Great question. Is it wrong to have a title before our name? Is it wrong to honor someones position of authority with a title? I don't think so, as long as we give the proper honor where it is properly due!
Here is what that passage from Matthew says - (9)"Do not call anyone on earth your father; for One is your Father, He who is in heaven. (10) "Do not be called leaders; for One is your Leader, that is, Christ." (NASB)
The Greek word used for father is pater and carries with it the meaning of the one who gave us life; our "generator" or "ancestor." We all have or had an earthly pater, however, there is only One heavenly Pater or as the phrase "One Father" means; there is only One from whom all life came!
The word translated as "leaders" is kathegetese which can mean a teacher, guide, or even a master. Once again it appears in its common form. It is capitalized to show that while there are kathegetese there is only One who is our true and ultimate "Teacher, Leader, Guide, and Master"...the Christ! Christ here is Christos or "the anointed one" who is the Son of God by divine declaration of His identity, position, and authority.
OK. So there is a difference between the titles of father and Father, and teacher and Teacher. But why did Jesus say we shouldn't call people father or let others call us teacher?
To properly understand a particular verse or passage from scripture it is necessary to follow a few guides on how to study what the Bible says. There is great danger in taking just one or two verses (most often out of context with the rest of scripture) and trying to build a doctrine or theology from just those verses.
- I could be referring to the weather, the temperature of the water in my shower, or even a bowl of soup.
- I could also be speaking of my perception of someone's attitude toward me.
- This could also be a response to a question of how a particular color of carpet, paint, or cloth made me feel.
Who Spoke these words? Well, it is clear (Matthew 23:1) that it was Jesus, the Christ and One Teacher.
To whom was Jesus speaking these words? Matthew 23:1 states very clearly that "Then, Jesus spoke to the crowds and to His disciples" (NASB). So it is clear that these words were spoken by Jesus to those who were both following Him and those who were gathered around Him. It is also clear that these words were spoken as part of a teaching that was in response to something, as in the "then, Jesus spoke...".
Was there anyone else around to hear these words? If you go back to where this conversation started, in chapters 21 and 22, it appears that there were also the "chief priests and elders of the people." These were the Jewish religious leaders, including the Pharisees and Sadducees, who were experts of the Law. So while Jesus was addressing His teaching to those who were around Him, He was also saying these things in the presence of the religious authorities.
What took place or was said right before these words were spoken? And what took place or was spoken immediately after? This is very important so that these few words by themselves can be put in proper context with the overall narrative of the scripture.
If you go back to where this specific conversation started, you come to Matthew 21.
This is the account of Jesus' Triumphal Entry into Jerusalem where the prophecies of Isaiah and Zechariah were fulfilled as the people showed respect and shouted out praises and honor for their king coming to them, gentle (or meek) riding on a donkey. The people on that day praised Jesus publicly, even calling Him the Son of David, or, the rightful heir to the throne or rule of the Jews (God's people) which was a title of great honor. The whole City of Jerusalem was stirred asking who this man really was.
Even when Jesus went to the temple the people and specifically the children were honoring Him as the Son of David.
In Matthew 21:23, the religious rulers come to Jesus and challenge His authority saying, "who does He think He is, and who gave Him the authority to teach these things?"
As you read what happens next (and I suggest you read all of Matthew 21-23) you see Jesus begin teaching the people around Him on the danger of becoming prideful, rather than getting into a debate on who has the most authority.
Jesus tells several parables that show how we should show honor to the One who has authority over us, as well as demonstrating how the religious leaders had missed the point and misused the authority that they had been granted by the King and had fallen into the same sin as the Devil: Pride (1 Timothy 3:6)!
Then comes a series of questions designed to question Jesus' authority as a teacher or Rabbi which Jesus gives astonishing and amazing answers to. He even asks them a question about who they think the Christ is in order to show that while David was the pater (or earthly ancestor) of the Christ, the Christ is actually the Pater or One from whom David came!
In other words, as Ryrie puts it in his commentary, "Jesus was trying to make the Pharisees see that the Son of David was also the Lord of David. The Messiah was both David's human descendant and divine Lord."
The chair or seat of Moses was traditionally in front of the Synagogue where the official teacher would deliver the official interpretation of the Law (similar to the pastor preaching from the pulpit at the front of the church today). This statement by Jesus shows that they had been given this authority or place of honor by God.
Jesus goes on to show how they had become prideful in this position. But, don't miss what He says in verse 3. Because they have this position as teachers of the Law, the people must respect their position and listen to them. However, because they have become prideful and don't practice what they preach, the people are not to do what they do.
In other words, God was using them to speak His word to the people (the people didn't have individual Bibles or the indwelling of the Holy Spirit yet). But because they had fallen into the sin of pride and self righteousness, the people were not supposed to do what they did, rather to do what scripture said!
