Morality Ch. 16: Self-Promoting Leaders

Jesus and Paul severely criticized those who liked important titles and advertised their impressive achievements. This is uncomfortable in today’s corporate life and in professionally written résumés.

When I began looking for my first job as a church leader, I thought I would find one easily – after all, I had a doctorate from Cambridge. Instead, I found it difficult to even get an invitation to preach. I think prospective churches assumed that I must be either too high-minded or heretical. In the end, I was called to a church that knew me before I had gained additional titles. Many more churches now positively look for a minister with a doctorate. A doctor of ministry qualification is especially popular, so an increasing number of church notice boards boast that their minister has a DMin. Some have called this the “DMin-ization” of the church (you have to say it out loud to get it) because it can represent the insidious sin of pride.

Jesus says that Christian leaders should not be called by any honorific title. He gives examples of titles he rejects – rabbi, father, instructor – and suggests instead that they should be “servants” (Matt 23:8-11). And he criticizes those Pharisees who “love the place of honor at banquets and the most important seats in the synagogues” (Matt 23:6). Suddenly I feel guilty – I too love the few occasions when this happens. And churches generally do the opposite of what Jesus taught about pride.

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Fancy titles

All three terms proscribed by Jesus are equivalent to ones we use commonly today. “Rabbi” means, literally, “my master,” though later it came to mean “teacher” – it is an honorific title like “Sir” or “Reverend.” The title “Father” was an even greater designation of respect in the days when elders and especially parents were given great deference. This form of showing respect is still in use by Catholic churches, and it carries respect in a similar way to “Elder,” used in many other churches. The word Matthew used for “instructor” (kathēgētēs) was relatively rare and meant “teacher” or “guide to knowledge of the highest kind.” It was the title given to Ctesibius, an inventor in the third century BC, whose water clock remained the most accurate clock ever built for eighteen hundred years; he taught Heron of Alexandria, who invented a steam engine a few decades before Jesus. So perhaps the best modern equivalent for this word is “Doctor” or “Professor.”

Like the Pharisees, the Greeks and Romans wanted to trumpet their achievements and qualifications. When a teacher was setting himself up in a town, he hired a hall and invited everyone for a free oration. These were popular events, because sometimes they were truly fascinating and informative, and even if they weren’t it was fun to watch the speaker being humiliated by an audience who made their feelings known loudly. A successful orator would be one who employed all the flourishes taught in rhetoric classes, was perfectly groomed, and confidently declaimed his superb qualifications.

Paul was the opposite – he wasn’t much to look at, and he deliberately used plain speech instead of Greek rhetoric, without any boasting about his qualifications. He could have boasted that he learned under Gamaliel, who was one of the greatest Jewish teachers alive at the time. He could have dressed appropriately, in a formal toga – which he was qualified to wear as a Roman citizen – but we know that he didn’t wear any marks of Roman citizenship (Acts 21:39; 22:25-28). Romans’ dress would normally indicate their status – anything from freed slave to equestrian middle class or senator. Stripes on their clothes marked their rank as clearly as the pips on an army uniform, and jewelry indicated their wealth. But Paul spurned all this.

Actually, Paul had a problem: he probably wasn’t very good at formal rhetorical speaking as taught in the Roman academies. This was similar to what we now call “inspirational speaking” – the skilled use of techniques for connecting with your audience, moving their emotions, and keeping their attention while you persuade them and make them believe that they always thought your way. Romans learned rhetoric as a major subject at school, and they would normally spend more time on this than mathematics or literature because they regarded it as far more useful in everyday life.

Many of the Corinthians rejected Paul’s message because he was so unlike the popular orators of the time (1 Cor 2:1-3). He was a scholar and teacher, but he couldn’t or wouldn’t use rhetoric to help express himself in public. He explained to the Corinthians that this was a good thing, because it meant that they were converted by real facts authenticated by God’s Spirit and not by worldly wisdom or persuasive inspirational speaking (1 Cor 2:4-5, 12-13). However, he didn’t go so far as to condemn classical rhetorical speaking because Apollos (who had done a wonderful job in the church at Corinth) was a master of rhetoric. Paul gave praise where it was due – he had planted the seed, and Apollos had watered it. Unfortunately, many Corinthians saw things much more divisively; some preferred Paul’s style, though many preferred Apollos.

Ignoring outward appearance and accomplishments is very difficult. We tell ourselves not to judge a book by its cover, but usually we do so anyway. It is hard to assess others dispassionately and almost impossible to assess yourself. Perhaps for most of us, Paul asks the almost-impossible when he says: “Do not think of yourself more highly than you ought, but rather think of yourself with sober judgment” (Rom 12:3). But Paul isn’t merely trying to make people think of themselves as less important – he is also trying to get the humble to realize their own importance. He goes on to list various important people (prophets, teachers, leaders) mixed in with others whom he regarded as equally important: those who give encouragement, those who express mercy and forgiveness, those who love with sincerity, and those who give service, all with the brotherly affection of equals (Rom 12:4-10).

