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H/S-1 to H/S-5: Levels of Awareness of Honor/Shame in Cross-cultural Ministry

by Werner Mischke

Since 2009, I have been on a learning journey about the dynamic of honor/shame in scripture and its significance for cross-cultural ministry. By God’s grace, I’ve had the opportunity to read and conduct research, to write on the subject, to introduce the subject of honor/shame (H/S) through numerous seminars and workshops, to create resources, and to teach collaboratively with two indigenous ministry partners. 

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Since 2009, I have been on a learning journey about the dynamic of honor/shame in scripture and its significance for cross-cultural ministry. By God’s grace, I’ve had the opportunity to read and conduct research, to write on the subject, to introduce the subject of honor/shame (H/S) through numerous seminars and workshops, to create resources, and to teach collaboratively with two indigenous ministry partners. 

My work has led me to discover five levels of awareness concerning H/S dynamics in cross-cultural ministry. Proposed below are these five levels: H/S-1 to H/S-5. 

Figure 1: Five levels of awareness of honor/shame in cross-cultural ministry

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H/S-1: Unawareness

At level H/S-1, there is little to no awareness of honor/shame dynamics in scripture or culture. The key term is: blind spot. This lack of awareness is considered negative because H/S is vital not only for understanding a large number of cultures of the Majority World, but also for understanding the Bible, which has H/S as its “pivotal cultural value” (Neyrey 1998, 15). This cultural and theological blind spot occurs for various reasons. 

First, consider Christian seminary education and the significance of systematic theology in training pastors, missionaries, and leaders. Timothy Tennent writes, 

Since Western systematic theology has been almost exclusively written by theologians from cultures framed primarily by the values of guilt and innocence, there has been a corresponding failure to fully appreciate the importance of the pivotal values of honor and shame in understanding Scripture and the doctrine of sin. (2007, 92–93) 

Tennent cites Bruce Nicholls’ article in the Evangelical Review of Theology (2001, 232) as research showing that in the Bible, the occurrence of the word guilt and its derivatives are half as frequent as the word shame and its derivatives. Why is the atonement of Christ almost exclusively presented in the West as a cure for sin/guilt without any reference to sin/shame? It’s a blind spot.

Second, literature about honor/shame is recent (Mischke 2014, 24–26); therefore, it has only marginally been incorporated into the academy or the mainstream literature for Christian discipleship. 

Third, theological blind spots are common. All theology is smaller than the whole of biblical revelation. Lesslie Newbigin writes, “We must start with the basic fact that there is no such thing as a pure gospel if by that is meant something which is not embodied in a culture. … Every interpretation of the gospel is embodied in some cultural form” (1989, 144). 

Commenting on the missionary enterprise of the Church, David Bosch writes, “By the time the large-scale Western colonial expansion began, Western Christians were unconscious of the fact that their theology was culturally conditioned; they simply assumed that it was supracultural and universally valid” (1991, 448). 

Could it be that today Western Christian leaders—including many cross-cultural workers—are still “unconscious that their theology is culturally conditioned?”

Consider “The Four Spiritual Laws,” a gospel message typical of Western presentations. The message is directed to individuals, not families or communities. The principles are legal, not regal; there is no mention of the gospel of the kingdom and its honorific meaning for believers. The cross provides forgiveness for sins and guilt; no mention of sin and shame. Moreover, the presentation is abstract (using diagrams), rather than concrete in a narrative form. The majority of Western presentations of the gospel reflect this same set of values.

Fourth, the majority of Christian leaders around the world have been taught by westerners, Western-trained teachers, or use Western-published textbooks. Even if a Christian leader is serving in the Majority World among people whose pivotal cultural value is H/S, he or she is still usually unaware of the extensive material in the Bible by which to articulate the gospel in H/S language. 

It’s not surprising, then, that many pastors, mission educators, theologians, and cross-cultural workers trained from a Western theological perspective have little awareness of H/S dynamics. 

