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Churches and preachers use many kinds of “ecclesiastical titles”. What do the Scriptures really say about such things?
Before going into any details – here is a good place to start a study on what the Bible teaches in regard to religious titles:
Matthew 23:8 But be not you called Rabbi: for one is your Master, even Christ; and all you are brothers. 9 And call no man your father on the earth: for one is your Father, which is in heaven. 10 Neither be you called masters: for one is your Master, even Christ. (AKJV)
In many churches, people use such titles as “father”, “pater”, “padre”, “papa” (whence “pope”). Some churches use even the title “patriarch” which comes from the old Greek noun patriarchês which meant “chief father”.
Matthew 23:9 records how Jesus forbade his disciples to use the title “father” of men (obviously, in the religious connection). They were not to have several “spiritual fathers” but only one:
Matthew 23:9 And call no man your father on the earth: for one is your Father, which is in heaven. (AKJV)
There is no way around that clear statement.
A note: Even the word “sir” means “father”. It is simply a variant of the older noun “sire” which meant “a male ancestor” – a father or a forefather. And, since “sir” actually means “father”, it is wrong to call someone “sir”, in the religious context.
Apparently, the literal meaning of the word rabbi was something like “my great one”, cf. Hebrew rab, “great”. – Keep in mind Matthew 23:8, “But be not you called Rabbi: for one is your Master, even Christ”.
Some preachers use such titles as “Doctor of theology”. That comes from old Latin: Doceo = “to teach”, doctrina = “teaching”, doctor = “teacher”, “master”. (A lofty title, that one – “Doctor of theology” actually means “Master of God-knowledge”.)
Several New Testament passages show that Jesus was titled, as the Greek text records it, didaskalos, which is to say, “teacher”, “master”. Further: The Greek text of John 1:38 shows that didaskalos was used in the same meaning as rabbi.
Those things lead us back to the words of Jesus, as recorded in this verse:
Matthew 23:8 But be not you called Rabbi: for one is your Master, even Christ […] 10 Neither be you called masters: for one is your Master, even Christ. (AKJV)
(The NKJV has in verse 10 “do not be called teachers”. In this context, the words “teacher” and “master” refer to the same thing.)
A note: Some preachers have demanded that they must be addressed formally as “mister”. That word is simply an alteration of “master” which is a short form of the Latin magister, from magnus, “great”. Idiomatically, the Latin word magister was used in the meanings “leader” and “teacher”, “master”.
A note: What was said above, has no bearing on secular titles, such as “doctor of medicine”, “doctor of mathematics”, or so.
The practical meaning of the words “laity” and “clergy” is “common people” and “priesthood”. But, should men use the title “priest”? Many people might find this to be a strange question, because they are so used to priests, in churches. But, consider this: The saints had only one priest – the resurrected Jesus.
(“Saints” – in this article, that word refers to those who received the Holy Spirit in the first century.)
Many churches have priests, but that has nothing to do with what the saints practised. Also: The Old Covenant had its priests, but the New Covenant does not have any mortal priesthood, and God does not have any mortal “special representatives” here on Earth today. Many preachers place themselves in the position of a “priest”, and some might even say that they are “acting in place of God” – but, those things are merely copies of old Catholic claims and practices.
The word “laity” comes from the old Greek noun laos, “people”, and the adjective laikos which meant “of the people”, “common”. The related verb laikoô meant “to make common”, “to desecrate”. – Those who present themselves as “clergy”, put themselves on a “higher” level than the people whom they call “laity”.
But, there is more to the matter. The word “clergy” comes, via the Old English clerc, cleric, from the old Greek words klêrikos and klêros which referred to “lot”, “inheritance”. Without going into the details right here: Some preachers have claimed or felt that they are “new Levites”, and that they have somehow “inherited” the lot which the tribe of Levi had in ancient Israel, under the Old Covenant. But again, the New Covenant does not have any mortal priesthood.
The article nsa071.htm has more on the words and concepts “laity” and “clergy”. The article nea021.htm shows that the Greek text of the New Testament does not support the concept of “ordaining”.
A note: Some have talked about “priesthood of all believers”, but that concept is based on a misunderstanding. The article noa030.htm has more on this.
In some churches, people have used the title “God’s anointed” or something similar, of the main preacher.
But, it is Jesus who is God’s anointed. The apostle Simon Peter understood this. We read:
Luke 9:20 “But you,” He asked, “who do you say that I am?” “God’s Anointed One,” replied Peter. (WEY)
In the Greek text of that verse, the wording is ton Christon tou Theou, “the anointed (one) of God”. The Greek adjective christos was used a translation of the Hebrew mashiyach (whence “Messiah”) which likewise meant “anointed”.
