Reclaiming Biblical Words: “Reverend”

Watch this study instead of reading it.

Many leaders of Judaism during Jesus’ time were very proud. They wore special clothing to make them stand out among the “normal” Jews. They wore special titles that demanded respect just by addressing them. 

Here’s what Jesus said about that:

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.

Matthew 23:6–12

We see the same thing today. For instance, in some Lutheran, Baptist, Methodist, and Anglican churches, they use the title “Reverend” or “The Reverend” or The Most Reverend to honor members of their leadership. Similarly, the Roman Catholic Church refers to some of their leaders with the title Father.

Yes, Paul refers to himself as the spiritual father of certain Christians only in the sense that he was the one who taught them the gospel (see 1 Corinthians 4:14–17). However, as Jesus explicitly taught, no disciple—not even Paul or Peter—is permitted to use the title Father.

Many churches have their leaders wear special collars or robes to set them apart from the rest of the congregation.  Do we see any of this in the Christianity of which Jesus is Lord? No. 

Jesus said to His disciples, “You are all brethren.” Paul said this of the church:

For you are all [children] of God through faith in Christ Jesus. For as many of you as were baptized into Christ have put on Christ. There is neither Jew nor Greek, there is neither slave nor free, there is neither male nor female; for you are all one in Christ Jesus.

Galatians 3:26–28

Are there different roles in the church? Did Jesus give the church leadership? Yes, and yes. However, even the apostles—hand-picked leaders by Jesus Himself—remind us that they are our brothers. If Jesus is your Lord, it is wrong for you to exalt yourself among Christians, and for you to place someone above you or others in the church. If we are Christians, we are brothers and sisters. We are all one in Christ Jesus. 

After James and John asked for preferred positions in the kingdom of God, Jesus said this to His apostles:

You know that those who are considered rulers over the Gentiles lord it over them, and their great ones exercise authority over them. Yet it shall not be so among you; but whoever desires to become great among you shall be your servant. And whoever of you desires to be first shall be slave of all. For even the Son of Man did not come to be served, but to serve, and to give His life a ransom for many.

Mark 10:42–45

What about this word reverend? It is certainly biblical.

He sent redemption unto his people:
he hath commanded his covenant for ever:
holy and reverend is his name.

Psalm 111:9, KJV

The Hebrew word for reverend here appears hundreds of times in the Old Testament. About 80% of the time it is applied directly to God. It’s the idea of recognizing authority. Respect. Obedience. Fear.

Yes, sometimes it is applied to humans in the sense they are to be obeyed, such as parents (see Leviticus 19:3). Parents are to be revered, or respected. However, when it is used today as a title in some churches, it is meant to exalt someone as a religious leader above the rest of the church, which we have already seen Jesus condemn in no uncertain terms.

Psalm 111:9 is the only time this Hebrew word is translated as reverend, and that’s only in the KJV and ASV. Other translations say:

  • Holy and fearsome is His name. (LSB)
  • His name is holy and awe-inspiring. (HCS)
  • Holy and awesome is his name! (NKJV, NASB, ESV, NIV)

It’s the same word used in the conclusion of Ecclesiastes:

Let us hear the conclusion of the whole matter:
Fear God and keep His commandments,
For this is man’s all.
For God will bring every work into judgment,
Including every secret thing,
Whether good or evil.

Ecclesiastes 12:13

In this sense, who are we to fear? God. Whose commandments do we keep? God’s. Who will bring our work into judgment? God. Therefore, who is reverend? Only God. Let’s reclaim this biblical word—reverend—from those who abuse it by applying it to preachers. 

Paul said:

Now I say this, that each of you says, “I am of Paul,” or “I am of Apollos,” or “I am of Cephas,” or “I am of Christ.” Is Christ divided? Was Paul crucified for you? Or were you baptized in the name of Paul? 

1 Corinthians 1:12–13.

If Paul did not save you, why would you put him in the place of Christ? If your preacher is not God, why would you call him The Reverend? So, to those who do use the title reverend, Jesus says:
And do not be called teachers [or reverend, or father, or any other religious title]; 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.

I’m reminded of the time my friend Stan was serving a congregation in Borger, Texas. One Sunday after worship was over, and almost everyone had gone home, he noticed the restrooms needed a bit of cleaning. So, he got to work. But then someone knocked on the door. The visitor asked to speak to one of the leaders.

“Well, I serve as an evangelist here; how can I help?”

She gave one glance at his gloved hands holding the toilet bowl cleaner and confidently insisted, “No you’re not.”

Apparently, in her mind, cleaning restrooms was a job below someone who preaches. But that’s not the case for the biblically-minded servant of Jesus Christ. It is the human system—not the Bible—that requires titles such as reverend for religious leaders.

As Paul said about other doctrines of men:

These things indeed have an appearance of wisdom in self-imposed religion, false humility, and neglect of the body, but are of no value against the indulgence of the flesh. 

Colossians 2:23

Indeed, special titles and clothing inflate the ego, rob glory from God, and condemn the wearers.

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