Using the term ‘pastor’ as a title

For centuries, it has been the practice of the Catholic Church to set clergy apart from lay members by conferring on them the title ‘Father’ to accompany their role as priest. Typically, lay members would refer to their priest as ‘Father Bloggs’. Similarly, the Anglican Church gives the title ‘Reverend’ to those in authority such that lay members typically refer to ‘Reverend Bloggs’, although in some Anglican churches it is not unheard of for lay members to refer to their minister as ‘Reverend Joe’. This conferring of title also appears to have crept into the non-conformist tradition too. Given the lack of formal exams which one must pass in order to go into most non-conformist ministries, there is no official title to be conferred on those who become leaders within such traditions (although the Presbyterian Church is a notable exception and many Methodists become ‘Reverend’ as well). Despite this, it is now commonplace for pastors within non-conformist churches to use the very role of pastor as a title e.g. ‘Pastor Bloggs’ or, for those who prefer informality but are evidently keen to set themselves apart, ‘Pastor Joe’.

I should make clear at this point that I have no theological objection to churches having a pastor as part of a team of elders and that this is no more right or wrong than having a team elders without appointing someone to the role of pastor. Moreover, the views put forward on the use of ‘pastor’ as a title equally apply to the use of ‘elder’ in the same way (although churches trying to encourage members to refer to the leadership as ‘Elder X’ and ‘Elder Y’ do not seem to be widespread). I am not for one minute suggesting that we should not have these offices or that we should use some other term to refer to those who occupy them. However, the question remains as to whether such roles should be used as titles.

There is an important distinction to be made between a job and a title. ‘Pastor’ and ‘elder’ are simply jobs that exist within the church just as ‘teacher’ and ‘head of department’ are jobs that exist in schools. We would think it utterly bizarre for someone to refer to themselves as ‘Teacher Bloggs’ or ‘Data Analyst Joe’ as though these things represent some sort of title and yet we routinely find pastors referring to themselves in such a manner. Ultimately, this represents somebody conferring on themselves a title which they believe carries authority and status but which, in reality, is nothing other than a job akin to any other. If nothing else, it is cringeworthy – the ecclesiastical equivalent of a child in the playground insisting his self-appointed title of ‘gang leader’ makes him more credible to those both inside and outside his group of friends.

If this were just something to wince at with embarrassment it would not be such an issue. However, the problem is more serious in reality. It is symptomatic of a pride which wants recognition and status. In contrast to both the Anglican and Catholic churches, the non-conformist tradition placed great emphasis on the enabling of the Holy Spirit to help all who read the Bible understand its meaning. It is partially on this basis that formal exams were not always necessary to enter non-conformist ministries. Moreover, such a view often meant that those who were lay members of the church, who had a recognised ability to teach, could take on the role of pastor in a way that meant they were not elevated above the congregation. Someone who was formerly a member was seen as simply taking on a new role/job in the church without being placed on a pedestal. However, insistence on the use of ‘pastor’ as a title undoes this. Automatically it sets one apart from the congregation at large and seeks to use the term as indicative of status and importance  – things totally at odds with the biblical model of church leadership.

The inference that the term ‘pastor’ carries with it status and importance leads to another problem. As soon as we begin ascribing greater value to the role of pastor than to other roles in the church we begin to foster resentment amongst the membership. More than this, it encourages younger members to shun particular roles because they are seen as of little value whilst doggedly pursuing teaching roles, regardless of whether they are gifted or not, because they believe this will bring them a degree of credibility within the church. If we look at the words of Jesus this is entirely backward. He says: ‘If anyone would be first, he must be last of all and servant of all (Mark 9:35, ESV)’. When we take away the idea of pastor being a title and recognise it simply as a job like any other in the church we can avoid such thinking (or at least do something to minimise it). All roles within the church are valuable but if we give people titles rather than roles we strongly suggest otherwise.

Further to this, the Bible is clear on the roles laid out for men and women within the home and within the church. This division of roles does not ascribe higher value to the role played by one gender – both are equally vital and valuable (1) – but the Bible is unequivocal about the role of women teaching in the church (2). If teaching, as should be the case, were not tied up with status there is no reason why this ought to be an issue. However, when we use the term ‘pastor’ as a title and we only give credibility to those who teach from the pulpit it is natural that those who are prohibited from this role because of their gender, not through lack of ability, would feel frustrated and annoyed. Nevertheless, it should be clear that all roles within the church are valuable and the role of pastor is not intrinsically of more worth than any other – it is simply a role. Indeed, I am yet to come across anyone who has kicked up a fuss because they were prohibited from cleaning the toilets because it was not their role within an organisation. However, if huge levels of respect and credibility were heaped upon those who cleaned the toilets, and a title was bestowed upon those who did it to highlight who fulfilled that most respectable of roles, you can fairly guarantee that those not allowed to do it would be up in arms. The issue is then not about being prohibited from a particular role but being held back from those roles that bring the greatest respect. If we view the role of pastor in its proper place this should never become a problem. Using the role as a title, however, can only make this issue worse and resentment grow.

There are some very good reasons to have a pastor. It can be of great benefit to the church to have someone fulfilling this role. Nevertheless, we should view it in its proper place. It is not a role which should see a man elevated above the congregation nor should it be viewed of more intrinsic value than other vital roles in the church. When we begin to set the pastor on a pedestal we downgrade other roles in the church, we can discourage members who work hard in other roles by suggesting the part they play is less valuable and we can encourage people to shun ‘lesser’ jobs and to pursue the role of pastor less out of a calling and ability and more out of a desire to appear credible and of greatest value in the church. By all means lets employ pastors but lets not make the mistake of conferring it on people as a title. Subtle though the difference may be lets recognise the term ‘pastor’ as a job and less like a title to be coveted or, worse still, trumpeted.

1. I happen to take a complementarian view of the roles of men and women. For reasons of space this is perhaps another post for another day.
2. See 1 Tim. 2:12