H/S-2: Ethical Level of Awareness 

At level H/S-2, Christians are aware of honor/shame dynamics, but only see the dark side. The key term is: inferior values. H/S is viewed negatively as an unethical value system. It is morally corrupt; to be recognized, yes, but replaced by superior (Western Christian) values.

To be sure, there is a dark side to H/S cultures. One may think of “saving face” as a common but negative practice among some people. A believer at level H/S-2 may acknowledge the cultural feature of H/S, but may think, Why save face? Just look me in the eye and tell the truth! Or if a suicide has occurred, the person may think, It was stupid to commit suicide to “save face” for his or her family.

Consider “honor killings.” Honor-based violence is committed against a family member to restore family honor. It is mystifying to think that a family would, for example, conspire to murder a daughter because she has shamed the family by dating someone outside their religious background. Clearly, evil aspects of H/S cultures abound in our world.

Here’s a more ambiguous example: Suppose an indigenous Christian leader in an H/S culture in which achieved honor is routinely recognized accepts expressions of deference and honor given to him by those of lower status. Western Christians serving alongside the indigenous leader may
perceive his behavior as egotistical—even sinful. The leader views his behavior as proper contextualization, congruent with the advance of the gospel in his culture. But the westerners, while partially aware of H/S dynamics, see H/S as the values undergirding his unethical behavior. Thus, the indigenous leader should repent. 

While the indigenous leader ministers at positive levels of H/S-3 or H/S-4, the westerners are at the negative level of H/S-2. They lack the cognitive categories, culturally or theologically, into which fit a positive view of H/S; they literally cannot imagine going beyond an ethically negative view of H/S. 

Summary of HS-1 and HS-2

Levels H/S-1 and H/S-2 are negative. At H/S-1, there is no awareness of H/S, constituting a blind spot. At level H/S-2, H/S is recognized as a cultural feature, but is understood as the disease of a sinful culture to be replaced by a superior Christian value system (as interpreted by Western believers). 

Concerning the atonement, believers at H/S-1 and H/S-2 view the cross through a legal lens. Christ’s sacrifice satisfies the wrath of a Holy God against guilty sinners who have violated God’s laws; the cross secures forgiveness for sin/guilt; the category of sin/shame is nonexistent. The understanding of salvation as the covering of shame and granting of honor by God is foreign. There is little relevance in their cross-cultural ministry to the “gospel of the kingdom.” 

The strategic issues relative to H/S-1 and H/S-2 are weighty. Missionaries sometimes fail to heed Romans 13:7: Pay to all what is owed to them…”respect to whom respect is owed, honor to whom honor is owed” (cf. 1 Pet 2:17). When Christians ignore this, persons in places of honor can be offended—whether tribal chiefs, government officials, or even the monarchy of a nation. When this happens, it sometimes casts a long shadow of animosity—even persecution—against the gospel, creating multi-generational resistance to the gospel in the respondent culture. That these offenses may be avoidable is sobering indeed. What is the answer to such situations? I believe there are three keys: (1) learning the H/S dynamics of the Bible and how they overlap with the host culture, (2) empathic listening, and (3) contextualized apology.

H/S-3: Functional Level of Awareness

Level H/S-3 begins the transition to a positive view of honor/shame—the functional level. The key term is: Bible societies. At H/S-3, believers become aware of H/S as the pivotal cultural value of Bible cultures, thus gaining a vital lens for understanding the authors and original hearers of scripture. At H/S-3, believers use honor/shame; H/S has a function—a vital hermeneutic to interpret God’s word. Christians using this hermeneutic see both the dark and bright sides of H/S. 

They clearly see that the dark aspects of H/S result from the Fall, leading to a pathology of sin pervading all humanity. However, believers at H/S-3 also see the bright and glorious side to H/S. At the crux of this bright side is the glorious, honorific, kingdom reign of God in which believers live (Matt. 5:1–12), and the ascended kingship of Jesus Christ in whom believers live (Eph. 2:6, Col. 1:28, 1 Tim. 6:15). Redemption is embraced in both legal and regal dimensions.

