I can remember a grammar assignment in grade school that had to do with titles of respect and their abbreviations. One of the examples in the lesson was “Rev.” for “Reverend.” I was certain we didn’t use “Rev.,” so I asked my Mother what to put in the assignment, because it was asking for the student’s usage. We came up with “Bro.” for “Brother.” By the way, I’m not overly fond of that answer, because “brother” is not a title of respect but a term of endearment and relationship, but I digress.
Why don’t we use the title “Reverend”? I’m bothered by the meaning of the word when applied to a human being. The first definition of “reverend” is “worthy of reverence.” It occurs once in the King James Version in Psalm 111:9.
He sent redemption unto his people: he hath commanded his covenant for ever: holy and reverend is his name. (Psalms 111:9, KJV)
In the context of the Psalm, the one whose name is “holy and reverend” is God himself. The Hebrew word that stands behind this English translation means “to be feared.” The ESV, NIV, NASB, and NKJV have “awesome” in the high sense of something that creates the sense of awe in a person. Although I believe church leaders deserve respect, it seems that reverence is on the other end of the spectrum and applicable only to God. Sometimes you can’t prevent people from using the title in community settings, but I have a tendency to scratch it out if it’s on a name tag. It’s not a title I like or use.
But on a deeper level, I think the teachings of Jesus discourage titles of this sort.
… and they love the place of honor at feasts and the best seats in the synagogues and greetings in the marketplaces and being called rabbi by others. But you are not to be called rabbi, for you have one teacher, and you are all brothers. And call no man your father on earth, for you have one Father, who is in heaven. Neither be called instructors, for you have one instructor, the Christ. The greatest among you shall be your servant. Whoever exalts himself will be humbled, and whoever humbles himself will be exalted. (Matthew 23:6–12, ESV)
“Rabbi” in Hebrew is akin to “reverend.” It literally means “my great one.” Jesus is forbidding the term among his disciples. There is no hierarchy of exalted teachers as developed in Judaism. “Father” also needs to be understood against the background of the Jewish practice of exalting certain rabbis from the past and designating them as “fathers.” Jesus is not arguing against the use of the term as we talk about fathers in the home or even metaphorically (cf. 1 Cor 4:15; Phil 2:22). The context is religious titles. The ESV uses the word “instructor” for the third term. It is a word that was used in Greek for a personal or private tutor. Only Jesus is worthy of this roles in our lives. All Christian teachers are to be pointers to Jesus.
The overall message for church leaders is humility. Elders, deacons, evangelists, and teachers are servants of the church. They have important functions within the church, but these functions must be carried out with servant hearts. Special titles promote pride and lead us in the wrong direction. Servants don’t need titles.