What does it mean to treat others with dignity? Dignity most commonly refers to the honor we confer on others. Scripture directs us to “Honor all people, love the brotherhood, fear God, and honor the king” (1 Pet. 2:17). The word honor translates the Greek word τιμάω timao, which means “to show high regard for, honor, revere.” We honor all people because they are made in the image of God (Gen. 1:26-27). We honor those in authority (i.e. the king) because they are divinely appointed ministers of righteousness (Dan. 2:21; Rom. 13:1-4). Above all, we are to honor God (1 Tim. 1:17; 6:15-16).
Dignity can refer to one’s character or accomplishments. Paul told his friend Titus, “in all things show yourself to be an example of good deeds, with purity in doctrine, dignified” (Tit. 2:7; cf. 1 Tim. 2:2; 3:4, 8). The word dignified translates the Greek σεμνότης semnotes, which refers to a pattern of moral behavior that warrants praise from others. In this sense, honor is not fitting for a fool (Prov. 26:1, 8).
The noble woman in Proverbs 31 is described as wearing dignity like clothing. The passage reads, “Strength and dignity are her clothing, and she smiles at the future. She opens her mouth in wisdom and the teaching of kindness is on her tongue” (Prov. 31:25-26). “Strength and dignity” are the developed attractive qualities of her character, which qualities are obvious to others who hear her words of “wisdom” and “the teaching of kindness” that flows from her lips.
There is also a dignity we are to show to people because of their status in society. It can be the honor we give to the aged (Lev. 19:32), our parents (Ex. 20:12), widows (1 Tim. 5:3), church elders (1 Tim. 5:17), or a person in a high office, such as a king or public official (1 Pet. 2:17). Honor and respect are not the same. We may not respect the values and actions of others, yet we can honor them as parents or public officials. Dr. Thomas Constable explains this well.
Respect is not the same as honor. We may not respect someone, but we can and should still honor him or her. For example, I have a friend whose father was an alcoholic. My friend did not respect his father who was frequently drunk, often humiliated his wife and children, and failed to provide for his family adequately. Nevertheless my friend honored his father because he was his father. He demonstrated honor by taking him home when his father could not get home by himself. He sometimes had to defend him from people who would have taken advantage of him when he was drunk. Similarly we may not be able to respect certain government officials because of their personal behavior or beliefs. Still we can and should honor them because they occupy an office that places them in a position of authority over us. We honor them because they occupy the office; we do not just honor the office. Peter commanded us to honor the king and all who are in authority over us, not just the offices that they occupy…Honoring others is our responsibility; earning our respect is theirs.
- At the most basic level we dignify people by recognizing their value as human beings who are made in the image of God (Gen. 1:26-27). Being made in the image of God means people have the capacity to reason, feel, and make moral choices (Gen. 1:26-27). We honor people by appealing to their intellect with honesty and truth, being sensitive to their feelings, and respecting their right of self-determination (i.e. the right of a person to control their own life).
- We dignify people when we address them properly by their office (i.e. mother or father, senator, judge, etc.), title (i.e. doctor, officer, pastor, etc.), or simply as sir or ma’am. Public speech is a common way to honor others (Dan. 2:4; 6:21; Acts 26:1-3), or dishonor them (Matt. 15:4).
- We dignify people by showing love (Rom. 13:8), doing good (Gal. 6:10), and treating them as important (Phil. 2:3-4). The mature person demonstrates the highest form of dignity by loving his enemies (Luke 6:27-30), and blessing those who persecute him (Rom. 12:14).
- We dignify people when we use language that recognizes their sacrifices and courageous choices. We should offer praise for military personnel, police officers, firemen, medics, and others who place themselves in harm’s way for our protection and benefit. I’m a little biased here, but I also think we should praise those who care for the elderly, orphans, homeless, and the disabled in our communities.
Steven R. Cook, D.Min.
- The Righteous Lifestyle of the Believer
- Living by Grace
- Loving Your Enemies
- Helping the Poor
- Christians in America
- Righteousness Exalts a Nation
 William Arndt et al., A Greek-English Lexicon of the New Testament and Other Early Christian Literature, (Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 2000), 1004.
 It is because people are made in the image of God that murder is wrong (Gen. 9:6), as well as cursing people (Jam. 3:8-10). Both murder and cursing are regarded as an attack on the image of God.
 Tom Constable, Tom Constable’s Expository Notes on the Bible (Galaxie Software, 2003), 1 Pet. 2:17.