New Book: Honor, Shame, and the Gospel (WCP)

William Carey Press has published the new book Honor, Shame, and the Gospel (240 pp.), edited by Chris Flanders and Werner Mischke. This compendium brings together many of the outstanding presentations from our 2017 conference at Wheaton. The book is available in Kindle ($9.99) and paperback formats ($17.99).

In Honor, Shame, and the Gospel, over a dozen practitioners and scholars from diverse contexts and fields add to the ongoing conversation around the theological and missiological implications of an honorific gospel. Eight illuminating case studies explore ways to make disciples in a diversity of social contexts—for example, East Asian rural, Middle Eastern refugee, African tribal, and Western secular urban.

Honor, Shame, and the Gospel provides valuable resources to impact the ministry efforts of the church, locally and globally. Linked with its ancient honor-shame cultural roots, the gospel, paradoxically, is ever new—offering fresh wisdom to Christian leaders and optimism to the church for our quest to expand Christ’s kingdom and serve the worldwide mission of God. 

Contributors include: 

  • Steven C. Hawthorne
  • Jayson Georges
  • Tom Steffen
  • Jackson Wu
  • Randolph Richards
  • Mako A. Nagasawa
  • Steve Tracy
  • Lynn Thigpen
  • Arley Loewen
  • Steve Hong
  • Cristian Dumitrescu
  • Rich James
  • Katie J. Rawson
  • Nolan Sharp
  • Audrey Frank

Posted in Resources

Jesus’ Purifying Death

After Jesus died, something strange happened. “The tombs also were opened, and many bodies of the holy ones who had fallen asleep were raised. After his resurrection they came out of the tombs and entered the holy city and appeared to many” (Matt 27:52–53). What is the meaning of such an event?  

James Tissot (French, 1836-1902). The Dead Appear in the Temple

Scholars have pointed to various OT passages (Ezek 37:1–14; Zech 14:4–5; 52:1–2) that anticipate the future resurrection of God’s people. This suggests that Jesus’ death has inacted the end-time resurrection of God’s people and inaugurated the Age to Come. However, comments in Matthew Thiessen’s book Jesus and the Forces of Death (reviewed in an earlier post) unfold the fresh theological significance of this passage.

In the death of Jesus, people who had apparently become irreversibly impure in death were raised and therefore set on the path to purity. Priestly language and concepts run throughout Matthew’s story. The deceased were themselves holy but dwelled in a place of impurity. And Jesus’s death, the moment when the forces of impurity appeared to overwhelm Jesus himself, results in the holy ones undergoing the first step toward purification while in their tombs and then coming out of these places of impurity in order to enter into the holy city of Jerusalem. (p. 110)

What is most shocking about this portrayal is that at the very moment that the forces of impurity seem to have finally beaten Jesus, at the precise instant that Jesus becomes a corpse and presumably a source of corpse contamination, holy power emanates out of him and into the abode of death— tombs—to snatch away bodies who were themselves sources of ritual impurity. Whereas corpses usually emit some miasma of impurity, Jesus’s corpse appears to emit a miasma of holy power that selectively revivifies long-dead saints. This holy discharge is wide-ranging, traveling from Jesus’s corpse at Golgotha to and through Jerusalem. It is also unspeakably powerful, reaching deep into the bowels of death to give life to those who have been long dead. Matthew narrates in dramatic fashion how Jesus’s crucifixion is ultimately a victory over death itself. (p. 111)

The Holy one has entered into death—the realm of abject impurity—and blasted away all such impurities. Jesus obliterated the bonds of death and ritual impurities, allowing creatures to, alas, experience immorality. All such shame disintegrates when confronted with such Honor. The innate glory of Jesus destroys the forces of alienation and disgrace, which we profoundly experience in death.

The text refers to these people as “holy ones” and they entered the “holy city.” Matthew could have just said people and Jerusalem in those places, but he emphasizes the holy nature of both the people and place, at the most unexpected time (crucifixion) and place (graves). He shifts our focus to the purifying power of Jesus’ crucified body.

