What’s In a Name?

“What’s in a name? That which we call a rose
By any other name would smell as sweet.”

Romeo and Juliet (II, ii, 1-2)

Does what we call something, or someone, matter? There’s been a lot of huffing lately over things like “gender neutral” Bible translations, which itself a is a confusing term because grammatical gender (especially in Greek) has nothing to do with what we call “gender” in English. Unless you want to call the Holy Spirit an “it” (since its grammatical gender is neuter). The concern, really, is not over “the most accurate translation,” whatever that might mean, but over how people will hear things. And the problem is, lots of people read the Bible, and all those people will not hear things the same way. One person’s “he” means “a male person,” another person’s “he” means a “a person,” and another person’s “he” means “a guy.”

I often use the example of the meaning of “guy” when teaching E-101 Biblical Hermeneutics, because no one has anything theologically vested in the word and because is is a good example of how language shifts. (“Dude” is another great example). Frank Deford had a great little piece on “guy” for Morning Edition on NPR a couple days ago (what else is there to listen to in the car since KFUO is gone?):

How did females become guys? How did everyone become guys? Remember, too, that a male guy was something of a scoundrel. And a wise guy was a fresh kid, a whippersnapper. In its most other famous evocation, men in Brooklyn said “youse guys.” Damon Runyon referred to hustlers, gamblers and other nefarious types as guys.

Now every mother’s son is a guy and every mother’s daughter, too. If they wrote the musical now, it wouldn’t be called Guys and Dolls –– just Guys and Guys.

Then, in this morning’s NYTimes, there is a piece on nurses who earn a doctoral degree and want to be addressed as “Doctor:”

“Hi. I’m Dr. Patti McCarver, and I’m your nurse,” she said.

Of course the doctors, er, the “real” doctors, are concerned, mostly because the nurses might next want their jobs (and salaries) but also because patients might get confused.

We have some of this in academia and the church. Around the seminary, it seems the protocol is to address the faculty as “Dr.” But do that in Europe, and it is a slight since anyone can get a doctorate but not everyone can earn the position of “Professor” (which is beyond “Reader” and “Lecturer,” and others). And what do pastors who earn a PhD get called? Or pastors who earn a DMin? Or pastors who don’t earn anything but receive an honorary degree? Are they all “Dr.”? A couple years ago I went back to the congregation I had served prior to coming to St. Louis. Overnight I went from being “Dr. Kloha” to being, once again, “Pastor Jeff.” A few called me “Pastor Kloha,” but not many. I was just a kid when I was there, and no one knew who to pronounce, let alone spell, “Kloha.” So “Pastor Jeff” it was. Next day, coming back to St. Louis, I was back to being “Dr. Kloha.” Yet, when riding around town with students on a bike, it seems weird to call someone wearing a spandex race kit and sunglasses “Dr.,” so on rides I typically get called just “Kloha.” But I still mark their exegetical papers.

And what, even, of “pastor”? Working on a recent project I came across a piece by Thomas Nass of the Wisconsin Evangelical Lutheran Synod, who walked through the NT terminology for what in the LCMS we label “Minister of Religion-Ordained” (as distinct from “Minister of Religion-Commissioned”). The article rightly notes that “pastor” is not the sole nor the most frequent term in the NT, and that, whatever the term used, it doesn’t look exactly like was we call “pastor” today. Hermann Sasse pointed this all out back in the 1940s.

I’m starting to think that most of our arguments these days are as much about the vocabulary we use than about the issue were actually trying to get a handle on. Language changes, familiar terminology becomes unfamiliar, or picks up different connotations. We are constantly “translating” as we go; some roll with it, some insist on the same vocables, “untranslated.” Perhaps we should not assume that someone has it wrong simply because they don’t use the same terminology that we do, or that they have it right when they use the same words that we do?





3 responses to “What’s In a Name?”

  1. Erik Herrmann Avatar
    Erik Herrmann

    I heard my son once tell a fellow classmate, “My dad’s a doctor … but not the kind that helps people.”

  2. Noah Avatar

    What about the practice of capitalizing “he” or “him” when referring to the Triune God?

    One member of my congregation came up to me today saying “I’ve been wanting to ask you this…what do you like to be called.” Well, it really depends on the day I thought. I ended up saying I like being called “pastor” but I won’t be offended if you call me by my name.

    I’ve thought about this a lot. At times it sure seems like my people want to be able to call me by my first name. You could argue the good and bad reasons for this. Do people in my community need to call me pastor. Should I really expect my neighbors to call me pastor, after all, they go to the Catholic church (capitilized correct?) and have a different understanding or no understanding of a pastor. But when John and Rueban have friends over from my church, Corbin says “Hey Pastor”, Todd says “Hi Pastor Noah” and Joshua says “Hey Pastor” too. The first couple times it happened, I saw John and Rueban stop for a moment and try to figure out why their friends from school called me a name they didn’t know me as. Afterall, we’re neighbors. It’s usually fun then to hear how 12 year old boys try to explain who I am to others. Sometimes you agree, sometimes you don’t. So what do people outside of my church and even the catholic church call me?

    One thing that I usually do with visitors is introduce myself with my name and then say that I am the pastor of Trinity Lutheran Church. For be it directs the idea of pastor to my congregation and not to my diploma.

    Dr. er uh Professor um Pastor Jeff uh KLOHA. Thanks for the thoughts! I wonder how often we are in agreement on words but not in agreement on meaning.

  3. Marc Engelhardt Avatar
    Marc Engelhardt

    The defining of terms so that people can communicate at some level of agreement has been something I have been struggling/working with for a few years.
    When I a first got my call to be a church planter I was unsure of what to call myself, when, and in what situations. There is a certain level of authority and recognition of vocation tied up in the title “pastor”, but many of the people I work with are leery of the “church” and “churchy things.” I didn’t want a title to get in the way of the relationships.
    I brought the issue up to my dad(a layman) and he said that if I was doing it right, meaning living out my vocation as a shepherd, it wouldn’t matter what people called me because there were be recognition of my vocational authority built into the relationship. Turns out he was right. Most everyone calls me Marc unless they are introducing me to someone else, then I am often called “my” or “our pastor.”

    I would also like to comment on Jeff’s last line,
    “Perhaps we should not assume that someone has it wrong simply because they don’t use the same terminology that we do, or that they have it right when they use the same words that we do?”
    I completely agree and I would add that such assumptions are adding to the fragmentation of the Church, the difficulty of deep discipleship, and of course the sharing the Gospel with the world. We need to develop practical ways with dealing with this issue on a daily basis.

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