Titles: Help or Hindrance?

April 24, 2014

“There is no “up or down” in the service of the Lord. There is only “forward or backward,” and that difference depends on how we accept and act upon our releases and our callings. I once presided at the release of a young stake president who had given fine service for nine years and was now rejoicing in his release and in the new calling he and his wife had just received. They were called to be the nursery leaders in their ward. Only in this Church would that be seen as equally honorable!” Dallin H Oaks, April Conference 2014

Something we’d probably all agree with in theory. But how does it work out in practice? I’d like to think that the view Elder Oaks expressed is the way we see things and experience things, but I wonder if our use of titles works against that view. As Lavina Fielding Anderson expressed it:

“The way we arrange words is determined by and, in turn, determines the way we arrange our reality. The labels we apply to people determine, in large measure, our relationships with them; but our relationships also reshape those categories and labels.”

Now, maybe this is just my experience speaking, but the title “President”, for example, doesn’t for the most part conjure the picture of one who serves. Rather it conjures an image of a position of power. I’m not sure this helps either those serving in those pastoral roles in the church, or those in their care. Powerful titles can engender a sense of entitlement in those holding them, and a sense of inferiority in those who do not. I’ve been on the receiving end of an unexpected (to me) outburst, when asking a question of a Bishop, along the lines of: how dare you, I’m the Bishop and it’s your job to do what I say! Perhaps my attitude towards titles is coloured by their having been used as a bludgeon. Whilst that outburst more than two decades ago was certainly the worst, I have since encountered those who nevertheless use their position to coerce others. I distrust hierarchy, and the use of titles emphasizes hierarchy, and position within that hierarchy. So, from a personal perspective, I would favour eliminating titles altogether.

On the other hand, one suggestion, short of ordination, that has been made that could improve the position of women in the church is to extend the use of titles to those serving in the auxiliary presidencies, both at a general and local level. Indeed some have begun to use the title “President” when referring to our auxiliary leaders. This is not a move I would agree with, but I can see why others may think it beneficial, precisely because the label can help to change the interpersonal dynamics.

“In my ward, I am making a subtle but consistent effort to call the Primary president I serve under “President Snyder” rather than “Sister Snyder.” I do the same for my Relief Society president. Titles matter, and ward members will pick up the respect and visibility afforded to the female presidents of these organizations if they are addressed as such.” Neylan McBaine, 2012 FAIR Conference

I attempted to research specifically how and when the use of titles became standard practice, because that isn’t what we see in media portrayals of the early church, where Brother Joseph, and Brother Brigham seems to be the common form of address. One of the things I loved about Pres. Uchtorf’s talk in the Priesthood Session at the October General Conference was his description of himself as Brother Uchtdorf. Not Elder Uchtdorf, not President Uchtdorf, but Brother Uchtdorf. I do think the church would feel so much friendlier and egalitarian if we could go back to those simpler forms of address.

My researches did unearth a plea from one the church’s more passionate dissidents:

“He [JS] warned leaders of the church not to put themselves above others, not to condemn others, not to find fault with the church, not to say that members are out of the way while leaders are righteous. Brethren, you ignore this warning whenever you create, maintain, or reinforce categories of church membership or attempt to classify people…. We all do it whenever we believe there are people whom we esteem as less valuable than ourselves, whose voices we do not have to hear—people who must listen to us but who have no right to be heard. We violate Joseph Smith’s warning whenever we insist on the use of titles to distinguish leaders from followers. Did not Jesus instruct us not to call each other by titles? We are brothers and sisters, children of Christ. We are equals and our relationship to one another arises out of love not power. This is true even of our relationship to God, to whom we pray not by any title but in the name or by the name of Jesus. We have been told to esteem our brothers and sisters as ourselves…

“The leadership of the church is not the church. It is an important part of the church—even an indispensable part. But so are the Saints. The scripture says that the head should not say to the foot, “I have no need of thee.” But this is what the church institution says every time it asserts that leaders are more important, more valuable than non-leaders. It is the message we get from the way the church functions: leaders sit in council, preach in conference, lay down rules, while we members are there to soak it all up—and if we do this long enough and well enough, then perhaps we too, if we have been prudent and wise and male, may become leaders.