Until the Middle Ages, this idea of conquest over the forces of death was a primary interpretation of Jesus’ death/resurrection. John Chrysostom, a fourth-century Church Father, summarized the atonement in this way: “And he was nailed to the cross, and tasted death; he who is from the beginning immortal stripped Hades of its spoils, and the proven winner rose from death” (On Ascension).

Posted in Bible, Jesus

Crucifixion as “Exaltation” in the Gospels

Jesus was “lifted up” onto the cross. This phrase refers to the physical act of raising the person so that everyone could see. However, the term also has royal/status connotations. Crucifixion was a moment of exaltation. On this topic, Joel Marcus (professor emeritus, Duke University) has a fascinating article, “Crucifixion as Parodic Exaltation,” Journal of Biblical Literature, 125:1 (2006), pp. 73-87.

Article Synopsis

He asks an interesting question: If the Romans were so occupied with status hierarchy, why was their preferred form of punishment raising up people higher than themselves? The idea of humiliating someone by raising them is quite ironic. Marcus argues that this irony was the exact intention.

For ancient Romans, crucifixion was a parody that mimicked a person’s false exaltation. Romans crucified two classes of people—rebellious slaves and political seditionists. These people rejected the status hierarchy. Rebellious slaves insulted their masters, while rebels rejected the authority of Rome. They claimed a higher status for themselves, and thus disdained the honor of those with power.

Therefore, crucifixion was giving people want they wanted: exaltation. By crucifying status-graspers, Roman authorities said, in effect, “You want a higher status? Here, we’ll lift you up for all to see! We’ll give you a royal coronation.” Marcus explains, “Crucifixion was intended to unmask, in a deliberately grotesque manner, the pretension and arrogance of those who exalted themselves beyond their station” (78). The punishment reveals the nature of the crime and puts the person “in his place.” A cross mocked a disrespectful person by raising them to an elevated status, unto death. The entire procedure ridiculed the victim with mock honors. Prisoners bestowed a crown and royal robe upon the victim; Roman authorities placed placards with honorary titles over their heads. These actions were a mock enthronement.

But sometimes the joke becomes true, the parody becomes reality. When a person endures the injustice with courage and nobility, crucifixion becomes a revelation of the person’s true honor. The onlookers stop mocking the victim and wonder, “Perhaps he really was a king.”


That is a synopsis of the article, which Marcus supports with abundant citations of ancient sources. While focused on history, the article has theological implications, especially related to atonement. I’ll explore some of these.

People often ask me, “What is a good verse about Jesus atoning our shame?” The question usually carries the implied tagline, “from the book of Romans, or another Pauline letter,” as though the gospels are not sources for atonement theology. Many assume that the gospels only portray an unfortunate death, but then Paul provides us with the spiritual significance of the cross. This approach stunts our interpretation of the gospels.

Also, our theology of salvation and atonement should further consider how Jesus died. The means of Jesus’ death is just as significant as the fact of his death. Crucifixion is not an incidental detail to Jesus’ sacrificial death. However, I suggest that the crucifixion is an inherent aspect of how Jesus saves. Our atonement theology jumps from historical event (i.e., Jesus’ physical death in the gospels) to theology (the spiritual implications in the epistles). We thus leap over the social meaning of Jesus’ cross—the cross was simultaneously a weapon of great humiliation and exaltation, shame and honor. This social meaning was primary in the eyes of the people who saw the actual crucifixion. And then, a generation later, this social meaning remained primary for the gospel-writers and their audiences. People in the ancient world saw Jesus’ death foremost for its social meaning—this person Jesus reframes notions of human status. Jesus’ crucifixion becomes a profound revelation of shame and honor. Early Christian atonement theology is not a mere description of the mechanical transaction in heaven but, rather, a crucifixion narrative.

So, what is a good verse about Jesus atoning for our shame? Perhaps Mark 9-16, the earliest Christian narrative of Jesus honorably bearing shame and becoming exalted as king. If we need a verse from Paul and Hebrews to note the shame (and honor) of the cross, then we are misreading the four gospels.

Posted in Christology, Jesus, salvation Tagged with: , , , ,

Crucifixion as Exaltation in Mark

When was Jesus exalted and gloried?

