Don’t Judge People by Their Titles

Back in high school, I was a member of my school’s Christian organization. Every Tuesday at lunch, we met in Gym B to hear a local pastor or church leader give a mini-sermon or devotional. Usually these sessions focused on a topic relevant to high-schoolers, but sometimes we had studies in other areas (such as other religions and apologetics).

I was one of a small handful of guys who volunteered to be “sound guy.” Every other Tuesday, I had the privilege of leaving class ten minutes before lunch to set up the small soundboard, microphones, and dual PA speakers for our little worship band and the speaker du jour. This also meant that I got to meet a lot of the speakers as I was setting up or taking down the equipment.

One Tuesday meeting in my sophomore year drew a larger-than-normal crowd. A prominent religious leader was coming to our humble campus to speak about the Book of Revelation. Everyone was excited. I was excited, not so much because of the gentleman’s prestige, but because I looked forward to hearing what such a studied, esteemed man had to say about one of my favorite books in the Bible to study. And I was running sound that day, so I’d get to meet him—and maybe even discuss Revelation with him a bit!

I remember him being escorted from the front office into the gym by a couple students on the leadership team. He stood around and talked to our group president and some of the other officers as I sound-checked the praise band. Once I finished setting up, I excused myself for a minute so I could introduce myself to our honored guest.

“Hi, my name is Matthew,” I said, extending my hand. “It’s great to meet you!”

He shook my hand and said likewise. I then asked him a question about prophecy being fulfilled in Revelation—something I had heard that linked the popes to the seven kings (cf. Revelation 17), and admittedly I can’t quite remember what the question was.

What I do remember was his answer.

This esteemed leader smirked, scoffed, and used an ad hominem against the man who purported the theory I asked about. “Most of us scholars don’t regard him as reliable because he gets drunk.” And that was that.

I sat through the meeting and listened to his talk on Revelation, elementary as it was, but at that point most of what he said was lost on me. I didn’t feel much respect for him based on the way he’d dismantled my question without even answering it.

I may have asked a dumb question, but he treated it like one. Instead of enlightening my ignorance, he widened the gap between his knowledge and mine. And in doing so, he not only espoused his pride—he lost a potential fan.

Remember, this is a distinguished man in the Baptist denomination. This is a man revered both by Christian academics and by laypeople. And I’m in no way trying to denigrate him wrongly.

But I feel like a got a glimpse into that man’s true soul that day, when I asked him that question. That may be a glimpse that few people have had—I don’t know. But that glimpse told me, despite all his titles and accomplishments, that he was inauthentic.

Imagine my surprise when, last year, evidence emerged stating that this faith leader may have defended sexual abusers in the church. And even this week, more evidence—that he very likely swept sexual abuse claims against a specific pastor under the rug and tried to dumb down the accusations—came to light.

Now, I don’t harbor ill will towards this man for what he said to me that Tuesday in Gym B. Nor do I wish that he be accused of covering up sexual abuse and dragged through the mud as part of the ongoing #MeToo movement. But the sad fact is, judging him by the thirty-second interaction we had, I feel like these accusations fall in line with his character.

This taught me an important life lesson: We should not judge by titles and “reputations,” but by actions and words.

Diplomas and lofty titles look great in an email signature, but what about the soul of the man behind the desk? It’s great that everyone else esteems so-and-so—but does that mean you should, too?

I can give another example, one I can smile and laugh at in retrospect.

I took my first business class in college with a tenured professor—I’ll call her Dr. Brisk. Dr. Brisk not only had her Ph.D, but a long list of managerial jobs at some big-name companies in the Metroplex.

She seemed like a decent lady, fairly approachable after class if I had questions, but something didn’t quite sit right with me about her. I started getting the same feeling of inauthenticity that I got from the faith leader years before.