Moreover, believers at H/S-3 discover that by gaining awareness of H/S as the pivotal cultural value of Bible societies, they realize a two-fold blessing: (1) their relationship with God’s word comes alive with many new insights and (2) they see vivid overlaps between the values of Bible societies and those of many Majority World peoples. They gain tools and skills to relate more effectively as gospel messengers.

As believers progress in level H/S-3, they see the strategic function of H/S in hermeneutics, preaching, theology, and missiology. They ask: “Is the Western theological bias of legal over regal (ignoring H/S) a remnant of colonialism?”

H/S-4: Evangelical Level of Awareness 

Level H/S-4 builds on the positive understanding of honor/shame. The key term is: gospel message. At level H/S-4, believers gain awareness of H/S as central to the good news. H/S-4 is called the evangelical level—it is all about the gospel.

Concerning the dark side of H/S, believers understand sin as dishonoring God (Rom. 1:21-22; 2:23-24, cf. Rom. 3:23). It may be just as serious to insult God’s regal Person as it is to violate the Judge’s legal code. 

Concerning the bright side of H/S, believers embrace salvation in Christ as a drama of honor-status reversal—a reversal of shame to honor. Consider Ephesians 2, where one finds “salvation by grace through faith” (v. 8-10). Believers at level H/S-4 know this glorious redemptive truth sits at the intersection of two great honor-status reversals—vertically in relationship to God (v. 1-7)—and horizontally in relationship to God’s people (v. 11-22). Tennent writes: 

The New Testament celebrates a salvific transformation that has both vertical and horizontal dimensions. Personal salvation in the New Testament is inextricably linked to becoming a part of the new humanity of Ephesians 2:15. (2010, 62)

Believers at level H/S-4 have experienced the gospel as the cure for both guilt and shame. Their shame has been covered and their honor restored through Christ. 

The Prodigal Son story (Luke 15:11-32) offers a powerful narrative by which Jesus teaches that God is like a father willing to suffer shame for us (Heb. 1:3). Is there a way to have the honor of joining God’s family and know for sure the honor of entering heaven’s great party? “Jesus answered, ‘I am the way, and the truth, and the life. The only way to the Father is through me’” (John 14:6). One facet of salvation is having one’s honor eternally relocated into the kingdom and Person of God’s beloved Son (Col. 1:13).  

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At level H/S-4, the bright side of honor/shame is clear. H/S is a powerful hermeneutic by which to contextualize the gospel of Christ (cf. Mischke 2014, sec. 3), and is important for personal spiritual transformation.

Moreover, cross-cultural workers at level H/S-4 see the strategic value of H/S dynamics. The H/S hermeneutic offers scripturally-rooted thought forms by which the gospel may be contextualized for many unengaged and unreached peoples. H/S awareness contributes to the Church’s task of discipling all nations. And the Western-based law-and-guilt-oriented gospel is relativized to be in balance with an honor/shame and regal-based gospel of the kingdom.

H/S-5: Teleological Level of Awareness 

The highest level of awareness of honor/shame is H/S-5. The key term is: glorious kingdom. At H/S-5, believers see H/S as central to the Bible’s narrative of an honorific destiny both for Christ and for the peoples of the earth. H/S-5 is identified as the teleological level because of its focus on God’s ultimate purpose.

Concerning the dark side of H/S, the Bible says that all evil forces will be conquered by King Jesus. The whole universe will one day be united in Christ (Eph. 1:10). Christ’s conquest will be so resounding that all enemies will be shamed and put under his feet (Ps. 110:1; Matt. 22:23-24; 1 Cor. 15:25-27; Eph. 1:21-22). 

On the bright side of H/S, Christians see regal honor at the crux of God’s ultimate purpose. The universe is less about what is right and more about who is exalted and loved as King. Eventually, the regal will trump anything merely legal. Steven Hawthorne says, “The King of kings is not only the one from whom all laws are derived. He is the one unto whom the perfect law of love is finally directed” (personal correspondence).

But there’s more. With infinite grace, God actually shares his honor and glory with the redeemed (John 17:22). The saints of God shall actually receive and possess God’s kingdom forever (Dan. 7:18; 22; 27). The day is coming when every people will worship the regal Savior (Rev. 5:9), while they themselves experience divine honor in the process! Such is the overflowing love and honor of Almighty God dwelling with his people (Rev. 21:30) … the King sitting with conquering saints who have joined him on his throne (Rev. 3:21) … the Bridegroom banqueting with his bride (Rev. 19:7-9) … and Christ receiving the kings of the earth to bring the glory and honor of the nations into the New Jerusalem (Rev. 21:24-26). The missio Dei culminates in glory for God and honor from God for every people. Doxology as relational love and honor is the destiny of all creation (Rom. 11:36) (Hawthorne 2013, 354-359).

Strategically, H/S dynamics can serve mission thinking and practice. Empathic listening in the global Body of Christ acquires an amplified importance as the so-called “honorable” collaborate with the so-called “less honorable” (1 Cor. 12:21-24). Evangelism and church planting begin with a view toward the honor of every people restored and fully enjoyed by God. This is not only a reason to prioritize the unreached and unengaged, but is a beautiful vision that can be an entry point for the gospel. And creative worship arts in ethnolinguistic harmony glorify Christ while honoring every people (Hawthorne 2013). At H/S-5, a culture of Christ-centered honor permeates the Church’s mission of blessing the nations.

Conclusion

Many are unaware of the overlaps between the H/S dynamics in scripture and the world’s H/S cultures. Believers can gain higher levels of awareness of H/S, leading to more effective cross-cultural ministry. This analysis of H/S awareness is a tool to stimulate dialogue and understanding about both the negative and positive aspects of H/S—in scripture and culture. May this resource be catalytic for the Church’s mission to disciple the nations for the glory of King Jesus and the honor of every people.

References

Bosch, David J. 1992. Transforming Mission: Paradigm Shifts in Theology of Mission. Maryknoll, N.Y.: Orbis.

Hawthorne, Steven. 2013. Let All the Peoples Praise Him: Toward a Teleological Paradigm of the Missio Dei. Fuller Theologcial Seminary.

Mischke, Werner G. 2014. The Global Gospel: Achieving Missional Impact in Our Multicultural World. Scottsdale, Ar.

Newbigin, Lesslie. 1989. The Gospel in a Pluralistic Society. Grand Rapids, Mich.: Wm. B. Eerdmans Publishing Co.

Neyrey, Jerome H. 1998. Honor and Shame in the Gospel of Matthew. Louisville: Westminster John Knox Press.

Nicholls, Bruce. 2001. “The Role of Shame and Guilt in a Theology of Cross-Cultural Mission,” Evangelical Review of Theology 25(3): 232.

Tennent, Timothy. 2010. Invitation to World Missions: A Trinitarian Missiology for the Twenty-first Century. Grand Rapids, Mich.: Kregel.

_____. 2007. Theology in the Context of World Christianity: How the Global Church Is Influencing the Way We Think about and Discuss Theology. Grand Rapids: Zondervan, 2007.

Werner Mischke is executive vice president of Mission ONE. His new book, The Global Gospel: Achieving Missional Impact in Our Multicultural World, examines the honor/shame dynamics common to the ancient cultures of the Bible, the Majority World, and the gospel.

EMQ, Vol. 51, No. 2 pp. 170-178. Copyright  © 2015 Billy Graham Center for Evangelism.  All rights reserved. Not to be reproduced or copied in any form without written permission from EMQ editors.

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