In the Gospel of John, Jesus is gloried at the cross. The fourth gospel plays off the double meaning of “lifted up” (3:14; 8:28; 12:31-34; 13:18). When the Romans lift up the crucified Jesus as a public spectacle, that was his very moment of exaltation. The enemies of Jesus intended to disgrace Jesus; but in fact, at that moment, God enthroned him as king, the one who rules and judges (12:31-34). However, this theme is not unique to John.

The gospel of Mark portrays Jesus’ crucifixion as a Roman triumphal procession. The article by T. E. Schmidt, “Mark 15.16-32: The Crucifixion Narrative and the Roman Triumphal Procession” (NTS 41, 1995, pp. 1-18), argues that Mark’s passion narrative evokes the famous victory parades of Roman emperors. These public processions honored the emperor as he returned from a great military victory. By portraying Jesus’ death as an ‘anti-triumph,’ Mark transforms the scandal of the cross into the moment of Jesus’ exaltation. In other words, Jesus was glorified at his death, not just his resurrection.

Below is Schmidt’s summary of the Roman triumphus parade. The parallels with Mark’s passion narrative (added in parentheses) are uncanny.

The Praetorians gather early in the morning to proclaim the triumphator (cf. Mark 15:16, soldiers gather at Praetorium). He is dressed in the triumphal garb, and a crown of laurel is placed on his head (v. 17, purple robe and crown). The soldiers then shout in acclamation of his Lordship and perform acts of homage to him (vv. 18-19, mocking reverence). They accompany him from the camp through the streets of the city (v. 20, going through Jerusalem). The sacrificial victim is there in the procession, and alongside walks the official carrying the implement of his coming death (v. 21, Simon of Cyrene). The procession ascends finally to the Place of the Death’s Head, where the sacrifice is to take place (v. 22, Golgotha). The triumphator is offered the ceremonial wine. He does not drink it, but it is poured out on the altar at the moment of sacrifice (v. 23, Jesus refuses wine). Then, at the moment of being lifted up before the people, at the moment of the sacrifice, again the triumphator is acclaimed as Lord (v. 26, the placard ‘King of the Jews’), and his vice-regents appear with him in confirmation of his glory (v. 27, two victims on each side). Following the lead of the soldiers, the people together with their leaders and the vice-regents themselves join in the acclamation. The epiphany is confirmed in portents by the gods: ‘Truly this man is the Son of God!’ (v. 39, the soldier’s culminating announcement of Jesus’ divine sonship).

So, then, why does Mark do this? What does he accomplish by portraying Jesus’ crucifixion as a Roman triumphal procession?

Consider the historical circumstances. Mark wrote in Rome in the 60s (according to second-century testimony). His audience, residents of Rome, surely witnessed these political parades and knew the symbolic elements. Thus, they would have “eyes to see” Mark’s evocative portrayal. Moreover, this was a time of Nero’s persecution. The apostles Paul and Peter had recently been crucified, and Mark’s audience (i.e., Jesus followers in Rome) was facing severe persecution. They sought God’s sovereignty in the moment of humiliation. Thus, the passion story is a martyrdom narrative veiled as a victory procession in order to encourage and strengthen believers. Jesus, the Son of God, is declared the true and triumphant Lord at the moment of his sacrifice.

The theological implications are significant. The cross is presented as a royal exaltation, a king’s moment of triumph and glory. Jesus is the king, not merely a sacrificial animal. Specifically, he is not only a king in heaven (as the resurrection and ascension infer) but also a king on earth via the crucifixion.

When combined with John’s theology of “lifted up,” Mark provides insights into the new pathway to glory. Humiliation is (divine) exaltation. Shame is (divine) honor. Disgrace is (divine) favor. Weakness is (divine) strength. God does not exalt Jesus from or after the cross, but in and during his moment of abject disgrace. If we locate Jesus’ exaltation after the cross, we end up with a dysfunctional theology: “I will experience blessings after this difficult season. God, save us from these difficult times.” Rather, Mark teaches that salvation and exaltation occur at the cross. In the new covenant and kingdom inaugurated with Jesus, shame is the very means of honor.

