When you stand before God, and, you will, He’s not going to ask you what your title is. All He will care about is our work. What work have we done? How has it fed people? Clothed people? How have we invested ourselves in their lives? Long after you’re dead and gone, only your work will be able to speak for you. tThe title and all of that is less important than who the man actually is and what the man actually does. Because, at the end of life, that’s all he will have: who we are, what we’ve done. Far too many of the rest of us, with our twenty or two thousand, are putting the cart before the horse, investing time and energy in stupid titles and petty fiefdoms while lives hang in the balance. Beloved, do the work. The rest of that stuff will come later.
He’s not going to ask you what your title is.
He’s not going to care about your advanced degrees. Your
honorary degrees. How many letters are before or after your
name. He’s not going to care if you call yourself “apostle” or
“prophet.” It will make absolutely no difference to Him if you
have an MDiv or a MACM or a ThM. He won’t care what board you’re
the chairman of or that you’re the vice-moderator of
thus-and-so-convention. God won’t be impressed by your head
count. It won’t matter to Him that you have x-hundred or even
x-thousands of people calling out your name. Worshipping you
instead of Him. Following you instead of Him. People who lose
their faith and ultimately their salvation because of your
smugness, your corrupt fascist self-absorption. You don’t get a
special entrance to Heaven because you’re a bishop. There will
be no Bishops Only express line. No Pastors Only luxury suite.
When you stand before God you will stand before Him absolutely naked. No fine clothes. No Lexus. No rings and Rolexes. No gold crucifixes. No intricate robes. No socks. And He won’t care about that degree you worked so hard for. He won’t care how much you have in the bank or what your pension plan is. None of the things we, in our tradition, strive for. Things we value above all else: these ridiculous positions within the church hierarchy and the titles that go with them.
God won’t care anything about that. All He will care about is our work. What work have we done? How has it fed people? Clothed people? How have we invested ourselves in their lives? Long after you’re dead and gone, only your work will be able to speak for you. Far too many of our pastors have enormous salaries and generous benefits packages but no work. They can preach like anybody’s business, but no work. They have advanced degrees, all these letters before and after their names. And we foolishly genuflect and get nervous when these men come around because of their standing, because of their position and offices.
But too may of these men leave nothing behind. No work. No investment. Maybe they built a huge church. Maybe the built several huge churches. But the work is not in the building, not in the revenue or resources. The work is in *people.* What is the quality of the *people*, of their lives, of the fruit they in turn bear? Powerful men, with TV shows and books, celebrated, admired, feared. Worshipped. But no work. Standing naked before God, who can they point to and say, “There is my investment. There are the souls I’ve impacted for You and for Your glory.” Far too many of our pastors, of our Bishops, our “apostles,” our “prophets” and “prophetesses” simply have no work. Nothing to show for themselves. They have titles. They have offices. They have money and power and fame and respect. Many have our fear—we fear them more than we fear God. And our investment is in them, not in God. This is the sad ignorance of our black church tradition: this foolishness with titles and positions. All of which will be burned away as we stand before God with nothing, offering Him nothing. Bringing Him nothing. Having created nothing. Having nurtured nothing.
There’s far too many people running around demanding to be called Pastor who are not, in fact, doing the work of a pastor. In my experience, far too many of these men desire the title of pastor but know little or nothing about a pastor's purpose. Church hierarchy, as formalized by the Catholic Church, "connotes the care and control of holy or sacred things, the sacer principatus. The Hierarcha, it is here explained, is he who has actual care of these things; who, indeed, both obeys and commands, but does not obey those he commands." —Catholic Encyclopedia. But, church elders exist to serve moreso than command [James 5:14-15], to love morseo than to administrate. "[Christ] established His Church as a visible, external, and perfect society; hence He conferred on its hierarchy the right to legislate for the good of that society." Our black church tradition has inherited from Catholicism three grades of the hierarchy of order: the episcopate, priesthood, and diaconate. None of these offices exist to advance or prosper the individuals who seek them, but exist, "For this double purpose: the sanctification of souls and the good or welfare of religious society..."
There’s this great line in Martin Scorsese’s brilliant The Departed where Mark Wahlberg asks Leonardo DiCaprio, “Let me ask you: do you wanna be a cop, or do you just wanna seem to be a cop? There is a difference.” When I was a kid, I used to dream of being a cop. In high school, I wanted to apply to the New York City police force, but my eyesight is poor and I couldn’t pass the physical. Over time, I met a few cops and I learned a lot about cops. Cops don’t make a lot of money. Cops get spat on and cursed out, often for no reason. Cops are lied to each and every day by almost every person they encounter. In bad weather, in emergencies, cops have to come in on their days off. Rookie cops get the worst shifts in the worst neighborhoods. And, sooner or later, a supervisor is going to send a cop down a dark alley to arrest some jittery tweak with a gun. As I matured, I realized, I never actually wanted to be a cop. I just wanted a badge. Not even a gun, I just wanted to carry around that piece of tin, maybe flash my lights and siren and scare the tar out of somebody.
