The Trouble with Titles

Loraine MacKenzie Shepherd                                                               Nov. 5, 2017

Matthew 23:1-12


I have often thought how delightful it would have been to hear Jesus’ teachings first hand. I have imagined myself to be one of the crowd, pressing around him, trying to catch every word, every nuance, every emotion of raised eyebrow and subtle smile. What a thrill it would have been.

But then I read passages like today’s gospel lesson and am glad that I wasn’t there. I am sure that I would have been the conscientious, law-abiding, faithful hypocrite who caught Jesus’ ire. Jesus’ speech was directed not at those who wilfully hurt others but at good religious followers, like you and me, who preach a good line but have difficulty living into it ourselves. Ouch.

Jesus also addressed a second kind of hypocrite—the one who does the right thing, but for the wrong reason. These people live what they preach, but do so not out of love, but in order to be seen by others and praised.

Jesus then addressed titles of office and honour. He warned his audience against using titles such as rabbi, teacher, instructor or even father. This is a bit puzzling unless you read this within the context of his rant against hypocrisy. I don’t think that Jesus had anything against people using the name of particular roles. It was when they used their titles and positions to gain praise or to boast that Jesus became wary.

I have struggled with this, myself. When should I use the title Rev. or Dr. or even minister? Some time ago, in another congregation, I tried to not use any titles. I didn’t want any title on cards or in the bulletin or on church letterhead. When people used “Rev.”, I asked them not to. Eventually some people in the church came up to me and asked if I was a bona fide minister. My insistence to disavow any title made them suspicious of my credentials. Perhaps I was a fake minister. I then realized that, by avoiding titles, I was actually drawing attention to myself. I was doing the opposite of what Jesus was asking. I also realized that I was not willing to acknowledge the power that came with position. In my experience, people who are not aware of the power that they do have are more likely to abuse it. And so, I have tried a compromise that uses titles (sometimes bracketed) on official documents and just my name in conversation.

I expect that there are similar struggles in other professions. When do we use our titles or names of our career positions when introducing ourselves? And do use them for posterity or clarity? In all honesty, it’s probably a bit of both.

Last Friday night I experienced a different way of introducing ourselves within the context of a momentous event. As you may know, the United Church is beginning to restructure itself nationally. Our Presbyteries and Conferences are going to merge into regions. All Native Circle Conference, which is compromised of many of our Indigenous ministries across Canada, asked to be left out of the initial restructuring process so that they could better see how they might fit. On Friday evening our Conference and the All Native Circle Conference met together. They told us that they were considering a dual relationship—they might continue to meet as Indigenous ministries across Canada and might also meet with the regional courts. I was blown away by this courageous idea. Why courageous? They had left our Presbyteries and Conferences in the 80s because of how they had been pushed off to the side of the meetings due to differences of language and governance process. English was not the first language for many of them and they used a process of consensus while we used rules of order. They told us Friday night that many of them were afraid of rejoining us because of these memories and fear that it might be repeated. But in order to contribute to the reconciliation process, they decided to introduce this possibility to us. For the first time in a long time, I have hope for the future of our beloved United Church. Our amalgamation of Presbyteries and Conferences might take us to a stronger place of intercultural reconciliation.

In order to prepare us for this amazing conversation, they asked us to introduce ourselves not by title or church position but by stating where we were born and who our ancestors are. Our place of birth connects us to the land and our lineage connects us to our cultural roots. We must know our own culture and connection to the land as treaty people if we are going to respect the culture and ancestral lands of others.

How we define ourselves matters. The All Native Circle Conference reminded us that we are all related to one another, to the plants and the animals as God’s creation. God created us to be different, but equal in importance. If we can simply accept and love ourselves for whom God has created us to be; if we can be deeply grounded and centered in that assurance, we will be less likely to fear what others think of us. The problem is that, because we are hard-wired to seek connections with one another, how others view us is important. We work awfully hard to show our best side, with all of our credentials shining. We may even exaggerate them a wee bit from time to time.

During one of Theodore Roosevelt’s political campaigns, a delegation called on him at his home farm in Oyster Bay, Long Island. The President met them with his coat off and his sleeves rolled up. “Ah gentlemen,” he said, “come down to the barn and we will talk while I do some work.” At the barn, Roosevelt picked up a pitchfork and looked around for the hay. Then he called out, “John, where’s all the hay?” “Sorry, sir,” John called down from the hayloft. “I ain’t had time to toss it back down again after you pitched it up while the Iowa folks were here.”[1]

When I think of those I respect tremendously, it isn’t because of their accomplishments. It’s because of what’s in their hearts. They don’t have to prove themselves to anyone. They’ve done their soul-work and know that God accepts and deeply loves them for who they are, not for what they have achieved. Because of this confidence, they are less concerned about what others think of them; they can relax into the embrace of God with humility. There are very few who have reached this level of spiritual maturity.

Feminist theologian Carter Heyward wrote, “Humility is…living courageously in a spirit of radical connectedness with others, which enables us to see ourselves as God sees us: sisters and brothers, each as deeply valued and worthy of respect as every other.” [2]

Humility means to be no more than ourselves. It also means to be no less than ourselves. Putting ourselves down is the flip side of puffing ourselves up.

In The Message, a modern-day translation of the Bible, the last verse of our gospel lesson reads, “Do you want to stand out? Then step down. Be a servant…if you’re content to simply be yourself, your life will count for plenty.”


[1] from Bits & Pieces, Nov. 12, 1992, p. 19-20.

[2] Carter Heyward, in The Christian Century (Oct. 21, 2008).