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by Al Maxey

Issue #719 ------- May 12, 2017
Anyone who idolizes you is going to hate you when
he discovers that you are fallible. He never forgives.
He has deceived himself, and he blames you for it.

Elbert Hubbard (1856-1915)

The Great Title Transgression
Pondering Our Redeemer's Proscription of
Calling Someone "Rabbi, Father, Teacher"

Queen Elizabeth I (1533-1603), the daughter of King Henry VIII and Anne Boleyn, reigned over England and Ireland from November 17, 1558 until her death. This "Virgin Queen" was childless and was to be the last monarch of the Tudor dynasty. On one occasion, when discussing her legacy and epitaph, she made this declaration: "I am no lover of pompous title, but only desire that my name may be recorded in a line or two, which shall briefly express my name, my virginity, the years of my reign, the reformation of religion under it, and my preservation of peace." In reading and reflecting on her thoughts with regard to her epitaph, I found it fascinating that she listed first her disdain "of pompous title," even though she herself held the highest title in the land: Queen. What she undoubtedly sought to convey in this statement, however, was: titles themselves are neither good nor bad, it is rather the attitude and actions of those titled that determines the nature and character of the one who wears that title. Some may wear it pompously, others may wear it with benevolent intent for those they are tasked to minister to by virtue of that title. There is nothing inherently wrong or evil with having a title; it is rather one's attitude toward it, and what one does with it in their daily interactions with others, that determines how people view that title and the one thusly titled. Daniel Defoe (1660-1731), best known for his novel Robinson Crusoe, was absolutely right when he remarked that "titles are shadows, crowns are empty things" when kings cease employing those titles and crowns for the good of their subjects [The True-Born Englishman]. Too many seek titles for their own benefit, rather than accepting a title for the purpose of benefiting others. Titles are tools that in the right hands can bring a blessing, but in the wrong hands can bring a curse.

In the context of Matthew 23, we find Jesus issuing some of His most scathing rebukes against the arrogant religious elitists of His day, and within that castigation we find our Lord's thoughts on their use and abuse of various titles. The whole chapter records His disgust with the attitudes and actions of the scribes and Pharisees, whom He characterizes as hypocrites, sons of hell, blind guides, fools, whitewashed tombs, serpents, a brood of vipers, sons of murderers, lawless, arrogant and self-exalting religionists. At the very beginning of this strong denunciation of these so-called leaders, Jesus goes to the very heart of the matter by exposing their love of attention and acclaim. One can easily detect the biting sarcasm of Christ's opening statement to the crowds and His disciples on that occasion as He exposed the scribes and Pharisees: "You would think these Jewish leaders and these Pharisees were Moses, the way they keep making up so many laws! And of course you should obey their every whim!" (Matthew 23:2-3a, Living Bible). Jesus was most certainly not, in that last sentence, telling people to surrender their will to the whims of these religious hypocrites. He was employing sarcasm to dramatically demonstrate the arrogant expectation of these men.

They loved being the center of attention; they longed for the acclaim and applause of the people. They sought the devotion of the masses, the respectful public greetings, and the titles that proclaimed them superior to others. "They love the place of honor at banquets, and the chief seats in the synagogues, and respectful greetings in the market places, and being called by men 'Rabbi'" (Matthew 23:6-7). I really like the way The Message renders this passage: "Their lives are perpetual fashion shows, embroidered prayer shawls one day and flowery prayers the next. They love to sit at the head table at church dinners, basking in the most prominent positions, preening in the radiance of public flattery, receiving honorary degrees, and getting called 'Doctor' and 'Reverend'." This, of course, leads us to ask the obvious question: Is there anything inherently wrong or sinful about greeting someone respectfully or about being honored in a public setting? Of course not. Paul even urges us to "outdo one another in showing honor" (Romans 12:10, ESV) and to "render to all what is due them: ... honor to whom honor is due" (Romans 13:7). Yet, Paul tempers this by saying, "do not be haughty in mind, ... do not be wise in your own estimation" (Romans 12:16). There is nothing wrong with being honored; the wrong is in the hearts of those who seek it and demand it and love it; who see it as their "just due" by virtue of their perceived superiority. It is like the Pharisee who stood arrogantly before God and men, boldly declaring, "I thank Thee, God, that I am not like other people" (Luke 18:11). Jesus told this parable for the purpose of exposing and opposing the arrogance of those "who trusted in themselves that they were righteous" (vs. 9), and who "exalted themselves," rather than living humbly before God and men (vs. 14).

