A friend called me one day with a question that made me think along new lines.

“Ron and I have not been very happy with the sermons we’ve been getting lately. I hardly know what to say to the minister when we come out of church and shake hands. But what bothers me most is how to honor him. Doesn’t the Bible tell us to honor all men?”

It does. But what a quaint question for a modern young woman to ask. Honor? Who thinks of honor nowadays? We’re all equal. We introduce ourselves by first names only; we neglect to use titles for people who would once have been considered our superiors; and the honor system in schools seems to have fallen on very hard times. I am not sure whether Boy Scouts still swear by “Scouts’ honor” anymore, but the whole country was shaken when 13,000 air-traffic controllers broke an oath by going on strike in 1981. Some of the strikers may have had moments of misgiving, considering what the oath really meant, but the fact is that they struck, agreeing that their desires for a thirty-two-hour week and a minimum of $30,642 per year superseded the oath they had signed. Time magazine, in reference to that fact, quoted William Murray, Britain’s solicitor general in the eighteenth century: “No country can subsist a twelve-month where an oath is not thought binding, for the want of it must necessarily dissolve society.”

The Bible tells us to give “due honor” to everyone. Due means “owed, payable”; that is, it is not something above and beyond the call of duty, but something obligatory, just like bills, tolls, or taxes. It means also as much as is required, as “due care,” or “in due time.”

It has nothing to do with our feelings about ourselves or others, the air-traffic controllers notwithstanding.

“Discharge your obligations to all men; pay tax and toll, reverence and respect, to those to whom they are due. Leave no claim outstanding against you, except that of mutual love.”

Here we must emphasize strongly that the disciple stands alone before God, facing his obligation primarily to God Himself. God will not ask him whether the other party fulfilled his part of the bargain. God asks only for a pure heart. It is easy enough to exonerate ourselves on the basis of the other party’s (a person’s, an institution’s, a society’s) failure to live up to its obligation, but a disciple’s obedience is not contingent. “Leave no claim outstanding against you” is the individual’s sole concern. There is no requirement that we make sure others pay us.

Honor means “respect, high regard, recognition of worth.” A Christian sees all men as made in the image of God. All are sinners too, which means that the image is marred, but it is a divine image nonetheless, capable of redemption and therefore to be held in honor.

One source of confusion is the definition of respect. Respect means “reverence under God,” first of all; that is, a proper appreciation for the person God has made for the very reason that God made him. But the Bible says that God is “no respecter of persons,” which means that He has no favorites. In the same sense James says we are inconsistent and judging by false standards if we “have respect,” that is, if we play favorites, as when we pay special attention to the man who wears fine clothing.

To discriminate against someone for false reasons is wrong. In a place of worship both the well-dressed man with gold rings and the poor man in shabby clothes are to be welcomed. This is a Christian obligation. The rich man who comes in shabby clothes, however, illustrates another side of the coin of respect. Jesus told a story about a man who was thrown out into the dark, where there was weeping and grinding of teeth, because he appeared at a wedding improperly dressed. Of course the point Jesus was making in that story was not primarily one of respect, but the truth is there. Refusing the appropriate clothing (which, I am told, was customarily provided by the host to those who could not afford it) was an offense. The rich who assume shabbiness when they could well afford to dress respectably are guilty of another form of favoritism: reverse snobbism.

I know I am skating on very thin ice to bring up the question of dress, since it has, for several decades, been considered by most Christians as of very minor importance or of absolutely no importance since God looks on the heart. But I believe it is worth reconsidering in terms of respect. Is it not an indication of my regard for another person’s worth when I am willing to “dress up”—for a job interview, for example; for a special guest I am entertaining; for a social event to which I feel honored to have been invited? Is it not a sign of a performer’s respect for his audience and of the audience’s for the performer, when they dress for the occasion? It may be scorned as a form of pride (“who are you trying to impress?”), but it may be genuine humility of the same sort that would prompt one to polish the silver, get out the beautiful tablecloth, and have candlelight and flowers for someone greatly loved. The attitude of students, I have noticed, is strongly influenced by a professor’s dress, as well as his manner.

Elliot, Elisabeth. 2021. Joyful Surrender: 7 Disciplines for the Believer’s Life. Grand Rapids, MI: Revell.

We have just completed a 6-Part Study of Elezabeth Elliot’s classic book, Joyful Surrender. It is available as part of Good Questions Have Groups Talking Lesson Subscription Service. It is also available on Amazon