So, calling some preacher “the Anointed” or “God’s anointed”, would be the same as calling that person “Messiah” or “Christ”.
Some “clergymen” have set themselves forth as some kind of “deputies”, “special representatives” or “vicars” [a] of God or of Jesus. Often, persons of that kind use lofty titles, including “anointed” and even “God’s anointed”. But again, it is not right to use such titles of men.
It is true that the saints had received an “anointing” (Greek chrisma): The Holy Spirit. (See 1 John 2:27.) But, that is something different. When it comes to titles, only Jesus is to be called “the Anointed” (Messiah, Christos) or “God’s anointed”.
A side-note: In Old Testament times, the kings of Israel were sometimes called “anointed”, using the Hebrew adjective mashiyach, and even “the Lord’s anointed”. But, that referred to an anointing as a ruler, without any connection with spiritual matters. (In those days, the Israelites were God’s people, and their kings were anointed with oil.) Also: The Old Covenant had mortal priests, and the high priests were anointed with special oil. But, that has nothing to do with the New Covenant or with our day and age – more than that the Old Covenant’s high priests were symbols which pointed to Jesus.
a The Latin noun vicarius (from vice, “instead of”) means “substitute”, “deputy”, “proxy”, “viceregent”. The leader of the Catholic Church is called Vicarius Christi, the claim being that he supposedly is acting in Jesus’ place, here on Earth.
The word “vicar” is used even in secular connections, but it is wrong to use it as a title in the religious context.
The word “apostle” comes from the old Greek noun apostolos which meant something like “representative” or “envoy”. That noun was related to the verb apostellô which meant “to send off”, “to despatch”, and so on. The biblical, new-testamental meaning of the noun apostolos is that Jesus sent out certain men as his messengers (representatives).
The New Testament shows that the twelve, and Paul, were Jesus’ apostles. Only Jesus was God’s apostle. This makes it clear that no man is to be called “God’s apostle”.
Further: The apostles do not have any “successors”. Jesus does not have mortal representatives here on Earth, in our day. (There are many “apostles”, but no true ones.) However, in what we today view as “end time”, there will come forth at least two true messengers sent by God: The two witnesses. The article nta010.htm has some notes on them.
In today’s religious language, the word “minister” is used as a synonym for “priest”. (Earlier in this article, it was noted that the saints did not have any mortal priests, and that the resurrected Jesus was their only priest.)
But, what is the literal meaning of the word “minister”? The answer is that it comes from “church Latin”, just as numerous other “religious” words do. The makers of the Catholic Vulgate version used the Latin noun minister as translation of the old Greek diakonos which appears in around 30 passages in the Greek text of the New Testament. Both the Latin minister and the Greek diakonos meant “attendant”, “servant”, “aider”.
(The Latin noun minister comes from minus, minor which has to do with being “smaller”, “less”, “subordinate”. Regarding the Greek noun diakonos – some linguists and lexicographers have said that it probably came “from an obsolete diakô, ‘to run on errands’”.)
Unfortunately, many English bible-translators have copied Latin words from the Catholic Vulgate version. Among other things, they have used the Latin word minister, instead of translating the Greek noun diakonos into clear English. Again:
Old Greek diakonos = Latin minister = English “attendant”, “servant”, “aider”.
A note: Centuries of Catholic customs and dogmas and practices have changed the meaning of the old Latin nouns minister and ministerium, so that in today’s religious language, they are used in reference to such things as “priest” and “priesthood”.
Another note: The Latin word minister has come to used even in other meanings. An example of this is a government minister; the original meaning probably was “the king’s servant” (aider, waiter or attendant of the king).
Acts 6:1 mentions that some widows were neglected in the daily diakonia – that is, in the daily distribution of aid to poor saints in Jerusalem. That problem had to be solved. The apostles told the saints in that town to select a number of fitting men who could take care of the aid distribution tables. The Greek text of verse 4 records that apostles themselves wanted to use more of their time in tê diakonia tou logou – in “the service of the word”, proclaiming the Good Tidings.
The Greek NT text does not say that the seven men who then were put to take care of the aid distribution, would have been called or titled diakonos. Acts 6 does not contain that noun, and it does not mention any “title” for those men.
But, the noun diakonos (“attendant”, “servant”, “aider”) occurs elsewhere in the Greek text of the New Testament, in around 30 passages. In some of them, it refers to elders in their serving role.