Returning to our Lord's scathing rebuke in Matthew 23 of the scribes and Pharisees, He gave this advice to His disciples, "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. The greatest among you will be your servant. For whoever exalts himself will be humbled, and whoever humbles himself will be exalted" (Matthew 23:8-12, NIV). Again, I would direct your attention to how The Message renders the last part of that passage: "Do you want to stand out? Then step down! Be a servant. If you puff yourself up, you'll get the wind knocked out of you." Jesus is not condemning the use of titles per se, nor is He condemning respectful greetings or seats of honor at banquets. He is condemning religious arrogance; the love of attention and acclaim, and the active seeking of such reverence from others. We are not called to be sovereigns and saviors (we already have that in the Lord); we are called to be servants!

We are all brethren in the One Family of God, as Jesus Himself declared in this passage ("you are all brothers" - Matthew 23:8b). This is one reason we often hear of disciples calling one another "brother" or "sister," as it reflects this loving familial relationship (although some declare these too are "godless titles" and thus forbidden). Our Lord's point, however, is that there is to be no religious hierarchy in the Family; male/female, rich/poor, Jew/Gentile, master/slave, officer/enlisted, etc. - we are all ONE in Him (Galatians 3:28). "We be brethren!" This in no way negates, however, the fact that we may each have a different calling and equipping from the Lord, and that some of these callings may be more visible to the public than others. Nor does our unity in the Spirit and oneness in Christ negate the need to take note of these various gifts and callings at times in our interaction with one another. This is when the use of descriptive terms or titles may be legitimate, and perhaps even necessary. Paul, for example, often characterized himself as the spiritual "father" of those he led to Christ Jesus. Paul was certainly not suggesting that he was supplanting God the Father; he was merely noting that he had helped "birth" certain disciples of Jesus, and felt a sincere responsibility to help this new child of God grow and mature in Christ. "In Christ Jesus I became your father through the gospel" (1 Cor. 4:15). Paul referred to both Timothy and Titus as his children in the faith, which would make him their "father." This is not to suggest they were to call him "Father Paul," but merely reflects the nature of their spiritual relationship to one another within the Family of God in Christ. Such distinctions most certainly have a place in the church, but they are not to be given undue preeminence in the church, for such can all too quickly lead to ungodly arrogance and self-promotion. A good example is Diotrephes, "who loves to be first among" the people of Christ (3 John 9).

The reality within the Body of Christ is that there are different gifts, abilities and ministries, some of which even require the one called to exercise a degree of authority. "God has appointed in the church, first apostles, second prophets, third teachers..." (1 Cor. 12:28). "All the members do not have the same function, ... we have gifts that differ according to the grace given to us" (Romans 12:4, 6). Some of these are: apostles, prophets, evangelists, pastors and teachers (Eph. 4:11). Is it a sin to take note of these various callings? May we refer to someone in the church as a teacher, or a pastor, or an evangelist? I often refer to "the apostle Paul" - is that wrong? What about calling a professor in college "Dr. ----"? Is this a sinful use of a title that our Lord would frown upon (as per the understanding of some with regard to His statement in Matt. 23:8-10)? Frankly, I think not. When we start throwing out titles, characterizing them as "sinful," refusing to even let such titles fall from our lips, I believe we have completely missed the point Jesus was making in Matthew 23. He was/is not condemning titles per se, He was condemning the love of such titles, and the quest of those who earnestly desired the acclaim and applause and even reverence of those about them. Jesus was exposing pride and arrogance; the desire to be first among men, superior to others! Such arrogance will always eventually lead to oppression of those whom you disdain. Nehemiah 9:9-10 tells us that Pharaoh and the Egyptians acted arrogantly toward the Jews, and the result of that arrogance was affliction of the very people they regarded as inferior. Their attitude of "We are better than you" led to hundreds of years of cruel slavery and abuse. In our own nation, some regarded themselves as superior to "the black man," and this nation has still not recovered from the resulting abuse and misery inflicted undeservedly upon these people. Such manifest arrogance is a people's shame. Numbers 15:30 declares that any person who does anything out of a sense of "I'm superior to you" is guilty of blaspheming God, and he will be cut off from among his people! In Deuteronomy 17:12-13 God says that the man who regards himself as superior to the priest or judge, and who will not listen to them, will die! "In this way you shall purge the evil from Israel; and all the people will hear and be afraid, and will not act arrogantly or superior again."

