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Titles and Doctors in the Church

“You are not to be called “Rabbi;” for you have one teacher and you are all brothers.”

(Matthew 23:8)

In Hebrew, the term “Rabbi” was and is used to someone who is an esteemed teacher in the church — literally, the word means “great one,” which shows you some of the esteem that the Jewish culture attributes to those who handle and teach the word of God. In Christian circles, it is perhaps equivalent to the esteem shown to seminary professors or to those who are respected enough to be called to speak at this conference or at that church here or there.

The Latin equivalent is “Doctor,” which literally means “teacher,” though the Latin text of Matthew 23:8 uses the term Magister (meaning master or ruler) instead of simply translating the Greek in its context. Sometimes that sounds a bit odd to our western ears as we most commonly think of doctors of medicine, not doctors of theology. Even so, doctors of theology were around long before medicine became an organized discipline. 

Now, do not misunderstand what it is that I am about to say. I am not denigrating education, formal or informal, nor would I discourage pastors from continuing their education beyond seminary — I am doing that myself and I serve on the Advisory Board for the North American Reformed Seminary and I teach at a mission seminary in Ukraine. Education is an essential part of the ministry. And while indeed we are men of one book, to become so, we are also men of many books that serve the one book. Regular reading and a growing library is simply par for the course if you are in the Christian ministry. Woe to the pastor that shirks this duty. And it is a pleasurable duty indeed!

Yet, sometimes it is the title of “doctor” that causes men to seek education instead of the title of Doctor being given as a byproduct of the education a man pursues. This, I fear, often leads to pride and a sense of superiority; something that should not be a part of the makeup of the Christian pastor or church leader. And this is of what our Lord is speaking in the verse noted above.

And that leads us to the question…who should award the title of “doctor” to a teacher in the life of the Church? For a number of years I have advocated the Roman Catholic practice of proclaiming someone a “Doctor of the Church” after looking back at his or her contributions to the church itself. If one takes this model, it is the church that awards the title, not the institution. 

In my own context, that then would fall to presbyteries or synods to make such pronouncements that Pastor So-and-So made such a contribution to the establishment of or teaching of the church hat at some point, the church would proclaim him one of their “doctors.”

This, of course, is reflected in the difference between an “earned degree” and an “honorary degree.” And though I would humbly assert that an honorary degree is of more value, it is typically the earned degree that people seek out. Yet, which is more valuable: That which I have done or the church’s recognition of what I have done? I would argue for the second. In a world filled with everyone getting degrees for virtually everything under the sun, it is something to think about.