“Humble yourselves before the Lord and He will lift you up.”  James 4:10

“Humble yourselves, therefore, under God’s mighty hand that he may lift you up in due time.”  I Peter 5:6

“The greatest among you will be your servant.”  Matthew 23:11

The first time I ever saw an honorary doctorate conferred, I was a freshman in college.  It was Founder’s Day at Grand Canyon University, and the school was honoring an individual who had made a significant contribution to the school.  It was a financial contribution, given to help the college finish a science building, and in addition to the honorary doctorate, the building was named in his honor.  The ceremony took up the whole chapel service, a time that, according to the college catalog, was set aside twice a week for the campus community to worship God.  There was nothing about that particular ceremony that I found worshipful, at least as far as God was concerned.

Christian institutions, denominations and religious organizations seem to hand out an awful lot of rewards and I have always had trouble reconciling that with the Bible’s teaching, and examples, of servant leadership and humility with eternal, not temporal, rewards.  The honorary doctorates that Grand Canyon, and hundreds of other colleges and universities, hand out are generally given for financial contributions.  As students, we endured four Founder’s Days where honorary doctorates were given to wealthy people whose most significant accomplishment as far as the school was concerned was the effort they put into writing a check. 

From a Biblical perspective, that’s not an accomplishment, it is an obligation, responsibility and an expectation.  Those who are blessed financially are expected to give generously.  Those who serve on behalf of the Kingdom are, as the old hymn “Our Best” says, to serve “not for reward, nor for the praise of man, but for the Lord.”  The heirarchy of prominence and prestige that we have developed in our churches and denominational organizations seems to spring from a different philosophy of service than the servant leadership, self-sacrificing model that Christ taught to us by his own example. 

I’ve read an interesting combination of news reports and blogs over these past few weeks of summer, when the Southern Baptist Convention and Cooperative Baptist Fellowship both held their annual meetings.  There’s been a lot of talk about honorary doctorates and their legitimacy, and whether or not a recipient is entitled to use the title.  There’s also been a lot of talk about the controversy sparked by criticism of one of moderate Baptists’ prominent “veterans” of the “Baptist war.”  I don’t see that honorary doctorates, or autobiographies with their ceremonial recognitions, really fit in with the New Testament’s idea of humility among the servant leadership of the church.  It is human reasoning and thinking upon which we base our argument that ordinary expectations of servanthood should be rewarded, in order to motivate others to service.  That’s what justifies our hurt feelings and our sob stories when no one recognizes what we do. 

There are many people, however, who have learned to serve with humility, and are not motivated by reward or praise, but by the simple, pure knowledge that God is pleased with their work.  A wheelchair bound elderly widow in one church where I served kept her eyes and ears open for church needs to be mentioned.  An air conditioner mechanic showed up one morning to install a new unit.  A refrigerator was delivered to the kitchen.  The parking lot was resealed and restriped.  It was all done anonymously, and the church did not know who it was until she passed away, and her son revealed all of the receipts he had found.  In another church, a member who, with her husband, owned a small chain of grocery stores, called me aside and told me that any project I had in mind that would involve youth in missions would be underwritten by them anonymously.  She once asked me what the most high priority need of our youth ministry might be, and I had blurted out “a van” before I realized she was probably going to go buy one, which she did.  But no one in that church ever knew that she had given a dime. 

We would not be arguing about these things today if we had been practicing humility.

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About LS

I'm 56, happily married for 25 years, B.A., M.A., career educator with experience in education as a teacher and administrator, native Arizonan living in Pennsylvania, working on a PhD and a big fan of the Arizona Wildcats, mainly in football and basketball.

2 responses

  1. Ken Coffee says:

    “There are many people, however, who have learned to serve with humility, and are not motivated by reward or praise, but by the simple, pure knowledge that God is pleased with their work.”

    In the seven years I have been a trustee at Wayland, we have awarded only one doctorate, and that was to a pastor who had led a large downtown church from despair to victory. He was given the award not because he made a financal contribution, but simply because he was a man who was completely humble and led his church, as a shepherd leader, to make a huge contribution to the kingdom of our Lord. When I discussed the coming award with him he said, “There are a thousand pastors who have done what I have done. I don’t deserve this any more than any of them.” My response was, “Well, we only have 999 to go.”

    Having said that, I suspect you are generally correct. However, as one trustee, I would never vote to award a doctorate to anyone who felt like they deserved it or who asked for it by inferring that he can get a large financial contribution in exchange for a doctorate. The one we did award over the past seven years was truly an earned degree. Even now, he asks that no one call him “Dr.”

  2. Dave Samples says:

    This is a very good post. Thanks. I suspect that the only honorary doctorate that will matter will be the one that we throw at the feet of Jesus.