Servant heart

Jesus gave an example no one could ignore, though they tried to. He didn’t just act out the role of a servant – such as when he washed his disciples’ feet – he regarded his servant role as essential for our salvation. The clearest statement we have from Jesus about how his life and death saves us is encapsulated in a single verse: “the Son of Man did not come to be served, but to serve, and to give his life as a ransom for many” (Matt 20:28 = Mark 10:45).

Jesus says, in effect, that it is not only his death that saves us but his life lived as a servant. His whole life, including his death, was given to serve others. And yet, as Paul points out, Jesus was the one person who would not be boasting if he made himself equal with God (Phil 2:6). The other two Gospels record this truth in different ways – John with the final foot washing, and Luke in a way that we could easily miss: he says that Jesus’ ministry started when he was “about thirty” (Luke 3:23). The age of thirty would have made his readers think of two things: Levites start their full-time service at age thirty, and the minimum age at which a slave can be freed in Roman law is thirty. Therefore, in both cultures, this reminded them that Jesus was a servant, first as a manual worker to support his mother, and then in religious service for all of us. His whole life was given in service to others.

Jesus’ rejection of honorific titles wasn’t just for others; he called himself by the lowest title imaginable: “Son of Man.” In Aramaic this was a phrase that meant “an ordinary man.” If you wanted to say you met someone selling oranges, you’d say “I met a son of man selling oranges” – it just means “someone.” Of course, it also reminds us of the phrase used in Daniel 7:13—the glorified “Son of Man” – but the whole point of using it in that passage is to indicate that an ordinary human was glorified by God. Jesus uses this phrase to signify that he is fully human and in that sense “ordinary.” But his followers always avoided using “Son of Man” when talking about Jesus on earth, because they thought this title was just too demeaning. Jesus also calls himself a “shepherd,” the lowest-ranking profession in Israel. When some rabbis debated whether stale or rotten food needed to be tithed, one rabbi suggested testing it by seeing whether a dog would eat it. But others said dogs eat everything, so they used the definition “if a shepherd will eat it.”1 They were at the bottom of society, and Jesus identifies himself with them.

In the Old Testament, the model of humility was Moses. There is one verse in Numbers that must have been written by someone other than Moses, because it says: “Now Moses was a very humble man, more humble than anyone else on the face of the earth” (Num 12:3). This fits with what we know: Moses pleads with God to let someone else lead, and in exasperation God lets Aaron be his spokesman (Exod 4:10-14). He also refuses God’s offer to make a new nation from his offspring in place of sinful Israel, but instead spends forty days interceding for the nation (Exod 32:9-14; Deut 9:18-19). I don’t think he was humble as a young man – being brought up as a prince in Pharaoh’s palace isn’t a great way to learn humility! I think God taught him during those years he spent doing the lowly work of a shepherd – culminating in that day he took his sheep up Mount Sinai (Exod 3:1-2).

Humility as a virtue is regarded as an antidote to the terrible vice of pride throughout the Bible, but the only practical command we have concerning this is Jesus’ teaching on titles. We can’t say that this is timeless by virtue of being constant through the Bible because there was little need for this command in the Old Testament. However, its timelessness is indicated by the fact that it was countercultural. Status was very important for Jews and Romans, so the idea of deliberately rejecting honorific titles was very strange indeed.

The early church took Jesus’ teaching on this subject seriously. Although it inherited the titles “elder” and “priest” from the synagogue, when the church invented its own titles it chose “deacon” and “minister” – i.e., the Greek and Latin words for “servant.” Even “apostle” merely meant “a messenger,” someone who was only important if he carried an important message.

Today we are again in a society where we are expected to sell ourselves at every opportunity, from employment résumés to conversations at parties. Often we cunningly find self-effacing ways to communicate how qualified, skilled, or experienced we are without appearing to boast. And if we don’t have formal qualifications we boast about our fitness, possessions, prospects, or relationships. Few people stand against the trend like Paul did. Inspirational speaking is also highly regarded, and although Paul didn’t reject this, he did warn about its misuse because, too often, it merely brings honor to the speaker.

In C. S. Lewis’s vision of heaven in The Great Divorce, the narrator meets the procession of a great lady in a fine chariot preceded by beautiful dancers and musicians. His guide explains that she was Sarah Smith, who was a “nobody” on earth, and all those who are enjoying heaven with her are the many souls she saved by showing them love and the source of love. One day, heaven will reveal the true value of our lives, and our boasting will burst like bubbles.

1^ Babylonian Talmud Betzah 21a (

This was previously published in a similar form in Christianity magazine

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