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The Trouble with Titles

The Under Rower of Christ

by Ron Matsen


The Trouble with Titles

On a recent long-haul flight from New Zealand to the United States I found myself smiling as I approached the Premier Access line to board the plane. You see, I have flown enough that I have gained a status that grants me some special treatments by the airline. While others were queueing up in crowded lines defined by boarding priority numbers, I waltzed past them all on my way to my seat which is ultimately in the same economy cabin as those without my preferred status. In the end we were all served the same meals, given the same service, and delivered to the same destination. During the flight I began to consider the obsession we have in our modern society with gaining some kind of privilege or prestige over one another.

People love titles. Titles tend to imply an exalted position or status. There can be great persuasive power associated with someone’s name that is followed by PhD[1], CEO[2], CKD[3], or whatever. We have all become accustomed to showing partiality to those whom the world has granted some kind of a title.

Sadly, the Church has, in some instances, fallen into this practice of title worship. When Paul wrote about the gifts Jesus gave to the Church, he listed five areas of service that should “edify the Body of Christ.”[4] Sadly, many people aspire for the title rather than the task of these ministry gifts. As a result we no longer simply address each other as equals in the Body of Christ. Instead, many add the title of Apostle, Prophet, Evangelist, Pastor (bishop), or Teacher. We even add prefixes to these titles like Assistant, Associate, etc. which are all terms used in the academic world to add a further air of hierarchy to the title. Clearly, the Bible does not promote this kind of conduct.

Jesus warned that we are not to be respecters of people because of their publicly declared status. In Matthew’s Gospel Jesus said, “The scribes and the Pharisees sit in Moses’ seat. Therefore whatever they tell you to observe, that observe and do, but do not do according to their works; for they say, and do not do. For they bind heavy burdens, hard to bear, and lay them on men’s shoulders; but they themselves will not move them with one of their fingers. But all their works they do to be seen by men. They make their phylacteries broad and enlarge the borders of their garments. They love the best places at feasts, the best seats in the synagogues, greetings in the marketplaces, and to be called by men, ‘Rabbi, Rabbi.’ But you, do not be called ‘Rabbi’; for One is your Teacher, the Christ, and you are all brethren. Do not call anyone on earth your father; for One is your Father, He who is in heaven. And do not be called teachers; for One is your Teacher, the Christ. But he who is greatest among you shall be your servant. And whoever exalts himself will be humbled, and he who humbles himself will be exalted.”[5] In this rebuke, Jesus simply points out that these leaders loved the title more than the task.

John experienced difficulty with an individual who tried to use his perceived position of leadership to oppose John’s teaching. “I wrote to the church, but Diotrephes, who loves to have the pre-eminence among them, does not receive us.”[6] It is interesting to note that the name Diotrephes comes from two Greek root words which mean “nourished by Zeus.” As many of you may know, Zeus is the Roman God-of-gods which should give us a hint to the source of this man’s nourishment.

Jesus addressed a similar problem within some of the Churches in Asia Minor. He identified those He called the “Nicolaitans.” This term comes from two Greek root words which can mean “victory over the people.” Twice in the Book of Revelation, Jesus speaks of His hated of the “deeds of the Nicolaitans”[7] and “doctrine of the Nicolaitans.”[8] From the fourth century onward the Church has been generally divided into the clergy and the laity. This schism was brought in by the introduction of pagan practices which separates the people from the direct access with their God.

The Gold of Gideon

In the Book of Judges we read the exploits of Gideon. Gideon had started great. In response to the call of God Gideon replies, “Oh my Lord, how can I save Israel? Indeed my clan is the weakest in Manasseh, and I am the least in my father’s house.”[9] He had a passion for the people of God. We are all familiar with his mighty victory over the Midianites because of his obedience to God. But watch what happens after the victory. “Then the men of Israel said to Gideon, ‘Rule over us, both you and your son, and your grandson also; for you have delivered us from the hand of Midian.’”[10]

They wanted a King. Not only did they want Gideon to “rule over them” they wanted to establish a dynasty. Rather than remain as he had started, Gideon allowed the people to bless him. “They spread out a garment, and each man threw into it the earrings from his plunder. Now the weight of the gold earrings that he requested was one thousand seven hundred shekels of gold, besides the crescent ornaments, pendants, and purple robes which were on the kings of Midian, and besides the chains that were around their camels’ necks. Then Gideon made it into an ephod and set it up in his city, Ophrah. And all Israel played the harlot with it there. It became a snare to Gideon and to his house.”[11]

Gideon’s mishandling of God’s victory became a “snare” to him … and to his house. How? Prestige, property and power always seems to be an Achilles Heel for many ministers over the years. The problems really escalated with one of Gideon’s sons named Abimelech. Interesting that the name Abimelech means “my father is king.” It is also the title given to the king of the Philistines (Israel’s arch enemy). Abimelech carries out a classic corporate consolidation of power, killing off the competition and establishing fear in the hearts of anyone who would oppose him.[12]

The Right Response to Responsibility

Paul was a man who used many titles throughout his ministry carrier. He used the title of “apostle” in his two Corinthian letters, the two letters to Timothy, and the letters to the Galatians, Ephesians, and Colossians. In these instances, Paul wanted the readers to understand that he was speaking from a position of authority. To the Romans, the Philippians, and Titus, Paul uses the title of “bondservant” in order for the readers to understand that his ultimate duty was to his master Jesus Christ. To Philemon, Paul used the title “prisoner of Christ” because he was writing on behalf of the runaway slave Onesimus.

If there was ever a man who deserved a big title, it is Paul. After all, he wrote more than half the New Testament. At the height of Paul’s ministry he said, “I am the least of the apostles, who am not worthy to be called an apostle.”[13] At the end of his ministry he said, “This is a faithful saying and worthy of all acceptance, that Christ Jesus came into the world to save sinners, of whom I am chief.”[14] I guess that is what 30 years of ministry will do to you.

In his first letter to the Corinthian Church, Paul gives us some insight into his heart of service. He proclaims, “Let a man so consider us, as servants of Christ and stewards of the mysteries of God. Moreover it is required in stewards that one be found faithful.”[15] The Greek word Paul used that we translate as servants is huperetes. It is literally translated as “under rowers.” In other words, the servant in the bottom of the ship. The Corinthians were familiar with the duties of the under rower as they were nearby a major Roman port city.

There were five aspects of the work of the huperetes that Paul and his companions could identify with when they referred to themselves as “servants” of Christ:

  • First, the galley slave rowed “to the captain’s beat”.
  • Second, the slaves had to row together.
  • Third, they had to trust the captain.
  • Fourth, they were committed for life.
  • Finally, they received no honor. Only the captain of the vessel was visible to the outer world.

Therefore, may we all commit ourselves to serving without being seen so that all of the glory goes to the only one to whom it belongs; Jesus Christ, the only One worthy of our praise.


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