“But the church should not be divided in this way. It should be a community of believers, a repository of spiritual gifts, where we rely on each other.”

Paul J. Toscano, A Plea to the Leadership of the Church: Choose Love not Power, Dialogue 26(1), 1993.

I’m not suggesting that our leaders believe they are more important than any other member, indeed Elder Oaks indicated just the opposite, but I would agree that this can often be the message inherent in the structure of the institution and the titles we use. I wish Toscano had provided a reference for his assertion that Jesus instructed us not to use titles. Toscano’s article covered more than the use of titles, but I found it interesting to note that the article published in response, whilst taking issue with some of Toscano’s points (including lack of references for his scriptural assertions) had some sympathy with his views on the use of titles:

“Some points that struck me include: …

“*The elitist use of titles versus the call to esteem others as ourselves in “mutual and reciprocal” and equal relationships.

“*Priesthood authority can become an idol that keeps us from Christ. The democratic equality of members and leaders: leaders must listen, adopt, and repent in their roles as leaders as well as counsel, rebuke, and proscribe; empowered members can act with the Spirit within church channels but also independent of the hierarchy.” ….

“I assume that means [on D&C 121] you do not have control because of your position: you cannot say, “I’m the quorum president, so do it.” Priesthood (position) does not grant that kind of tyranny.”

Elbert E. Peck, A Response to Paul Toscano’s “A Plea to the Leadership of the Church: Choose Love Not Power”, Dialogue 26(1), 1993.

In the April 1993 General Conference Elder Russell M Nelson addressed the topic:

“Secular and spiritual institutions have differing patterns of leadership. Man-made organizations are governed by officers with titles that designate rank or accomplishment. A military officer, judge, senator, doctor, or professor is properly addressed by title. We appropriately honor individuals who have attained such positions.

“In contrast, the kingdom of God is governed by the authority of the priesthood. It is not conferred for honor, but for a ministry of service. Priesthood titles are not created by man; neither are they for adornment, nor do they express mastership. They denote appointment to service in the work of the Lord. We are called, sustained, and ordained—not by ourselves, but “by prophecy, and by the laying on of hands by those who are in authority, to preach the Gospel and administer in the ordinances thereof.” (A of F 1:5; see also Heb. 5:4.)

“Titles pertaining to the holy priesthood deserve our utmost care and respect. Each member of the First Presidency is addressed and spoken of as “President.” (See D&C 107:22, 24, 29.) The title “President” is also used when referring to the presidency of a stake or mission, and in reference to a quorum or branch president. The title “Apostle” is sacred. It has been given of God and belongs only to those who have been called and ordained as “special witnesses of the name of Christ in all the world.” (D&C 107:23.) An Apostle speaks in the name of Him whose special witness he is. This hallowed title is not used in ordinary forms of address. The preferred title for one of the Twelve is “Elder” or ”Brother.”

“The title “Bishop” is also expressive of presidency; the Bishop is the president of the Aaronic Priesthood in his ward and the presiding high priest of the ward organization. Reverently we refer to him as “the bishop.”

““Elder” is a sacred title shared by all who bear the Melchizedek Priesthood.”

Since then, it seems to me that the use of titles has been further emphasized. Growing up, and even as a student in a singles ward, I didn’t ever hear an EQP addressed as President, and certainly not the Deacon or Teacher’s quorum presidents. The only presidents I heard addressed as such were the Stake Presidency and First Presidency. But during the late nineties, and into the new century, in my wards and stakes, along with an emphasis on respect for office (as opposed to the person) addressing all those who hold priesthood keys as President was stressed over and over again from the pulpit. It is now the norm that they’re addressed as President. By that definition however, auxiliary presidencies could be waiting some time to come.

  • What has your experience been? And how might it have coloured your responses?
  • Would you prefer to eliminate or extend the use of titles, or maintain the status quo? And why?
  • Can we really separate office from the individual who holds that office, in our day to day interactions?

Discuss.

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29 Responses to Titles: Help or Hindrance?

  1. New Iconoclast on April 24, 2014 at 3:11 PM

    I wish Toscano had provided a reference for his assertion that Jesus instructed us not to use titles.

