by David Phelps

“Do not wait for leaders; do it alone, person to person.” – Mother Teresa

September, 2008

There’s a local martial arts studio called “The Respect Center.” While I’ve never been a student of martial arts, my initial suspicion was that the name came from the notion of earning respect because you could beat people up and therefore they would treat you respectfully. Of course, it may also be because others will treat you with respect because you carry yourself with self-respect, without the need to actually beat anyone up. Their advertising says they emphasize “Training everyone on safety, awareness, fitness and to have the will to never give up for a healthier lifestyle . . .” Someone who never gave up would certainly have my respect.

On first reading, the Bible seems to have little to say about respect. The old King James Version tells us not to show respect (Jas. 2:9, for example) but this is generally a reference to partiality rather than what we normally think of as “respect.” Other references, especially in the Old Testament, usually mean “notice” (Gen. 4:4-5, for instance),  “recognize” (as in Exod. 2:25), or “pay attention to” (as in Psa. 119:15).

But if we expand our reading, some things come to light. The word “fear” in the phrase “the fear of the Lord” frequently means “dread:” “Now then, let the fear of the Lord be upon you. Be careful what you do, for there is no injustice with the Lord our God, or partiality or taking bribes.” (2 Chr. 19:11 ESV). But it can also mean “reverence:” “The fear of the Lord is the beginning of wisdom; . . .” (Psa. 111:10 ESV).

In other words, we are commanded to have respect for God. We are also commanded to have respect for each other. If we “Do to others as [we] would have them do to [us],” (Luke 6:31) then we will have to show others the same respect we expect to receive. Paul wrote, “Pay to all what is due them—taxes to whom taxes are due, revenue to whom revenue is due, respect to whom respect is due, honor to whom honor is due.” (Rom. 13:7 NRSV).

For Christians, the notion of respect is different than it is for those who follow the world’s ways. The world says that we get respect by being able to beat others up, much as I originally suspected about the martial arts studio. The world says we should show respect to those who demand it and that if we want respect ourselves then likewise we need to demand it. But for those of us who follow Christ, humility comes before respect: “‘All who exalt themselves will be humbled, and all who humble themselves will be exalted.’” (Matt. 23:12 NRSV). Peter wrote to his readers, “And all of you must clothe yourselves with humility in your dealings with one another, for ‘God opposes the proud, but gives grace to the humble.’” (1 Pet. 5:5b NRSV). Similarly, Moses, perhaps the greatest spiritual leader of all time aside from Christ, is described like this: “Now the man Moses was very humble, more so than anyone else on the face of the earth.” (Num. 12:3 NRSV). In God’s way of doing things, if we want respect, we must first humble ourselves. Jesus himself became a servant and washed the disciples’ feet (John 13:3-17). When he had finished, he told the disciples, “‘For I have set you an example, that you also should do as I have done to you.’” (John 13:15 NRSV).

If we show others respect in our everyday lives, pay “respect to whom respect is due,” humble ourselves, and “do to others as [we] would have them do to [us],” then they will wonder “what’s up?” If we show respect for everyone we deal with, they just might begin to show respect for us—not because we can beat them up but because we have shown that we are honorable and worthy of respect. And perhaps they will realize that our testimony is real.

“After he had washed their feet, had put on his robe, and had returned to the table, he said to them, “Do you know what I have done to you? You call me Teacher and Lord—and you are right, for that is what I am. So if I, your Lord and Teacher, have washed your feet, you also ought to wash one another’s feet. For I have set you an example, that you also should do as I have done to you. Very truly, I tell you, servants are not greater than their master, nor are messengers greater than the one who sent them. If you know these things, you are blessed if you do them. . . . Very truly, I tell you, whoever receives one whom I send receives me; and whoever receives me receives him who sent me.’” (John 13:12-17, 20 NRSV.)

Copyright © 2008 by David Phelps