Posted in Jesus, salvation Tagged with: , , ,

The Atonement: A Series

How does God save? More specifically, how do Jesus’ death and resurrection bring salvation? This is the question of “atonement”—the core of Christian theology.

Posts over the next several weeks will explore the theology of atonement in light of honor-shame. However, my approach will be a bit different. The posts will focus on the passion narratives of the Gospels. We often communicate our atonement theology through abstract, propositional discourse. As a result, we emphasize the propositional elements of the New Testament (i.e., Pauline letters, Hebrews, 1 Peter) to construct our atonement theology. However, the early church also communicated atonement via narratives of Jesus’ death. Therefore, the posts will focus on the crucifixion stories.

Also, my question is different. We usually start with the question, “How does Jesus save me?” This question, though important, is leading, and perhaps even distracting from other aspects of salvation accomplished on the cross. So, my questions are:

  • How did Jesus’ death create a new paradigm of honor?
  • How does Jesus reveal honor?
  • What do the gospel narratives of Jesus say about honor?

We often emphasize the transactional aspects of salvation. But there may be ways the atonement is redefinitional. God not only removes something and debits an account, but he also reframes reality and opens new understandings of Truth through the cross. My thoughts are preliminary, but hopefully the next several posts will enrich our theology of honor and salvation in Christ.

Previous posts on the atonement are available here.

Posted in Uncategorized

New Issue of Missio Dei Journal on Honor-Shame

The academic online publication Missio Dei: A Journal of Missional Theology and Praxis has a recent issue dedicated to honor and shame. Rather than repeating the introductory explanations of honor and shame, the articles apply and explore a rich variety of topics in light of honor-shame realities. The editor Chris Flanders has done an excellent job in curating these 10 articles and 6 book reviews.

Here is his summary from the editorial preface.

In “An Honor-Bearing Gospel for Shame-Fueled Crises,” Werner Mischke asks what the gospel implies for the current global refugee crisis, issues of terrorism, and the poison of racism. His answer? Shame is at the center of such persistent global crises, and Ephesians 2 provides a gospel of hostility-killing peace and shame-covering honor, which can be resources to heal these enduring problems.

Yi-Sang Patrick Chan provides us with a view of Romans 8 through distinctly non-traditional lenses. “Romans 8 and the Conception of Chinese Shame and Guilt” calls for a different view than the traditional Anglo-European approach with which most of us are familiar.

Travis Myers, in his article “Figuring the Disfigured in Zhuangzi and the Gospel of Mark: A Comparative Analysis,” provides a wonderful example of comparative theology, using stories from the Chinese classics of Zhuangzi and three stories from the Gospel of Mark. In this comparative work, he engages issues of disfigurement (and the accompanying stigma, shame, and need for honor) which raise important questions for Christian communities in every context, especially how to view and treat those on whom society has stigmatized and shamed.

Drawing upon his extensive missionary experience, Alan Howell offers a reading of Paul in the book of Philemon, utilizing a Mozambican rhetorical perspective. His article “‘Old Man’ as Cipher: Humor and Honor-Shame Rhetoric for Reading Philemon in Mozambique” provides a fresh cultural reading of that brief New Testament document.

Once a paragon of church growth and global admiration, the Protestant Church in Korea now struggles with significant membership decline and huge public relations problems. Shin-Ho Choi and Mike Rynkiewich, in “Face and the Loss of Reputation in the Korean Protestant Church,” paint a picture of institutional face-loss as a salient factor in the current challenges Korean Christianity faces.

Jackson Wu’s “From One Honor-Shame Culture to Another: A Proposal for Training Chinese Missionaries to Serve in Muslim Contexts” does the missiological community a favor by directing our attention to one of the “new sending nations,” China. He analyzes two very different cultures that both adhere to decidedly non-Western views of honor and shame. In his analysis, Wu proposes a framework for seeking context-specific strategies and training methodologies.

