Questions from my students: does Matthew 23:8–10 mean we should not call anyone “pastor?”
When Jesus of Nazareth announced the coming of the kingdom of heaven, it was clear the arrangement of ancient societies would not fit inside of it very well. The vision was too broad, too large, and too in favor of those without favor. Everything in Jesus’ kingdom is “upside-down,” and the path of power and leadership is no exception.
The term “leadership” appears nowhere in the New Testament and the word “leader” is found under 10 times (depending on your translation, of course) after Malachi. This should give us in the 21st century some pause as we publish books, throw conferences, and develop curriculum around leadership maybe more than any other subject. We are obsessed with the Bible is not.
When the subject of power and leadership does appear in Scripture, we get a very interesting picture, like in Matthew 23:8, where Jesus tells his disciples not to be called “rabbi” or “instructor.” This would be a bit alarming to those who chose to follow a rabbi. Jesus closes this section with one of his famous lines about greatness: “Whoever exalts himself will be humbled, and whoever humbles himself will be exalted” (Matt. 23:12). But before the well-known line, Jesus tells his disciples,
“But you are not to be called rabbi, for you have one teacher, and you are all brothers. 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. The greatest among you shall be your servant” (Matt. 23:8–11).
Then comes verse 12. Considering this passage and Jesus’ harsh words to come regarding religious leadership, does this mean we should not call anyone “pastor” or “elder?” Should church leadership be flat and all power be “with the people?” Hardly.
First, notice how Jesus still sees a gradation of individuals within his community: some will be “exalted” and others will not, some will be “greatest” and others will not. In other places, Jesus will speak of those who are “first” in his kingdom. So we must not believe that all people hold the same power and primacy in Jesus’ kingdom because he did not. Again, his way will be “upside down” compared to our rankings, but he still sees some kind of order.
Secondly, Jesus did not come to remove power from his followers, he came to empower his followers. After his resurrection, Jesus tells his disciples they will “receive power when the Holy Spirit comes upon you” (Acts 1:8). Later, Paul will tell Timothy that he was not given a “spirit of timidity” but one of “power” (2 Tim. 1:17). Power is not inherently a bad thing and Christians should not seek to remove power entirely from the equation of leadership. Rather, we must steward it and seek true power — the kind that comes from God that we “receive,” not the kind we grapple for in the games the world invents.
Therefore, thirdly, Jesus’ followers must discern those who are truly and spiritually empowered to lead through service and follow them. This is what Paul would call the “overseers” in 1 Timothy 3 and Titus 1. In his sections on selecting and calling out leaders, notice how Paul does not appeal to skill or talent, but character. The way we select and look for those who will lead churches will not go through the grid of the world, but the grid of Jesus’ “upside down” kingdom. Those who “lead” Christian communities will actually be their greatest servants by being people of prayer, moral integrity, humility, hospitality, faithfulness, etc. Paul was taking Jesus’ words, “whoever humbles himself will be exalted” and putting them into action. Paul, in a way, was saying, “take the person who has humble themselves and exalt them into leadership.” When we call our pastors, we are affirming their humility and servant-hood before the congregation. Therefore, true spiritual power is a gift from God’s Holy Spirit, not something you can manufacture through a degree program. The true leaders within a Christian community will have incredible power, no matter their title or place in an organizational chart.
Finally, we call our pastors “pastors” to remind the entire congregation of their “shepherd-nature.” The word “pastor” means “shepherd.” We must never lose this word in our churches because of the significant metaphor held inside of it. To be a shepherd means to feed, protect, guide, serve, and accompany a flock. Within this powerful term is the church leader’s entire vocation: Pastors are shepherds — full stop. Our pastors are not CEOs, executives, managers, administrators, program-runners, evangelists, therapists, authors, or shopkeepers. We follow pastors and they will shepherd the flock of God, feeding and tending to them and protecting the environment as necessary. It was Jesus who first gave Peter this metaphor to describe what leadership in church might look like (John 21:15–19). We cannot lose this term because it protects our congregation from developing leaders through the pathway of the world — making our pastors fit the mold of a world’s “leader”—and it keeps reminding us of how Jesus saw the leaders of his church. We call our pastors because they are humble men of character who love serving the flock and care for them.
Peter, after clearly hearing Jesus’ command to “shepherd,” connected humility and leadership perfectly, and exhorted his fellow pastors during the early church period to,
“Shepherd the flock of God that is among you, exercising oversight, not under compulsion, but willingly, as God would have you; not for shameful gain, but eagerly; not domineering over those in your charge, but being examples to the flock. And when the chief Shepherd appears, you will receive the unfading crown of glory. Likewise, you who are younger, be subject to the elders. Clothe yourselves, all of you, with humility toward one another, for ‘God opposes the proud but gives grace to the humble.’ Humble yourselves, therefore, under the mighty hand of God so that at the proper time he may exalt you.”
(1 Peter 5:2–6)
The wisdom of the church community is to find the humble ones and exalt them. Or, rather, see the humble ones God is exalting and follow them. Some will be ready and gifted by the Holy Spirit, others will need training and tutelage, but one way, by God’s grace, all who humble themselves will be great — and none of us will question it.