How important are titles? I am given various titles by various people, but I never ask for them, nor insist on them. I am frequently called, and introduced as, “Pastor Kev”, and I have been referred to as “my priest”, “my pastor”, “our teacher”, “the preacher”, “Minister”, and one cheeky friend whom I met through Chat Room even refers to me as, “my sexy priest”! What do these titles mean, since I have no official claim to them?
Do they matter? Why does it happen? Should I correct people? What does this phenomenon mean? Are there dangers?
Why would someone assign a title to me?
It’s a funny thing about the way people relate to one another. We find it easier once we’ve categorised a person. If someone is “a doctor”, somehow that’s a different kind of person from, “a motor mechanic”. Why? Simply because that’s how we tend to relate to one another.
In reality, without these labels and categories, relationship with others could seem exhausting! Imagine meeting a new person and having all possibilities open, about what kind of person they are, what they’re likely to think and say, etc. You couldn’t assume anything from the way they dress, what they do for work, their gender, or anything else. In some ways, I imagine this is what it’s like for someone on the autism spectrum.
It’s much easier to start off with some basic assumptions. For example, if someone is a school teacher, we might assume that they are not interested in talking about how to strip down an engine. We might be wrong, of course, because in reality, human beings are richly multidimensional in their personality. Whatever category we use to describe them will inevitably be inadequate, but it does tend to help us to make a few general assumptions.
Assumptions about me
In my case, I’m a rather odd person. I don’t actually fit many of the categories available for describing people, and perhaps part of that is deliberate. I like people to actually get to know me, and then to use generalisations which fit me, rather than just assuming a whole bunch of stuff which isn’t mine.
Why do I get labelled?
So, given that I don’t rely on titles myself, why do people assign them to me?
They do it precisely because I don’t do it myself. They do it because they need a paradigm in which to understand whom they are dealing with. By assigning me a title, they can deal with me within a known set of expectations.
Why these particular titles?
The thing I like about allowing others to determine the titles they will use is that it tells me something about how they intend to relate to me. After all, my customers at work don’t refer to me by those titles, but by others, “trusted advisor”, “consultant”, “computer guy”, etc.
The people who call me “pastor Kev” are recognising a role that they observe me playing in their context. They see me pastoring, and so call me a pastor. This is simply a matter of calling a spade a spade. When someone calls me that, I understand that that is the primary aspect of their relationship to me (even if it is not the primary aspect of my relationship to them).
What effect does it have?
I was introduced yesterday as “Pastor Kev”, and the person was instantly embarrassed, even chiding the person who introduced us. She had just finished using a swear word, but apparently wouldn’t have, in her words, ‘if I’d known”. It was an odd social situation for me because I don’t insist on people behaving an any particular way (like not using swear words), merely because I am present. On reflection, I was being afforded the honour due to the title under which I had been introduced, and by extension, the reverence due to God, in who’s name I was presumed to be acting.
I am starting to see how it can be helpful to use this phenomenon to someone’s benefit. This lady clearly felt that she had to behave differently before God’s representative (and by extension, before God). This probably indicates an innate self-perception in which she feels that her natural self is unacceptable to God, and a sense of self-condemnation. This is actually very fertile soil for ministering the reconciliation which transformed the life of the erstwhile “sinful woman” whom we find kissing Jesus’ feet (Luke 7:38).
Should I accept these titles?
I don’t know who coined the proverb:
“If you want to know whether you’re a leader, look behind you. Is anyone following?”
… but I like it.
Am I “pastor Kev”? Yes I am. I pastor many people’s lives.
Am I “priest”? Yes I am. People come to me, to have me mediate between themselves and God. They recognise that I am able to do so, and I gladly do. I actively teach that it is not necessary, and when I pray for them, I deliberately pray for “us” to reinforce the point. I won’t expand on the theology of this here, except to say that I am “priest” in my capacity as a voice of the Church, which has a priestly role in the world (1 pe 2:9). In this sense I’m not strictly “a priest” for that person, but rather I speak on behalf of The Priest (Christ), and in so far as the person I’m ministering to represents “the world”.
Am I “teacher”? Yes I am. People learn spiritual teachings from me. Some seek me out for that purpose.
Am I “minister”? Yes I am. I minister the Word of God, and I minister the reconciliation between people and God.
Am I “sexy”? No I’m not. But my friend calls me that only to stir, anyway.
People can call me whatever they will. Them calling me something doesn’t make it true, but it gives a hint to the way they interpret my role in their lives. Jesus said, referring to John the Baptist:
You have sent to John and he has testified to the truth. Not that I accept human testimony; but I mention it that you may be saved. (John 5:33-34).
In other words, it doesn’t matter to Jesus what other people say about him, but the information matters to his hearers, for their sake.
What about people who have been ordained to have these titles?
It should be said that such titles would not be used of someone like me if I didn’t resemble others who have borne the titles before (or at least, if I didn’t epitomise the ideals that such a title has come to represent). I think that anyone operating under any official title can afford to pause for reflection, here. The ordaining of any title is not just recognition of aptitude, it is a call to exemplify the values implied in that role’s name.
I take a different view from the Roman Catholics as to what Apostolic Succession, and therefore ecclesiastical authority, looks like. Many Protestant denominations officially shun the idea of Apostolic Succession (not all: Anglicans, for example, believe that they have claim to the Apostolic Succession back through the Roman Catholic Church) but effectively retain a notion of authority as proceeding from the church leaders, and being conferred on those being ordained. As far as Ephesians 4:7-13 is concerned, it is Christ Himself who, having won them in battle, gives the various functionary people to the church. I am in no doubt that I have been so won and given. Whether or not any particular denomination recognises it as such in the future (they might, if I apply for a ministry job), I am nevertheless a pastor, preacher, minister, teacher, evangelist, and it has been asserted by some, prophet. I didn’t decide that, Jesus did. I just discovered it.
In this way, Apostolic Succession is taken (by me, and many Protestant movements) to mean the succession of teaching, not the succession of ordination.
Those who are labelled as such things by church leadership are in one of two positions:
1. The leadership has recognised that Christ has given that person to the church, and is ordaining them as such; or,
2. The leadership has recognised certain talents in the person and is taking it upon themselves to assign such duties to the person, in the authority assumed by the current leadership.
In the former case, the person had better pray hard that they live up to their calling. In the latter case, they’d better pray hard that they will be called, by Christ, in response to the actions of the church leaders…
What cautions should be observed?
In my case, I pray hard too! Because I have not been assigned these roles by a wisened church eldership. I have come to understand that I am called to these things by God, and that my calling is being affirmed to me by God’s precious ones. I am forced to pray, “Here I stand. I can do no other, so help me God”.
When someone calls me “pastor”, they are placing some aspect of their eternal life in my unworthy hands. This is something that requires constant prayer on my part. Similarly for any other role ascribed to me, it is a call to a supernatural function, of which I am patently incapable. In fact, to whatever extent people find these things in me, they are observing only Christ because I declare with the Apostle that:
I have been crucified with Christ and I no longer live, but Christ lives in me. The life I now live in the body, I live by faith in the Son of God, who loved me and gave himself for me. – Gal 2:20
It is always tempting to believe what others say of us. It is also profoundly dangerous. The only safety lies in fervent prayer, recognising that, “apart from Me you can do nothing” (Jn 15:5). If only it were true for me to say (and yet in faith I must reckon it true and so proclaim it), “I do not accept glory from human beings” (Jn 5:41).
It is saying a very great deal, to say:
I thank Christ Jesus our Lord,
who has given me strength,
that he considered me trustworthy,
appointing me to his service.
1 Tim 1:12
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