In my life, I’ve met pastors—a lot of them—who don’t actually want to be pastors. They want to be seen, they want to stand up and gas on for hours about whatever. They want applause and people to love them. They like the money. And, frankly, they’re not very good at much else. But, like me and the NYPD, these guys don’t actually want to be a pastor. They just want that title.
Real cops aren’t overly concerned about people knowing they’re cops. I wanted to flash a badge at people and have power over them. Most real cops I know—the last tihng they want to do is flash a badge. Because, the minute the public knows they are law enforcement, it attracts the nuts, the liars, the spitters. It attracts people looking for a frivolous lawsuit against the city. Real cops, off duty and minding their own business, are not Batman. They’ll get involved if they have to, because that’s their duty, but most real cops I’ve met leave it in the locker room when it’s time to go home.
I’ve met a lot of pastors who insist, often violently, on being called “pastor.” But they never visit the sick. They never see to the lonely. They’re impatient. They're cheap. They whine about money. They’re selfish. One pastor came here to preach a four-day revival. He spent three of those nights in bed with one of the sisters from the church. Do you wanna be a cop, or do you just wanna seem to be a cop.
Pastoring is not and never has been about a title. God’s most faithful workers tend to not call themselves anything. They just do the work, quietly and often in complete secrecy. Many of us have this thing all twisted, where we are sitting idle, waiting for our shot in somebody else’s pulpit—somebody else’s vineyard—waiting on our ministry. Waiting for the day God (or, more likely, some guy who thinks he’s God) anoints us “pastor,” so we can go and do the work. But God told us to go do the work first [2 Tim 4:5]. He never said sit on your hands until somebody else—some mere man—gives you some paper that says you’re thus-and-so. Jesus never told anybody, ever, to call him “pastor” or even “rabbi.” They called Him “rabbi” because he was a teacher. There is no scriptural evidence that Jesus had much of a formal education or that he held any degrees. He did the work. And that’s what people called him.
Do the work. Stop fretting over these insipid and moronic titles. Even more important: do not allow people to worship you. Pastors are in a dangerous place when they start eating burnt offerings left for God, when they start taking God’s praises and worship to themselves. Most of the time, we can see it happening—the pastor becoming an asshole—right in front of our eyes. It gets harder to get an appointment with him. He invests way more time in judgment, in fire and brimstone, than in compassion and love. The tip-off is, usually, the pastor becomes increasingly more isolated and, as a result, increasingly more secretive. He stops pouring himself into the lives of his people, but instead allows himself to be carried on their shoulders. On their bank accounts. Their wallets and checkbooks. The corruption is easy to spot. It is glaring and obvious. But most of us have drunk the Kool-Aid to the point where we fear the pastor more than we fear God. And then we’re useless to both. We do not serve God because we give what belongs to God to the pastor. And we’re no friend to the pastor because we don’t hold him accountable.
Isolation is a sure sign of a pastor’s moral degradation if not outright corruption. Gross moral failure on the part of so very many of our pastors has diminished the respect many of us have for these men. The pastorate is an office [Eph 4:11], but many of us transfer our respect for that office to the person sitting in it. Pastoring is, ultimately, a temp job. God moves you by inspiration, and sometimes by a lack of it. And he takes us where He will. A pastor who digs in, who stubbornly refuses to make himself available to the move of the Holy Spirit, is just a guy hanging on to a good hustle. Most sincere pastors I’ve known have themselves known both feast and famine: the struggle of twenty members, the rewards of two thousand. Letting go of the two thousand to return to the twenty is a sacrifice only the rare servant of God can make. God won’t always ask you to do that. He will, however, always demand your obedience, your willingness to do so. That is the essential lesson of Abraham and Isaac: a lesson lost on so many of our pastors who, rather than make themselves truly available to God, dig in. “I built this,” they might say. “I opened these doors.” The arrogant foolishness of arrogant men. Without God, we are nothing. We create nothing. We accomplish nothing. And who is to say God won’t move you from the two thousand to the twenty only to give you ten thousand. Twenty thousand. Numbers mean nothing to God. Faithfulness, love, is everything.
