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Russell D. Moore on the Formalities That Teach Us Reverence
Both of my six-year-old sons stood a little straighter, knowing that something was seriously wrong. There wasn’t any ambiguity in my furrowed brow or in my piercing look. One of them had just said something. It wasn’t a profanity, and it wasn’t a recitation of the Arian heresy. He said “Yeah” to a grown woman. And it was followed up with an invitation for a long discussion with Dad in the guest bedroom upstairs. To that my son responded, “Yes, sir.”
I knew the discussion by heart, ahead of time, because I had received it too, from my own father and from an entire community of Southern Baptists in coastal Mississippi.
I grew up in an intentionally undignified revivalist church. Each service began with the congregation shaking hands and hugging necks as the choir sang, “I’m So Glad I’m a Part of the Family of God.” Each service ended with seven or eight verses of “Just As I Am” or “The Savior Is Waiting,” usually with some penitent sinner or other crying on the steps of the platform.
But all that informality ended when it came to the name of our pastor. He was “Brother Naron.” If any of us had called him by his first name, we would have walked another kind of sawdust trail, right back to a familiar switch tree down the hill.
Most of this may be chalked up simply to southern culture, perhaps because, as Flannery O’Connor tells us, the South is “Christ-haunted” by a theological memory that lives on in revivalism and social custom. Even if the state religion of the South is not Christian at all but Stoic, as Walker Percy tells us, Stoicism was at least “Logos-haunted,” recognizing an organizing structure of the universe in which it could not help but acknowledge hierarchy.
The transcendent roots of terms of honor, though, are seen less easily in their origins than in their denial. Too often, it is thought that the southern slavery and segregationist systems were based on too high a view of hierarchy, when precisely the opposite is the case. Southern society sought to tear down a biblical (or even Stoic) understanding of hierarchy based on honor, maturity, and responsibility and replace it with a pseudo-hierarchy based on a malevolently imaginary concept of white supremacy.
Will Campbell, a liberal white Baptist preacher and hero of the civil rights movement of the 1960s, writes in his memoir Forty Acres and a Goat of meeting an elderly black man in the heyday of the Jim Crow South. Campbell insisted on shaking hands with him and calling him “Mister,” until the man pleaded with him not to do it, for fear that other whites would hear it and, after Campbell left, see to it that he was a “dead Mister.”
There is something deeply and obviously perverse in a society that insisted that a young man call his father “sir” and yet expected a twenty-year-old white man to call an eighty-year-old black pastor “boy.” A society that knows to say “sir” and “ma’am” ought to know (and, beneath seared consciences, did know) that the withholding of such honor where it is due is not just rude and uncultured but dehumanizing and wicked.
Giving honor where honor is due and giving a verbal recognition of age, maturity, or office are increasingly alien to American culture. MySpace, for example, like other technologies before it, allows the cultural milieu to express itself more quickly and more expansively.
Through writing notes on one another’s digital “wall,” the alternative cyber-communities created by social networking sites such as Facebook and MySpace simulate the signing of a junior high school yearbook. In the New York Times, Fordham University communications specialist Lance Strate observed that such social networking sites mimic the intimacy of the face-to-face interaction of oral communication but without the “highly formalized rituals” social networks would have in a genuine community, producing a “leveling effect.” “In a primary oral culture,” he notes, “you would probably refer to me as ‘Dr. Strate,’ but on MySpace, everyone calls me ‘Lance.’”
A nation birthed in revolution against the divine right of kings can be expected to emphasize a certain “Everyone calls me Lance” egalitarian ethos. But have we really progressed when the “Hi My Name Is Tina” nametag culture has developed to the point where our political signs and bumper stickers and television commercials refer to the potential leaders of the free world as “Hillary,” “Barack,” and “John,” not to mention “Rudy” and “Mitt”?
More and more often, in my own conservative Evangelical subculture, pastors of Evangelical churches are not “Pastor Jones” or even “Pastor Sam,” but “Randy” or “Tony” or “Sam.” When the nametag culture has trickled down to the life of local congregations, what do we lose?
