THE SPIRITUAL DISCIPLINE OF SAYING “SIR” AND “MA’AM”
“Honor all people. Love the brethren. Fear God. Honor the king.”
(1st Peter 2:17)
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 generations, because I received the same discipline. One responded to a grown man with “Yes, Sir” and to a grown woman with “Yes, Ma’am”.
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?
My friend Steve Hutchens has raised the issue of manners and terms of address. He rightly contrasts the modern egalitarian (“everybody’s equal”) 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 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?
Terms of address can be overdone, of course. Jesus counsels against those who insist on elaborate recognitions in public places (Matthew 23:1-7). 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 there were inspired to write.
The problem with teaching honor through terms of address comes in 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 or even what he wants them to call him. I want them to understand this not so John Smith will feel honored or respected or anything else. I want them to do this for the same reason they call me “Dad” and not “Russell D”!
The issue is that I want them to understand respect for elders and honor for proper authority. I want them to do so that ultimately they will understand and follow a Lord and a King. 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 them to see our Lord Christ ask them if they wish to enter into His new creation which is not an egalitarian democracy but a glorious monarchy! And I want them to say: “Yes, Sir”.
Russell D. Moore, formerly Dean of the School of Theology at THE SOUTERN BAPTIST THEOLOGICAL SEMINARY in Louisville, Kentucky is now Chairman of the Southern Baptist Ethics and Public Policy Commission. This originally in TOUCHSTONE journal.