Matthew 23:8-10 “But you are not to be called ‘Rabbi,’ for you have only one Master and you are all brothers. And do not call anyone on earth ‘father,’ for you have one Father, and he is in heaven. Nor are you to be called ‘teacher,’ for you have one Teacher, the Christ.”
This is a particularly awkward Scripture for the Japanese Church, because titles are so ingrained in Japanese society. The Japanese translation I use gives “Sensei” where the NIV says “Rabbi.” Anyone who has ever studied Japanese martial arts is familiar with that term, because it is the title of Teacher, (literally, “one born before,”) and failure to use it is considered very rude. That overlaps with verse 10, so they use another term there that means more literally, teacher, but is also the second character in the terms for pastor, missionary, and a number of other professions. However, that’s no more awkward than the situation for the Catholic Church, that has institutionalized the title of Father to a degree that is totally pervasive. In Japanese Catholic churches priests are addressed as “Shinpu,” which literally means, “Father of God!” That doesn’t seem strange to Japanese, because Shinto priests are called a title that means “god owner!” An American Catholic missionary friend explained that the title for priests was imported directly from China, where the character that the Japanese use for God has a meaning much more along the lines of “spirit,” so the translation would be, “Spiritual Father.” Even so, he agreed that it was in violation of this Scripture. Japan is an extremely vertical society, to the point that people rarely have close friends who weren’t in the same grade with them in school. Everyone else is either “senior” or “junior” to them, and how can you be friends with someone like that? American, not to mention Biblical, egalitarianism is a foreign concept indeed, and the barriers are being overcome very slowly. We have the saying, “The ground is level at the foot of the cross,” but that seems a stretch even in many American churches, and it is certainly difficult for Japanese believers to grasp fully.
As a pastor/missionary as well as a school teacher in Japan, I get called Teacher daily, and I often refer to others that way. Avoiding it with others would be rude in the extreme, and that would hinder the Gospel getting through to people. Within this church I have succeeded in getting most people to call me “Mister Jack” or “Pastor Jack,” but there are some who balk at that. In general society I don’t rebuke people for the titles they give me, (though I do correct them when they refer to me as Father) but one of my points of distinction over the past 38 years has been how I treat everyone the same. I am on friendly terms with the mayor and some other politicians, as well as a number of doctors and the like, but I treat them no differently than I treat anyone else. It has been shocking to some, but they have excused me (I think) because as a foreigner I’m “not expected to know all the social niceties.” It was a help to me that I grew up as the youngest child of one of the highest-status people in the whole city, who nonetheless treated everyone the same. That is an example that I have sought to follow all my life, so that nothing would interfere with speaking the truth in love.
Father, You alone know how well I have done in following this. I ask You to continue to grow and train me, so that just as Jesus humbled Himself, I may be fully humble as Your agent, drawing many to be Christ’s disciples indeed, for Your glory. Thank You. Praise God!