The use of titles (just as sitting in seats of honor, or respectful public greetings) is neither right nor wrong in itself. It is rather a problem of the heart! Do you seek such honors; do you long for them? Or, are they merely incidental in the fulfillment of the calling you received from God? I am often introduced in a public gathering (such as the recent National Day of Prayer event at our civic center) as "Pastor Maxey." I may even be placed at a head table as one of the speakers at such gatherings (such as lectureships, workshops, etc.). These are logistical matters and descriptive terms, and I don't regard either as a sign that I am in any way superior to anyone else. I know only too well that I am not. If, however, I love such titles and long for such distinctions, and even seek them out or demand that they be given to me as my due, THEN I have evidenced the very arrogance which our Lord has condemned in Matthew 23. The warning of Jesus here is "against that itch for ecclesiastical superiority which has been the bane and the scandal of Christ's ministers in every age" [Drs. Jamieson, Fausset & Brown, Commentary Practical and Explanatory on the Whole Bible, p. 940]. The use of titles, or the accepting of honors, "is not forbidden by Jesus" in this passage, but rather "the prideful desire for honors and titles" [R.C.H. Lenski, The Interpretation of St. Matthew's Gospel, p. 898]. It is much like how we have often misunderstood what Paul was saying in 1 Timothy 6:10 - "The love of money is a root of all sorts of evil, and some by longing for it have wandered away from the faith, and pierced themselves with many a pang." How many times have you heard, "money is the root of all evil"? That is not what Paul said. It is "the love of" money; the intense "longing for it" that is the problem. Money itself is neither good nor bad. The same is true of titles and honors.

I completely agree with H. Leo Boles when he wrote that what Jesus said "does not forbid anyone calling another by a professional title. Such titles of profession as may be used in giving honor to whom honor is due are not forbidden by Jesus here" ... rather, what is condemned is an "inordinate love of human applause" [A Commentary on the Gospel According to Matthew, p. 443-444]. The Greek scholar Dr. A. T. Robertson characterized those of whom Jesus spoke as people who "had an itch for notice" [Word Pictures in the New Testament, e-Sword]. "It would, of course, be a slavish literalism to see in our Lord's words an absolute prohibition of these and like words in ecclesiastical or civil life" [Dr. Charles Ellicott, Commentary on the Whole Bible, vol. 6, p. 141]. When disciples of Christ become little more than "time-servers and applause-seekers" [The Expositor's Bible Commentary, vol. 8, p. 474], they have lost sight of their calling and have given in to their baser nature. Our Lord is emphasizing "the contrast between Christian humility and Pharisaical pride and vanity. ... He is censuring that sectarian spirit which began in the primitive church (1 Cor. 1:12), and has continued to this day in the division of the one body into innumerable sects and parties, ranged under various leaders, and generally bearing their founder's name. ... Our Lord does not forbid respect for teachers or different grades in His church (see 1 Cor. 12 and Eph. 4); that which He censures is the inordinate grasping at such personal distinctions, the greedy ambition which loves the empty title, and takes any means to obtain it" [The Pulpit Commentary, vol. 15, pt. 2, p. 397]. Jesus does indeed have an important message for us all in the early verses of Matthew 23, however that message is not the one we typically hear from our pulpits. By attacking titles we totally miss truth! Let us look to our hearts (our intents and motivations), brethren, for it is here that our Lord seeks and finds His own!

