Tuesday, April 25, 2017

Honour/Shame and the Gospel

Last July, when we were in North America, a pastor asked me a great question: “What can the Thai Church contribute to the Western Church?” I thought about it a bit and answered something to the effect that there were many areas that we in or from the West can learn from our Thai brothers and sisters, among them a greater understanding of the importance of community as well as a better understanding of the nature of authority. Those are still areas I feel we can learn from our Asian brothers and sisters. However, there is another topic with a growing body of literature and interest which I am spending more time reading and reflecting: the gospel in an honour/shame context.

Generally speaking, the Western church approaches the gospel from a guilt/innocence perspective: We have broken the moral code which a holy and righteous God has set in place, therefore meriting punishment. The proper punishment for sin is spiritual and physical death, resulting in our being excluded from heaven and consignment to hell. The Good News is that Jesus, by His atoning death on the cross, paid for our sin and imputed His righteousness to us as a gift of grace, enabling those who put their trust in Christ’s sacrifice to be justified in God’s sight. It is a legal/judicial model, and there is much in Scripture to support this presentation of the Gospel.

But there are a few problems: First, there is much in the Bible that, while not contradicting this model, shows the Gospel from a very different angle, that of the perspective of honour and shame. In fact, it can be argued that the Bible was written from a cultural perspective that is more concerned with honour and shame than with guilt and innocence. Second, many cultures in the world do not primarily think in a guilt/innocence framework. NOT that the guilt/innocence model is wrong or that honour/shame cultures (such as in Asia and the Middle East) cannot understand our traditional model, but that it does not speak to the primary values and worldview of people from what is sometimes called “The Majority World”. Third, even the Western world is becoming less guilt/innocence based and the importance of shame is growing, though fame seems to be a higher value than honour for the younger generation.

What would an Honour/shame presentation of the gospel sound like? The good and mighty Lord, who created the heavens and the earth and who is the rightful owner of all things, is worthy of all glory and honour. He lovingly created us in His image and we owe Him our lives and all respect and honour. Yet we consistently despise Him by turning our backs on His lordship and ways and by attributing His glory to “other gods”. This rebellion sets us as God’s enemies, worthy of eternal banishment from His presence. As He is the source of all love, goodness, wholeness (Shalom), even life, this banishment is in effect consignment to an eternity of shame and regret and exclusion from the grand celebration of the Kingdom of Life as God created it to be. Yet this Gracious Lord came and bore our shame on the cross in the person of Jesus so that those who lay down their claims to self-lordship are granted life in the Kingdom of wholeness, where the King is honoured as King, and the subjects are granted the honour of becoming children of this glorious King, co-regents of creation forever.

Is this a biblical presentation of the Gospel? The same pattern of Sin and fall – Salvation through Christ alone – Judgement is followed, and the language is from Scripture. Yet the language resonates better with those who are immersed in cultures that think in honour/shame terms.

I highly recommend the following resources – not only for missionaries working in Asia, but also for pastors in the West who are witnessing a cultural shift that will likely result in the traditional model of presenting the Gospel communicating God’s truth less effectively:

·         www.honorshame.com – Blog posts, resources, and more!
·         http://www.patheos.com/blogs/jacksonwu/ - Jackson Wu’s blog
·         The Global Gospel – book by Warner Mischke (Excellent, though I do believe his presentations of patronage and Name do have important problems, which I will discuss in future posts.)
·         TED talks by Brené Brown on shame – Not specifically Christian, but well researched and thought-provoking

Finally, I’d like to suggest that Andy Smith does an excellent job of going even beyond these two models (and the fear/power model that Jayson Georges includes in his book, the 3D Gospel) to present nine ways of explaining the gospel, according to the listener’s values in his book, Meaningful Evangelism: Choosing Words that Connect (available on www.Amazon.com).


  1. I would also recommend Fleming Rutledge's new book, The Crucifixion, for her comprehensive treatment of the the theology of the Cross, which includes this honour/shame idea. Especially in ch. 2, "The Godlessness of the Cross." Interesting to reflect on Paul's statement in Romans 1 in light of this: "I am not ashamed of the gospel..."

    1. Thanks! Also in Rom. 1, that the fundamental offense of man is robbing God of His glory and attributing it to idols (Rom. 1:23-25).