Anthony J. Gryskiewicz’s “Honor and Shame in Ruth” brings helpful insights from this ancient Mediterranean story to the modern, Western reader, especially in terms of face concerns and facework.

Evertt Huffard holds the special distinction of being the very first Western missiologist to write a PhD dissertation that materially addressed issues of honor/shame from a missiological perspective. He did so in 1985 while at Fuller Theological Seminary, writing on the topic of “Thematic Dissonance in the Muslim-Christian Encounter: A Contextualized Theology of Honor.” We are honored that he has continued this distinguished legacy here with his article titled “How Glory Veiled the Honor of God (2 Cor 2:1–4:6)”, in which he draws upon current research to shed light on a well-known, missiologically significant section of Paul’s writings.

Harriet Hill, who has worked extensively in missionary care of various kinds, highlights how missionaries face temptations of shame particular to the missionary task. Her “Missionaries and Shame” illustrates how the missionary calling is fraught with such personal trials and what God’s called servants can do to counter these temptations.

In this issue, veteran missionaries Sherry Faris and Jeremy Davis provide us with real-life case studies in “Honor and Shame among the Sankaran in Guinea: A Case Study.” These two tangible examples of how honor-shame issues show up in very different contexts illustrate both the universality of these issues and the incredible challenge for those who would attempt to navigate honor-shame issues successfully.

Several reviews highlight recent important works dealing with honor-shame issues:
  • The Honor-Shame Paraphrase Series
  • Daniel Y. Wu‘s Honor, Shame, and Guilt: Social-Scientific Approaches to the Book of Ezekiel,
  • Jackson Wu‘s Reading Romans with Eastern Eyes: Honor and Shame in Paul’s Message and Mission,
  • Te-Li Lau‘s Defending Shame: Its Formative Power in Paul’s Letters,
  • Audrey Frank’s Covered Glory: The Face of Honor and Shame in the Muslim World, and
  • Ajith Fernando‘s Discipling in a Multicultural World.


Posted in Uncategorized

Purity and Pollution in the Gospels

“Jews in the first century focused on external, ritual purity. Then Jesus came along and erased all the Jewish purity regulations. He emphasized on the internal, moral dimensions of the Law.” Such thinking is the standard Christian interpretation of Jesus’ engagement with ancient Judaism and its purity regulations. But this reading may result from centuries of Christian (polemical) theologizing more than historical exegesis.

In Jesus and the Forces of Death: The Gospels’ Portrayal of Ritual Impurity within First-Century Judaism (Baker, 2020), Matthew Thiessen argues that Jesus was truly concerned with matters of ritual purity and law observance. Modern readers, due to our ignorance of purity concerns, misread Jesus’ miracles and teachings, and so fail to see Jesus’ deep concern for ritual purity.

The ideas of purity and pollution are key aspects of honor-shame cultures. But, to be honest, I did not have a solid grasp on how ritual purity “works,” neither in the biblical world nor in modern societies. The concept remains foreign to me as a modern Westerner, so I greatly enjoyed the exegetical and theological insights of Jesus and the Forces of Death.

Chapter 1—Mapping Jesus’s Word—explains the structure of purity regulations in ancient Judaism. The important pairs are holy/profane and pure/impure. People could become impure for many reasons that were not innately sinful. An impure person had to perform the proper ritual ceremony to become purified, and thus be able to enter sacred space (Jerusalem Temple) and perform sacred activities (religious holidays). If an unclean person entered the realm of the holy, this would blaspheme/defame God and be considered a moral sin. Either the Holy would vacate the scene, or the unclean would be destroyed. The law allows for the common (mortal creatures) to relate with the holy (God), and thus is inherently compassionate.

Numbers 5:3 lists the three main types of people deemed impure: “Command the Israelites to put out of the camp everyone who is leprous, or has a discharge, and everyone who is unclean through contact with a corpse” (Num 5:3). These three classes of people embody the forces of death and morality; thus, such persons are not allowed into the presence of the life-giving, holy God of Israel. In Chapters 3–5, Thiessen examines the meaning of Jesus’ interactions with each type of impure person. The chapters discuss OT, ANE, Greco-Roman, and Jewish (2TP, Essene, and Rabbinic) notions of impurity for each type of person. This socio-cultural background—a great strength of the book—effectively situates Jesus’ miracle in a world deeply concerned with purity. We see that Jesus was not obliterating notions of purity but, rather, destroying the sources of impurity themselves so that people could become clean and pure. Jesus sought to removes “forces of death.” He was an overwhelming force of holiness that destroyed the sources of ritual impurities (which implies he cared about Torah’s demarcation lines of purity and impurity).

