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Honor and Shame are Objective (Not Merely Subjective)

Oct. 21, 2015By: Jackson WuAuthor Bio

Many Christians think honor and shame are simply subjective categories. I believe the Bible disagrees. Scripture uses the concepts of honor-shame to convey objective realities. 

Unfortunately, this observation often gets overlooked. In recent weeks and months, I’ve seen this time and time again. I regularly receive pushback from people who think shame and honor are nothing more than psychological and anthropological terms.

Honor = Glory = Objective Reality

If you care about what the Bible says, I urge you to set aside that assumption for a moment and consider a few passages that challenge conventional thinking.

honor-and-shame-0011. Hebrews  

Hebrews 3:3 is unambiguous. 

 “For Jesus has been counted worthy of more glory than Moses––as much more glory as the builder of a house has more honor than the house itself.” 

Note two observations. First, the writer says that a house (not a person) has honor. Second, The verse treats glory (doxēs) and honor (timēn) as functionally synonymous terms. 

2.  John’s Gospel 

Jesus’ use of honor-glory is illustrative. In John 17:22, Jesus prays to the Father, 

“The glory that you have given me I have given to them, that they may be one even as we are one.”

Likewise, in John 8:49–50, 

“Jesus answered, ‘I do not have a demon, but I honor my Father, and you dishonor [atimazete] me. Yet I do not seek my own glory [doxan]; there is One who seeks it, and he is the judge.’” 

Again, glory is treated as an objective reality, not a subjective feeling. Also, via contrast, (dis)honor is correlated with glory. (I point this out because some people try to forge a sharp wedge between “honor” and “glory” despite biblical evidence to the contrary. 

3. Habakkuk 2:16

“You will have your fill of shame instead of glory…Drink yourself, and show your uncircumcision! The cup in the LORD’s right hand will come around to you, and utter shame will come upon your glory.

First, the passage treats shame and glory as objective realities that can be gained and taken away. Second, note that the writer contrasts shame and glory (and I doubt many people will say glory, which God possesses, is a mere psychological feeling in God’s mind).

Why are Honor and Shame Objective?

One’s honor or shame is objective in two respects.

1. A person or thing’s honor and shame describes his/her/its worth or some characteristic.

The basic idea is evident in Hebrews 11:24–26, which says, 

“By faith Moses, when he was grown up, refused to be called the son of Pharaoh’s daughter, choosing rather to be mistreated with the people of God than to enjoy the fleeting pleasures of sin. He considered the reproach of Christ greater wealth than the treasures of Egypt, for he was looking to the reward.” 

Moses’ disgrace or lack of honor is described in terms of “wealth” [plouton], something that has value in itself. It is more than a mere feeling.

To think of it another way, something is considered “shameful” if it is worthy of shame, censure, rebuke, etc. From this perspective, shame can be objectified in the same way Peter objectifies the emotion of fear in 1 Peter 3:6. He writes,

  “do not fear anything that is frightening” [m
ē phoboumenai mēdemian ptoēsin]. 

The latter phrase speaks of some thing (object, person, situation) that is regarded as being worthy of fear. 

2. A person’s reputation or social “worth” is assessed by others (or even another person).

Honor and shame like guilt as relative to some standard or measure existing outside an individual. For instance, relative to some law, I may be objectively guilty of an offense regardless of whether I have guilt feelings.

In the same way, God’s people would agree that those who have Spiritual fruit (i.e.  love, joy, peace, patience, self-control….) enjoy an honor/glory relative to Christ. Yet, relative to the world, otherwise godly attributes like humility are deemed humiliating, shameful, or dishonorable. 

In short, having honor or shame in one respect depends on an outside (objective) standard rather than an individual’s psychological (subjective) feeling.

Are We Ashamed of Honor?

What do we do with these observations?

1. Self-reflection

I suggest that people humbly do some self-reflection to consider whether they have overlooked the significance role of honor and shame within the Bible. Might cultural or denominational biases create this blindspot?

To assist you, check out my article “Why the Church Has Lost Face” (in the Jan 2015 issue of Mission Frontiers).

2. Reading

Do some further reading on the subject. A number of resources have come out recently that appeal to different audience; some are introductory, some go deeper into theological debates. On my blog, various posts and resources can help. 

Also, here are a few books to start with:

ï Saving God’s Face: A Chinese Contextualization of Salvation through Honor and Shame

Don’t let the word “Chinese” deceive you. Only one chapter speaks exclusively to a Chinese context. Most of the book develops a theology of salvation for (any) honor-shame context. While not a light read, it is overtly theological and exegetical for those who want to see interaction with the broader theological community.

The next two books are written for a more general audience and so introduce a variety of concepts. They purposefully do not engage in rigorous exegesis and theological debate.

ï The Global Gospel

ï The 3D Gospel: Ministry in Guilt, Shame, and Fear Cultures

3. Honor-Shame Language

Intentionally read Scripture with an eye for honor-shame related issues. Don’t forget that you may need to reframe how you have thought about certain topics, like God’s glory.

For instance, John Piper like Jonathan Edwards has rightly proclaimed that God is most passionate about His own glory. Amen. Yet, we could just as well borrow a Chinese expression and say that God is passionately seeks His own “face.”

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Should a Woman Take the Name of Her Husband?

Aug. 26, 2015By: Philemon YongAuthor Bio

This is a question around the world: Should a woman take the name of her husband when she gets married? It is argued that when a woman takes her husband’s name, she gives up her own identity. It is also argued that the tradition reflects a hierarchical society in which women have few rights, and that there is really no biblical foundation for a woman to take her husband’s name. Is that true?Is there any reasonable biblical argument for a wife to take her husband’s name?


In Genesis 2:18-23, we note the following: God declared that it was not good for the man to be alone. Until that point in creation, God said it was good/very good. Only here does he say “it is not good” (v. 18a). He resolved to make “a helper fit for him” (v. 18b). The word helper here does not mean one who serves, but one who complements the man and completes him. After this observation, God brought the created animals and birds to Adam to see what he would name them (2:19). As Adam was in the process of naming the animals and birds, the words, “But for Adam there was not found a helper fit for him,” (going back to 2:18b) are repeated. It would appear that when God saw that it was not good for Adam to be alone, Adam did not even know that he had a need. In the naming process, Adam came to see his lack of a “helper fit for him.” The animals had corresponding counterparts but Adam did not. Adam came to see his loneliness. God created a situation to show Adam his need for a helper.

Then, God proceeded to create exactly the right helper out of Adam’s own rib. Just as God brought the animals to Adam to see what he would name them, he brought the woman to Adam, probably to see how he would respond and what he would name her (v. 22). Following are the first human words in the Bible. We read in verse 23,

“Then the man said, ‘This at last is bone of my bones and flesh of my flesh; she shall be called Woman (Isha), because she was taken out of Man (Ish).

There is a word play in the naming of the woman by Adam. In naming her, he imbedded his own name in her name. This is significant in several ways: 1) Adam was joyful in the presence of the woman, for he saw that she was the helper fit for him, one who would meet his need for a companion, one who was like him but different. 2) Verse 23 shows that Adam saw equality with the woman. She was his own flesh. 3) By including his own name in the name of the woman, he was anticipating a relationship of deepest intimacy. It is no wonder that immediately following in 2:24-25, we see what amounts to an institution of marriage.

By naming his wife, Adam communicated the deepest intimate feeling he had for her.

So, what is there in the name? As believers, if we agree that the woman is a helper fit for the man, that the two are equal, that there is joy in this union of marriage, that the two are indeed one flesh, we most certainly should complete the thought, and capture that intimacy in the name that results from the union. The issue is not whether one should avoid male control or whether a woman will lose her identity The issue is what is involved in the name. That is worth preserving.

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How Do You Distinguish Americans?

Jun. 22, 2015By: Darren CarlsonAuthor Bio
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One Reason Cross-Cultural Small Talk Is So Tricky

Jun. 19, 2015By: Darren CarlsonAuthor Bio


From Erin Meyer:

It was my first dinner party in France and I was chatting with a Parisian couple. All was well until I asked what I thought was a perfectly innocent question: “How did the two of you meet?” My husband Eric (who is French) shot me a look of horror. When we got home he explained: “We don’t ask that type of question to strangers in France. It’s like asking them the color of their underpants.”

Read the whole thing here.

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Six Questions to Ask Yourself Before You Give a Compliment

May. 27, 2015By: Darren CarlsonAuthor Bio

David Livermore has a helpful post on how to navigate giving culturally intelligent compliments.  I think many of us assume or take for granted how compliments and feedback are received in different cultures. The next time you want to offer some feedback, ask yourself the following questions: 

  1. Livermore_pic_c8cdd975daWhat’s the nature of your relationship? (e.g. your history together, your roles within the organization, etc.)
  2. Should the compliment be directed to the individual or to a group? (if this is a “typical” Chinese person, a compliment directed more toward the person’s ‘in- group’ would likely be better received than just directing it toward the individual).
  3. How explicit should the compliment be? (again, if this individual fits Chinese norms, an indirect approach will likely be better).
  4. What are you affirming? (character, performance, reputation, etc.)
  5. What is the ideal context for sharing the compliment? (private vs. public, written vs. verbal, etc.)
  6. Do the cultural norms for compliments apply to this individual? (Don’t assume that all things said about Chinese preferences apply to this individual. You have to get to know him/her as a person.)
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