Oh Yes, He’s the Right Reverend Professor Doctor So-and-So!

Posted: April 13, 2012 in General

This is a post by Craig Blomberg, originally posted at his own Blog New Testament Musings, on 19th December 2011. It is re-posted here with permission from the author…

[“They love the place of honor at banquets and the most important seats in the synagogues; they love to be greeted with respect in the marketplaces and to be called ‘Rabbi’ by others. But you are not to be called ‘Rabbi,’ for you have one Teacher, 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 instructors, for you have one Instructor, the Messiah. The greatest among you will be your servant” (Matthew 23:6-11).

The Catholic priest is to be called “Father.” Historically, Protestant pastors have most commonly been called, “the Reverend.”  Churches that find it too presumptuous to think of “revering” their ministers—an action that borders on worship—often prefer “Pastor.”  If you get a Ph.D. you become a “Doctor.”  But the same is true if you get a D.Min. (or a D.Miss.), a degree requiring far less advanced expertise and technical scholarship.  But few laypeople fully grasp this, so the honor of being called the same title as someone with their Ph.D. (or Th.D. or Ed.D, etc.) remains.

Different cultures use honorific titles differently.  In the U.S. if you teach at the tertiary level but don’t have a doctorate you are called “Professor.”  In the U.K. and other countries of the former British Commonwealth only those lecturers who attain chairs are considered professors, thus limiting the designation to people one notch above “Doctor.”  On the other hand medical doctors who become particularly renowned revert to being called “Mister”!  And you’d better learn these cultural distinctives or you’ll quickly offend someone “important”.

Paradoxically, the same British culture that was so much more hierarchical than the upstart American revolutionaries and that still uses so many honorific titles (can you keep all the Church of England ones straight—vicar, rector, oblate, archdeacon, bishop, archbishop, deacon, vestry member, etc.?) also tends to use just first names between grad students and their academic supervisors.  I very much like being just Craig when I teach in England, Scotland, Ireland, Australia or New Zealand.

Thanks to the personality (i.e., the personableness) of the patriarch of Denver Seminary for so many years, Dr. Vernon Grounds, many people came to know him simply as “Vernon.”  This has spawned a culture in which all successive presidents have been known to their fellow administrators and faculty simply by their first names—Haddon, Ed, Clyde, Craig and now Mark.  As I travel, I’m reminded of how rare this is at other American institutions.  But it’s so refreshingly healthy and biblical.

The ancient Mediterranean world was very hierarchical and socially stratified.  Jesus challenges many of its practices—don’t take the seats of honor, don’t lord it over those who work for you, but take the back seat and exercise servant leadership.  Humble yourselves rather than exalting yourselves.  Matthew 23:6-11 finds Jesus rebuking the Pharisaic practice of calling teachers “Rabbi,” meaning “my master” or “Father” or “instructor” (a word that could also mean “guide”).  Of course, in the context of verse 6, it’s clearly the status and honor that accrue to the titles that Jesus is concerned his followers not strive for.

Even if your church or Christian organization doesn’t overdo the use of titles, does it have an overly inflated view of it senior leader?  Does that leader actually try to foster such a view?  In a class recently on the Gospel of Matthew, I asked our six international students (out of twenty-two) about the church in their countries.  The students represented China (twice), Korea (twice), Ethiopia and Colombia.  All agreed that their pastors demanded and received a level of authority and obedience well beyond what Americans do and beyond what they found healthy or biblical.

Some American churches have invested elder or deacon boards with too much authority, as those bodies hire and fire pastors with depressing regularity.  Some pastors who have stayed in one position for years have gathered a group of “yes-men” around them to create the kind of a board that will never threaten them, but it will never hold them accountable either.

Can you call your pastor by his or her first name only and feel comfortable doing so?  Will the pastor feel equally comfortable with you?  If not, why not?  Are the answers to that question biblical or just traditional?  More importantly, can you politely question their decisions and agree to disagree and still value each other or does somebody have to “win”?]

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