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Not So Serious—Or Not What You Were Expecting: A Theological Approach to Capitalization

Yes, capitalization.

We’ve all faced it—the moment when the brain freezes on what job titles to capitalize. I wrestle with it, too. I certainly don’t want to offend anyone by down-styling their job, and I certainly don’t want to be guilty of the sin of inconsistency, dreaded by all of us jot-and-tittle-minded proofreaders.

American usage on capitalization is in flux. Business and legal documents have their peculiar styles, and those spill over into other realms, and soon everyone is confused.

We could solve things by going back to the Germanic roots of English and capitalize all nouns, as German does (that would require us to learn once more what nouns are, which might not be a bad thing). Or we could adopt a post-modern outlook that lets your system work alongside mine, even if neither one has good logic behind it (my system, for instance, Will only Capitalize verbs).

Or we could stop and think a minute. The old system may still be the best one.

The old rule is that titles of offices are not capitalized unless they are used in place of “Mr.” or “Ms.” (or “Mrs.” or “Miss,” if you’re old-school). The ONLY exception to this in the USA is the office of President of the United States (POTUS for West Wing fans). “The President said today that war will end.” In the United Kingdom, the only exception is Queen (or King, when he holds sway). Those are the only exceptions, one in each nation.1 Otherwise, a job title is not capitalized unless it is the title in front of the person’s name.

Thus, “I’m Kyle, and I’ll be your server tonight” becomes “Now where can Server Kyle be when we need him?”

But what about long titles? We seem to assume that they should get more attention. Why should that be? Is the assistant director of internal affairs more important than, say, server or pastor or senator?

And that brings us to the whole point: once we start capitalizing some, we face the question of which ones. We become the arbiters of importance. Job titles become honors in themselves instead of just names of the job we’re expected to do.

 

Is that what the body of Christ is about?

 

Yes, “honor to whom honor is due,” says Paul, in Romans 13.7. He writes this in relation to the Christian’s attitude toward rulers, those in secular authority. But certainly we are called, by love, to respect—and love—everyone, with a love that is not jealous or puffed up and not self-seeking. In light of this, I want to honor, respect, love, and encourage everyone. Thus, should I capitalize every job (except maybe illegal or sinful ones), if I am going to honor everyone? We could go that way.

 

However, it helps first to consider honor itself. The words for honor in Scripture are used mainly in reference to God. The only high God—the Father, Son, and Holy Spirit—is the only entity in the universe deserving of honor all the time. Jesus Himself always directed honor to the Father, not to Himself.2 In Revelation 5.13, “praise and honor and glory and power” belong to God and to the Lamb. Hallelujah! Praise the Lord!

 

Here on earth, meanwhile, there are times when honor is due. Schools have their honor days and commencement awards. Businesses have their sales bonuses and prizes. Athletics has its medals and millions. But these are usually prizes for one thing accomplished at or over one specified time. Life-time achievement awards are rare and exceptional—awarded, obviously, after somewhat of a lifetime. Most honors are for noticeable achievements within a field.

A job title, in contrast, is just that—a job title, not an honor. Oh, maybe I’m moving “up” in the company, from receptionist to general manager, or associate professor to full professor, or licensed vocational nurse to registered nurse, but the pride I feel in the promotion (and income) is short-lived when I realize the greatly increased responsibilities and the greater arena of people to be served. I can feel honored for a moment, but then I must accept that I now have even more ways to mess up. Some days I do my job well; some, not so well. I don’t deserve honor every day just for being capable of doing my job. So, no, I don’t want my job title capitalized.

Paul himself is well aware of the way the world is. The worldly way considers some high and some low. So Paul cautions, “Do not be proud, but be willing to associate with people of low position. Do not be conceited” (Ro. 13.16). But what Paul says about love and about the body of Christ makes this verse a beginner’s lesson. In the body of Christ, we are all one.

In his first letter to the Corinthians, Paul says, “The eye cannot say to the hand, ‘I don’t need you!’ And the hand cannot say to the feet, ‘I don’t need you!’ On the contrary, those parts of the body that seem to be weaker are indispensable, and the parts that we think are less honorable we treat with special honor.” Whether we are “presentable” or needing “special treatment,” he says, “God has combined the members of the body and has given greater honor to the parts that lacked it [“the least shall be the greatest”], so that there should be no division in the body, but that its parts should have equal concern for each other. If one part suffers, every part suffers with it; if one part is honored, every part rejoices with it” (I Cor. 12.21-26).

When people are worthy of honor, we do honor them—and rejoice with them. We are the body of Christ, every part working together doing whatever God is calling us to do. And He is calling all of us to serve and honor one another in love. In Romans 13.10, Paul says, “Love must be sincere. Hate what is evil; cling to what is good. Honor one another above yourselves.” Honoring others is an everyday attitude of love and respect that I want to have, an attitude toward every human being, not just toward ones with long titles. J

The world of journalism realized long ago the difficulties of titles and determined that an honor is an honor and a job is a job. If you do your job well, you might receive an honor: your Nobel Prize can be capitalized. But for today, go on being the best assistant manager, worship leader, mail clerk, quarterback, and chief executive officer3 that you can be. (Thus concludes this professor of English and literature at Dallas Christian College.)

1 You’re probably thinking of another possible exception, which is the spouse of the President. Technically, that role is not a job and does not have a job title. The New York Times refers to the wife of the President by first and last name (and no title) or by “Ms.” plus the last name.

2 The New International Version was the first English translation of Scripture to use lower case for pronouns referring to God and Christ. Since then, the choice has existed, so the key is to be consistent. Most choose the down style (perhaps since that solves the problem of knowing what pronouns are).

 

Dr. Cara Snyder is professor of English and literature at Dallas Christian College and managing editor and senior writer at the Cornerstone.

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