The final chapters on Sabbath regulations and Dietary Laws argue that Jesus was not seeking to destroy Torah regulations. Rather, Jesus was engaging in common Jewish legal debates about how to properly practice and observe the Law. Other Jews in Jesus’ time, such as the Essenes at Qumran and the rabbis, engaged in the very same conversations to resolve apparent legal contradictions (i.e., if your animal falls in a pit on the Sabbath, … ). Just as Jesus’ miracles made people pure, his teaching instructed people how to be pure before the Law.

Thiessen summarizes his interpretation of Jesus in the (Synoptic) Gospels on page 179:

[R]itual impurity remained of fundamental importance for the Gospel writers, but they were convinced that God had introduced something new into the world to deal with the sources of these impurities: Jesus. By inserting a new, mobile, and powerfully contagious force of holiness into the world in the person of Jesus, Israel’s God has signaled the very coming of the kingdom—a kingdom of holiness and life that throughout the mission of Jesus overwhelms the forces and sources of impurity and death, be they pneumatic, ritual, or moral.

The brevity of the book, though an overall strength, limited the focus to Jesus’ miracles and legal debates. Thus, I wondered how Thiessen might interpret issues of purity in Jesus’ crucifixion, John’s Gospel, and Paul’s mission to the Gentiles. In sum, Jesus and the Forces of Death makes a clear, cogent argument for situating Jesus within, not against, the Judaism of his day. The work of NT scholarship covers much terrain in just 196 pages and offers fresh readings of many familiar Gospel stories. This book broadened and enhanced my understanding of purity in the Gospels, Christian theology, and global cultures.

Disclosure: I received this book for free from Baker to post a review.

Posted in Bible

Honor-Shame in India??

There appears to very few resources about honor-shame in India. Compared with other contexts such as Asian and Arab cultures, I have discovered only a few resources on the topic, either secular or Christian. This is surprising to me, considering the population size, long history, and cultural significance of India. 

Below is listed the resources that I have found to date. If you know of more works, please share them below as a comment. We did this a few years about for resources about honor-shame in Africa, and it helped to pool resources on the topic. Hopefully this approach works again. Thanks!

  • Balu Savarikannu, “Expressions of Honor and Shame in Lamentations 1,” Asian Journal of Pentecostal Studies 21, no. 1 (2018): 81–94. This is about about India per se, but a biblical theology by an Indian scholar. 
  • Richard A. Shweder et al., “The ‘Big Three’ of Morality (Autonomy, Community, Divinity) and the ‘Big Three’ Explanations of Suffering,” in Morality and Health, ed. A. M. Brandt and P. Rozin (Florence, US: Routledge, 1997), 119–69. Not directly about India, but based on field-work in India. 
  • Ravi Zacharias, “Testimony: Antidote to Poison,” Christianity Today, April 2013. Includes a brief discussion about honor-shame dynamics in his conversion experience.
  • Paul G Hiebert, “Clean and Dirty: Cross-Cultural Misunderstandings in India,” EMQ, January 2008. A simple yet insightful article about purity norms in India compared to Western cultures. 
Posted in Culture Tagged with: ,

A Gospel Narrative for the Shame-Honor Culture of India

Jay Dharan (M.Div, Reformed Presbyterian Theological Seminary) is a Bible-teacher ministering in India. He desires to foster an indigenous Christianity that addresses the honor-shame culture of India.

In India, the shame-honor culture is deeply rooted in the caste system, which is foundational to the Indian perspective, even for those outside Hinduism. Though it may have had its origin as a trade-based stratification of ancient Indian society, for much of India’s history, it has had a Brahminic hegemony to its structure. So the priestly class are the true custodians of the Vedic faith, while all the other castes are inferior to them. One’s honor in this sense is fixed from birth to death based on one’s caste-based identity.