    I suspect Toscano was referring to Matthew 23:9 – “And call no man your father upon the earth: for one is your Father, which is in heaven.” I may be wrong, but that’s the only example I can think of in which the Savior addresses the use of titles. I’d like to hear from others on this.

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  2. Kullervo on April 24, 2014 at 3:20 PM

    Did they use titles in the apostolic era?

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  3. howarddirkson on April 24, 2014 at 3:20 PM

    Dallin H. Oaks:

    There is no “up or down” in the service of the Lord

    How many of you actually believe Dallin wouldn’t mind leaving his for life paid celebrity calling and seniority position in Q12 for a calling in his ward nursery? Do you believe there is no “up or down”? Apparently Bruce R. McConkie didn’t:

    “It is my province to teach to the Church what the doctrine is. It is your province to echo what I say or to remain silent.”

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  4. hawkgrrrl on April 24, 2014 at 3:39 PM

    Titles are big in more conservative cultures where authority is valued for its own sake. But I do think given the fact that we are a lay clergy, titles add a ring of formality and a reminder of the temporary responsibility one has as opposed to being just some other member like we were last week before being called. I tend to think using titles has some value for rotational positions. But I don’t like the conservative love of titles and of “appeal to authority” fallacies.

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  5. howarddirkson on April 24, 2014 at 3:49 PM

    Yep there’s no “up or down” in that Private Jet with 10 bodyguards
    Ever wonder what the plane looks like that the prophet flies around in?
    It’s coming soon to your ward’s nursery!

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  6. Geoff - Aus on April 24, 2014 at 8:35 PM

    I was rather amazed at the opening of the women’s conference/meeting the woman conducting welcomed all the men there by name and title and then and the women. No names let alone titles.

    I once had a stake pres who was released, and his next calling was as a bishop. He went inactive after a few months. He was later called as SP in another area.

    Agree with Hawkgrrrl in 4. I think many of us laughed at Elder Oaks statement.

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  7. Ase on April 24, 2014 at 8:55 PM

    I have seen that in some cases, the title holds more meaning to those around the person than to the person him/herself. When I was RS Pres, I could see that all of the sudden, I was treated differently. People went out of their way to pay more attention to me and to get attention from me. It was the title, not me as a person.
    I have also noticed that now that my husband is a Bishop, people want him to solve their interpersonal issues, but if he gives advice they don’t want to hear or he doesn’t chastise another member of the ward that a ward member has an “issue” with, he is accused of being mean, unChristlike, too stern, etc. Often by those who have asked for large amounts of his time. It can be a tough gig being a leader, and keep in mind, many never aspired to or wanted the position in the first place. Please be patient and kind. Many of the leaders aren’t trying to be bossy or holier than the rest of us, but there can be intense demands on time and emotion. There are many blessings involved, but many trials as well. We are mortals and we all make mistakes. We just tend to be less patient of the mistakes made by one in authority. Perhaps we should lose the titles…

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  8. Ziff on April 24, 2014 at 10:06 PM

    I totally agree with you, Hedgehog, about loving where President Uchtdorf told the story where he imagined someone calling him “Brother Uchtdorf.” There are a couple of instances where he’s even told stories where other people (members of the Q of 12, to be fair) called him by his *name*! How cool is that?

    https://www.lds.org/general-conference/2010/10/pride-and-the-priesthood?lang=eng

    https://www.lds.org/general-conference/2014/04/are-you-sleeping-through-the-restoration?lang=eng

    I tend to be anti-authoritarian, so I find that titles are grating, particularly when they’re applied to teenage boys.

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  9. Kristine A on April 24, 2014 at 11:36 PM

    Would love to see the day we are all just Brother or Sister. But I get what Neylan is saying, if we’re not going to adjust the men’s titles – for heaven’s sake let’s show equal respect for the women. God bless the Sister-en.

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  10. Hedgehog on April 25, 2014 at 1:47 AM

    NI, #1. Thanks for that suggestion. The closest I could come up with were Mosiah 23:7 and Alma 1:26.
    If you’re correct, and you may well be, he would seem to then be contradicting himself, to me at least, when he moves on to praying to God, “This is true even of our relationship to God, to whom we pray not by any title but in the name or by the name of Jesus.” Either ‘Father’ is a title or it isn’t…
    Though maybe there are other ways of reading it.