The Greek NT text contains also passages where the noun diakonos refers to house servants and the like, and to saints who in some way served, helped or aided the other saints. It was even used of Jesus:
Romans 15:8 And I say, Christ Jesus became a helper [b] of men of circumcision, for the sake of God’s truth (in order to confirm the promises of the fathers) (ACV, note sign added)
b “Helper” – the Greek text has diakonos. Some bible-versions have minister in that verse – as was noted earlier, the old Latin noun minister meant “servant”, “aider”, “aider”, just as the Greek diakonos did.
Again: In the Greek NT text, the noun diakonos is not used of “deacons”. But, many translators have put the word “deacon” into five passages, Philippians 1:1 and 1 Timothy 3:8, 10, 12 and 13. In three of them, they have copied this from the Latin text of the Catholic Vulgate version. Clarification:
In most of the 29 places where the Greek NT text has diakonos, the makers of the Vulgate translated it properly into Latin as minister which meant “attendant”, “servant”, “aider”, just as the Greek noun diakonos did. But, in Philippians 1:1 and 1 Timothy 3:8 and 12 they failed to translate the Greek noun diakonos and simply wrote in that word, in the latinised forms diaconis, diaconos and diacones.
Regarding the two other passages where some English bibles have “deacons” – well, that is a quite interesting matter. You can read the details in the article nea062.htm.
Some English bible-versions have in Ephesians 4:11 the word “pastor”. Even that is “church Latin”, of Catholic origin. That is copied from the Latin text of the Vulgate version which has in that verse the phrase pastores et doctores, “shepherds and teachers”, a translation of the Greek phrase poimenas kai didaskalous with the same meaning. (Early English bible-translations rendered that phrase as “shepherds and teachers”, but the makers of the 1560 Geneva bible put into that verse the Latin word pastor. That has then been copied into many later translations.)
Please note that the poetic expression poimenas kai didaskalous which appears in the Greek text of Ephesians 4:11 and means “shepherds and instructors”, was not a title, and that it did not refer to two separate duties. It appears that the apostle Paul used that expression of the role which elders had, in the saints’ fellowships.
Some have claimed that Ephesians 4 contains a list of “ecclesiastical titles” or “ranks”. But, the apostle Paul was talking about spiritual gifts, and not about “ranks” or “titles”. Let us note that he wrote this, to the saints in Ephesus:
Ephesians 4:4 There is one body and one Spirit, just as you were called in one hope of your calling; 5 one Lord, one faith, one baptism; 6 one God and Father of all, who is above all, and through all, and in you all. 7 But to each one of us grace was given according to the measure of Christ’s gift. (NKJV, highlighting added)
Compare that with what Jesus said to his disciples:
Matthew 23:8 “But do not be called Rabbi; for One is your Teacher, and you are all brothers. 9 “And do not call anyone on earth your father; for One is your Father, He who is in heaven. 10 “And do not be called leaders; for One is your Leader, that is, Christ. (NASB77, highlighting added)
As you can see, those clear words of Jesus do not leave any place for “ecclesiastical titles” or “ranks”. Regarding Ephesians 4:4–7 with its context – the apostle Paul was only echoing Jesus’ teaching. Compare the two above-quoted passages with each other.
Again, the Latin noun pastor means “shepherd”. The corresponding word in the Greek text (of Ephesians 4:11) is poimên which likewise means “shepherd”.
Some churches have used the title “pastor general” of their main preacher. But, consider this: Who was the saints’ “pastor general”? The answer to that question is found in 1 Peter 5:4. The Greek text of that verse has the word archipoimên which means “main shepherd” or “chief shepherd”. In the Latin Vulgate version, the wording is princeps pastorum which likewise means “chief shepherd”. – That passage records something the apostle Peter wrote to certain elders. Note the phrase “chief shepherd” in verse 4:
1 Peter 5:1 And I, an Elder, your associate, and a witness of the sufferings of the Messiah, and a participator in his glory which is to be revealed, entreat the Elders who are among you: 2 Feed [c] ye the flock of God which is committed to you: have care for it, spiritually; not from compulsion, but voluntarily; not for base gain, but with all your heart; 3 not as lords of the flock, but so as to be a good example for them: 4 that when the chief shepherd [d] shall be revealed, ye may receive from him a crown of glory that fadeth not. (MUR, note signs added)
The point here is that Jesus was the saints’ “chief shepherd” or “pastor general”. Jesus, and not anyone else. (Again, the Latin noun pastor means “shepherd”.)
c Verse 2: Where the above-quoted MUR has “feed”, the Greek NT text has the verb poimanate (poimainô) which literally referred to what a poimên (shepherd) does, but was also used in such meanings as “to cherish”, “to mind”, “to tend”, “to guide”. In the middle part of verse 2, the above-quoted MUR has “have care of it, spiritually”, and obviously, that is what the apostle Peter was talking about. Please note that Peter added, “not as lords of the flock, but so as to be a good example for them”, verse 3.
d Verse 4, “chief shepherd” (that is, Jesus) – the Greek NT text has archipoimên which indeed means “chief shepherd”. And again, the Vulgate’s Latin wording is princeps pastorum. “Pastor general”, if you please.
