In the ancient Graeco-Roman world people at every level were obsessed with collecting honorary and official titles. They wanted their service in the community to be recognised, and without recognition believed no task was worth doing. By contrast the first Christians were not interested in titles. Instead the emphasis was on the role of leadership rather than on any title or honour that might accrue to leaders.
Although there were plenty of general words for leadership available in the Greek-speaking world of the first century, by and large the first Christians seemed to have deliberately turned their back on such terms. Significantly the term Paul most frequently used of fellow-leaders in his churches is ‘fellow-worker’ or ‘co-worker’ (sunergos: see Rom 16.3, 9,21; 1 Cor 3.9; 2 Cor 1.24; 8.23; Phil 2.25; 4.3; Col 4.11; 1 Thess 3.2; Phil 1.24). How ironical it is that the two terms which Paul did use for church leadership – ‘deacon’ (diakonos, literally ‘servant’) and ‘bishop’ (episkopos, literally‘ overseer’) – were later embellished by the adding as a prefix one particular term which Paul seems to have avoided, namely ‘arch-‘ (derived from one of the Greek words for ‘leader, archon), so that within the Church of England we today have ‘archbishops’ and ‘archdeacons’. If that seems to let the Baptists off the hook, then note the perceptive comment of one New Testament scholar, Andrew Clarke, that “a different, but equivalent, prefix [to ‘arch] preferred in some churches is the less archaic designation ‘senior’”: for instance, ‘senior minister’ or ‘senior pastor’.
This early Christian disinterest in titles had its roots in the teaching of Jesus found in Matt 23.8-12:
You are not to be called rabbi, for you have one teacher and you are all students. And call no one your father on earth, for you have one Father – the one in heaven. Nor are you to be called instructors, for you have only one instructor, the Messiah. The greatest among you will be your servant.
The teaching of Jesus is quite clear: there is no place in the church for honorific titles. Whatever our role in the life of the church may be, we are first and foremost brothers and sisters of one another. In such a community there is no place for hierarchy.
So, what on earth do those of us who have been set aside to serve God, call ourselves, call ourselves? On the basis of Jesus’ teaching, the answer is obvious: ‘minister’, a term which comes from a Latin word for ‘servant’. Indeed, in mainline Protestantism this has become the standard term. Ministers respond to the call of God by committing themselves to a lifetime of service – to God, the church, and the world.
However, I confess that over the years I have been ambivalent about using the term ‘minister’ on the ground that it could be seen to deny the calling of all God’s people to serve him. At one stage I therefore argued that it would be a far healthier witness to the New Testament understanding of the church if ‘ministers’ were known by their function term of ‘pastor’ (which also comes from a Latin word and means ‘shepherd’). On the other hand, it has to be admitted that the underlying rural image sounds a little strange when most of us live in urban settings – in Britain it also has a very old-fashioned ring to it. At a later stage, in the light of the fact that Baptists often speak of ‘the ministry of all and the leadership of some’, I argued for the functional term of ‘leader’ or ‘pastoral leader’.
I have, however, changed my mind yet again, and returned to where I began: ‘minister’. The advantage of using the term ‘minister’ is that it is much more flexible and is not limited to the setting of ‘pastoring’ or ‘leading’ a local church. It includes other forms of ministry – including ministerial formation, chaplaincy, and a wide variety of denominational and interdenominational posts. What is more, now that I am no longer engaged in stipendiary ministry, it includes ‘retirement’ where God still has a call upon my life. I may no longer have a church to run, but I continue to have a Lord to serve.
Louis Armstrong, the great jazz musician, once said: “Musicians don’t retire; they stop when there’s no more music in them”. That too is how most retired ministers feel. We are still ministers of the Gospel, for we still have divine music in our souls, and we will only stop giving voice to that music when we join the greater chorus in heaven.