The use of titles by ministers                                                                            by Jack Kettler


This study will look at titles and the Christian ministry. Are they appropriate? Matthew 23:9-10 will be the primary texts considered. Of primary interest will be the use of “father” in verse 23:9,   and instructor. Other translations instead of “instructor” have leader, teacher, guide, and master in verse 23:10.


Are these titles appropriate? At first, glance, when consulting Scripture, it appears not.


“And call no man your father on earth, for you have one Father, who is in heaven. Neither be called instructors, for you have one instructor, the Christ.” (Matthew 23:9-10 ESV)


What does “father” mean in Matthew 23:9? Consider the following commentary entry:


From the Pulpit Commentary on Matthew 23:9:


“Verse 9. - Your father. This was the title given to eminent teachers and founders of schools, to whom the people were taught to look up rather than to God. It was also addressed to prophets (2Kings 2:12; 2Kings 6:21). In ver. 8 Christ said, “be not called;” here he uses the active, “call not,” as if he would intimate that his followers must not give this honoured title to any doctor out of complaisance, or flattery, or affectation. Upon the earth. In contradistinction to heaven, where our true Father dwells. They were to follow no earthly school. They had natural fathers and spiritual fathers, but the authority of all comes from God; it is delegated, not essential; and good teachers would make men look to God, and not to themselves, as the source of power and truth.” (1)


Can a title be used in a different way to not bring undue attention to oneself?


If the use of father is forbidden, then it appears we have the Scriptures pitted against each other.


For example:


“And call no man your father on earth, for you have one Father, who is in heaven.” (Matthew 23:9 ESV)


“For though you have countless guides in Christ, you do not have many fathers. For I became your father in Christ Jesus through the gospel.” (1Corinthians 4:15 ESV)


How do we explain this?


Cambridge Bible for Schools and Colleges on 1Corinthians 4:15:


“5. Yet have ye not many fathers] we have here an interesting example of the fact that the spirit rather than the letter of Christ’s commands is to be observed, and that one passage of Scripture is not to be strained so as to contradict another. ‘Call no man your father on earth,’ says Christ (St Matthew 23:9): that is, as explained by the present passage, [1Corinthians 4:15] in such a spirit as to forget Him from whom all being proceeds.

In Christ Jesus I have begotten you] i.e. because Jesus Christ dwells in His ministers, and their work is His. Cf. Ch. 1 Corinthians 3:5-9.” (2)


Was Jesus speaking literally in Matthew 23:9?


Christians call their earthly dads “father.” The nation’s founders are called the “founding fathers.” In these two cases, are we violating Matthew 23:9, which says to “call no man your father on earth?” 


Consider two other cases in Scripture where individuals are called “father” with no apparent rebuke.


In the Old Testament, there is the case of Elisha:


“And Elisha saw it, and he cried my father, my father, the chariot of Israel, and the horsemen thereof. And he saw him no more: and he took hold of his own clothes, and rent them in two pieces.” (2Kings 2:12 KJV)


In the New Testament, there is the case of Abraham:


“Then he cried and said, ‘Father Abraham, have mercy on me, and send Lazarus that he may dip the tip of his finger in water and cool my tongue; for I am tormented in this flame.’ But Abraham said, ‘Son, remember that in your lifetime you received your good things, and likewise Lazarus evil things; but now he is comforted and you are tormented.” (Luke 16:24-25 KJV)


Thus far, it appears that if we follow the spirit of what Christ teaches, there are exceptions to a total prohibition on the use of the title “father.” There is a condemned way and an accepted way to use this title of “father.”


Moving on to Matthew 23:10, where the warning against titles is expanded:


“Neither be ye called masters: (καθηγηταί) for one is your Master, even Christ.” (Matthew 23:10 KJV)


As in Matthew 23:9, you have the using of titles condemned as in “Neither be ye called masters: (καθηγηταί) for one is your Master, even Christ.” (Matthew 23:10 KJV)


In Matthew 23:10, the forbidding of titles is expanded. As can be seen from the various translations, καθηγηταί also means leader, teacher, instructors, and guide, master.


From the Strong's Concordance:


kathégétés: a teacher

Original Word: καθηγητής, ου, ὁ

Part of Speech: Noun, Masculine

Transliteration: kathégétés

Phonetic Spelling: (kath-ayg-ay-tace')

Definition: a teacher

Usage: a leader, teacher, guide, master.


