What's in a Name?
Reverend: worthy of reverence, relating to or designating a clergyman or the clergy; ... from Latin reverendus fit to be revered
Giving honour where honour is due is a fitting expression of Christian devotion. And according to the Scriptures honour is due to all. "Show proper respect for everyone," says Peter (1 Peter 2:17). Paul not only says: "give everyone what you owe him ... if respect, then respect; if honour then honour" (Romans 13:7), he also indicates something about our assessment of who is worthy of respect: "honour one another above yourselves" (Romans 12:10).
Some are singled out for special reference as befits their office. The king is perhaps the most obvious example (1 Peter 2:17) but undoubtedly the spiritual leaders of the church are also included. This respect is described in terms of obedience and submission (Hebrews 13:17) and the giving of honour (1 Timothy 5:17) — probably an honour that shows itself in the provision for the elders' material needs.
Respect for the ministry there must be, but it is a respect that is essentially spiritual. It is an honour due where spiritual gifts of leadership are possessed and properly exercised and it is expressed in a fitting spiritual response to the spiritual ministry provided. The Bible knows nothing of outward honour characteristic of the way in which the world expresses honour to its leaders. We must not follow the ways of society in this respect. Or to put it more specifically: why can't we drop the term "Rev." and just be brothers? Honour and respect to church leaders can still be shown even when outward honorifics are not used.
The use of such outward styles or outward dignity is not commanded in the Scriptures. It ill becomes a church that professes that what is not commanded is forbidden to accept a style of honour not specifically laid down in the Scriptures.
Indeed, there are surely Scriptural guidelines on this point which make it clear that outward "dignity" is not a matter that is indifferent, regulated by the common practice of the society in which one lives, but rather is out of keeping with New Testament principles.
In the Old Testament
Part of the significance of the Old Testament priestly garments was that they induced feelings of dignity and honour. There we have outward displays of honour in a church setting — the garb adopted clothed the priests in dignity. But what was fitting for the carnal ordinance of the Old Testament is, of course, completely out of place in the spiritual environment of New Testament church practice. The outward and material has given way to what is inward and spiritual: we worship God in spirit and in truth. The dignity of elaborate church buildings, of cloth or title are out of keeping with the spiritual dignity of the New Testament. The use of an honorific title diverts attention away from the spiritual respect that matters.
In the New Testament
Moreover, this sort of discrimination between brothers and the use of distinguishing honorific titles is contrary to the plain teaching of our Lord. Jesus said explicitly that the disciples were not to be called Rabbi, father or teacher (Matthew 23:8-10). The background to this teaching was the undue place that the Pharisees gave to such outward displays of honour, but the underlying theological reasons for Jesus' prohibition of such titles were twofold.
Firstly, such titles properly belonged to God — "You have one Master, one Father, one Teacher". And secondly, the disciples, whatever sphere they occupied in the kingdom of God, were simply brothers. When we see the worldly pomp, dignity and honour displayed in other branches of the Christian church, we appreciate the relevance of Jesus teaching for our own day and age. But we fear that the use of the title "Reverend" only perpetuates amongst ourselves a spirit and practice which we are only too ready to condemn in others. When we get back to the spirit of brotherhood which Jesus taught, "Reverend" will die a natural death.
Besides, to whom does the title "Reverend" apply? As generally employed among us at present, it makes ministers a breed apart. But the ministry is only, at best, one aspect of the eldership. Even if we accept that a minister is primus inter pares — the first among equals — then why the inequality of status? The minister is given God-like status in comparison to which the other elders are non-entities. Current usage in regard to "Rev." per perpetuates an unwarranted and unhealthy degree of distinction between elders which tends to undermine the ministry and spiritual authority of the "ruling elders" and perpetuates the myth of a one-man ministry.
The Honour of God
But if there is one compelling reason for dropping the use of this title it is the very simple one: "Reverend is his name" (Psalm 111:9). In accepting the title "Reverend" as an expression of respect, we are taking a title which in our translation of the Scriptures is applied to the God who said: "I will not give my glory to another" (Isaiah 42:8). That alone should be sufficient warrant for us abandoning the use of this title.
What's in a Name?
Of course, I'm aware that many who use or accept the title "Rev." don't mean anything by it. Though derived from the Latin "fit to be revered" it conveys nothing. It is simply a conventional title that society uses, merely a recognition of their ministerial standing, something which they accept but to which they give no importance. They haven't considered it in relationship to the style of Old Testament worship nor to the saying of Jesus quoted above and they certainly don't consider it to be a name applied to God.
So, "if there's nothing in the name, what's the fuss about?" you may ask. But that's a two-edged weapon. If there's nothing in the name, why keep up its use? Why not drop it quietly?
But what really has to be stressed is the positive side: God's name is unique; outward honour and dignity are out of keeping with New Testament principles; appropriate gifts and exemplary spirituality are the distinguishing features of ministers and a submissive response is the proper sign of respect to them. The eldership is one. And, most important of all, we are all brothers.