Don’t Call Me Pastor

Recently there’s been something I have been thinking about. Maybe it’s a holy discontent, or maybe it’s just a pet peeve. But I’ve been more aware of some of the language we use as believers. I have been thinking about how language or the words we use, can help us clarify our thinking. Particularly, the title “pastor.”

But let’s back up.

As many of you know, the church, the ecclesia, is a gathering of believers. Brothers and sisters gathering together in and out of buildings. We gather together frequently for lots of reasons. To edify, celebrate, remember, support and encourage each other, learn together, and equip each other on this path of following Jesus. We are the body of Christ, the bride of Christ, the son’s and daughters of God who come together to use our gifts as part of this Kingdom work of loving each other and our communities.

That’s the Church.

…but we also call the building we meet in church. Like, “I’ll meet you at the church.” So when we talk about church, are we talking about the gathering of believers, wherever they are, or are we talking about the building and the 65 minute program that happens there on Sundays? It can be confusing and you can see how we can easily shift how we use this one word of “church” to be more about the building than about the gathering of believers. Our loyalty can follow that shift, becoming more attached to the institution than to Christ and His Bride.

You see, language is important. (Now, back to my concern about the “pastor” title.

When we call someone pastor, are we talking about the role we all carry as Jesus followers in Matthew 28:19-20, to “go and make disciples of all nations, baptizing them in the name of the Father and of the Son and of the Holy Spirit, and teaching them to obey everything that I have commanded you”? That’s for all of us as we are called to be teachers and disciples. Or when we use the word pastor, are we talking about the man or woman we financially support so that they can spend more time specifically following this commission but still provide for their family? Does this make them a “professional” Christian because they get paid for their work? Well kind of, because professional means you get paid for it by definition, but does it also mean to us that they are professional like awesome christians? And if they are, does it make the rest of us amateurs? You see how language can start to twist on us.

Human behvaior is quite predicable, first, we want to feel important. And second, we want to abdicate or avoid responsibility. Ironic combination, really.

So, in religious environments, religious leaders are tempted to want to feel important and special, and all of us want to avoid responsibility. This isn’t new. It’s been happening for thousands of years now. But the byproduct is that in many religious gatherings, or churches, a codependent relationship can begin to form. Members of the church honor the professional Christians, or pastors, as “Pastor John” or whatever. Pastors John likes being honored, and church-goers get to sit back and abdicate some of their responsibility. They can feed the pastor’s sense of importance while letting themselves off the hook. And the pastor can receive the honor and be tempted to pride. It’s a mutually destructive cycle.

And I don’t know about you, but I have been a part of it. Just a few months ago I was thinking I don’t need to pray about God bringing clarity about how I could serve my community because its my pastors responsibility to cast vision for how I can serve. Or is it? In my case I let myself off the hook, errored on the side of passivity, and I think it was underpinned by some of this thinking.

Each of us who follow Jesus have the Holy Spirit of God inside of us. We are saints. Making us part of the kingdom, the work of God. We are priests:

1 Peter 2:9 says

But you are a chosen people, a royal priesthood, a holy nation, God’s special possession, that you may declare the praises of him who called you out of darkness into his wonderful light.

You are a chosen priesthood.

The Body of Christ is made up of different parts, not better or worse, but equally needed as part of the whole. That means each of us is equally responsible to serve, to love, and to lean into our unique gifts. We are all needed as part of the body of Christ, the ecclesia, to engage with the unique identity and design God has given us. Through the miraculous Spirit of God within us, we are saints, and we are called to live in the light and lead and love others accordingly. It can be easy to farm out these responsibilities to leaders or “professional Christians,” but Matthew 23:8-12 speaks directly to the danger of this:

“But you are not to be called ‘Rabbi,’ for you have one Teacher, and you are all brothers. And do not call anyone on earth ‘father,’ for you have one Father, and he is in heaven. Nor are you to be called instructors, for you have one Instructor, the Messiah. The greatest among you will be your servant. For those who exalt themselves will be humbled, and those who humble themselves will be exalted. Matthew 23:8-12

Words are important. In my experience and view, getting into the habit of calling John and Jane, our beloved brother and sister, “Pastor John” and “Pastor Jane” has more potential danger than potential benefit. It automatically introduces a power structure and tempts one toward pride and the other toward passivity. As Jesus said, you are not to be called rabbi, the equivalent to our current-day pastor or preacher. Now, was Jesus being completely literal, and we also should not call our fathers “father”? Likely not, but he was making a clear point. Beware of replacing God with a human. Beware of seeing your pastor as your leader instead of Christ, and beware of abdicating the responsibility you have as a priest with a unique idenity and gifts for the benefit of others. Jesus knew the tendency of humans and knew we would be tempted to this pride and passivity ledge.

Now, for those of you who are thinking, “Come on Robby, we are just honoring them and are thankful for their role in ministry. Don’t make a mountain out of a molehill,” I get it. My goal is to challenge us to think about the spirit of how we’re seeing and treating others more than the law of what exact title we use for them. I am not proposing a change in business cards. I also get that pastor is the best word we have to describe what they are doing both as a profession and as a shepherd of a local church—which could not be more important, and is deserving of honor. My hope today is to look at language as a catalyst to encourage each of us to think more deeply about how we see both church members and church leaders, starting with ourselves. Here are some questions you might spend some time processing and praying through.

  1. Do we see all believers, including ourselves, as priests? Or only those that carry the title of “pastor”?
  2. Do we see all believers as unique and incredibly important parts of the Body of Christ? Or do we see those in leadership roles as more important?
  3. If we are not pastors, do we carry ownership and responsibility as part of the Body of Christ? Or are we tempted toward passivity because we are not “professional Christians”?
  4. If we are pastors, do we trust Jesus for our significance based on His work? Or are we seeking to fill that need through our position and title?


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