The Christian gospel begins its narrative with God creating all mankind in His own image. Hence on the one hand, it agrees with the Indian culture that vocation or virtue does not determine one’s identity and rather affirms an ontological worth as foundational to one’s identity. But on the other hand by its affirmation of the image of God in all human beings, the gospel disagrees with the Indian culture that this ontological worth has a variegated presence based on one’s caste. Moreover, the offer of redemption in Christ involves gaining an additional, new, and everlasting identity of being a child of God dearly loved by the Father in Christ Jesus. This identity is a relational one, affording us the greatest relationship, and thereby, the greatest favor and honor. Thus true and lasting honor is not to have the highest caste identity, but the highest relational identity, one of being able to call God, Abba Father.

However, all mankind does not enjoy this kind of dignity and fellowship, as the narrative of the gospel goes on to tell us, because our first parents were disloyal to God and thereby, dishonored him. All progeny of Adam were thus born into this estrangement from God. Being cast away from the loving and favorable presence of God, mankind wallows in shame. Neither do we image God faithfully, nor do we enjoy relational favor with Him. We thus experience the very undoing of ourselves and have thus lost our face covered in shame. It is here that culture tries to construct alternate and pseudo-honor in the name of caste or other ascribed social wealth. The gospel informs us that no such ascribed honor can overcome the depths of shame we feel deep inside us due to our estrangement from God. For true shame cannot be covered with fig leaves, it requires a restorative transformation of our own selves from within. In other words, it is not the same soul going through cycles of reincarnation that will get rid of this shame, but a regeneration of the inner self back to the original dignity and favor that Adam lost.

To accomplish this restoration of man to the likeness and life of God, God Himself in His great kindness and condescending compassion, chose to incarnate Himself. In the Son who became flesh, our nature was united to His so that He can heal and restore it. On the Cross, Jesus embodied all our shame and condemnation from God, chiefly the ultimate estrangement from God, namely, death. Precisely because Jesus took our nature, He was able to die. But also because it was God who came in flesh, He was able to defeat death. In His resurrection then we have God restoring His honor back as the beloved Son freed from the dominion of sin and death. In His consubstantial unity with mankind, our nature also experiences the same redemption. Thus in Him, the Second Adam, there is access to a new creation which is available for anyone who will unite with Him through the instrument of faith. Being a believer of Christ thus means being part of the restored mankind which progressively is experiencing the dignity and favor that Adam lost. So the gospel now invites all to experience true honor through union with Christ, the redeemer, and participating by the indwelling Spirit in the filial relationship enjoyed by the Son from the Father. This is the good news of Jesus Christ.

Evangelizing Indians would then involve communicating two pivotal truths. First, Jesus Christ is the truly honorable man, even though He died the most shameful way. Christ is honorable because He was always faithful in all His relationships. In His relationship with God, He was obedient to the point of death. In His relationship with man, He was faithful to love man to the point of death. In both cases, He voluntarily chose to die, thus demonstrating true justice and courage. Thus Christ is noble and worthy of unparalleled praise from all mankind. Moreover, even God acknowledged it by raising Him from the dead and crowning Him as Lord King of heaven and earth. Hence the primary demand of the gospel – to repent of all false worship and give all adulation to where true honor is due, Lord Jesus Christ. Second, through the shameful death and eventual resurrection of Jesus Christ, we have access to true and lasting honor. Through the substitutionary shaming of Jesus, He is now the savior of all mankind offering relational peace with and honor from God to any who will experience new creation in Him. Hence the gospel then demands all to be united to Christ through wholehearted trust in His saving promise and live in embodied allegiance to His kingdom.

Posted in Communication, Culture Tagged with: , ,

Paul’s Rhetoric of Shame in Philemon, ala John Chrysostom

John Chrysostom preached four homilies on Paul’s letter to Philemon. The fourth-century bishop of Constantinople was trained in Greek rhetoric, so he discusses the various ways that Paul uses honor and shame to influence Philemon. The words “honor” and “shame” each appear twenty-two times in the four homilies.

