according to The New Jerusalem Bible, the verse reads: “To want to be a presiding elder is to desire a noble task.” Early Christians with responsible duties were referred to as “elders” and “overseers.” Were those terms used as titles? No. Such men were never called “Bishop Peter” or “Elder James.” That is why mature Christian men among Jehovah’s Witnesses who serve the congregation as elders never use the term “elder” as a title. The terms “elder” and “overseer” (bishop) apply to those holding a position of authority and responsibility. The terms also describe the qualifications of the men appointed and the work that they do.

What about the title “cardinal”? Is it found in the Bible? No. It is not in any version. In fact, the Roman Catholic Church admits that this  title is not Biblical. The New Catholic Encyclopedia explains: “The word is derived from the Latin word cardo meaning ‘hinge,’ and in the words of Pope Eugene IV, ‘as the door of a house turns on its hinges, so on the cardinalate does the Apostolic See, the door of the whole Church, rest and find support.’” This reference work also informs us that “cardinals enjoy the privilege of being directly addressed as ‘Eminence.’” Their status also allows them to wear a red gown and a red cap. Did the apostles have those ‘privileges’? The Bible answers no.

“Lord,” “Monsignor,” and “Father”

Should members of the clergy be called lords? Anglican bishops are addressed “lord.” Catholic prelates are often addressed “monsignor,” which means “my Lord.” In some countries, ministers of the Dutch Reformed Church are addressed dominee, a title derived from the Latin word dominus, meaning “lord.” But Jesus instructed his disciples: “You know that in the world, rulers lord it over their subjects, . . . but it shall not be so with you.” (Matthew 20:25, 26, The New English Bible) Also, the apostle Peter wrote: “Do not lord it over the group which is in your charge, but be an example for the flock.” (1 Peter 5:3, NJB) On the occasion when Jesus humbly washed the feet of his disciples, he said to them: “You call me Master and Lord, and rightly; so I am.” (John 13:13, NJB) Is it right for men to use a religious title that belongs to God and to his Son?

Is the religious title “father” correct? It is used widely by Roman Catholics and Anglicans. “Padre,” meaning “father,” is also widely used. But Jesus taught his disciples: “You must call no one on earth your father, since you have only one Father, and he is in heaven.” (Matthew 23:9, NJB) The New English Bible reads similarly: “Do not call any man on earth ‘father.’” Why do clergymen and their followers disobey this command from the Lord Jesus Christ?

The pope of Rome is usually addressed as “Holy Father.” But his Italian staff often address him as Santissimo Padre, which means “Most Holy Father.” “Holy Father” is a title that appears only once in the Bible. (John 17:11) It is the exclusive title of the Supreme Being. Is it right for creatures, who are earthly and imperfect, to be addressed by that title?

Religious Trespassing

Please read and note the context of Matthew 23:1-12. Jesus begins speaking about the Pharisees, who were a prominent sect of Judaism. They were legalists, sticklers for observance of every detail of the Mosaic Law. They liked to dress and act in such a way as to call attention to themselves. Their religion was one of ostentation—their style of clothing, their principal places at meals, their front seats in the synagogues, and their titles of honor. They even claimed greater respect than that which was given parents. They wanted to be called father. However, Jesus shows that all his followers are equal as God’s children. Any title that suggests the opposite is a haughty usurpation of something that belongs to God. Thus, Jesus forbids the use of the word “father” as a title of honor in a religious sense. Jesus insists that his followers have only one Father in the faith, Jehovah.

Is it not clear that many clergymen are standing on ‘holy ground’ reserved for God and his Son, and that much reverence is diverted from them to imperfect men? True Christians today avoid using flattering religious titles, and they avoid the practice of setting men on ecclesiastical pedestals. Among Jehovah’s Witnesses the only form of address for ministers is “brother.” (2 Peter 3:15) That is in harmony with what Jesus said: “You are all brothers.”Matthew 23:8, NJB.