Handles: Titles in Christian ministry

I do genealogical research, and that includes looking at old census records. The ‘profession’ column can be interesting—in recent weeks I’ve come across job descriptions like boot-fitter, tinsmith, worsted braid trimmer, groom, boat-builder, fruiterer, shepherd boy, straw bonnet maker, under-carter, golf caddie, glover, soap-packer, and dozens of ag labs (agricultural labourers).

handleI also try to keep tabs on what’s happening in the world of Christian ministry and witness. There are job descriptions there, too: missionary, seminary professor, pastor, and so on. But I’ve noticed a worrying trend in some quarters recently to move from job descriptions to titles, especially using the ministry categories that Paul lists in Ephesians 4:11, namely, apostles, prophets, evangelists pastors and teachers.

The first two of these are favourites. People are introducing and advertising themselves as Apostle Frederick Impuchambo, or Prophet Marcus Faraduji. Don’t worry, I just made those up—but if you detect an African-sounding note in those names, that’s intentional, because it is among African Christians that this trend seems most noticeable. That saddens me, because I love Africa, which is home to some of the loveliest Christians I’ve ever met. I’ve visited the continent dozens of times, and my wife and I lived there for two full years. So I’ve no gripe with African Christianity at large, but I am concerned about this titles-trend. What are we to make of it?

Your view of the church will be a factor in your view of titles. If you see the body of Christ in skeletal terms, that is, with a rigid hierarchical structure, you will expect titles to go with the various levels. So if a bishop in, say, the Church of England dies or retires, there’s a post to be filled, and with the post goes the title ‘bishop’. But many of us see the body of Christ as an organism rather than an organisation. Gift and ministry are charismatic, endowed by the Holy Spirit, and we simply recognise his work in people and make room for them to operate. So if a deacon in the local church dies or retires, it doesn’t follow at all that someone must be appointed to take his place.

Titles aside, there is a crucial place for the recognition of a person’s gift or ministry, and it is often appropriate for that to be public. I have more than once been involved in publicly recognising a younger person as, say, an elder in the local church. Our recognition of his gift and calling, carried out with prayer and prophecy in full view of those he will serve, adds a degree of authority to his ministry. But the last thing he would want, if he has any spiritual depth at all, is to adopt a title. He doesn’t now expect to be called ‘Elder Fred Smith’. He’s still just the good old Fred Smith that he was before, but with a new level of authority now that his gift and calling have been confirmed.

In fact, if he insisted on being called ‘Elder Fred Smith’ I’d be wanting to step him down again. It’s like the (apocryphal) story of the Christian lady who, one Sunday, received from the church leaders a medal for being the humblest believer in the church. They took it off her the following Sunday because she wore it!

I have worked over the years with many godly apostles, prophets, evangelists, pastors and teachers, but not one of them ever sported a title. And what’s more, not one of them ever took the initiative in canvassing for himself to be recognised as an apostle, or whatever. It was always his colleagues who, working with him and observing him objectively, reached the united conclusion that his was an apostolic ministry and, in due course—but never in a hurry[1]—gave it named public recognition. But even then, for the man to go on to name himself in advertising blurbs as ‘Apostle Henry Brown’ would have been seen as an unthinkable expression of pride.

Some would say that we don’t have problems with Doctor Sally Smith or Police Officer Dan Ford. In fact, they would add, these titles help identify them and give us confidence in their role or expertise. So why not Prophet(ess) Sally Smith or Apostle Dan Ford?

The point is, I think, that titles like ‘Doctor’ are conferred only after the person has undergone a course of approved training and graduated with success. There are objective, universally recognised criteria against which a claim to be called Doctor can be measured. That is not the case with Christian ministry which, by its very nature, is far more varied and individual. Bill Harris gets on with serving God and God’s people with enthusiasm. After some years people begin to comment, ‘I think there’s an apostolic dimension to Bill’s ministry.’ Eventually the consensus reaches a level where he is given public recognition in that role. But it’s a role, a function, a ministry—never a title.

