Pastors: Get all the education you can, then never mention it again!

“Beware of Pharisees.  They love the place of honor at banquets and the chief seats in the synagogues, and respectful greetings in the market places, and being called by men, Rabbi.  But do not be called Rabbi; for One is your Teacher, and you are all brothers; and do not call anyone on earth your father; for One is your Father, He who is in heaven.  And do not be called leaders, for One is your Leader, that is, Christ.  But the greatest among you shall be your servant.” Matthew 23

Pastor, given a choice–and you always have  a choice–try not to look and act like a Pharisee.  For my money, the best way–the very best way in the universe–is to use this phrase: “When I got my doctorate…”

I’m not sure why that sets me off, but it does.  And I haven’t the slightest idea whether it’s only me or the rest of the universe.

Ninety-nine times out of a hundred, that phrase is completely unnecessary and is inserted only to call attention to oneself, to make sure the hearers fall to their knees in abject horror.  “Oh my, you have a doctorate?! You must be of superior intelligence, far beyond most mortals.”  “Forgive me for thinking you put your pants on one leg at a time!”

The plain truth is there are people with earned doctorates who scarcely know how to sign their name or use the telephone.

The chairman of a search committee said to me, “Should we be concerned that this preacher does not have a doctorate?”  I said, “My friend, I know people with doctorates who have a hard time putting two sentences together. Those degrees are easy to come by these days and are vastly over-rated.  Pay attention to the pastor’s preaching, listen to his conversation, and get to know the man.  But ignore the absence of a doctorate.”

Two years later, that chairman went out of his way to thank me. That pastor, whom they had called to their church, is doing splendid work far beyond anything they had a right to expect.  And they call him by the finest title I’ve ever known: “Pastor.”

If you are the preacher, get all the education you can, by all means.  And then, never mention it again.  Never. Mention. It. Again.

Here’s another good text…

“Two men went up into the temple to pray…. The Pharisee stood and was praying thus to himself: ‘God, I thank Thee that I have written yet another book, as I was telling my publisher just today.  I thank Thee that I have a doctor’s degree, unlike these lesser mortals, and am addressed as Doctor, even by my wife.  I thank Thee that I have all these framed certificates on my wall which inform even casual visitors that I am someone special, far above the hoi polloi.  You are so good to me, Lord.  I couldn’t have done it without You.  Perhaps.” (Okay.  This is my corrupted–and very contemporary–version of Luke 18:10-12.)

Have you ever heard of a preacher insisting that he be called Doctor?  “I worked hard for that degree and I have a right to be called that.”

This is not someone you wish to know further.  His ego is out of control at the very time his inferiority complex is in the driver’s seat.  Get out of his way before you get run over.

“Call me Billy.”

I’d give a dollar to know how many people Billy Graham said that to over his life of nearly a century.  But I’ll tell you one thing: Few people did.

Even though Dr. Billy Graham’s doctorate was honorary–many colleges and seminaries honored themselves by awarding him such degrees–he deserved that title as much as anyone we know.

But that’s not the point.

The point is that the listing of degrees and the parading of titles are often artificial boosts to the fragile ego and they erect unnecessary barriers between people.

Religious leaders seem to have loved their inflated titles from the beginning. Jesus cautioned His people, “Do not be called rabbi, father, or leader” (Matthew 23:8-10).

No one calls me Rabbi.  The word means “teacher” and implies an exalted teacher. (It’s great to honor a teacher; just don’t seek it.)

No one calls me Father, although three call me “Dad” or “Pop,” and eight call me “Grandpa Joe.”

No one calls me Leader.  Germany called Hitler that, I understand.

Rabbi, father, and leader were the big three in Jesus’ day.

I recognize that the letter of the law here would probably be a wrong interpretation of what our Lord said, and the spirit of the law is the point (2 Corinthians 3:6).  So, I am not suggesting we get hung up on those specific words.  Personally, I have no problem with the Catholic worshiper calling his priest “father.”  Or, for that matter, I have no problem with someone addressing you as “Doctor” if it fits.

Just don’t require or encourage it.

But since there’s nothing in Scripture forbidding it,  is it all right if I arrange for people to call me Doctor?  Professor?  Senior Pastor?  Or how about Prophet, Apostle, or His Eminence?

The carnal mind–what Scripture calls “the old man”–sure does love its titles, doesn’t it?

Confession: When my son set up our website which contains my email account, he arranged it so that my messages come from “Dr. Joe McKeever.”  Now, I never see mail that comes from me and so it rarely crosses my mind.  But it might cross yours if you get something from here.  You might conclude I’m being inconsistent. Which I suppose I am.

I confess to being all over the place in this piece.  Sorry about that. I usually try to be a little more organized and clear.

A few observations about preachers calling themselves “Doctor”—

One.  Pastors were called Doctor before physicians were, so it’s not exactly usurping the title.  The word means a Teacher, and is related to Doctrine.

Two. However, the word has varying connotations in various cultures.  In Germany, for instance, the wife of a doctor is called Frau Doctor Whatever.  That’s carrying it a little far, we think, but each culture has its own thoughts on the matter.

Three.  One calling himself by that title and insisting that others do is completely foreign to the humility and Christlikeness expected of a man of God.

Four. My observation is that the cheaper the degree, the more prominently the possessor of it wears it.

Five. How much more impressive it is when we discover later that someone we have come to know and love has an earned doctoral degree.  The fact that he did not wear it prominently and has never called attention to it is delightful.

Six.  Churches would do well to leave off the degrees of their ministers.  Let people find out accidentally that their ministers are sufficiently educated.

Seven.  The pastor search committee that insists that the candidate they present to the church possess a doctoral degree is setting themselves up for all the trouble they’re apt to get.

Get all the education you can, pastor. Take Greek and Hebrew.  Study systematic theology and take intensives on Isaiah, Deuteronomy, and Paul’s epistles.  Write your dissertation and defend it before the committee of highly educated professors.  But then, never mention it again.

I suspect if this were the rule–that you could no longer call attention to the degree–half the people enrolled in doctoral programs would drop out this week.

Lord, help your church please.

4 thoughts on “Pastors: Get all the education you can, then never mention it again!

  1. Hi Pastor,
    You seem to be sweeping with a broad brush here, although you do make some good points. We’re really not talking about degrees, though, are we? Aren’t we really talking about pride in what you seem to be describing as a superiority complex? Conversely, pride can also manifest itself through inferiority complexes, which can produce the most cutting kind of criticism. Both are heart issues.

    There seems to be what I would describe as a disinclination towards scholarship that is present in the churches today. This may be a result of the type of pride you are describing in your article, which, obviously, has no place in a faith community. But we also have to be careful that scholarship doesn’t receive an undeserved backlash, either from a reaction to the pride of an individual or criticism from a place of self-imposed inferiority. Scholarship is the reason I have an English Bible in front of me.

    Degrees usually don’t come cheap. Some might, but most don’t. They come through sweat and sacrifice; even tears. Men and women of the faith choose paths of higher education every day to emerge and faithfully serve the body of Christ in humble and scholarly fashion. Scholarship, especially in the cause of the Kingdom, should not be belittled, mocked, criticized, or condemned; it should be celebrated. I wish you would have juxtaposed this in your article for some balance and objectivity.

    • Thanks for the perspective. And no, I am not talking about a superiority complex, but an inferiority complex which shows up in this not-so-subtle way. There’s nothing in my little article slighting scholarship. Furthermore, I see no lessening of emphasis on scholarship among pastors whom I hear.

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