    Kullervo, #2. “Did they use titles in the apostolic era?”
    I don’t know. I don’t think it’s altogether clear. Certainly the NT letters, refer to brother/sister, but also disciple, apostle, so… If you have anything to add, please do.

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  11. Hedgehog on April 25, 2014 at 2:01 AM

    Howard, #3&5. Well, I don’t know Howard. Elder Oaks might like to enjoy retirement with family more. Also, not sure I’d appreciate needing bodyguards, and having to keep to a schedule so much of the time either.
    That McConkie quote is aggravating though – do you have a reference or link for it? I’d be interested in the context.

    hawkgrrrl, #4. You might be right that titles have some value when positions are temporary. My experience is that it can go to the head (though perhaps that would happen anyway).
    “But I don’t like the conservative love of titles and of “appeal to authority” fallacies.”
    Yes.

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  12. Hedgehog on April 25, 2014 at 2:13 AM

    Geoff, #6. “I was rather amazed at the opening of the women’s conference/meeting the woman conducting welcomed all the men there by name and title and then and the women. No names let alone titles.”

    That was a rather glaring omission I thought. I was also stunned by quite how many men there were. Wondered if they each had responsibility for one of the auxiliaries. Grim though, that at a women’s conference they introduced all the men, but not the women. As a woman I’d like the auxiliary leaders to be introduced and acknowledged. The men, well I might like to know why they’re there (a comment such as ‘also in attendance are the brethren with assigned responsibility for the RS, YW and Primary organisations’ would have been sufficient) but not much else.

    Ase, #7. “the title holds more meaning to those around the person than to the person him/herself …. We just tend to be less patient of the mistakes made by one in authority.”
    Thank you for adding that perspective. If I’m understanding you correctly, you’re finding the title means the membership are treating leaders with less consideration than they had done before the leader was in that role, thus making the title a hindrance. And that we’d be more likely to exhibit patience, if forms of address didn’t contribute to our seeing them as other.

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  13. Hedgehog on April 25, 2014 at 2:54 AM

    Ziff, #8. Yes, I particularly liked the example I gave because it was a conversation (albeit imaginary) with ordinary members. Thanks for those links. I’d kind of hope (not having priesthood quorum administrative experience myself) that quorum members would address each other by name rather than title, at least in less formal situations, else I see no hope for us. The entirety of Elder Nelson’s 1993 conference address doesn’t point that way though, dwelling a great deal on deference within priesthood hierarchy. That’s the kind of thing that makes me glad I don’t have to deal with that personally, given I find that hierarchical stuff nonsensical and very off-putting. It concerns me greatly that my husband and son have to navigate this however.
    I find it particularly bizarre when exhibited in Sunday School. Our current teacher is a former member of the Stake Presidency, and makes what seems to me to be a great show of deferring to the Bishop whenever he comments he class. Why? He may be Bishop, but that doesn’t make him especially knowledgeable when it comes to scripture or doctrine. I’ve found myself disagreeing with him in class on more than one occasion. I feel that deference certainly encourages him to see himself as arbiter in defining doctrine and interpreting scripture for the ward members.
    I was quite cheered last week, when someone other than me declared a distrust in hierarchy, and that it didn’t matter to him who it was a message came from if the spirit testified of the truth of the message. Another class member spoke of his experiences as a Exec Sec, listening to a bishopric in discussion, and recognising it was the Bishop who held the keys.

    Krisitine, #9. “if we’re not going to adjust the men’s titles – for heaven’s sake let’s show equal respect for the women”
    You may be right, though to me it feels like a step backwards.
    I was kind of disheartened by the end of the post about the possibility of being able to abandon the use of titles though. Reading of the Dialogue articles and Elder Nelsons address in their entirety, all dated in first part of 1993, it struck me that there was some duelling going on here, with the one answering the others. That being so, I think it would be very difficult for the church to backtrack on the titles thing. Really disappointed…

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  14. Left Field on April 25, 2014 at 5:06 AM

    One point that may be worth making is that unlike titles in some other situations, church titles tell us little or nothing about where a person fits in the hierarchy. Given Bishop Smith, President Jones, Brother Johnson, and Elder Williams, without knowing their actual callings, we could “rank” them in virtually any hierarchical order.