All went well in Dr. Brisk’s class until the final exam, which she decided would be online since it was the end of the semester, she was busy, we students were busy, et cetera. Admittedly, I did not study as hard for her exam as I did for others, because I had tougher classes to deal with an I already had an A in hers. But study I did, and I sat down at the library computer feeling reasonably confident in my ability to maintain that A.

At the end of the test, I was very surprised to see that I had scored a low B. Being that it was an online test (and perhaps Dr. Brisk did not configure it the way she wanted to), I got to see my answers contrasted against the correct answers. Some I could tell I legitimately missed, but there were others I was sure I answered correctly.

I realized that some of the questions (about 10%) had wrong answers listed as right ones. I knew that because many of the questions came right out of the study guides in the textbook. I took screenshots of the answers in question (no pun intended), attached them to an email, and sent them off to Dr. Brisk.

Imagine my surprise when Dr. Brisk wrote back and asked how I had been able to see the correct answers at the end of the exam. (“Because you set the test up that way, lady!”) I asked if I could have the points for the questions I missed. She said no, because the questions were programmed correctly.

I then sent an email to the head of the department and explained the situation. He wrote me a polite email explaining that the three of us (me, Dr. Brisk, and himself) would have to sit down together to discuss remediation, if any could be done. By this point, she had given out our final grades (my A downgraded to a B), and it would apparently take more effort to reverse that B to an A once the final grade posted.

I could tell from the email chain that neither Dr. Brisk nor her boss wanted to deal with me, a freshman with a cause. And frankly, I didn’t want to deal with them either. I just wanted credit for the erroneous questions so I could have my A.

In the end, I dropped it. Maybe it could have gone somewhere had I stuck to my guns. But no one else in the class complained (did they review their answers?) and this lady had tenure. It felt like it would be me against the network of good ol’ boys (and girls).

To contrast these experiences, I’ve had many great professors with Ph.Ds who genuinely cared about their students and listened to their concerns. I’ve run into the same situation before, where questions aren’t entered correctly in online tests, and the professor promptly fixed them or awarded credit when I brought it up.

I’ve also had the pleasure of knowing some really great pastors and youth leaders, many of whom I met during my time as “sound guy,” and later as group co-president. These men (yes, they are mostly, if not all, men) genuinely cared about the high-schoolers they came to speak to, and it was evident. They answered questions and prayed with students. They came back multiple times to shepherd the flock or water the seeds.

So I don’t have a jaded view of every big-wig with lots of titles, accomplishments, and work experience. I just have the ability to look past that and into their soul to see who they really are.

Jesus taught that we should not judge by appearances, but by right judgment (John 7:24). There are a lot of people these days who, like the Pharisees of Jesus’ day, strut their sophistication and lord it over other people. They act like nothing can touch them.

Many “plebeians” look up to these people as celebrities (or as celebrities in their respective fields) and place them on pedestals. “He’s my hero!” they might say. “I want to be like him!”

But do you really? Do you want your soul to become like theirs? Do you want to have status and success at the cost of truth and authenticity?

That’s why we all need to start judging rightly. If there’s one thing that the #MeToo movement has shown, it’s that people our society lauds are quickly cast down from grace. If people had rightly judged these wicked men and women years and years ago, we wouldn’t be in this ongoing mess.

And it doesn’t just apply to sexual harassment. Look at things in the business world like Enron and Bernie Madoff. Look at things in the realm of politics like the Iran-Contra scandal of the 1980s or, more recently, Operation Fast and Furious.

Once you start looking past titles and stop putting people on pedestals, your eyes open. And they open very wide. You start seeing into a person’s true self rather than the façade he wears. You start to see whether she really cares.

And you start to think for yourself by taking a solid step away from the powers of mass media and groupthink.

So, my petition to you, my rallying cry to us all, is this: “Let us judge rightly.” Not by prestige, not by empty words, not by virtue-signaling actions. Let us judge by testing integrity, by examining things said or done in private, and by not idolizing anyone.

And may truth and justice prevail.