“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.