Wednesday, April 12, 2017

What "The Church" Produced: So Many Doctorates, So Little Doctoring


A few months back, I did a post making a case for 'the church that 'the church' produced'".  My goal when I posted it was to not only spark discussion, but to also introduce some approaches in remedying the issues that plague our difficulty in being "one lump of dough" in Christ. What I'd like to do is take one segment of that post at a time, assess it further, and then strategize on how to better become what Jesus intended in the context of our church reality. Let's go...
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I remember a time in the church when just being ordained a minister was a monumental accomplishment. Funny how time flies when you're having fundamental caste issues in the brotherhood.

Allow me to define what the word caste means: one working definition is "any social class or system based on such distinctions as heredity, rank, wealth, profession, etc." or the position or rank conferred by such a system. The word originated from the Portuguese when they colonized India and discovered a social system divided into four classes: the teachers, scholars and priests; the warriors and nobles; the farmers and traders; and, lastly, the laborers.

Our church reality is no different in this basic socially-stratified look, except there are some finer nuances involved. Let me break it down like this:

I was ordained a minister of the Gospel of Christ at the age of 27. My social status at that time was one in which I was not born. I came up as a PK (Preacher's Kid) for better or for worse, though my father was not a minister at the time of my birth. That happened just a few years later. My father is known in our local geographical area amongst African-American congregations, but not necessarily the Caucasian ones. He has some meaningful, intimate relationships with other renowned ministers in the brotherhood, but that by itself does not always carry clout in the brotherhood located in the contiguous USA. So there are noticeable mini-castes within the larger socio-ecclesiastical landscape of the Kingdom.

Here is another nuance: my father has a Doctorate of Ministry, which - in this same landscape - affords the perceived privilege of people calling him "Doctor" before saying his last name wherever he goes in the brotherhood or the community. But again, his D.Min. may not hold as much weight as a Ph.D. by a more "illustrious" minister in the same brotherhood. So what that unfortunately has done is bred a paper chase of sorts - parchment paper, that is. Because when you have a caste or social stratification system, upward mobility is the natural byproduct. Who really wants to stay a "scrub"...when you can break the "glass pulpit", gain your following, build your brand, and lock down your legacy.

Please forgive what might be seen as cynicism, but please also understand that I am not assigning a blanket generalization on brethren who seek a higher level of academic achievement. And please also understand that I've seen and met many "doctors" in the Body who, like an unfortunate case of Asperger's Syndrome, appear to lack the social graces, balanced temperament, or requisite Christ-like humility to see their spiritual existence match their academic "arrival". (And this is not to demean those diagnosed with Asperger's.)

Doctorates in the church abound and are increasing with every year. I would love to run a statistical check on the number of African-American ministers who hold doctorates. I'd like to include those who are presently in a doctoral program. Yet regardless of the doctoral emphasis, the church counts them equally in religious circles. Facetiously speaking, a doctorate in physical therapy (yes, it exists) can land a brother instant pulpit and ministerial credibility. When it comes to the "letters", the church doesn't discriminate...but it does rank. And one's ministerial win-loss record and strength of schedule might not be as favorable in the eyes of the "public-court" segment of the brotherhood as another who holds a similar doctorate but a more delicious pedigree. 

No apologies in saying that all of this activity, like the axiomatic saying, could have the Apostle Paul "turning in his grave" simply because a certain segment of Christians is not using its "powers" for good, but for gain (Philippians 1.15-17)...whether personal, egotistical, or otherwise.

So how do arrive at a more sensible approach to this issue? Here are some recommendations:

1. Stop referring to brothers as "doctors". I'm not sure when this trend started in the church, but it is clear where it originated from. Regardless of the origination, this ostensibly suggests that academic standing holds more gravitas than fellowship standing. Fellowship implies relationship, and that should trump any social classification or rank. The letter to Philemon is but one Biblical example of this. These men (and in some cases, women) should be recognized yet not uber-exalted for their post-baccalaureate achievement. Viewing them as "brother" or "sister" first would be in harmony with the fellowship of co-laboring we should maintain, would prevent egotistical and haughty attitudes, and would nullify any boasting by clout-seeking individuals of the same ilk as those Paul reference in the first 4 chapters of 1 Corinthians.
2. Value the spirit over the letters. We in the church can be such poor readers and discerners of spirits. We oftentimes equate academic achievement at the doctorate level with endemic, inalienable credibility. But as Rev. Dr. Jesse Jackson, Sr. and Dr. William H. (Bill) Cosby, Jr. have taught us, doctoral status does not and must not permit operation above the law of righteousness, holiness, and truth. Far too often we see individuals with doctorates appearing and/or endeavoring to self-exalt and become snobbish toward the "least of us". If anything, those with said doctorates should exemplify the attitude of our Lord even more because they are highly learned enough to know better (Luke 12.48). This often is not the case, and flesh is king over spirit in the lives of those individuals. If we did better at discerning spirits, we would increase the activity of admonishing bad behavior when necessary.
3. Avoid chastising or correcting those who choose not to refer to leaders as "Dr. So-and-so". It's a very troubling state of affairs when Christians insist that other Christians must refer to these men as "Doctor" before their name. I was a guest speaker at a congregation at which I was implicitly admonished to refer to their minister as "Doctor"; this was due to the fact that they had been instructed to do so as a manner of respect. Seeing that I had a decades-long friendship with this brother and view him as such, I still referred to him IN THE PULPIT by his first name. If this person were my blood-brother, I still would have done the same thing. I did not do this as an act of disrespect but as a opportunity for instruction. The church collectively has an implied responsibility to "teach the whole counsel of God" (Ac 20.22). Confronting Christians who refuse to refer to church leaders by titular nomenclature (Matthew 23) - or leaders who instruct their own flock to refer to them in this manner - is irresponsible and unhealthy teaching, plus it creates a caste system that will rear undesirable tares in the Kingdom.
4.  Determine when the "doctor" appellation actually applies. It's a blessing to have those who are highly knowledgeable in a certain field. This is where I believe the letters have true significance. If a brother or sister who is a certified oncologist conducts a church workshop addressing why and how to get screened for colon or prostate cancer, calling him/her "Doctor" makes sense. I call my Greek professor "Doctor" because he has a doctorate in Biblical languages. That makes sense too. However, if a brother who has a doctorate in dentistry insists on being called "doctor" in an environment in which dentistry is not easily applicable or transferable (i.e., the pulpit), the questions are raised: Does his degree emphasis easily transfer to this activity? If so, how? It may be a good rule of thumb, but not a concrete approach, to keep the letters aligned with the field of study...and avoid using the letters as a license for socio-ecclesiastical ostentation or quest for ministerial regalia.
5. If you have a doctorate, use your powers for good. This is an appeal to those who have aspired and attained this honorable scholastic endeavor. View your achievement as a blessing to the Kingdom at large. Treat your accomplishment as an avenue for greater ministry service and not an arrival for increased egocentricity and self-absorption. Leverage these letters to help elevate our brotherhood in a qualitative way - spurring it for spiritual transformation and holistic purposes. Do your best to not let it go to your head but to our Head: not about vainglory, but for God's glory and the church's gain (Philippians 2.1-4).

I'll leave you with this: I have worked very closely alongside numerous physicians, psychiatrists, and medical professionals throughout my secular career. One such physician remains a personal friend. For the last 20 years, I have called her by her first name and always will. Here is why: when I first began working with her, I initially addressed her as "Doctor". She asked me why I called her that. I responded, "Well, you're a doctor...aren't you?" She quickly and sharply retorted, "I'm not your doctor."

And in very general and simplistic terms, neither is your church leader.

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