Simon Peter used symbolic language. Obviously, he was talking about elders as guardians of “Jesus’ sheep” – guardians in the meaning that they were to protect the other saints from “wolves”, such as persons who wanted to fatten themselves at the cost of the saints who were “Jesus’ flock”. (Cf. Matthew 7:15 and Acts 20:29.)
Again, the actual meaning of the Latin-based title “pastor general” is “chief shepherd”. And, as we all can understand, that title belongs to Jesus alone.
A note: Many translators have put into the above-quoted 1 Peter 5:2 confusing and misleading wordings, such as “exercising oversight”, and even “discharging the office of bishops”. Keep in mind that most bible-translations have been produced by churches and churchmen, for the needs and purposes of churches and churchmen.
Some might say that the word “bishop” is linguistically derived from the old Greek noun episkopos. But, the actual root and source of that word is found in Catholicism. Here is how the 1914 edition of ‘Catholic Encyclopedia’ defines that word:
“Bishop is the title of an ecclesiastical dignitary who possesses the fullness of the priesthood to rule a diocese as its chief pastor, in due submission to the primacy of the pope.”
That is where the word, concept and title “bishop” comes from – from the Catholic Church.
A note: Bishops are priests. Here, one must keep in mind that the saints did not have any mortal priests. The resurrected Jesus was their only priest. But, many churches have copied Catholic dogmas and practices, and so, they have “priests” and “bishops”.
In 1604, when king James I of England ordered the production of a new bible-edition, he saw to it that the word “bishop” was to be used in it. This was for political reasons. It is said that he felt, “No bishop, no king.” That is: If he did not have a “hierarchy” which controlled the local priests (who in their turn controlled the rest of the population), then his own power-position would not be secure.
In other words: It was for securing his own power that James demanded, among other things, that the word “bishop” was to be used even in that bible-edition. He needed a “church hierarchy” of the old Catholic type, for controlling people so that he could stay in power. (The article nsa031.htm has more on this.)
In the Greek text of the New Testament, the most relevant word in this context is the noun episkopos. Just as many old Greek words, even episkopos had several different meanings and uses. It is always the context that shows how that word is to be understood.
This passage shows that Jesus was called episkopos (in the meaning “guardian”):
1 Peter 2:25 For ye were like sheep going astray, but now were returned to the Shepherd and Guardian [Greek ton poimena kai episkopon] of your souls. (ACV, comment added)
Jesus was the guardian (episkopos) and owner of that “flock” (the saints). But, as other New Testament passages show, even elders were to act as “guardians”. They were to see to it that there would not creep in deceivers, “wolves” who wanted to hurt Jesus’ flock or live at its cost. The apostle Paul spoke about this, when he addressed the elders from Ephesus:
Acts 20:28 Take heed therefore to yourselves, and to all the flock, among which the Holy Spirit placed you guardians, [Greek episkopous] to tend the church of the Lord and God, which he purchased by his own blood. 29 For I know this, that after my departure grievous wolves will enter in among you, not sparing the flock. (ACV, comment added)
(Verse 29: Cf. Matthew 7:15. The article nma021.htm has more on Acts 20.)
In the case of the above-quoted 1 Peter 2:25, the word episkopos in the Greek text refers to Jesus. In the case of Acts 20:28, Philippians 1:1, 1 Timothy 3:2 and Titus 1:7, it refers to elders. [e]
e A closer study shows that in the Greek text of the New Testament, all of the words episkopos, presbuteros and diakonos are at times used of elders. The article nea011.htm has more on this, and it has also some notes on what role elders had, in the saints’ fellowships.
Again: “Bishop” is a Catholic concept. The saints did not have any mortal priests, not to mention “bishops”.
The article nea021.htm takes a closer look at the originally Catholic concept of “ordaining” (“holy orders”), and shows that it has no basis in the Greek text of the New Testament.
Some churches have used “evangelist” as a religious title or “rank”. But, what does that word really mean? And, is it used as a “title”, in the New Testament?
