By Sean Palmer

“Are you going to make people call you Doctor?” my 5th grade voice squeaked out as my dad wrapped up his Master’s and began to work on his Ed.D.

At the time, Dad was the Vice-Principal at George County High School in Lucedale, MS, a forgettable place which I wish I could forget even more about. Dad’s boss, the Superintendent of George County schools was, well, I forget her name. Heck, I was in 5th grade and, like I said, Lucedale is a forgettable town.

While I don’t recall her name, I do recall her title, Doctor. And, just as palpable in my memory is that folks around Lucedale seemed to choke a little on the word “Doctor.”

And she made them choke. She was “Doctor.”

I sensed the citizens of George County didn’t like her doctorate, but I was too young to sense why.

“Yes,” Dad said. “I’m going to make people call me Doctor.”


“Because it’s a hard degree to get. I will have earned it. And I will have earned the title.”

Dad was right. It was a hard degree to get. It cost him, our family, and the state of Mississippi quite a bit in missed baseball and soccer games, split attention, mom’s late-night typing sessions, move after move, and, yes, money. Earning a terminal degree is a sacrifice for any person, especially when that person is a full-time worker and mom or dad. Wanna know how hard it is to get? Dad started work on his Ed.D when I was in 5th grade. He earned just before I graduated college.

Having lived it, I threw-up in my mouth reading Joseph Epstein’s grossly snobbish Op-Ed in The Wall Street Journal, “Is There a Doctor in the White House? Not if You Need an M.D..” I tend to be more gracious, but “grossly snobbish” is an accurate descriptor. It is the stuff of a Freshmen Op-Ed in a not-so-great college’s newspaper and, frankly, The Wall Street Journal should be more embarrassed than we should be offended.

Though comical itself, I’ve heard the echoes of Mr. Epstein’s reasoning my entire life in the church.

As a young pup minister a fury, which I can’t now remember erupted in our church. A group of women, all mothers, got together, voiced their concerns, and wrote a thorough and thoughtful letter to our Elders, all men. The churches of my youth were completely male-led. Pastors were all men, and so were Elders and Deacons. If there weren’t enough “qualified” men in the church to be Elders, the church was governed by a larger group of equally unqualified men through a quarterly “Men’s Business Meeting.” No women. Ever.

They called it complementarianism and it was supposed to rule the church, the home, and though they only whispered it, all of life, including the public spheres. There were roles for men and roles for women, they’d say, but we all know what complementarianism is, exclusion, misogyny, and sexism dressed in its Sunday best.

I was in the Elder’s meeting, when the letter from the woman was read and a brief discussion broke out about their concerns. There were bad ideas and worse ideas. Then one of the Elders said, “Wait. Where are these women’s husbands?”

And there you have it, Dr. Biden. For Joseph Epstein, the folks living in Lucedale, MS in 1985, and the Elders at a now defunct church, you breached the sanctum. You dared to be more than an addendum, an ornament, what Sue Monk Kidd calls “secondary.” Joseph Epstein doesn’t want you to drop the Doctor because he’s only holding onto a bachelor’s degree. He wants you to know your place. You’re supposed to be a “complement” to Joe, not an achievement in yourself.

Where is this woman’s husband?

This is how complementarianism scars the face of the gospel. It denies that the Holy Spirit is wholly at work in a woman unless she’s wound up with a man.

The women in my little church didn’t have a concern if their husbands didn’t vocalize it for them. Theirs is a story told thousands of times by my sisters in the pew. Increasingly, they are stories told outside of the pew, because God will not be mocked (Gal 6:7), and that’s the very thing being done to female image bearers in churches around the world. Imagine for a moment having the gall to tell the image of God that she is a complement. Yet this is what we do. We willfully dismiss the image of God.

Joseph Epstein said what many churches sinfully practice, “Know your place, Kiddo, this is unqualified men’s business.”