Matthew Poole's Commentary on Matthew 23:10 explains this text quite well:


“Ver. 8-10. It is most certain that our Saviour doth not here forbid the giving of the titles of masters and fathers to his ministers, for then Paul would not have given himself the title of father, 1 Corinthians 4:15; nor called the Galatians his little children, Galatians 4:19: nor called Timothy his son, and himself his father, Philippians 2:22; nor called himself a doctor of the Gentiles, 1Timothy 2:7 2Timothy 1:11. That which he forbids is,


1. An affectation of such titles, and hunting after them.


2. Rem tituli, the exercise of an absolute mastership, or a paternal, absolute power; so as to require any to believe things because they said them, or to do things because they bid them, without seeing the things asserted, or first commanded, in the word of God.


For in that sense God alone is men’s Father, Christ alone their Master. Pastors and teachers in the church are all but ministers, ministers of Christ to publish his will and to enjoin his laws; nor must any be owned as masters and fathers, to impose their laws and doctrines. This is twice repeated, because such is the corruption of human nature, that it is very prone, not only to affect these swelling titles, but also to exercise these exorbitant authorities.” (3)


From Barnes' Notes on the Bible on Matthew 23:10:


“Neither be ye called masters - That is, leaders, guides, for this is the literal meaning of the word. It refers to those who go before others, who claim, therefore, the right to direct and control others. This was also a title conferred on Jewish teachers.


Neither of these commands forbids us to give proper titles of civil office to men, or to render them the honor belonging to their station, Matthew 22:21; Romans 13:7; 1 Peter 2:17. They prohibit the disciples of Jesus from seeking or receiving mere empty titles, producing distinctions among themselves, implying authority to control the opinions and conduct of others, and claiming that others should acknowledge them to be superior to them.” (4)


As we see from Poole and Barnes, Matthew 23:10 does not forbid the use of titles to Christ’s ministers. What do the warnings about titles mean?


From William Hendriksen’s New Testament Commentary on Matthew 23:9-10:


“Over against this vice of pomposity, so characteristic of many a Pharisee or scribe, Jesus commends the virtue of humility: 8–10. But as for yourselves, do not let the people call you rabbi, for One is your Teacher, and all of you are brothers. And do not call anyone on earth your father, for One is your Father, the One in heaven. And do not let the people call you leaders; for One is your Leader, namely, Christ. Those who think that Jesus is here condemning the idea of an apostolic office are clearly mistaken. Was it not the Master himself who instituted the office? See 10:1, 5, 40; 18:18; John 20:21–23. Cf. Acts 1:15–26; 6:1–6; 13:1–3; 14:23; 20:28; Rom. 1:1; 1 Cor. 1:1; 9:1, 2; 2 Cor. 1:1; 12:12; Gal. 1:1; Philem. 8, 9. In the light of both the preceding and the following context the statement is justified that what Jesus is here condemning is the yearning for rank, for special recognition above one’s fellow members. He is declaring that he alone is their Teacher. “The Father in heaven” alone is their Father; Christ alone, their Leader. It is not wrong, of course, to address one’s immediate male ancestor as “father.” However, here in 23:9 Jesus is not speaking about physical or earthly fatherhood, but about fatherhood in the spiritual sphere.

  The warning was necessary. Many a Jew must have envied the man who was called “rabbi” (loosely translated, “teacher”); or, if a member of the Sanhedrin was addressed as “father” (Acts 7:2); or, if already departed from this earthly scene, having left behind him an illustrious memory, was referred to by the same title (Rom. 4:12; 1 Cor. 10:1; James 2:21). The epithet “leader” or “guide,” ascribed perhaps—this is not certain—to a beloved and highly honored teacher, sounded alluring. So Jesus is saying that the attention of his followers must not be fixed on human titles and distinctions but on God in Christ, worthy of all reverence, praise, and honor.

  The objection may be raised, however, that Paul, by implication, calls himself the “father” of the Corinthians and of Timothy, and even the “mother” of the Galatians (respectively in 1 Cor. 4:15; 1 Tim. 1:2, and Gal. 4:19). However, to state a fact is one thing; to yearn for distinctions and honors above one’s fellowmen, and unrelated to the glory that is due to Christ, is something different. It is the latter that Jesus condemns. It is clear from the Corinthian context that it was only “in Christ Jesus” that Paul had begotten the Corinthians through the gospel. So also it was only in a secondary sense that Paul could call himself Timothy’s father. He calls Timothy “(my) genuine child in faith,” and, according to Paul’s teaching, faith is God’s gift (Eph. 2:8). As the context makes very plain (see 1Tim. 1:12), Paul thanks Christ Jesus for having enabled him to be of service. Finally, also in the Galatian passage the emphasis is not on Paul but on Christ: “My dear children, for whom I am again suffering birth-pangs until Christ be formed in you.” There is therefore nothing in any of these passages that can be considered to be in conflict with Matt. 23:8–10.” (5)


