Thursday, April 29, 2010

Don't Call Me Names

For 33 years I have been an ordained minister. People called me Pastor or Preacher. Some called me Reverend, and a few called me Doctor, which was confusing to medical workers when I was doing hospital visits. On formal occasions I have been introduced as The Reverend Doctor. Once I even got a letter from a school principal addressed to The Most Reverend, even though I am a Baptist minister, not a Catholic bishop.

One older gentleman in New Hampshire used to call me Parson whenever he saw me. I liked this title. Parson is simply an old form of the word "person." It made me feel more like a person. I even wrote a church newsletter article to my flock suggesting that they call me Parson. It never stuck. 

When I left full-time ministry, people did not know what to call me any more. They stammered when addressing me on the phone or meeting me in a store, and especially when introducing me to others. I reminded them that I had a name before I had a title. Now that I am "out of office" everyone calls me Marshall.

Jesus felt a similar discomfort with titles and labels. He told his disciples not to call him Christ in public. On one occasion a man addressed Jesus as "Good Teacher."  Jesus responded sharply, "Why do you call me good? No one is good but One, that is, God." That raises all kinds of Christological issues that I will not address here.

On another occasion Jesus was criticizing the scribes and Pharisees for loving their titles and the privileges that came with them. He told his disciples not to be like them.  "Do not be called Rabbi; for One is your Teacher, and you are all brothers. Do not call anyone on earth your father; for One is your Father, He who is in heaven. Do not be called leaders; for One is your Leader, that is, Christ."

I know there is a place for ecclesiological roles, but Jesus points beyond them to a more important truth. There is only One who is truly our Rabbi, Teacher and Father. All others get in the way of the One. All teachers are merely pointers to the Teacher. All fathers are signposts to the Father. All true leaders lead to the Leader.

There is only One. That is why he is called One. "Hear O Israel, the Lord thy God, the Lord is One." When we have lost sight of the One, we use titles. When we have forgotten the One, we start religions. When we can't experience the One, we need rituals. We insist on names when we no longer know the Nameless One.

When Moses asked the name of the One who spoke in the Burning Bush, God responded "I am who I am." The truth is Being Itself, as Paul Tillich used to say. Names just get in the way.


  1. each of us can be used by God to teach something to another, not always in word but also in deed - thank you for provoking thought.

  2. Amen, Marshall. I cringe when I hear my in-laws, raised in a Pentecostal Holiness background, refer to "Brother so-and-so" or "Sister so-and-so." I know I'm an only child, but I've never observed my sibling cousins refer to themselves with the titles of "Brother" and "Sister."

    To make matters worse, when I visited the church my in-laws used to go to, they were "Brother & Sister Clark," but I was just "Joe." While I appreciated the simplicity, the exclusion also stood out in my mind; because I wasn't a member of their church, I wasn't part of the "family."



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