What I Have Learned from the Anabaptists (Part 5)
In this essay I must turn aside from weightier matters of historical theology to deal with a rather simple-minded subject. If we were to read Matthew 23 and take Jesus’ words at face value, we should come away with the notion that He was not very impressed with all the titles we make so much of today. We should feel that all this talk about “Doctor” and “Reverend” and “Senior Pastor” is somewhat superficial, that titles are merely manmade epithets and quite contrary to the idea of a brotherhood church.
At the same time, if we were to read the New Testament epistles we would get a pretty clear hint of what Christian leadership looked like. It is a very far cry from the world’s model of a CEO or institutional president. And there is to be no pride, no bossiness, no “swagger” whatsoever. The New Testament is always insisting on mutuality and stressing the fact that we are all brothers (or sisters) in Christ, though, of course, some are “big brothers” in the sense that they have more wisdom and experience than others. We must remind ourselves that in the passage where Jesus forbids the use of honorific titles He gives us a reason: “…for only One is your Teacher, and you are all brothers.” Jesus commands us to foreswear such titles, not because they are evil in and of themselves, but because they maximize what should be minimized in the family of God, where each member has equal value and worth.
When Jesus says, “Do not be called Rabbi,” He means (so I take the Greek), “Do not make people call you Rabbi.” All of this would have been quite acceptable to the Anabaptists. For them, the essence of Christianity was discipleship. All else was subordinated to that. And what is a disciple? A disciple is one who follows Christ (Nachfolge Christi) and not any man, no matter how important or eminent or exalted that man may be in the world’s eyes, or in the church’s. Discipleship for the Anabaptists refers not simply to a life that is spiritually motivated but one that is externally patterned after Christ’s own person and work. It was assumed by the Anabaptists that the life and teaching of Jesus were to be replicated both in principle and in form by His followers. The Lord’s rejection of social strictures, His freedom from cultural entanglements, His humility and lowliness of mind – all these were accepted as normal for all true disciples.
Such beliefs contradicted, of course, the fundamental convictions of more than a thousand years of ecclesiastical history. The Anabaptist faith was a radical departure from that history not least because it clashed with culturally entrenched traditions of the Reformation such as the clergy-laity division. The Anabaptists were content to call each other Brethren, in keeping with Jesus’ teaching. It seems to me, therefore, that if we are to be true to the Scriptures we must abandon the idea that there is any positive value in referring to each other by manmade titles instead of by the term of endearment enjoined upon us by our Lord. I do not want people to call me “Doctor Black” because they think I prefer the title or place any weight on academic credentials per se. I don’t. If people choose to use the title “Doctor” because they cannot break with tradition or because they cannot conceive of me as their brother, I understand. But my preference is to be called “Brother Dave” or “Brother Black” (if you feel you must use the last name) or simply “Dave.” Please do not think that this is a mark of modesty on my part. I actually believe, am completely persuaded in fact, that the term “Brother” (or “Sister”) is the highest, most honorable, most glorious title that a follower of Jesus can be given by a fellow Christian (Heb. 2:11-12). It marks the relationship we will all enjoy in eternity when every earthly title will disappear for good.
In his poem “Adler und Taube,” Goethe describes a wounded eagle that was forced to spend some time in the valley among the lowly pigeons. The joyful and active pigeons were surprised at the unhappy eagle in the beautiful surroundings of the valley. Looking up at the snowcapped mountains the eagle knew that if he attempted to tell them about his world, they would not understand. And yet, writes Goethe, no matter how great the difference between the mountains and the meadows, both the eagle and the pigeon are parts of one world. So the brightest theologian and the newest convert are members of the same Body of Christ.
One more thought and I’m done. If you are the lead pastor in your congregation and decide you must have a title, might I recommend “Servant Pastor” instead of “Senior Pastor”? If I am not greatly mistaken, your people would be pleasantly surprised by that language. After all, as their leader you are called to be the lowest servant of all, aren’t you?
Here is a church marquee I would like to see sometime:
I am well aware that some readers will think this is simplistic, even comical. But I must repeatedly insist that this is the biblical pattern, and it is plain. But it is a Rubicon. You will either cross it or you won’t.
How about it? Will your church be the first to break out of the mold?
August 8, 2007
David Alan Black is the editor of www.daveblackonline.com.