Are Preachers To Be Called “Reverend”?

Is the use of a clerical title, e.g., “Reverend,” “Father,” “Rabbi,” or “Doctor”—within the framework of religious service—consistent with the will of God? This week’s question discusses this issue.
By Wayne Jackson | Christian Courier

No narration available

“Do you have information as to when various denominations began to apply the term ‘reverend’ to preachers?”

The title “Reverend” has been adopted in many English-speaking denominations as a courtesy designation for clergymen. Higher orders are designated as “Very Reverend,” “Right Reverend,” or “Most Reverend.”

Professor Burton S. Easton, of the General Theological Seminary of the Episcopal Church, has briefly discussed this matter. He notes that only in recent times has the Catholic Church begun to employ “Most Reverend” for its Bishops and Archbishops, while certain priests (of the “Monsignor” rank) are addressed as “Right Reverend.” The Professor contends that the Catholic practice began in Ireland and subsequently spread to America. He believes the usage commenced among Protestants in England in about 1865, and has grown since then (Ferm, 661).

Those who seek to follow the apostolic pattern will reject the use of special name-associated, religious “titles” for two reasons.

No New Testament Authority

First, there is no New Testament authority for the use of such nomenclature. This argument will carry no weight with those who are unconcerned with operating within the bounds of the Lord’s authority; yet, apostolic teaching is clear that one must not venture into the domain of presumptuous religious activity (1 Cor. 4:6 ASV; Col. 3:17; 2 Jn. 9). Christians are warned against religious conduct that is grounded in their personal “will” (cf. “will-worship” — Col. 2:23).

Clerical Titles Condemned by Christ

Second, in principle, the use of “Reverend,” as a clerical title, is condemned by the Lord. In a scathing rebuke of the scribes and Pharisees, Jesus spoke these words:

“But all their works they do to be seen of men: for they make broad their phylacteries, and enlarge the borders of their garments, and love the chief place at feasts, and the chief seats in the synagogues, and the salutations in the marketplaces, and to be called of men, Rabbi. But be not ye called Rabbi: for one is your teacher, and all ye are brethren. And call no man your father on the earth: for one is your Father, even he who is in heaven. Neither be ye called masters: for one is your master, even the Christ. But he that is greatest among you shall be your servant. And whosoever shall exalt himself shall be humbled; and whosoever shall humble himself shall be exalted” (Mt. 23:5-12).

Clearly the Savior has condemned the use of pompous titles by which Christian men exalt themselves above their fellows.

R. C. H. Lenski, a Lutheran scholar, noted: “Any title that is contrary to [the] equality of brethren in Christ Jesus, even the desire for such a title and honor, is wicked usurpation as far as our one real Teacher is concerned” (899).

Albert Barnes, the noted Presbyterian commentator, expressed a similar sentiment, suggesting that titles like “Doctor of Divinity” fall into the same category.

Nor is it appropriate to refer to the apostles as “Saint Peter” or “Saint Paul”—as some writers and speakers are accustomed to doing. I once heard a flamboyant preacher saturate his sermon with allusions to “Saint Paul” and “Saint Peter.” He slipped up along the way, however, and quoted a passage from “Saint Galatians”!

More than a century ago, A. Lukyn Williams, who authored the scholarly work on Matthew in The Pulpit Commentary series, commented that the wearing of such titles partakes of

“that sectarian spirit which began in the primitive Church, when one [person] said, ‘I am of Paul; another, I of Apollos,’ etc. (1 Cor. 1:12), and [this disposition] has continued to this day in the divisions of the one body into innumerable sects and parties, ranged under various leaders, and generally bearing their founder’s name” (397).

The use of a descriptive phrase, e.g. in this sentence, “John Doe, an elder, lives in Chicago?,” is not wrong. But to utilize special titles, “Elder John Doe,” “Rabbi Samuel Goldstein,” or “The Reverend Bob Smith,” cross the line, thus demonstrating the very attitude that Christ rebuked.

One might add, as an aside, that distinctive attire falls under the same sort of condemnation (e.g., the use of robes, clerical collars, special rings, etc.).

In commenting upon the context of Matthew 23, A. T. Robertson, a Baptist writer, observed that some religious leaders are afflicted with “an itch for notice.” He specifically takes note of both “pope” and “priest” who covet the religious recognition of “father” (180).

No Biblical Example

Third, New Testament precedent is against the august titles that the “clergy” so relish. If there was any teacher of the primitive church who might deserve a special appellation, should such have been permissible, surely it would have been Paul, whose scholastic achievements eclipsed those of his Jewish kinsmen (cf. Gal. 1:14; Phil. 3:4ff). Yet, when Peter had occasion to refer to his fellow apostle, he did not allude to “Rabbi Saul” or “Doctor Paul,” but simply as — “our beloved brother Paul” (2 Pet. 3:15).

A Popular But Flawed Argument Against Clerical Titles

As a concluding point, we must not fail to notice that while there is ample evidence against men using the title “Reverend” to set themselves apart from others, a common argument against the use of this expression is exegetically flawed.

It is not unusual to hear this statement.

“Psalm 111:9 says, ‘Holy and reverend is his [God’s] name.’ It is therefore wrong to apply to man that which belongs exclusively to the Lord.”

Though the motive behind the admonition is noble, namely, to reserve appropriate honor to the Creator, the argument is specious.

The Hebrew form rendered “reverend” is yare, from the root yr’. The term signifies “terror, to be afraid of, to be awed by, to honor, worship,” etc. The stem form is used 485 times in the Old Testament. Most of the time it refers to God (about 80%), though it is used of human beings as well (see: Dictionary of Old Testament Theology & Exegesis, 2.527ff).

Here are several example of the term applied to people or things besides God. The Israelite was to “fear” (respect, honor) his parents (Lev. 19:3). Jehovah’s “sanctuary” was to be reverenced (Lev. 19:30). Both Moses and Joshua had been “feared” (revered, honored) by the Hebrew people (Josh. 4:14).

So it is not correct to contend that yare was a sacred term reserved exclusively for God.

Moreover, note that in Psalm 111:9 “reverend” and “holy” are joined together. If one contends that “reverend” is restricted to God alone, he might as well allege that the term “holy” should never be used of man. And yet, clearly, that is not the case (cf. Lev. 11:44; 1 Pet. 1:15).

While the sincere Bible student wishes to reserve appropriate honor for his Creator, and thus refrain from using unauthorized titles that elevate men beyond what is appropriate, he wants to make sure that his reasoning is sound. This should be borne in mind when dealing with “reverend” in Psalm 111:9.

Note: This article is not intended to suggest that professional titles, such as “Doctor” or “Professor” are inappropriate in medical and/or academic environments.

  • Dictionary of Old Testament Theology & Exegesis. 1997. Willem A. VanGemeren, Ed. Vol. 2. Zondervan: Grand Rapids: MI.
  • Ferm, Vergilius Ferm. 1945. An Encyclopedia of Religion. The Philosophical Library: New York, NY.
  • Lenski, R. C. H. 1943. Commentary on Matthew. Augsburg: Minneapolis, MN.
  • Robertson, A. T. 1930. Word Pictures in the New Testament. Vol. 1. Broadman: Nashville, TN.
  • The Pulpit Commentary. 1950. Matthew. Williams, A. Lukyn. Eerdmans: Grand Rapids, MI.