Reverend

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Jollyblogger is, among other things, arguing against the clergy/laity distinction in a post about why pastors should be thought of more of a supporting cast than the main event. My comment shows at least a couple downsides of reducing the issue to that and that alone, but I agree with his general point, and I'm especially glad that he's expressing his distaste for the attitude that clergy are somehow more holy or more important to the kingdom of God than the ordinary believe living a godly life in service to their master.

One thing that occurred to me as I was reading the post was an alternative solution to the problem that referring to a minister as 'Reverend' gives a false impression.

I'll not go into the Al Sharpton and Jesse Jackson issue (I don't think either has a right to use the term 'Reverend'), but there are other problems with the term. For instance, we decided not to include any title for the four ministers who took part in our wedding. One of our elders officiated. At the time he was full-time and thus counted as what most ordinary but mistaken people think of as a pastor. Our dads are both ordained. Sam's dad is an associate pastor of a church that doesn't pay their ministers, and thus his full-time job is teaching special education at an inner city school. I think that counts as ministry also, but he's not a full-time minister in his church. Still, they call him Reverend Callender. One of the ministers involved works for the Southern Baptist Convention as a full-time campus minister, overseeing a church that meets on campus and is composed entirely of students. He has not been ordained, because the SBC won't ordain someone except to work with a self-sufficient church, and his salary is not from the church but from the national and local Southern Baptist Convention funds. Is he a Reverend?

Then there's my dad, who was ordained before I was born to start a house church in Providence that lasted only a few years. When I was in junior high and early high school, he was an elder in our congregation and had a few regular ministry roles, including preaching at most once a month. There was an official pastor who served as an equal on the board of elders and was not paid but did most of the preaching. When my parents moved to New Hampshire, my dad was in a similar position but called a deacon instead of an elder. Then he started a house church and served as one of two elders for that church, with no full-time pastor. Now he preaches regularly at a church in Vermont just across the border, but I don't know if he has any official position. At my grandfather's funeral two weeks ago, he was listed as Rev. Paul Pierce, and my uncle was listed as Rev. Robert Mitchell. My uncle was ordained to work in a group home for disturbed children and has never been what most people think of as a pastor. At which times during my dad's life should he have qualified as Reverend, and is it an appropriate label for my uncle?

Now I don't accept arguments of the form "since there are borderline cases of P, there really is no such thing as P". If that were true, our adjectives would all be illegitimate, since almost all of them are vague and admit of borderline cases. Still, it's not clear to me what if any criteria go into making someone a Reverend, and it does involve this illegitimate notion (biblically speaking) of a clergy/lay distinction, particularly a distinction in terms of greater holiness and importance. For that reason I've always resisted the term 'Reverend' for anyone at all. I've also resisted calling anyone in full-time ministry anything that I couldn't also apply to someone who isn't paid for serving the kingdom of God except for the terms necessary to distinguish what exactly the person is being paid to do.

Maybe this was the right thing to do with our wedding program. It made it clear that there was nothing special about the four people who contributed who happened to be either ordained or a full-time minister (since only one of them was both, and neither was true of all of them). I do agree with my congregation's practice of referring to our elders as pastors but not as Pastor Jackson, Pastor Matzal, or Paster Weeks. Instead, children call them Mr. Jackson, Mr. Matzal, and Mr. Weeks. Adults call them Jeremy, Stefan, and Doug. I think this is absolutely the best thing to do, and they've made it an official church policy by writing it into the church handbook as something the church encourages parents to teach their children.

Still, another response to this problem has occurred to me, at least for some situations. The logic is as follows. Calling pastors and only pastors Reverend furthers the illegitimate distinction between clergy and laity. The solution I've long taken is to stop calling clergy Reverend, but that's not the only logical possibility for removing the distinction. What about calling everyone Reverend? Paul did it, to the extent that Reverend reflects the same sort of content as the word translated as 'saints'. In my comment on Jollyblogger's post, I said to Jollyblogger about situations when someone calls him Reverend Wayne: "Call people 'Reverend' back and then explain to them that the word has connotations of holiness and that all believers are called holy/saints in the NT." What think ye?

3 Comments

I like it - I think I'll try that. There is another way I this whole issue shows up that I didn't bring up. When I am out for a meal with someone everyone always expects the Reverend to pray. I went through a stage a year or so ago where I refused to pray at meals with friends (except for official church functions). I told people we need to pretend that God hears the prayers of the non-ordained too!

My grandfather was a minister (Baptist), and it used to drive him nuts to be called "Reverend Ketcham." It's an adjective, dagnabbit, not a noun! A minister is addressed (second person) as "Mr. Ketcham," but if you're referring to him in the third person, it's "the Reverend Mr. Ketcham."

I have always struggled with the title rev.I've been a pastor for several years ordained as a baptist minister. My problem is Psalm 111:9 KJV, only God is mentioned as rev. yare(Heb) I believe it comes from the state church mentality.

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