Jesus never used a title. He referred to Himself as the “Son of Man,” but that’s not a title in the sense that “elder” or “Superintendent” or “Prophet Apostle” are. Jeremiah never insisted on people calling him “Prophet Jeremiah.” Jeremiah not only reluctant to be a prophet, he tried talking God out of the whole idea. People called Samuel a prophet because he prophesied. They called Jesus “teacher” because He taught. Putting the cart before the horse, with all of this titling, is simple vanity. It reveals an egregious and life-threatening lack of understanding of Who God is and what His qualities, His values are.
The new trend among Baptist churches is to adopt a kind of militaristic title-based hierarchy where how much juice you have, how much respect people have for you, is based on what title you have. This nonsense is borrowed from the COGIC church whose hierarchy is, in itself, modeled heavily upon Catholicism. My thought is the COGIC structure was intended to provide broad-based support for churches and to encourage spiritual growth and accountability. However, to my observation, much of the COGIC structure has encouraged pettiness and inappropriate competitiveness among the brethren. Many COGIC ministers simply have wrong motives for advancing their careers, a sad mix of ego and money. Elders are more respected than ministers. Pastors more than elders. District superintendents more than pastors. Bishops more than superintendents. And, sadly, now much of this un-biblical hierarchal nonsense is being adopted by many Baptist churches. Ministers are unlicensed ministers. Reverends are licensed ministers, who outrank unlicensed ministers. Ordained ministers outrank licensed ministers. Assistant Pastors (or, just as often, First Assistant To The Pastor—a semantic hedge against political challenges) outrank ordained ministers. The pastor is, essentially, king of the city-state. And, for far too many of our pastors, even the title “pastor” is no longer enough. We now elevate many of these men to the title Bishop, mostly because many of them simply find the title “pastor” not big enough for them. And, unlike the COGIC church’s accountability structure, in many black Baptist traditions, a “Bishop” is whatever he says he is. Having two churches hardly makes you a bishop. “Bishop” and “pastor” or “overseer” are, biblically speaking, interchangeable titles taken from the Greek epískopos, overseer, It is through Catholicism that we garner our current tradition of hierarchal rank [see sidebar].
A usual and reliably true rule of thumb is that people who insist on titles are simply insecure. Enormous egos are simply a cry for help, an outward sign of an inward emptiness and pettiness. People with honorary degrees—many whom deliberately pursued an honorary doctorate by donating money to some cause or school—who insist on being called “Dr.” or what have you, are wearing their insecurity on their sleeve. It is an outward sign of an inner emptiness and disconnect from God. As Christians, regardless of what you think people should call you, your connection to God should satisfy totally. Should fill you up to the point where it just doesn’t matter how folks—especially Church Folk—see you. After all, if they don’t have respect for you already, forcing them to call you “apostle” or whatever will only make things worse. Do the work of an apostle, and that’s what they’ll call you. Put your hand sin the dirt. Do your ministry. The title will come.
When we stand before God, God won’t want to hear about how many people are in our congregation. Won’t want to know how many Annual Days we’ve coordinated and organized. How many banquets we’ve attended. God won’t care, not one bit, about our stupid titles. He gave us a talent. He gave us, all of us, every single one of us, unique and special gifts. All God is going to care about, on the day we stand naked before him, is what we did with those gifts. He won’t care about the title, He will care about the work.
This stuff is so deeply ingrained in our DNA, the damage so severe and so cancerous, we may not get past this in our lifetime. Most especially if pastors aren’t preaching against it, aren’t warning their own church members that the worship of the pastor offends God. That it doesn’t serve God and it places the pastor himself at risk. If you love your pastor, hold him accountable. Give praises to God alone.
If you stop and think about it, some of our most successful ministers don’t even need titles. TD Jakes is so huge, he hardly needs a title. He has one, but, my guess is, when he shakes our hand he doesn’t call himself “Bishop” or “Dr.” I’m quite sure he smiles and says, “Hi, I’m TD Jakes.” The title and all of that is less important than who the man actually is and what the man actually does. Because, at the end of life, that’s all he will have: who we are, what we’ve done. Far too many of the rest of us, with our twenty or two thousand, are putting the cart before the horse, investing time and energy in stupid titles and petty fiefdoms while lives hang in the balance. Beloved, do the work. The rest of that stuff will come later.
Speaking Of Titles: Why
Priest Uses His Middle Initial
Lest anyone accuse me of calling the kettle black, I tend to insert my middle initial not out of vanity but because I've been asked to. The British science fiction writer, Christopher Priest (author of the hit film The Prestige), is constantly being confused with me and I with him, for which I sincerely apologize. I include my middle initial only to differentiate myself from Mr. Priest.