What’s in a Title?

What’s in a Title?

Written by O. Palmer Robertson |
Tuesday, November 14, 2023

As the apostolic age is coming to its close, Paul makes provision for the ongoing governance of the church by the continuing offices of “elder” and “deacon,” but not “apostle” (1 Tim. 3:1-13; Tit. 1:5-9). No longer will the church’s governance be invested in apostolic eyewitnesses of the resurrection who have been specifically called and commissioned by Christ as foundational witnesses for the life of the church. In his later letters to pastors Timothy and Titus, Paul lays out the role of elder and deacon for the ongoing church of the Lord Jesus Christ. He makes no mention whatsoever of an ongoing apostolic office. Neither does he use the term “deacon” when referring to the role of women in the church.

Communities differ in their use of titles. People would not think of applying the title “king” to anyone but the monarch himself in countries where a king reigns, for there can be only one “king.” In other cultures with a more democratic order, the term “president” can be used quite loosely. Only one person may be “the president.” But many people may be addressed with the title “president:” the president of a university, the president of a ladies’ luncheon club, the president of a young boys’ organization. Under certain circumstances titles have restricted use. At other times, titles may be used quite broadly.

Current discussion in the evangelical community buzzes about titles, especially the use of church officer titles for women. Should a woman be called a “minister?” A “pastor?” An “elder?” A “deacon?” In some ecclesiastical circles these questions have little significance. But in other church communities more strongly committed to the Bible as God’s infallible Word, the question of church titles for women can be vigorously debated.

During a recent church meeting, one argument seemed quite persuasive for allowing women to be called deacons, if not pastors and elders. The person framed his statement something like this: 

Paul the apostle, refers to Phoebe the “deacon” (Rom. 16:1). Would Paul be welcome today in a church community if he insisted on addressing women with the title “deacon?” Or would the apostle be told that he must not address women as “deacons” anymore? 

In this case, the issue is not whether a woman should hold the ordained office of deacon. Instead, it’s simply a matter of addressing a woman with the title “deacon,” meaning “servant,” which is nothing more than what Paul does in the case of Phoebe. 

Further analysis of Paul’s example may establish more than a person intends. For only a few verses later in this same chapter of Romans, Paul applies an even higher title to a woman—a very exalted title indeed. Paul warmly greets Andronicus and his wife Junias, for they are “well known among the apostles” (Rom. 16:7). 

Now what are you going to do? If Paul models the use of titles for the church, should you not address faithful, godly women as “apostles” as well as “deacons?”

Paul’s phrase could mean “well known to the apostles.” But the more likely understanding is that Paul actually addresses the woman Junias as an apostle.  John Calvin reaches that conclusion. Junias is “well known among the apostles.”  Then in his discussion, Calvin notes that Paul “does not, however, use this word in its proper and generally accepted sense…” For Paul “restricts the word elsewhere to the principal order which Christ established at the beginning when He chose the twelve disciples” (John Calvin’s commentary on Romans 16:7).

So shall we feel free to apply the title “apostle” to ourselves as well as to women in this lesser sense? Has anyone ever addressed you as “apostle?” I recently received an email that addressed me as “apostle!” 

Why do we restrain from applying this title to ourselves, since Scripture itself gives the title of “apostle” to people other than the original twelve? Barnabas, Andronicus, and his wife Junias are all called apostles (Acts 14:14, Romans 16:7). Why not address women today by the title “apostle” or “deacon?” If Paul does it, why do we not feel free to do the same? 

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