We lose something of the gospel itself. Terms of address can be overdone, of course. Jesus counsels against those who insist on elaborate recognitions in public places (Matt. 23:1–7). He insists we recognize that our ultimate “father” and “rabbi” (Matt. 23:8–11) is not human but divine (Matt. 19:17).
But the Scriptures explicitly call us to recognize authority and hierarchy as of the essence of our identity as the people of God. One of the ten foundational words given to Israel in the Torah is the command to “honor father and mother” (Ex. 20:12). In one of the more disturbing texts of the Old Testament, a group of boys are torn apart by she-bears after jeering the prophet Elisha with the words, “Go up, you baldhead!” (2 Kings 2:23–24).
Throughout the Scriptures, honor is commanded to be given to kings and those in authority. Jesus 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 when we listen to the Spirit through the Holy Scriptures they were inspired to write. This deference to authority is continued in the respect Scripture demands that we show to those who “labor in preaching and teaching” and thus are “considered worthy of double honor” (1 Tim. 5:17).
A Universal Reverence
We must respect our fathers and mothers (in the family and in the family of God), and all others worthy of our deference, because reverence and honor given to whom it is due is at the heart of the meaning of the universe itself. Redemption itself, the Apostle Paul tells us, comes through the verbal confession of Jesus as “Lord” (Rom. 10:9), a confession that points to the final day of judgment in which the very glory of God is found in how Jesus is addressed.
God has “highly exalted” Jesus, Paul writes, an exaltation that is seen in the fact that God has given our Lord “the name that is above every name” (Phil. 2:9). This glorious exaltation is heard audibly as every creature, kneeling, confesses that “Jesus Christ is Lord, to the glory of God the Father” (Phil. 2:11).
What is at stake in the inability to verbalize legitimate honor is our ability to worship. The Bible defines human sin as, ultimately, the refusal to “honor him as God or give thanks to him” (Rom 1:21).
Can there be any more horrifying example of human blindness to the glory of God than that of the soldiers at the Crucifixion dressing Jesus in purple and crowning him with thorny vines? Mark records the sarcasm: “And they began to salute him, ‘Hail King of the Jews’” (Mark 15:16–19). These were not “just words.” They reflected consciences numb to the honor due a King.
But there’s a problem with teaching honor through terms of address, because many people believe the issue is personal. When I tell my boy to say hello to “Mr. Smith,” Mr. Smith will often respond by saying, “Oh, it is fine for him to call me John.” Well, no, it really isn’t fine, because the issue is not what Mr. Smith wants.
Many unintentionally betray the reasons behind their insistence on being on a first-name basis with a six-year-old. “‘Mr. Smith’ is my dad,” they say, or “‘Mr. Smith’ makes me feel old.” I think, “Well, you are old—and that’s a good thing,” or “Well, congratulations, you’re a grown man, so now you’re ‘Mr. Smith’ too!” I don’t say such things because that would be rude, even disrespectful.
For me, though, the issue is not so much that I want John Smith to feel honored and respected. I want him to be honored and respected. Most importantly, I want the youngsters for whom I bear responsibility to understand respect for elders and honor for authority.
I want them to do so for the same reason they call me “Dad” and not “Russell D.” I want them to do so because life in these United States is a temporary thing. I want them to learn to follow a Lord and a King.
Speaking to the Lord
I realize I’m probably a bit hyper-scrupulous about this. Mississippi mores are not easily overcome. But I want to raise 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 the hierarchy is God-given, and to practice giving honor to all those whom God has placed over them, so they learn to give honor to him.
I want to see our Lord Christ ask them if they wish to enter into a new creation that is not an egalitarian democracy but a glorious monarchy.
And I want to hear them say, “Yes, sir!” •
Russell D. Moore is the author of Adopted for Life: The Priority of Adoption for Christian Families and Churches. He lives with his family in Louisville, Kentucky, where he serves as Dean of the School of Theology and Senior Vice-President for Academic Administration at The Southern Baptist Theological Seminary and as preaching pastor at Highview Baptist Church. He is a senior editor of Touchstone.