Calling or referring to ministers of the gospel as “Reverend” has been a long-standing tradition in English speaking churches. In some circles it is more prevalent than in others; for instance, it is a deeply entrenched tradition in Reformed churches, but in many Presbyterian denominations the practice is infrequent or non-existent.
The stated reason for this is to make a distinction between clergy and laity and to show respect and honor for the office of minister and for the ministers themselves. This practice is said to be an application of I Thessalonians 5:13, “And to esteem them (officebearers of the church) very highly in love for their work’s sake.”
While it is indeed biblical to respect the office of minister and to honor ministers as ministers, I contend that the use of “Reverend” with reference to ministers or in addressing ministers is an undesirable and unnecessary practice because it is an unbiblical practice. “Pastor” rather than “Reverend” should be used in connection with the undershepherds of God’s people.
The word translated “reverend” in the Bible means awesome; dreadful and terrible in majesty; to be feared with the deepest reverential awe. It is used in Psalm 111:9 to describe God’s name. “He sent redemption to his people, He hath commanded his covenant forever: holy and reverend is his name.”
God’s name is reverend. He makes His name known as reverend. Only God’s name is reverend; no one else’s name is reverend. Since the third commandment of God’s law requires, in the words of the Westminster Shorter Catechism, “the holy and reverent use of God’s names, titles, attributes, ordinances, Word, and works,” the word “reverend” should not be used to refer to sinful man but to God only. The Shorter Catechism goes on to say that the third commandment forbids all profaning or abusing of anything whereby God makes Himself known. Certainly to use the word “reverend,” which is part of the revelation of God’s own name, with reference to vessels of clay, without any biblical warrant, is a profaning and abusing of that by which God makes Himself known. Granting the sincerity and good intentions of those who use the term “reverend” with reference to ministers and the high esteem in which this practice is held, especially in Reformed churches, the judgment of God’s Word is nevertheless that this is a violation of the third commandment. Even though in such cases the third commandment might be broken in ignorance and not in a deliberate and malicious way, it is still using the Lord’s name in vain.
We must discipline ourselves to use biblical terms in biblical ways. The use of “reverend” with reference to ministers is taking a biblical term and using it in an unbiblical way. One Presbyterian Book of Church Order wisely declares, “No one who holds office in the Church ought to usurp authority therein; or receive an official title of spiritual preeminence, except such as are employed in the Scriptures.”
Even though it is claimed that “reverend” is used only as a means of showing courtesy and respect to ministers in their office, this use of the word robs God of His preeminence and uniqueness and wrongly exalts man. How incongruous it is for the followers of the meek and lowly Lord Jesus Christ to assume to themselves titles such as “reverend” and to allow this word to be used in connection with their names.
Is there any warrant in Scripture for this use of “reverend” to refer to ministers? Do we read of any “Reverends” in the Bible? Is there a Reverend Apollos or a Reverend Titus? How about a Reverend John or a Reverend James? Is there a Reverend Peter? No, but there is a Peter who fell down at Jesus’ knees and said, “Depart from me for I am a sinful man, O Lord,” (Luke 5:8). Is there a Reverend Paul? No, but there is a Paul who referred to himself as “the least of the apostles, not meet to be called an apostle” (I Corinthians 15:9), “less than the least of all saints” (Ephesians 3:8), and the chief of sinners (I Timothy 1:15).
Although there is a scriptural distinction between office bearers and other members of the congregation, this distinction is only in their function or role in the church. At the cross, office bearers and other members of the congregation all stand on level ground. They are all saved by sovereign grace through faith. “There is neither Jew nor Greek, there is neither bond nor free, there is neither male nor female, for ye are all one in Christ. Jesus” (Gal. 3:28). The use of “reverend” to refer to ministers makes an unhealthy and unscriptural distinction between clergy and laity.
Is there a minister who is really comfortable with the term “reverend” being applied in his case? Don’t true ministers know from their hearts renewed by the Holy Spirit that they are not reverend at all? Isn’t there some discomfort in the use of the term “reverend” because the “Reverends” know that they are not “reverend” but rather sinful, defiled and corrupt people? Could it be that a minister who is truly comfortable with “reverend” being used in his case or in the cases of others has a defective view of God and is failing to consider who he really is in God’s sight?