    Bishop Smith could be a ward bishop, a former bishop, or a member of the presiding bishopric. President Jones could be a deacon’s quorum president, a branch president, a Relief Society president, a temple president, a mission president, the president of the church, etc. Elder Williams could be a missionary, an area 70, or a general authority. Brother Johnson could be a counselor in the bishopric, a high priest group leader, or a high councilman, all of which have no title other than brother.

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  15. Howard on April 25, 2014 at 6:38 AM

    Hedgehog,
    Here is a Christian (opposition) link to the BRM quote shown in context. It is taken from a letter to Professor Eugene England warning him about spreading certain ideas he was espousing publicly including teachings by past by leaders such as Brigham Young!

    McConkie admits that Brigham Young was guilty of teaching things that were “out of harmony with the gospel”. McConkie attacks Young’s notion that God is ever progressing in knowledge or that Adam is God. BRM confesses “I do not know all of the providences of the Lord, but I do know that he permits false doctrine to be taught in and out of the Church and that such teaching is part of the sifting process of mortality”

    It’s an interesting letter. Wikipedia states “McConkie’s works in general are characterized by their authoritative tone” and follow this statement with the quote.

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  16. Jeff Spector on April 25, 2014 at 7:52 AM

    I too am quite amused with the Church’s insistence on titles. I wrote a piece on Mormon Matters a while ago on the Church’s obsession with initials (http://mormonmatters.org/2010/01/19/what-with-the-initials-anyway/).

    I just as soon have people call me by my first name as anything. But seriously, If “Brother” was good enough for Joseph and Brigham, why not their successors. And usually, as noted, the brethren refer to themselves either by their first name of by “Brother.”

    I was equally amused that the MoFems wanted to call Sister Oscarson, “President” in some sort of elevating way when no one else refers to her that way. I can surmise why, but still….

    Holy cow , if we took into account everyone who was the head of an organization at one time or another, we’d call everyone “President.” How dumb would that be…..

    Respect is one thing, But we’ve carried it to an extreme. Can you imagine in business calling someone CEO Smith or Chief Financial Officer Jones?

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  17. IDIAT on April 25, 2014 at 9:31 AM

    Is there any truth to the old saying “Familiarity breeds contempt?” If so, that might be the reason why church leaders desire titles to be used where possible.

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  18. Howard on April 25, 2014 at 10:20 AM

    LDS apologist rationalization = insert any plausible excuse no matter how improbable to explain any LDS doctrine or practice. It’s such a mindless waste of time but it apparently makes the “faithful” feel better.

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  19. Erin on April 25, 2014 at 11:15 AM

    I don’t like the terms “Bishop” and “President” because of the reasons previously described. but I do use those terms because I am a sheep; I color outside of the lines enough at church that to refuse to conform in that regard is not worth it. Pick my battles, I suppose.

    I don’t even like using “Brother” or “Sister.”

    I think it is well-intentioned–after all, we are supposed to be brothers and sisters in the gospel–but, you know, the people in my ward who ignore me in real life yet FB friend me, who don’t say hi unless I do first, who have learned not to call on me in RS and Sunday School–they are not my brothers and sisters. I call them by their first names. I also don’t refer to my my real siblings with the title of “Brother” or “Sister.”

    Sorry, I realize I sound a bit curmudgeonly, my bad. I need a nap. Good thing I can this Sunday when it is stake conference and I don’t go.

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  20. Jules on April 25, 2014 at 3:34 PM

    I would prefer to drop all titles. I don’t think hierarchy should exist in God’s true church, and titles promote hierarchy. I don’t think we are suppose to esteem our leaders, even the prophet, above anyone else. I don’t believe God does that, so why should we. I suppose God is a title and so is Christ, but they are certainly different situations that mortals on earth. We aren’t equal to them like we are to our leaders. Great discussion though.