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Readers' Reflections

From a Doctor in Arkansas:

I would like to order a copy of your new 2 CD set: "A Fresh, Reflective Study of the NT Apostles: History, Character, Mission & Message." Thank you! I really appreciate your work!

From a Reader in Mississippi:

Hello Bro. Maxey. I just made a purchase from you about 30 minutes ago via PayPal for your new 2 CD set containing your Bible class on the New Testament apostles (audio files and .pdf files of the handouts), and also for your 2 CD set of your Bible class on 1st Corinthians titled "Christian Counsel for a Confused, Conflicted Church." I really enjoy your writings and listening to your Bible class studies on CD. They have both helped me to grow as a Christian over the last three or so years! Thank you for all that you do!

From an Author/Speaker in Arizona:

Thanks, Al, for your book "Down, But Not Out: A Study of Divorce and Remarriage in Light of God's Healing Grace" which I recently purchased from you. I have finally started reading it, and I hope to finish it this week. Great insights into a difficult and emotionally devastating issue!!

From a Reader in West Virginia:

Al, your newest book "From Ruin to Resurrection" is excellent!! It is so refreshing to see Christians like yourself willing to do the heavy lifting in the Scriptures required to examine these things objectively, free of the traditional shackles and biases! Thank you!!

From a Reader in Texas:

While going over the material for the class I'm teaching at our church (with your book "From Ruin to Resurrection" being used as the text - we're doing a chapter a week), a statement just keeps sticking in my mind. "If a process is never-ending, then a result is never obtained." We have references in Scripture to eternal punishment, eternal destruction, eternal consolation, eternal salvation, eternal judgment, and yet men have only chosen to take eternal punishMENT and turn it into eternal (everlasting; never-ending) punishING. If this view were correct (as the traditionalists maintain), then the promise of DEATH for the wicked would never actually be achieved!! They would forever be DYING, but this process would never result in DEATH. Yet, the wages of sin is death (result), not dying (process). It is truly amazing what some men have created theologically to try and confirm their "established" beliefs!! Al, your work excites me, and it has brought life to all God has planned for us. I am so glad that God has found a voice in your work! You are much appreciated and loved, brother!

From a Minister in Ghana:

Greetings to you Bro. Maxey. I am grateful to have you as a friend on Facebook. I have been receiving your articles called "Reflections" at my gmail address. I really like these lessons! I will be grateful if you will send these articles also to the Lord's church directly, because it will help them even after my departure. Also, as I have you as a friend, I would like to send you questions now and then for you to answer for me, so that I may understand some Bible teachings better. We can then use your answers here for public reading and study. Thank you and God bless you.

From a Minister in South Africa:

Dear Sir, This is to request permission for me to use a good many excerpts from your in-depth background studies on "The Minor Prophets" for my upcoming book titled "An Introduction to the Bible for New Christians and Young Christians." I will, of course, give you full credit for these quotes, and the source of the quotes will be clearly cited in the book. Thank you, sir!

From a Minister in Nevada:

I was just reading your very first "Questions & Answers" issue of Reflections, dated December 18, 2002, where you featured questions from readers (Reflections #4). You stated in that issue back then, "I am personally committed to replying to every person who takes the time to write, regardless of whether that letter to me is positive or negative." I'm so glad to see that you are still committed to that commitment, for you did indeed respond to my questions! Thanks so much for your reply, which as usual makes me think and reflect and want to pursue Truth all the more!