What a strange sight it is in the church to have a young minister in his mid-twenties, fresh out of seminary, being referred to and referring to himself as Reverend So and So, while the older and more mature saints in the congregation have no such titles.
Apparently Paul and others in the Bible did not feel a need or have a desire to refer to themselves with titles. They took to heart what is written Job 32:21, “Let me not, I pray you, accept any man’s person, neither let me give flattering titles unto man.”
But is there no place to give a title to ministers, to acknowledge that they are set apart for the gospel ministry in a way that is not true of other members of the congregation? In many callings titles of respect are used, i.e. for doctors, congressmen, nurses, professors, judges, etc. Yes, there is a place for this and a biblical way for doing so. It is by the use of the word “Pastor.” This is a biblical term used for the under shepherds who serve the people of God under the authority of the Chief Shepherd, Jesus Christ. Ephesians 4:11 does not declare that the risen and ascended Christ gave “reverends” to the church; he gave pastors and teachers as gifts to the church “for the perfecting of the saints, for the work of the ministry, for the edifying of the body of Christ” (Ephesians 4:12). I Peter 5 exhorts the elders to feed the flock of God which is among them, to be an example to the flock, and to look for their reward when the Chief Shepherd himself shall appear. The language here is of pastoring the people of God. Many other passages of Scripture, both in the Old Testament and in the New Testament, could be quoted to reinforce the biblical point that Jehovah, whose name is reverend, is pleased to give pastors or shepherds to His people.
Do not misunderstand. I am not encouraging inappropriate familiarity with ministers. I am not calling for anything less than honorable and respectful ways of referring to and addressing ministers. I know there are those who are concerned that using “pastor” instead of “reverend” is less respectful and not as dignified, and they fear the misuse and abuse of “pastor.” They are aware there are those who begin referring to and addressing the minister as Pastor John Doe; this soon becomes Pastor John and then John. These people feel that the word “reverend” is a safeguard against this problem; yet the word “reverend,” disregarding for a moment its unbiblical basis, is abused in a similar way. Reverend John Doe soon becomes Reverend or Rev. to the people so that the word “reverend” ends up taking the place of the pastor’s name.
Let us acknowledge with respect and esteem the office of minister. Let us honor ministers for their work’s sake. Let us show all due honor to them in the Lord; but let us do so with biblical terms used in biblical ways. Let us forsake the use of unbiblical terms or biblical terms used in
unbiblical ways with reference to ministers. Let the ministers of the church lead by example by ceasing from the use of the title “reverend” in their correspondence, phone conversations, and personal interactions with others.
Using “pastor” as a title for ministers is biblical; it does not wrongly exalt man; and it gives God all the preeminence in the church through Jesus Christ, the great Shepherd of His elect. It is a means of obeying the third commandment which calls us, in the words of the Heidelberg Catechism, to “use the holy Name of God no otherwise than with fear and reverence, to the end that He may be rightly confessed and worshiped by us, and be glorified in all our words and works.” The use of “reverend” which I oppose in this article is so deeply entrenched in Reformed churches today that it will not be quickly or easily removed. If the practice dies, it will undoubtedly die a slow death. May this short article, by God’s sovereign blessing, be used to hasten its death.
Pastor Davis is pastor of the Grand Valley Orthodox Reformed Church in Standale, Michigan.
Both Pastor Davis and I are aware that this article conflicts with both the practices and ideas of many in the Protestant Reformed Churches.
The word “Reverend,” from the Latin word revereri, meaning “to revere,” was first introduced into the English language around 1485. It seems to me that the word was used to refer to the preacher of the gospel rather than to his office, as is implied by the comparative and superlative forms used by the Anglican Church: “Very Reverend,” “Right Reverend,” and “Most Reverend.” The word “Pastor,” from the Latin word pastor; meaning “shepherd,” was introduced into English more than one hundred years earlier in 1377. As a point of interest, dominee, the Dutch word for a preacher of the gospel, comes from the Latin word dominus} meaning both “lord,” and “the Lord.”
For further reading, see volume 64 pages 204 and 369 of The Standard Bearer. Pastor Davis and I heartily welcome your comments and opinions.