FIRST-PERSON: The spiritual discipline of "Sir" and "Ma'am"
LOUISVILLE, Ky. (BP)--When one of my sons responded recently to a grown woman with a "yeah," he received discipline from his father. It was a lesson passed down through the generations, because I received the same discipline. One responded to a grown man with a "yes sir" and to a grown woman with a "yes ma'am." I grew up in an intentionally undignified Sandy Creek tradition Baptist church. We sang "Count Your Many Blessings," not "The Lord Is in His Holy Temple." Still, our pastor was "Brother Naron." If we had called him by his first name, we would have walked a familiar path to the switch tree.
This may be chalked up to Southern culture, and indeed it is rooted in old patterns of Southern manners. But what if Southern sensibilities about terms of address were rooted in something older yet?
Steve Hutchens, my fellow editor at Touchstone magazine, has raised on the magazine's website the issue of manners and terms of address. He rightly contrasts the modern egalitarian ideal with a Christian view that goes far beyond manners.
"As Christians we are bound to give honor to those to whom honor is due, which includes the honor due everyone as made in the image of God (it is why we should both execute murderers and treat them humanely; it is why we treat unborn children as whole people), and then also of the 'office' he or she bears, beginning with 'Father' and 'Mother,'" Hutchens writes. "This is why, I suspect, the various leveling movements in the history of the church have attracted only minorities, and have been very susceptible to heresy. Refusal to recognize the hierarchies placed in the world by its Maker, after his own image, is a recipe for not only theological but cultural disaster."
Could such words sound any more alien to contemporary American culture, even conservative evangelical culture?
I sometimes still feel strange and rude calling my mentor, teacher and president Albert Mohler by his first name, even though I'm now his vice president rather than his research assistant and student. And yet, I'm amazed at how many Gen Y Southern Baptists speak about "Al" or "Paige" (although, remarkably, should any of the men referenced actually be present, such familiarity predictably reverts back to "Dr. Mohler" or "Dr. Patterson" or what have you).
Terms of address can be overdone, of course. Jesus counsels against those who insist on elaborate recognitions in public places (Mat 23:1-7). He insists we recognize that our ultimate "father" and "Rabbi" (Matt 23:8-11) is not human but divine in the same way no one is anything but relatively good (Matt 19:17). But Jesus also recognized authority and even hierarchy in the choosing of the foundation stones of his temple, apostles whose authority was recognized by the church, and is still recognized as we listen to the Spirit through the Holy Scriptures they were inspired to write.
The problem with teaching honor through terms of address comes down to the fact that many people believe the issue is personal. When I tell my boys to say hello to "Mr. Smith," Smith will often respond by saying, "Oh, it is fine for him to call me John." Well, no, it really is not fine, because the issue is not what they call Smith.
The issue is instead that I want them to understand respect for elders and honor for authority. I want them to understand this not so John Smith will feel honored or respected or anything else. I want them to do so for the same reason they call me "Dad" and not "Russell D." I want them to do so that ultimately they will understand and follow a Lord and a King.
Yes, I realize I'm probably a bit hyper-scrupulous about this. Mississippi mores are not easily overcome. But I want to raise three young men who are able to look King Jesus in the eye, and then bow before him on the Day of Judgment. I want them to understand the goodness of hierarchy when hierarchy is good. I want to see our Lord Christ ask them if they wish to enter into a new creation which is not an egalitarian democracy but a glorious monarchy.
And I want to hear them say "Yes sir."
Moore is dean of the school of theology and senior vice president for academic administration at Southern Baptist Theological Seminary in Louisville, Ky.