Posted by: Ety W. | April 15, 2008

Dignity: A Basic Human Right?

As I prepared to write this post, I contemplated the word “dignity.” In trying to understand it as a character trait of a spiritually mature Christian, I thought about how it is commonly used today. Mostly it is seems to be used in association with medical care of the terminally ill, but in poking around the internet, I find that it is popping up in discussions on bioethics, for example cloning or stem cell research. In health care, dignity is presented as a basic human right. In terms of bioethics, the discussions I read seem to focus on how to define the word in such a way as to defend one’s own point of view.

On another level, when used as descriptive word, dignified seems to carry a connotation of formality in the sense of stuffiness, as in “stuffed shirt” or “old fogy.” In that sense, dignity does not exactly have a positive connotation in our casual American society and is certainly not appealing to today’s youth.

For our purposes however, we want to set common ideas about the meaning of a word aside. As we look at Christian maturity in Titus 2:2, we need to let the Bible define the word, not society, whose usage and meanings of words are constantly changing with the times.

It is from the biblical definition that we can ask, “What difference does it make in my own life?” To answer this, we need to look at dignity on a practical level, not a philosophical one. We need to understand that biblically, it is not a matter of rights, but of character.

Dignity is the second item on our list in Titus chapter 2.

Older men are to be temperate, dignified, sensible, sound in faith, in love, in perseverance. Older women likewise…… Titus 2:2-3a

Let’s take a look at it.

Dignified – Strong’s 4586 – in the Greek, σεμνος – semnos = venerable, honorable. In the KJV it is translated as “grave” or “honest.” Of semnos Vine1 says, “Cremer describes it as denoting what inspires reverence and awe….’The word points to seriousness of purpose and to self-respect in conduct.’ ”

Self-respect. What an excellent term.

In The New Eglishman’s Greek Concordance and Lexicon, we can note that semnos is defined as “honorable, worthy of respect.” We can also note that it occurs four times in the Greek New Testament. Besides the verse we’re studying in Titus chapter two, we find it in two verses in I Timothy.

I Tim. 3:8 – Deacons likewise must be men of dignity, not double-tongued, or addicted to much wine, or fond of sordid gain…

I Tim. 3:11 – Women must likewise be dignified, not malicious gossips, but temperate, faithful in all things.

From these plus our verse in Titus, we see dignity as a character trait of spiritual maturity.

The last reference is found in a different sort of list:

Phil. 4:8 – Finally brethren, whatever is true, whatever is honorable, whatever is right, whatever is pure, whatever is lovely, whatever is of good repute, if there is any excellence and if anything worthy of praise, let your mind dwell on these things.

This list was written by Paul to believers in Philippi, exhorting them in having the peace of God. Semnos here, is part of a check list for guarding our thoughts.

So, how do we incorporate biblical dignity into own lives? I think Vine’s term, “self respect in conduct” is a good starting place. It forces us to examine our actions. We sometimes like to pat ourselves on the back for things we do, but other times we hope no one notices. What helps me, is to think about the things I need to do, or am tempted to do, before I do them. I try to ask myself, “What would I do if I knew others were watching? Would they see my actions as admirable?” Then I remind myself that God is always watching. He is the perpetual audience to my life: in the things I do, the things I say, the things I think.

Biblical dignity then, is not something granted to us, rather it is something that we work toward.Content copyright 2008 by If you find it anywhere else, it’s been stolen.
Next … Being Sensible

1 W. E. Vine, Merrill F. Unger, William White, Jr., Vine’s Expository Dictionary of Biblical Words (Thomas Nelson Publishers, New York, 1985), p. 278

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