Depending on your personality, role titles might mean a lot to you, or they might mean very little to you. When I worked at a local nursing home for over 6 years, my official job title the entire time was "Administrative Assistant to Dining Services." I'll admit that it was not my favorite title to share with people because 1) I didn't think it sounded very manly (insecure much?), and 2) it didn't really describe most of my day-to-day work of purchasing food, ensuring residents were served food that was safe for them, managing budgets, training the entire facility in IT, and more. Usually when people asked what my role was at the nursing home, I described my activities but conveniently didn't mention my title. Now that my role is "pastor," my title can be a two-edged sword that garners respect in some circles and bewilderment or even scorn in others.
The titles we mention when introducing ourselves can say a lot about how we perceive our identity. In Ephesians, Paul uses two titles for himself: an apostle (1:1) and a prisoner (3:1, 4:1), and both are "of/for Christ Jesus." How can Paul acknowledge his title of "prisoner" just as happily and readily as he acknowledges his title of "apostle?" And why does he pull out the prisoner title at key moments right before describing his apostolic job description (3:1ff) and again before telling them how to behave (4:1)? Wouldn't it make more sense to appeal to his apostolic authority at those moments and downplay the weakness of him being a prisoner?
I believe that Paul embraced the title "prisoner" and "apostle" equally because, in his mind (and contrary to our typical ways of thinking), these titles were not so opposite as they first appear. Paul's leadership was conformed to the message of Jesus and his identity was wholly rooted in Christ. Therefore, his titles were as fluid as the occasions in which he used them. Yes, Paul was called to be an apostle with exceptional spiritual authority, but that meant that he was called to lead from the lowest place. His heart was set on Jesus, not a title.
Two Responses to "Leadership Titles"
We often approach leadership and the accompanying titles with a worldly, flesh-driven mindset. Some people want the good-sounding title for themselves because they selfishly want the power, influence or control that comes with it. Others assume that those who hold any leadership title (even biblical ones) must have some underlying selfish ambition, and therefore they resist any identified leader in order to "keep them in check." Granted, the authority that comes with a title can be easily abused, but often the real reason we resist spiritual authority is because it infringes on our own sense of personal autonomy.
By way of illustration, I've seen pastors who insisted on others calling them "pastor" or "reverend" as a sign of respect. They would actually correct those who left out their title when addressing them. On the other hand, I've seen pastors ask people to not call them by their job title because they didn't want to be seen as superior. From the side of the congregation, some may insist on using the title "pastor" because they've assigned too high a value on that role and begun to idolize them, and others may resist it because they've assigned too low a value on that role or title. But, as always, Jesus (and Paul) offers a better way.
The Trajectory of Biblical Authority
Jesus corrected both our lust for power and our resistance to rightly expressed spiritual authority when he said,
“You know that those who are considered rulers of the Gentiles lord it over them, and their great ones exercise authority over them. But it shall not be so among you. But whoever would be great among you must be your servant, and whoever would be first among you must be slave of all. For even the Son of Man came not to be served but to serve, and to give his life as a ransom for many.”” (Mark 10:42–45, ESV).
Notice that Jesus does not say, "No one will be great" or "there will be no leaders among you." He says, "whoever would be great must be your servant... whoever would be first must be slave of all." There is a certain type of authority that embraces obscurity and vulnerability in order to maximize God's glorious purposes in his people. There is a certain type of holy "aspiration" that Jesus would desire in a leader that will drive that person to any depth of servanthood to see people conformed to Christ (see 1 Tim. 3:1).
And so we return to Paul who addresses the churches surrounding Ephesus with both the title "apostle" and "prisoner." He opens the first section of the letter about the blessings of grace and peace by using his "apostle" title, and he opens the second section of the letter in which he exhorts them to godly behavior out of his "prisoner" title. Why? Because his particular appeals were for a type of "lowly love" (as David put it in Sunday's sermon called Unity Beyond Imagination) that is essential for everyone in the Christian church to embrace. Paul modeled this kind of lowly love for these churches, embracing the title of prisoner even as he went about his apostolic calling of writing Spirit-inspired, authoritative letters that would become part of the scriptures we hold today.
Applying Titles of Spiritual Authority
So what does this mean for us as we think about "leadership titles" in the church such as "pastor," "elder," "gospel community leader," "ministry coordinator?" Here are a few thoughts:
Titles Describe a Calling - Paul called himself an apostle and a prisoner "of the Lord." He did not appoint himself to these roles: the Lord called him to them. They were not his identity, but his responsibility and activity before the Lord.
Titles Describe a Responsibility - Paul had a particular responsibility in both his apostleship and imprisonment. He had the burden that none of us will ever experience to establish the early church and to write scripture that would preserve the church for generations to come. Biblical authority (and the corresponding titles) always involves power and the corresponding responsibility to steward that power for the glory of God and the good of others. Titles such as "elder" or "deacon" describe a weight of responsibility that the recipients of those titles bear that is equal to the authority they are given.
Titles Describe an Activity - Titles are better at describing what a person does rather than who they are. Paul's identity in Christ was not his apostleship, nor his chains, but rather that he was simply "in Christ." Likewise, my identity as a leader, like the rest of the church, is an adopted child of God in Christ, and a brother of everyone else who is "in Christ." My particular role and activity is that I serve as a pastor. I don't shepherd people because I hold the title of "pastor." Rather, I am a "pastor" because I "pastor" (or shepherd) people. When we look to identify elders or deacons, we look for those who are already, in some measure, doing the activity before we assign them the official title.
Titles Describe Respect (of Christ's Authority) - "Apostle" did carry with it a measure of respect and authority, and rightly so. An apostle was a representative of Christ, and thus carried Christ's authority with them. Paul has to write the entire letter of Second Corinthians because some are not respecting or even acknowledging his apostleship. However, Paul's primary concern is not the title, but rather their posture toward Christ's appointment and his job to represent Christ to them. This is why titles such as "apostle" and "servant" are interchangeable for Paul, and titles such as "elder," "overseer," and "pastor (shepherd)," are also interchangeable in for church leaders. If you call me "Pastor Ben," I won't correct you. If you just call me "Ben," I equally won't correct you. Why? Because I'd rather us focus on people's respect of Christ's authority that I am representing, not on some perceived authority that belongs to me as a mere man.
Titles are NOT the Goal - If being called an apostle by others was Paul's goal, he would not have equally (or more frequently) used titles such as servant or prisoner. If you need to be called a gospel community leader in order to pick up the phone and have a conversation about someone's physical or spiritual care, you probably should not be a gospel community leader. But if your Gospel Community leader calls you, realize that they are acting out of a particular burden to care for you, and appreciate them for that. Titles are not the goal, but rather help us communicate the goal: proclaiming Jesus, equipping servants, and sending witnesses to the glory of God.
So how about you? How do you relate to "titles"? Do you embrace them? Resist them? Long for them? Fear them? Why do you think you relate to them in this way?
I would urge you: embrace the authority and responsibility that corresponds to good and godly titles by aiming your heart at Christ, who led us by embracing the lowest place.