The worst possible scenario is a self-appointed doctor or police officer. I shudder at the prospect of somebody with few or no qualifications calling himself Doctor So-And-So and offering to treat my ailments. Or a guy who hires a police officer’s outfit from a theatrical costumier’s and stops me in the street to tell me how I should improve my driving skills. On the internet you can buy authentic-looking diplomas and certificates showing that you are a bona fide doctor or police officer when in fact you are not. You can get degrees and qualifications of every kind for a small payment. But if you buy one, your paper claim carries no more weight than your verbal claim. You are what in fact you are—and no more. So the Lord deliver us from self-appointed apostles and prophets!

And why, I wonder, do these people go for the title ‘Apostle’ or ‘Prophet’ rather than any other? Because these, in the eyes of an often painfully-naïve Christian public, are seen as carrying more spiritual clout. ‘Evangelist’, ‘Pastor’ and ‘Teacher’ aren’t perceived as having the same pizazz.

I’ve seen it several times, and always in Africa: a young man does a couple of years in a Bible college (maybe of dubious status). On the way he probably signs up to email newsletters from some mega-wealthy ‘apostle’, who flies around in a private jet and runs an outfit called Somebody Ministries (insert the rich man’s name). Once out of Bible College he buys a shiny suit in some light or lurid colour, polishes up his shoes, gets an oversized King James Version Bible with soft leather covers that flap up and down when striding around the platform, practices haranguing in front of the mirror, then launches himself as ‘Apostle So-And-So’ on a gullible Christian public. It all has the smell of hell, not of the kingdom.

Did any New Testament Christian leader sport a title? No, not one. If any leader could have done so it would surely have been Paul. History has shown its respect for him and his work by rightly referring to him as ‘the apostle Paul’. But it’s a small ‘a’, not a title. It’s saying what in practice he was and did. His fellow-apostle Peter referred to him simply as ‘our dear brother Paul’.[2]

That’s not to suggest that Paul doubted his own identity in ministry. He was an apostle, and he knew it. That, in fact, is what enabled him to work with such confidence and vigour. When people expressed doubts about his apostolic claim he had no qualms about vindicating that claim: he spent the best part of three chapters of 2 Corinthians doing just that. He refused the title but accepted the calling, the role, the ministry, the identity.[3]

It is vital that we all adopt the same attitude. Awareness of our spiritual identity is an asset to us all. I have no doubts about my own: I’m a teacher. I can’t help it. I just love explaining things to people and helping them understand. I delight in breaking down complex issues into bite-sized pieces and feeding them to God’s people at a rate they can handle. But the very thought of putting myself about as Teacher David Matthew makes me curl up with embarrassment. Just call me ‘dear brother’ and I’ll be happy.

Some will protest, no doubt, that I’m making a fuss about nothing. ‘So what if some people do use titles?’ they would argue. ‘Does it really matter all that much?’ Not to everybody, that’s for sure. But it’s because I’m the teacher-type, I suppose, that I tend to nit-pick on issues like this, in the deep conviction that they do indeed matter. That is perhaps part of the teacher’s function: to draw attention to minor issues which, once extrapolated to their potential, could well become serious problems.

‘But would you refuse to fellowship with Prophet Impuchampo because of his title?’ you might ask. ‘Or would you, for the same reason, avoid listening to Apostle Faraduji’s preaching?’ Of course not. I would treat both with the politeness, love and respect due to any fellow-believer, and I would listen to their ministry with an open heart, ready for God to speak to me through them. But if the topic came up in personal conversation with them I might well gently enquire as to why they advertise themselves with a title, then see where the conversation went.

The church can manage perfectly well without titles. So, as a principle, let’s kick them into touch and just get on with serving one another using the gifts God has graciously given to us. And as we do so, let’s give a title to none but the one we love and serve: Lord Jesus!


  1. See 1 Timothy 5:22
  2. 2 Peter 3:15
  3. Chapters 10, 11 & 12

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