What do figures as wide-ranging as Billy Graham, Rick and Kay Warren, Fred Rogers, and Donald Trump have in common?

All have been awarded honorary doctorates by Christian colleges.

Each spring, another batch of distinguished guests receives these symbolic degrees. Among others this year, outgoing World Vision president Rich Stearns was granted an honorary doctorate of divinity from Gordon College; Tim Keller, an honorary doctorate from Westminster Theological Seminary; and comedian Jamie Foxx, an honorary doctorate from Jarvis Christian College. Eastern Mennonite University awarded its first-ever honorary doctorate this May to Liberian peace activist Leymah Roberta Gbowee, a Nobel laureate and alumna.

By granting such awards, “we’re honoring an action, a commitment to a principle, or an action that serves the community,” said Ben Gutierrez, co-provost and vice president for academic affairs at Liberty University, which conferred an honorary doctor of laws degree to President Trump when he spoke at the school’s commencement in 2017, and an honorary doctor of humanities degree to President Jimmy Carter, the 2018 speaker. “We’re acknowledging an example of someone who personifies excellence within their discipline, within their passion, or within their field.”

Honorary degrees have a centuries-long history in higher education. But many institutions—including evangelical colleges—have begun to issue them more routinely in the past two decades. The influx of honorary doctorates has led some in academia to call for more clarity in the process; others are ready to do away with the prize altogether.

It’s taboo for honorary doctorate recipients to adopt the title of doctor (unless they also have an earned degree at that level). Apologist Ravi Zacharias was widely criticized late last year for, among other allegations, his ministry’s use of “Dr. Zacharias” in his bio and other materials. The honorary title has since been taken down.

“It’s simply not an accurate title,” said Phil Cooke, who has blogged about how “fake doctorates” have taken off as pastors with big ministries compete for credibility. “Although honorary doctorates are called ‘doctorates,’ they’re really recognition of life achievement—which is great—but not the same as a PhD.”

In earlier days, universities used honorary doctorates to acknowledge and build relationships with patrons. While recipients often speak at commencement ceremonies, colleges now tend to see them as a way to highlight community values. For Christian institutions, honorary degrees offer a chance to reflect core convictions as lived out in a particular leader’s career.

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“The significance is to honor them with a degree that recognizes their lifetime achievement because they’re the kind of person who’s been so busy serving the world that they haven’t had the time to go out and earn their own doctorate,” said Deborah Taylor, provost and senior vice president at Biola University.

“We always want to look for someone who’s had some achievements that relate to the mission of Biola,” she said. “We can inspire students by saying, ‘Here’s an example of someone who has lived their life doing the thing that we’re challenging you to do.’ ”

Biola has awarded honorary degrees to evangelical leaders such as Rick and Kay Warren and Joni Eareckson Tada. (Rick Warren also has an earned DMin from Fuller Seminary.) All recipients must be vetted by researchers, discussed by leadership, and ultimately approved by the university’s board of trustees.

Critics concerned about conflating earned and honorary doctorates suggest schools give prizes or awards to honor outside exemplars instead.

“How else would an educational institution honor those who would demonstrate excellence in their fields?” counters Gutierrez at Liberty, which typically awards five or six honorary degrees each year. “It’s germane to what we do: Schools grant degrees.”

A bigger issue with honorary degrees among Christians comes from the fact that it’s not just legitimate, accredited schools that are granting them. “Diploma mills” with familiar-sounding names offer to extend a degree to anyone who fills out a form or completes basic coursework, rather than the traditional, years-long degree path required for doctoral study.

“My fellow-Minister: How old will you be when you finally see the need that you can wisely use a Doctors Degree?” reads the clunky website for Cambridge Theological Seminary, which acknowledges no connection to the United Kingdom’s famous university but promises to be “A ‘World Known’ Generic Name Used by Your Local Church!”

Blogger and Grove City College professor Warren Throckmorton has followed Christian leaders’ use of doctor or PhD to refer to degrees granted from programs that lack accreditation, such as Life Christian University (LCU).

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LCU confers what it calls earned degrees to ministry leaders such as Benny Hinn, Joyce Meyer, and Kenneth and Gloria Copeland. Instead of traditional enrollment, the school recognizes “their published works, along with their lifetime ministry achievements.”

As a result of Throckmorton’s complaints, Meyer was prompted by the State of Missouri last year to revise references to her “earned” degree from LCU to “honorary,” since state law prohibits the use of misleading degrees.

But even without threat of the law, fellow Christians have spoken up to ensure their leaders are being transparent about their backgrounds and biographies.

“It isn’t nit-picking to misrepresent one’s credentials to do any job. It is even more important to be honest about your credentials if your job is to tell the truth ... so we all have to be scrupulous in this zone,” said religious studies professor John G. Stackhouse, who went on to paraphrase James 3:1: “Not many of you should become teachers, my brothers and sisters, for you know that we who teach will be judged with greater strictness” (NRSV).

Ravi Zacharias International Ministries (RZIM) stated that “in earlier years, ‘Dr.’ did appear before Ravi’s name in some of our materials . . . which is an appropriate and acceptable practice with honorary doctorates. However, because this practice can be contentious in certain circles, we no longer use it.”

The use of the doctorate designation can also be cultural or generational; RZIM pointed out that in India, “honorific titles are customary and are used frequently out of respect for elders.”

In the US, PhDs are on the rise, up 25 percent over the past decade to a record 55,000-plus in 2015, according to the Society for Earned Doctorates. So Christians in academia want to protect their reputation.

“We want to do everything we can to say, ‘This is a rigorous degree,’ meaning when you’ve earned this degree it qualifies you for different level of leadership and roles,” said Taylor at Biola. “When you put the title in front of your name, it’s because you’ve gone through the rigor of earning an academic degree.”

Kate Shellnutt is associate online editor at Christianity Today.

This article has been updated to note Rick Warren’s earned doctorate.

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