John Calvin on Matthew 23:9-10:


“9. And call no man on earth your Father. He claims for God alone the honor of Father, in nearly the same sense as he lately asserted that he himself is the only Master; for this name was not assumed by men for themselves, but was given to them by God. And therefore it is not only lawful to call men on earth fathers, but it would be wicked to deprive them of that honor. Nor is there any importance in the distinction, which some have brought forward, that men, by whom children have been begotten, are fathers according to the flesh, but that God alone is the Father of spirits. I readily acknowledge that in this manner God is sometimes distinguished from men, as in Hebrews 12:5, but as Paul more than once calls himself a spiritual father, (1 Corinthians 4:15; Philippians 2:22,) we must see how this agrees with the words of Christ. The true meaning therefore is that the honor of a father is falsely ascribed to men, when it obscures the glory of God. Now this is done, whenever a mortal man, viewed apart from God, is accounted a father, since all the degrees of relationship depend on God alone through Christ, and are held together in such a manner that, strictly speaking, God alone is the Father of all.


10. For one is your Master, even Christ. He repeats a second time the former statement about Christ's office as Master, in order to inform us that the lawful order is, that God alone rules over us, and possess the power and authority of a Father, and that Christ subject all to his doctrine, and have them as disciples; as it is elsewhere said, that Christ is the only head of the whole Church, (Ephesians 1:22).” (6)


In closing:


From the commentary and Scriptural evidence, it does not appear that the mere use of the word “father” or other titles is a problem. It is the misuse of the title when used to exalt oneself or used to manipulate, and control other men.


This warning against titles must be understood as those using a title like the Pharisees. To be seen of men. Using a title as a means of control over others. Binding men’s conscience to them rather than the Word of God.   


Another consideration:


The Greek form of the word “clergy” is “kleros. “Kleros” refers to a group of people in 1Peter 5:2-3. In 1Peter, we learn where the elders are exhorted to “be shepherds of God’s flock that is under their care.


From Strong's Concordance:


kléros: a lot

Original Word: κλῆρος, ου, ὁ

Part of Speech: Noun, Masculine

Transliteration: kléros

Phonetic Spelling: (klay'-ros)

Definition: a lot

Usage: (a) a lot, (b) a portion assigned; hence, a portion of the people of God assigned to one's care, a congregation.


The Greek form of the word “laity” is “Laos,” which Strong gives the number 2992 and defines it as “people.” 


Laity/Clergy, the Laos/Kleros are both the people of God.


Rather than an outright ban on the use of titles, Matthew 23:9-10 is a warning to the overseers of Christ’s Church not to exalt themselves or to Lord it over the people of God. It is the misuse of titles, not the use of titles themselves, which are the problem.


“To God, only wise, be glory through Jesus Christ forever. Amen.” (Romans 16:27) and “heirs according to the promise.” (Galatians 3:28, 29)



1.      H. D. M. Spence and Joseph S. Exell, The Pulpit Commentary, Matthew, Vol.15., (Grand Rapids, Michigan, Eerdmans Publishing Company reprint 1978), p. 397.

2.      The Cambridge Bible for Schools and Colleges, Text Courtesy of

3.      Matthew Poole's Commentary on the Holy Bible, Matthew, vol. 3, (Peabody, Massachusetts, Hendrickson Publishers, 1985) p. 108-109.

4.      Albert Barnes, THE AGES DIGITAL LIBRARYCOMMENTARY, Barnes’ Notes on the Bible, Matthew, Vol.1, p. 385-385.

5.      William Hendriksen, New Testament Commentary, Matthew, (Grand Rapids, Michigan, Baker Book House, 1984), pp. 824-825.

6.      John Calvin, Calvin's Commentaries, Matthew, Volume Vol.3, (Grand Rapids, Michigan, Baker Book House Reprinted 1979), p. 80.


Mr. Kettler has previously published articles in the Chalcedon Report and Contra Mundum. He and his wife Marea attend the Westminster, CO, RPCNA Church. Mr. Kettler is the author of the book defending the Reformed Faith against attacks, titled: The Religion That Started in a Hat. Available at: