Of Biblical Ministry Functions, Titles of Address, and Positions


In this day and time, people have varying and profoundly different understandings of the appropriateness and meaning of the various biblical titles/positions/functions such as apostle, overseer, pastor, bishop, elder, evangelist, reverend, etc.

In writing to Timothy Paul says in 1 Timothy 3: These things write I unto thee, hoping to come unto thee shortly: But if I tarry long, that thou mayest know how thou oughtest to behave thyself in the house of God, which is the church of the living God, the pillar and ground of the truth (1 Timothy 3:14-15).

We often think of the phrase House of God as referring to a physical building/facility. This includes places like the Jerusalem Temple, various synagogues, and modern day local church buildings/facilities.

The scriptures, however, speak of the House of God also as a place not made of material and not made using human hands (Gen 28:10-22; Psalm 23:6; Psalm 27: 4;1Tim 3:15; Hebrews 10:2; 1 Peter 4:17; 1 Cor 3:9, 16-17; 1 Peter 2:5)

It should be clear that 1 Timothy 3:14-15 has at least to do with behaviour in the local church assembly and at a minimum has reference to all preceding verses, including the male headship principle of 1 Timothy 2:11-12 and 1 Timothy 3:1-13 regarding bishops and deacons. It is also clear from 1 Timothy 3:5, 12, 15 that Paul makes a distinction between the House of God and one’s home such that he is emphasizing behaviour in the church assembly as opposed to everywhere. Yet, this does not mean the principles do not apply elsewhere to some significant degree. It is therefore important that any use of the aforementioned terms promote and reflect the church as that pillar and ground of truth. Indeed, if there is any place on earth that a person can come and learn truth and observe truth in action with clarity, that place ought to be the church assembly.

It is instructive that in the bible first names are used and generally biblical writers and persons do not prefix a title of address to a name when referring to themselves and other ministers, including Jesus, the apostles, and the evangelist. An observed possible exception is when Ananias addressed Saul (later called Paul) as Brother Saul (Acts 9:17). Yet, it is likely that Ananias was confirming his recognition of Saul/Paul as a fellow believer brother in Christ rather than using the word Brother in the sense of a functional title of address.

Yet, there is no biblical prohibition against use of titles of address and other than first names. In fact, although, the biblical writers mostly considered first names as sufficient there are instances the following scriptures illustrates that sometimes the functional title of address is used. In these example the functional title of address follows the name whereas in modern times the functional title of address precedes the name.  However, the effect is the same.

(Ephesians 1:1) Paul, an apostle of Jesus Christ by the will of God, to the saints which are at Ephesus, and to the faithful in Christ Jesus:

(1 Peter 1:1) Peter, an apostle of Jesus Christ, to the strangers scattered throughout Pontus, Galatia, Cappadocia, Asia, and Bithynia,

And in the following examples, Peter and John identify their role in the body of Christ:

(1 Peter 5:1) The elders which are among you I exhort, who am also an elder, and a witness of the sufferings of Christ, and also a partaker of the glory that shall be revealed:

(3 John 1:1) The elder unto the wellbeloved Gaius, whom I love in the truth.

But notice such functional titles of address are not used when addressing people by name in the sense many do so in these modern time (e.g., Apostle John Doe, Elder John Doe, Pastor John Doe, or Rev. John Doe) but rather in introducing oneself and/or making it clear as to a person’s role in the body of Christ. But again, there is no biblical prohibition against using titles of address prefixed to a name.  In certain contexts, I generally leave it up to other folks to identify themselves.

Therefore, depending on context, for the sake of doctrinal integrity and biblical unity (John 17:21, Ephesians 4:12-16), I consider using the doctrinally sound word Minister or Reverend when referring to myself and other ministers if a title is to be used at all. Yet, I reserve the right to use other titles of address if I deem it advantageous to do so for purposes of clarity, etc. This requires sacrifice and humility on the part of both the one doing the speaking and the one spoken to and/or spoken about. This sacrifice and humility to avoid unnecessary and unuseful conflict is rooted in the principle Paul employed in one case not calling for the circumcision of the Christian Titus (Galatians 2:3-5) while in another case calling for the circumcision of the Christian Timothy (Acts 16:1-3).

The relatively generic words Brother or Sister may also be employed as a title of address instead of and in the sense of the generic words Reverend or Minister. This is also true of words such as Mr., Mrs., and Ms.

In 2 Peter 3:15 Peter uses the phrase “our beloved brother Paul” in referring to Paul. Yet, from 2 Peter 3:15 it can not conclusively be determined whether Peter uses the term brother as a title of address or simply as referring to Paul as a brother in Christ or both. Given the rest of the biblical text, it is most likely the case that Peter uses the term brother to refer to Paul as his brother in Christ rather than as a functional title of address similar to the discussion of Ananias regarding Saul/Paul (Acts 9:17). In any case using brother as a title of address is doctrinally sound.

Yet, instead of relatively generic titles of address more specific ones such as Apostle, Evangelist, Pastor, Bishop, Elder, etc. may be employed when doctrinally sound and appropriate and important to do so within the constraints of male headship principles. Yet, as indicated above one should be mindful that in the Bible persons referred to one another using first names and such names were not preceded by a title of address. Yet, this was a cultural matter and is not binding today. It is not bad doctrine to refer to persons using a title of address prefixed to their name. Instead the scripture exhorts us to give honor where honor is due (Rom 13:7); yet, there is no biblical admonition to give honor when not doctrinally sound to do so.

Titles of address are sometimes prefixed to a person’s last name, first name, or whole name. Either way is doctrinally sound and a matter of culture or preference.

Minister and Reverend

The terms Minister and Reverend are sometimes used as specific or generic titles to denote an individual set apart as a minister of God, especially through licensing and/or ordination (e.g., bishop, pastor, evangelist, deacon). Note that generally speaking the term Reverend is more appropriate for members of the “pulpit clergy” than the laity or lay ministers. The term Minister is equally appropriate for either clergy or laity ministers at a variety of levels/types of ministry. Yet, both may be used for members of pulpit clergy and lay ministers.

Indeed in Romans 13:1-7 the term minister is seemingly applied to government officials as indicated by the presence of the Greek word phoros (G5411) which means taxes or assessment that is translated tribute in Romans 13:6-7. Moreover, some government officials in Great Britain are officially labeled ministers and departments referred to as ministries. So this is a reminder that biblical terms can have more than a spiritual or church meaning. Indeed, the context of a word impacts it’s meaning.

Note that some denominations such as some Catholics use the term Reverend in association with Deacons as well as other clergy. There is nothing unbiblical about such usage since a deacon is a specific type of minister. Indeed, the same Greek word translated deacon is elsewhere in the King James Version translated minister or servant.

The term Reverend deserves a special note since some say its use is inappropriate. They say that only God has a right to be called reverend. They seem to say this because of the presence of the word reverend in Psalm 111:9 (KJV) where it says: He sent redemption unto his people: he hath commanded his covenant for ever: holy and reverend is his name. Certainly this verse applies the word reverend to God saying he is deserving of fear, honor, and respect.

The word holy is used similarly in Psalm 111:9. Yet, certainly Gods his people to be holy (1 Peter 1:16). Indeed, in Luke 1:70) we find “As he spake by the mouth of his holy prophets, which have been since the world began:”  Therefore, we see the word holy ascribed to the prophets though it is ascribed to God in Psalm 111:9. These meaning a word ascribed to God is may be appropriately ascribed to humans as well unless explicitly or implicitly prohibited in scripture.

Indeed, in Deuteronomy 2:4 we find:
(Deu 2:4)  And command thou the people, saying, Ye are to pass through the coast of your brethren the children of Esau, which dwell in Seir; and they shall be afraid of you: take ye good heed unto yourselves therefore:

In that verse the word translated “they shall be afraid of you” is the Hebrew word yare (H3372). It is the same Hebrew word translated “reverend” in Psalm 111:9.  So we see the same Hebew word used in different contexts: one regarding non-people of God reverencing/respecting and fearing the people of God and the other regarding reverencing/respecting and fearing God.

The word reverend is related to two concepts: reverence/respect and fear.

The use of the word Reverend in relation to ministers (clergy) indicates two concepts: reverence/respect and fear.

Regarding reverence/respect the word reverend merely indicate a life set apart for ministry in reverence to God and a person who deserves special consideration for reverence/respect as one who represents God in such a set apart manner.

Regarding fear, it does not suggest a man who another should fear but rather it indicates a man who represents a God who another should fear.  In other words, the man is not to be feared but rather the God the man brings to one’s remembrance is who should be feared.

Usage of the word Reverend is no different than one who says Pastor So and So or Deacon So and So or Mr. So and So. That is, its usage is indicative of a person’s role and/or characteristics.

It is pure arrogance and silliness to suggest that the use of the word Reverend is intended to equate a person to God or even the same infallibility or holiness or purity of God or even the same fear toward God. That is, those who say people who use the word Reverend do so out of pride are themselves being prideful/arrogant in suggesting that people use it equating themselves to God.

For those who advocate abolishing the use of the word Reverend, to them I say: Why don’t we just do like the Bible and refer to people using their first name? After all, we refer to Jesus using his first name. If it is good enough regarding him; it ought to be good enough regarding us. But I suppose they would say that would be disrespectful. Well, not using the word Reverend would also be disrespectful in some circumstances. It is simply a cultural matter not a doctrinal matter.

Now all believers are to be reverent to God but not all are set apart to focus on ministry as are Reverends. Note that a related word used in the KJV is reverence (Leviticus 19:30; 2 Samuel 9:6; 1 Kings 1:31; Esther 3:2, 5; Psalms 89:7; Matthew 21:47; Mark 12:6). Both these words have as their root the word revere and the basic meaning of respect and honor. An element of fear may also attach to the meaning in some contexts; the degree of fear depends on the attachment context.

Indeed, a survey of dictionaries has the following for definition of the word Reverend as commonly used:

Oxford dictionary (http://oxforddictionaries.com/us/definition/american_english/reverend):

Adjective: (usually Reverend) – used as a title or form of address to members of the clergy: the Reverend Jesse Jackson

Noun: informal-a member of the clergy

Origin: late Middle English: from Old French, or from Latin reverendus ‘person to be revered’, gerundive of revereri (se revere)

Merriam-Webster (http://www.merriam-webster.com/dictionary/reverend):

General: Worthy of reverence; of or relating to the clergy; being a member of the clergy –used as a title such as the Reverend Mr. Doe, or the Reverend John Doe or the Reverend Mrs. Jane Doe

Origin: Middle English, from Anglo-French, from Latin reverendus, gerundive of revereri

First Known Use: 15th century

One should always keep in mind, that words have meaning only to the degree humans agree on what they mean within the context in which they are being used. Indeed, some words change in common meaning overtime. Moreover, words have different flavors or shades of meaning; that is why in dictionaries, one may find numbered or alphabetized definitions. Indeed, it is the speaker’s responsibility to determine and clarify what he or she means by usage of a particular word within the universe of possible meanings. Consider the word “right”. Its meaning is a function of context. For the word alone could refer to direction or truth, etc.

Be mindful that English-Greek/Hebrew correspondence dictionaries define the Hebrew/Greek word and gives the English word that most closely correspond to the understood Hebrew/Greek meaning in the original text. The purpose of such dictionaries is not to define the English word, especially in all aspects of that English word. English words are chosen that most closely represent the Hebrew/Greek meaning. Sometimes there is no exact match but yet a sufficient match. All of this is true in translations of the Bible into various languages.

English words have different flavors or shades of meaning depending on the context in which they are used. When someone refers to himself or another person as Reverend, certainly neither is equating the subject person to God unless such a person is equating man with God which no person ever rightfully does. Jesus is called the Chief Apostle and Bishop of our souls. Calling a person an apostle or bishop is certainly not equating that person to Jesus. Likewise use of the word Reverend when not intended to equate oneself or another with God is proper and valid.


The term Father is used by Catholics and perhaps other religious communities. In Matthew 23:9, Jesus says “And call no man your father upon the earth: for one is your Father, which is in heaven.” Some people say this verse commands a person not to call anyone father. But this verse is about putting men equal to or above God. As long as you do not do that when you use the word father, you are not out of biblical order. After all, do you not call your biological daddy father or the person your mother married father? Even if you don’t use the word father concerning your daddy that is your personal preference for it is not wrong for humans to use the word father in a righteous manner. Indeed, be mindful that God uses it to refer to the human male parent (Genesis 2:24) when he speaks of a man leaving his father and mother to cleave unto his wife. Jesus used the word father to refer to the same when he quoted Genesis 2:24 in Matthew 19:5 and again he uses the word father in Matthew 19:9 in quoting one of the Ten Commandments concerning honoring father and mother.

Spiritual Doctrinal Integrity

One’s integrity may be challenged when persons and/or churches use titles of address and/or position designators in perceived and/or actual violation of sound biblical doctrine. This includes the use of such words as apostle, bishop, elder, deacon, and pastor within certain contexts and when applied under certain conditions. This is especially troublesome when such words convey or strongly suggest certain levels or types of spiritual authority. This is despite the fact that words such as pastor or bishop or elder do not in and of themselves guarantee specific authority although biblically such words do strongly suggest certain authority.

It is recognized that humans may use a biblical word to represent other than that represented in the bible. For example, some technology companies such as Microsoft have what they call technical evangelists or developer evangelists. Of course, the word technical provides the context for the use of the word evangelist. Also there are people who’s first or last name is bishop or pastor. There are streets named bishop. The word elder has various usage in the bible. Also, it has various secular (non-bible based) usage today. The point is that these words are not restricted to biblical usage. The context in which they are used should be considered.

There is a principle that says be careful about allowing the perfect to be the enemy of the good. For me this means as we seek perfection, we sometimes should not allow that quest to keep us from accomplishing a common good with others. Paul somewhat applies this principle in Acts 16:1-5 regarding circumcising Timothy. Paul knows that circumcision was not necessary for salvation. However, in order to tend to the matter at hand Paul did circumcise Timothy rather than having to get into a discussion with the Jews about circumcision. Yet, regarding Titus there was no circumcision (Gal 2:3). Instead, Paul instructed them that insisting on circumcision means they are fallen from grace for they seek justification by the law instead of by faith (Gal 5:1-4). The scripture says that which is not of faith is sin (Rom 14:23) and if a man knoweth to do good and does it not to him it is sin (James 4:17). In such circumstances, our conscience as informed by the totality of the Word of God should guide us (1 Tim 1:19).

Both of the terms Reverend and Minister may be appropriate for all ministers provided they are properly applied according to sound biblical doctrine. Whether present or absent, to avoid partaking in promoting unbiblical roles, when interacting or otherwise considering fellow believers, I in attitude, word (oral or written), and action may relate/refer to such person as Minister or Reverend or Sister or Brother as applicable. I do so in order to maintain my spiritual integrity.

Depending on context, such as in a nonprofit conference dealing with temporal issues, I may not use titles of address or position designations orally or on written programs or other media. I may instead specify the person’s first name, last name, full name, and perhaps organizational affiliation. This would apply to all persons to include religious personnel and government personnel.

In all cases in the spirit of humility and in that of Paul in Acts 16:3 persons should not raise non-use of desired title of address as an issue at least publicly. However, it may be rasied later privately to further total understanding on the part of directly involved parties.


In conclusion, in the final analysis, forms of addressing individuals are cultural rather than doctrinal. Their usage is proper as long as it does not reasonably indicate or reasonably represent violation of sound biblical doctrine. Moreover, individuals may choose and make known how they want to be addressed title-wise as long as their choice is consistent with sound biblical doctrine. However, generally speaking, individuals should not insist that another person refer to them using a particular title of address as long as such other person refers to them using alternative titles that do apply; this is because the conscience of such other person should have preference over the personal desire of the referred to person.

For more info see Of Apostles, Bishops, Deacons, and Other Ministers

To God Be the Glory!

Church Organization and Worship

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