The old adage, "do as I say, not as I do" is a terrible misuse of authority. Jesus taught, "do as I say, and as I do." And He lived it out!
- Verse 3 - "they say things and do not do them" (they are arrogant hypocrites)
- Verse 5 - "they do all their deeds to be seen by men" (seeking honor from men rather than God)
- Verses 6-7 - "they love the place of honor" and "being called Rabbi" by men (once again, seeking honor from men and not God, the very One who gave them their titles)
The Meaning of the word for Rabbi in the Greek means master or teacher. The Hebrew carries the meaning of "my great one."
Evidently, these Rabbi's or teachers/leaders had begun to think of themselves as being great ones rather than remembering the Great One.
Jesus will go on in the rest of Matthew 23 to give stern warning (woes) to both the listeners at that time and to us today, of the great danger of practicing religion and becoming prideful and arrogant in that practice like the religious leaders of that day had. Somehow thinking that we can become righteous by our effort at following the rules, rather than by humbly admitting that we are hopeless without a Savior.
But for now, to answer your question, I think we have enough information.
Look at Matthew 23:8-12 this time instead of just 9-10 in light of what we have learned:
(8) But do not be called Rabbi; for One is your Teacher, and you are all brothers.
- There are those who have been called and gifted by God to be teachers (Ephesians 4:11). However, this is a position that should bring humility and great caution to the one who has been given the responsibility to accurately teach God's word to others. Being a teacher does not make you better than the rest of those who make up the body. See James 3:1; teachers will be judged strictly for the things they teach.
- It is OK to recognize that someone is a teacher and even use that title to point it out. But the one with the honor of teaching needs to remember who the Teacher is and not become prideful.
- We should also never let ourselves give honor to any human teacher that belongs to God, who is the Source of Truth.
- As Jesus said, don't honor the teacher. Honor what they teach. As long as it is truly from God!
- We know that we are supposed to give due honor and respect to our earthly or human fathers; it's one of the "Top 10" (Exodus 20:12). But that is due honor for the one whom God chose to use to bring you into this world.
- We never want to give undue honor to our ancestors or any person by elevating them to a place reserved for God alone, as the One who is the source of everything. The One Pater or source of everything is the only one who deserves our highest honor.
- There is great danger here in the idea of a human priest being called father or of any man placed in the position of Pope or head of the church on earth. That honor belongs to Jesus alone!
- There is also a flaw in judging our Heavenly Father's character by that of our human father's. This is a stumbling block to many people who don't understand the difference between the two titles and the honor and authority they carry.
- I like the way this is phrased (I'm sure my approval thrills Jesus...) in that it isn't so much about me being a leader/teacher as it is about me allowing people to honor me above what is right.
- Don't let people give you or your descriptive title more honor than what it is worth.
- Being a teacher, leader, pastor, or elder is descriptive of the place of responsibility and authority that God has called a person to but it is not a status symbol or declaration of some higher level of honor. If anything it should point out that people serving in these areas need more grace than honor!
- There is only One who is the Teacher/Leader and it is Christ - the Living Word of God who is the Way, the Truth, and the Life!
- We can have titles that describe our work like doctor, professor, teacher, judge, pastor, etc., but they should never be allowed to take the honor from the One who gives us the ability to do the work in the first place.
(11) But the greatest among you shall be your servant.
- Remember the radical principle of true love that Jesus not only taught about, but lived out in His life. Love for others means dying to self. To love God and others before yourself is best demonstrated by a humble and serving heart.
- In the value system of God's kingdom (the people of the One Father), whomever seeks honor for themselves will be humbled. The one who truly humbles themselves will be honored by the One who defines honor.
God is actively resisting and putting up walls in the way of those who are prideful, arrogant, and self righteous as a way of trying to get them to repent before they face destruction.
The Humble - those who know that they must rely on God to be their Father, Jesus to be their Teacher, and the Holy Spirit to guide them - receive God's grace. I don't know about you, but I need all the grace I can get!
It's OK to call my Dad father, because that is the position and authority that God gave him. It is also OK to have my kids call me father, as a sign of respect for my position and the authority that God has placed on me.
But never, ever forget that there is only One true source of life, power, grace, knowledge, etc. The One True Father (God).
Its OK to have people call me a teacher if they are doing so out of recognition of God's call on my life and how I serve. But I better be sure to remind them and myself, that I am not the source of what I teach or the power behind it! That Honor is reserved for the One Teacher (Leader), Christ.
This goes for other titles, both religious and secular, whether your title is elder, deacon, pastor, doctor, professor, president, or king. Everything you are and have is not from you. It is from the One to whom all honor and glory belongs: God!
Stay humble my friends! P. Scott