From a Reader in Alaska:

Al, I really liked your religion/relationship article (Reflections #718: "Delusional Discipleship: The Tragedy of 'Lord, Lord'-ism") and will send some comments later. Al, you've always been an encouragement to me, even when we don't see eye-to-eye on some issues, so I want to thank you for helping me to learn how to write expressively, which has been a life-long journey for me. Whenever I have sent in comments to you, they reflected a lot of work and thought on my part so that your readers would potentially be influenced by what I suggested. Your contrast of religion and relationship is to me at the very heart of the belief/practice dichotomy that trips up so many into thinking that orthodoxy/doctrine matters more than orthopraxy/practice. Matthew 7 and 25 make it very plain that it doesn't. Blessings in your ministry, brother!

From a Reader in Arizona:

While reading your article "Delusional Discipleship," I thought of Jesus' words in Luke 6:45 - "For out of the abundance of the heart, the mouth speaks." If we all had more opportunities to speak when we gather together, we might hear ourselves more clearly. In Isaiah 57:15, the Lord said He dwells with those whose spirits are contrite and lowly. God's acceptable sacrifices are a broken and contrite heart (Psalm 51:17). Those who are too proud to be sorry for their sin are left with nothing but trying to act humble and sound sorry. If we maintain only arm's-length relationships, others will rather quickly perceive our delusional dignity as time goes by. However, by inviting in our gatherings the dialogue that characterized the early church (Acts 20:7), all of us will have opportunity to see ourselves more clearly, and thus change.

From a Reader in Unknown:

Brother Maxey, I just finished reading your article titled "Delusional Discipleship" and I couldn't help but remember a passage written by Robert Whiteside in his commentary: "There are no carnal ordinances in Christianity; every acceptable service is a spiritual service" [A New Commentary of Paul's Letter to the Saints at Rome]. Good job on your article!!

From a Reader in Georgia:

Thanks, Al. "Delusional Discipleship" was right on point. I was reminded of what Paul said to the Corinthian assembly: "For I decided to know nothing among you except Jesus Christ and Him crucified" (1 Cor. 2:2), and also to the assembly in Philippi: "Indeed, I count everything as loss because of the surpassing worth of knowing Christ Jesus my Lord. For His sake I have suffered the loss of all things and count them as rubbish, in order that I may gain Christ" (Philp. 3:8). It is difficult to really know anyone (relationship) unless you spend time with them, huh?! Love ya, brother!

From a Reader in Oklahoma:

This past Lord's day I had to walk out of the service: as usual, the sermon was on baptism and all those "evil" denominations! The preacher's very first remark was that a person is NOT - and cannot be - saved until he/she is baptized in water, for "it is baptism that saves you!" You can't "contact the blood of Christ" without it, he declared. Also, he preached, "We are the ONLY true church!" He meant OUR denomination, of course, although he would never admit that we are one. Al, I had to leave or be ill. What ever happened to grace, faith, love?! I love the people of this congregation, but they are so deluded by the countless Church of Christ LAWS that have been passed down from generation to generation here in -------, Oklahoma. They just can't see past the noses on their own faces! Pray for me, brother, that I can remain faithful to HIM in this poisonous religious climate!

From a Reader in Indiana:

Hey, Al. I am hoping to get your thoughts on something. Our congregation is beginning to sell coffee during the first service on Sunday morning. We are a good sized church, so there are two services in the morning. The funds collected from selling coffee during the early service are used to help support missionaries. The apostle Paul said that our gatherings are for the purpose of edification (1 Cor. 14:26; Heb. 10:24-25). Does this practice take away from that? Let me assure you, I'm not trying to be legalistic. In fact, I'm trying to run away from that! But, where do you draw the line in introducing these things?

From a Reader in Unknown:

It's been a while since I wrote to you, but I still read all your Reflections and enjoy them very much. Since I respect your knowledge of Scripture so much, I have a question regarding 1 Samuel 16-17. I am teaching a Ladies' Bible Class on David, and I have come to chapter 17 of 1st Samuel (the account of David killing Goliath). The question I have is: Did King Saul know David at this time? We see in the previous chapter (1 Samuel 16) where David played the harp for Saul, and that he was made Saul's armor bearer, but in chapter 17 it appears that Saul did not know David or his family. Can you give me your understanding of this? It seems to be a contradiction in Scripture. Thank you!

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