The word “evangelist” comes from the old Greek noun euangelistês which meant “a bringer of good news”. It occurs in three New Testament passages, Acts 21:8, Ephesians 4:11 and 2 Timothy 4:5. But, in many passages other words are used, regarding the same matter. The first example of this is found in Matthew 4:23 which records that Jesus was going all over Galilee, teaching in the synagogues and kêrussôn to euangelion, “proclaiming the Good Tidings”. In other words, Jesus was an euangelistês. So were his apostles, and many others.
Being an euangelistês (a bringer of good tidings) was neither a “title” nor a “rank”. The word euangelistês could be used of anyone who in some way forwarded the Good Tidings – or, good news of any kind.
Being able to act as an euangelistês (in this case, being able to in the proper way proclaim the Good Tidings to larger groups of people) was a gift, and not a “rank” or “title”. All did not have that gift, but some did. Acts 21:8 shows that also Philip, “one of the seven”, acted as an euangelistês. In other words, even he spread the Good Tidings.
(“One of the seven” – that might eventually refer to the seven men whom the saints in Jerusalem put to take care of the aid distribution tables, Acts 6.)
A note: Some writers have claimed that Philip “had been raised in rank, to evangelist”. But, that claim is taken out of the thin air. There is no indication in the Greek NT text that there would have been “ranks” among the saints. The concept of “ranks” in the religious context is of Catholic origin, without any basis in the Greek text of the New Testament. But, many translators have put into the NT wordings which can cause casual bible-readers to think that there were “ranks”.
Again: The word euangelistês was not a “title”, and being gifted so that one was able to proclaim the Good Tidings, was not a “rank”.
The word “prophet” comes from the Greek noun prophêtês. In old Greek writings outside the New Testament, that word often referred to “an interpreter of oracles or of other hidden things”. In new-testamental usage, it often refers to people who had a message from God.
The Greek noun prophêtês, from the preposition pro and the verb phêmi, referred to a person who “spoke forth” something. The concept of “foretelling” could be a part of the matter, but not necessarily. It appears that in some NT passages, the words prophêtês and prophêteuô, with related forms, simply refer to people who helped others to know and understand the ways of the Lord.
But, those things were spiritual gifts, and not “titles” or “ranks”.
A note: Jesus warned his disciples about pseudoprophêtai and pseudochristoi, false prophets and false “Anointed ones”. The article noa091.htm has some notes on this.
There are, of course, many other religious titles. All of them cannot be sorted out here.
But, an example among many: The title “reverend”, which means “worthy of reverence”. The English verb “to revere” comes from the Latin revereor, “to stand in awe of”, “to honor”, “to fear”, “be afraid of” and so on, related to the noun reverentia which referred to such things as “awe” and “fear”, and the adjective reverendus which can be translated something like “awe-inspiring”.
The superlative form reverendissimus, “most awesome”, “most fearful”, has been used of Catholic bishops. Clarification: Catholics are in fact expected to worship their “bishops” and the like – kneel down before them and kiss their hand.
In short: The religious title “reverend” that some churches use of some of their preachers, is of Catholic origin and is totally unbiblical. The New Testament makes it clear that believers must not “revere” any man in that manner; only God and his son Jesus are to be worshipped.
The article naa040.htm has more on the word and concept “worship”.
See also the “recommended reading” section, below.
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Recommended reading here at the Bible Pages, on related as well as other matters
An explanation of the short names for the bible-translations that are quoted or mentioned at this site. → nsa091.htm
What does the word “doctrine” really mean? Likewise, what is the meaning of the terms “dogma”, “creed” and “tenet”? → nsa081.htm
What does the Bible say about authority? Who has biblical, spiritual or religious authority? Who can speak for God? → nsa060.htm
On the words and concepts “clergy” and “laity”. → nsa071.htm
What does the Bible say about ordaining or ordination? How did the saints choose their elders? Were those elders “ordained”, and did they function as “priests” of some kind? → nea021.htm
Are believers a “royal priesthood” or “kings and priests”, as some say? How should one understand 1 Peter 2:4–9? → noa030.htm
The two witnesses of the book of Revelation. Also: Similarities between their work and that of Moses, Elijah and John the Baptist. → nta010.htm
What does the Bible say about deacons? → nea062.htm
On the King James translation. The story behind king James’ bible, including the men who were involved in producing it. → nsa031.htm
Acts 20:35 – what the apostle Paul meant when he reminded the elders from Ephesus that it is more blessed to give than to receive. → nma021.htm
What does the Bible say about elders? What was their role in the saints’ fellowships? → nea011.htm
Jesus warned about false prophets, deceivers and deception. He said that many would be deceived. → noa091.htm
Worshipping God. What does the Bible say about worship, in connection with the New Covenant? → naa040.htm
Table of contents – Key-word index – Search function – On the goal and purpose of this site
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