A common approach to the Christmas season is to study the “titles” of Christ, perhaps from Isaiah 9.  Between the season and some recent discussions about the use of “titles” I’ve been reflecting on the use of titles in our culture and my life.  Obviously, current American culture is both informal and egalitarian and becoming all the more so.  I can remember at my first full time job out of college being slightly puzzled that the business owner / president was to be addressed by his first name and even more puzzled at how businesses of the era struggled where to draw lines.  I worked on early email products where a major concern was allowing the sender of an email to get the email addresses in a particular order.  As one product manager commented:  What if the email address of a secretary appeared before the email address of a manager?  The implication was that this might be an earth shattering problem.

For the most part we have eliminated titles and have gotten the rest of the world to accept this informal approach as well.  Academic titles, along with medical ones, are one of the few areas that use titles.  I am aware of this having moved from the very informal world of software development to the much more defined world of academia.  In my second career I teach at a small Christian college where faculty are referred to by students as either doctor or professor with a surname.  We have made brief efforts to consolidate this to just professor on the grounds it would be easier for the students, but this change has proved a bridge too far.

About the time this transition was happening in my life, my wife had a story for me.  One of her friends is a top medical researcher, who started adding letters after her name with “MD” long ago.  Pretty much everyone she works with, either from the medical side or the research side, is a doctor of some kind and her work life is on a first name basis.  But, when she gets medical attention she makes it a point to address her physician as “doctor.”  The use of the title reminds her that she is putting herself under the physicians care and expertise.  Being in the role of patient means respecting those in the role of physician.  A good use of a title can remind both of their respective responsibilities.

In my own life I do not normally use my title outside work.  When I was a scout leader some in my group worked at getting the scouts to refer to me as doctor, but I was content to be addressed as “mister” as other adults were.  However, I’ve concluded that my college is correct in having student’s use titles when referring to or addressing faculty.  For my student’s to gain real benefits they need to trust me and my expertise.  While the title in and of itself does not create expertise, it is a good reminder to both the students and myself of our responsibilities to each other.  When my students graduate, they are no longer under my academic authority, and I am no longer responsible for them in the same way, so I switch to using my first name with them, since we are now equally full adults.  Most, out of habit, continue to use my title, and I’ve stopped trying to change that, but I always close correspondence with them using my first name.

In recent years I’ve become somewhat frustrated with students that address me with a polite doctor, but then ignore what I’ve asked them to do.  I am reminded of Luke 6:46 where Jesus complains: “Why do you call me Lord, Lord and do not do the things which I say?”  The title is not merely an honorific, for it to be meaningful it should guide the behavior of both parties.

So why have titles?  The world suggests that titles serve to identify a person’s importance.  Some in this conversation have suggested that conventional titles of importance may serve to lift up those that have historically been disadvantaged.  Examples: formal titles to lift up women and ethnic minorities.  Others suggest new titles, such as brother, to show an equality of importance.  Both approaches, properly used, acknowledge the fundamental equality of all people:  all equally descended from Adam, all fallen, all ultimately equal in importance.  There is much to recommend in this approach.  I would suggest instead that titles should not be about people, but about roles in God’s economy.  Jesus seems to reject that titles are about people’s importance in Mark 10:35-45, even the Son of Man came to serve. He tells us that instead of a title, it is service that makes us important.  Paul when he feels it necessary will resort to his title as an apostle, but most of the time he is content to identify himself as a servant, in fact he identifies himself as a slave, something with which our culture has difficulty.  While the world gave me a title of “doctor” as a sign of importance, when it is used in my job I find it a reminder of my responsibilities to others that is my servanthood.

John M. Hunt

Covenant College
John M. Hunt, Ph.D., is Professor of Computer Science at Covenant College