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  21. Hedgehog on April 26, 2014 at 1:04 AM

    Left Field, #14. In one way yes, though I do think the general membership are well aware of when Bishop is referring to a member presiding Bishopric, and when it is referring to their Bishop or the Bishop of a ward they are visiting for instance. I also think it unlikely that anyone will confuse a DQP and EQP. I think it is well understood that the titles are repeated at different levels within the hierarchy. I don’t think that detracts from the ‘power’ of the title to the membership.
    & Jeff, #16. Maybe I should be thankful for small mercies, and be grateful we aren’t expected to address every Melchizedek Priesthood holder as Elder (the last line in the Elder Nelson quote). And where I am we don’t address former Bishops as Bishop either (the once a Bishop always a Bishop thing notwithstanding). Jeff’s right about: “if we took into account everyone who was the head of an organization at one time or another, we’d call everyone “President.”” That way lies madness…

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  22. Hedgehog on April 26, 2014 at 1:15 AM

    Howard, #15. Thanks for that. Looks like it will make interesting reading.
    #18. Howard, are you responding to anything in particular with that, or just throwing it out there?

    IDIAT, #17. Could apply to the title just as much as the person though.

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  23. Hedgehog on April 26, 2014 at 1:21 AM

    Erin, #19. I have some sympathy with you on the Brother/Sister thing as well. I do prefer for my name to be used. But I think the Brother/Sister thing can promote unity, whereas titles are divisive. If we get on well with our real siblings I guess we don’t need to be reminded of the relationship by addressing them that way. I’m sorry you’ve had bad experiences. Like you, I do use the titles, even though I really don’t like them.

    Jules, #20. I don’t disagree. Thanks for dropping by.

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  24. Kullervo on April 28, 2014 at 8:55 AM

    Hedgehog, #10,

    I don’t know. I don’t think it’s altogether clear. Certainly the NT letters, refer to brother/sister, but also disciple, apostle, so… If you have anything to add, please do.

    Sure there are priesthood offices named in the New Testament, but can you find an instance where anyone is actually referred to by their title as an honorific, like in the Mormon church, like “Brother Demas,” “Sister Prisca,” “Elder Titus,” “Apostle Peter,” etc.?

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  25. Hedgehog on April 29, 2014 at 1:46 AM

    Kullervo, I can’t recall any specific instance from the NT. I’ve read it a few times, but not this year as yet. I also know very little about what the Greek might have said, so I don’t feel qualified to state definitively what the actual situation is in relation to the NT. If you are aware of any studies that look at this then I’d be grateful if you could point me in that direction, instead of playing games with questions.
    The LDS are not the only church to use titles, by a long shot, though so far as I know the only one to give ‘President’ ecclesiastical status.

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  26. Kullervo on May 6, 2014 at 7:48 PM

    So no, then.

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  27. Hedgehog on May 7, 2014 at 1:09 AM

    That wasn’t what I said, or meant. I meant what I wrote. Which is, I do not know. Which was my first response.

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  28. New Iconoclast on May 7, 2014 at 7:38 AM

    There is no specific instance in the NT of which I am aware. However, you can’t prove a negative. The NT is far from “complete” as a manual for how to operate the church; if it were, the Restoration might not have been necessary (although the ability of humans to screw things up, lose divine authority, and retain “a form of Godliness but deny the power thereof,” even with a more complete handbook, should not be underestimated). It’s simply a collection of letters, and not even all of the surviving ones from the period. We shouldn’t be surprised if they don’t read like a collection of 20th-century communications from the First Presidency.

    Titles, like anything else, can be used or misused. They can be helpful signposts to let people know who’s in charge, to whom to go with problems and issues, to help orient new members or visitors or move-ins. Or they can be ego-boosts to those who hold them, or important tools of butt-kissing for those inclined so to kiss.

    I by no means think that my own personal usage is the One True Usage With Which The Lord Is Well-Pleased, but I tend not to be too impressed by hierarchy. I use titles when the people in question are acting in their official capacity, and names (generally first names) when they are not. I’ve lived in the same ward for more than 20 years. I’m not going to suddenly start calling my friend Dave “Bishop Johnson” when we’re out raking some single sister’s back yard, but I will when we’re doing something officially “churchy.”

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  29. Hedgehog on May 7, 2014 at 8:11 AM

    Thanks, NI. You said it so much better, and with more patience.

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