Matthew 23:8-10 “But you are not to be called ‘Rabbi’, for you have only one Master and you are all brothers. And do not call anyone on earth ‘father’, for you have one Father, and he is in heaven. Nor are you to be called ‘teacher’, for you have one Teacher, the Christ.”
Wow! Being literal about this would tie Japanese social interaction in knots, to say the least! However, that’s actually what Jesus is talking about. The whole idea of setting people apart by titles is what He is saying is dangerous, because it puts people in the place only God should inhabit in our hearts and minds. In secular society some of this is unavoidable, but the Church is to be different, and too often it is not. On this particular issue, the Church is if anything an amplification of the secular trend, with people insisting on titles of all sorts. It’s one thing to have functional titles, that is, simply indicating a position in an organization, but too often Church leaders insist on being called “Bishop” this or “Prophet” that or “Apostle” the other. Those are functions and not titles! It has always struck me as ironic in the light of this passage that the Catholic church has used “Father” as a title for priests for over 1,000 years. (The Japanese term, considered from the viewpoint of modern Japanese, is literally “God Father,” that is “Father of God.” That’s because the term was brought over from China, where the character that in Japan is considered to mean “god” has much more the sense of “spirit.” Thus, from the Chinese of that day, at any rate, it would mean “Spiritual Father.” That’s better, but still hangs up on what Jesus says here.) When we obsess about titles we are forgetting God, which is Jesus’ whole point.
Since I teach in secular schools I am called Teacher quite often, but in this church I have tried to avoid that, insisting on my name, and among the believers, my given name. However, some are uncomfortable with that, and call me “Pastor Jack” or “Teacher Garrott.” Those are functional descriptions, but I must do all I can to keep from feeding into the clergy/laity divide. That divide is in violation of what Jesus is saying here, whatever titles we use or don’t use. Protestants have talked about “the priesthood of the believer” ever since Luther, but haven’t really gone very far in implementing it. As long as we depend on a priestly caste, we won’t be pressing in individually to have the fellowship with God for which we were created. This has been a major issue in my mind and heart for most of my ministry. I’m happy when people receive from God through me, but I want even more for them to be able to feed themselves. My battle is against spiritual inertia and laziness, and I must not give up.
Father, this is something that keeps coming up. Virtually all Japanese Christians call me Teacher, just as I am called at school. I don’t know how to address that issue without jumping all over them and generally making an ass of myself. I ask for Your wisdom to be able to lead people to focus on You rather than me, letting titles fade into insignificance, so that the Body of Christ may indeed be drawn into the unity that You desire, for Your glory. Thank You. Praise God!