Chrysostom’s fourth-century homilies reveal how the early Church read and interpreted Paul. We can see the letter through different eyes. Also, we can better understand how Paul uses shame for his ministry purposes. For Paul, the rhetoric of shame (and honor) was not taboo or manipulative; rather, it was acceptable for purposes of discipleship and ministry. This post summarizes Chrysostom’s interpretation of Paul’s letter to Philemon.

The Rhetoric of Shame

 Chrysostom’s homilies read like a rhetorical analysis of Paul’s epistle. He often draws the readers to Paul’s stealthy rhetoric. For example, Chrysostom makes this comment about Paul’s introductory greeting: “Observe therefore how prudently he has found a way by his manner of mentioning them, both to honor them by his mention of them, and not to wound him.” As a student of ancient rhetoric, Chrysostom notices Paul’s repeated use of shame and honor to influence Philemon. At one point, he explains, “Strange! how many things are here to shame him into compliance.”

Paul’s identification as a “prisoner of Christ” (v. 1) has a particular rhetorical strategy. If a prisoner like Paul can be Philemon’s honored friend, then so can a slave (Onesimus). The apostle deliberately minimizes his own status: “For if a chain for Christ’s sake is not a shame but a boast, much more is slavery not to be considered a reproach. … Nothing is greater than this boast, to be called ‘the stigmatized’ of Christ.” Paul refers to his imprisonment several times: “the chains are mentioned to shame [Philemon] into compliance.” Paul also identifies Epaphras (the minister who started the Colossian church, cf. Col 1:7; Phil 23) as a “fellow-prisoner.” According to Chrysostom, Philemon would be put to shame if he did not grant Paul’s favor while the apostle and his countryman Epaphras languished in prison.

In verse 7 Paul notes Philemon’s generosity towards other saints, as a way of inducing another favor towards Onesimus. “Nothing so shames us into giving, as to bring forward the kindnesses bestowed on others, and particularly when a man is more entitled to respect than they.”

Likewise, Paul’s offer to pay Onesimus’ debt (v. 18) “would both shame Philemon into compliance, and bring Onesimus out of trouble.”

And why does Paul extend greetings from other people (v. 24)? Once again, to shame Philemon into compliance! “And from these indeed [Paul] salutes [Philemon], urging him the more to obedience, and calls them his fellow-laborers, and in this way shames him into granting the request.” Before Paul makes a request, he bestows “a much greater one of his own.” First he gives a favor, then requests a favor.

Rhetoric of Honor

Chrysostom also notes several ways that Paul uses honor throughout the letter to motivate Philemon to welcome Onesimus. Paul presents his request with tact and praise. “He does not immediately at the commencement ask the favor, but having first admired the man, and having praised him for his good actions, and having shown no small proof of his love.” Philemon is esteemed as a noble person.

Paul also honors Onesimus, so as to make him worthy of Onesimus’ welcome. Paul claims Onesimus as his child “so that on this account also he was worthy to obtain much honor” from Philemon. The logic runs, “But if [Onesimus] is my brother, you [Philemon] also will not be ashamed of him.” And so, Paul instructs Philemon to receive Onesimus because “he is worthy not only of pardon, but of honor. Why? Because he is become the son of Paul.” Paul “has at length brought him honorably before his master,” and presents Onesimus, “no longer a slave, but more honorable than a slave.”

Ethics and Theology

 In addition to the rhetorical analysis, Chrysostom offers ethical and theological instruction in the final part of each homily. Here, too, he broaches honor and shame.

Speaking to Christian slave-owners in his congregation, Chrysostom exhorts them to not be ashamed of their Christian servants. As an example, Chrysostom presents our Master in heaven, who was not ashamed to call us servants his own siblings. May we masters, he says, “not from their servitude be ashamed to make them partakers with us in all things when they are good. For if Paul was not ashamed to call one ‘his son, his own bowels, his brother, his beloved,’ surely we ought not to be ashamed. And why do I say Paul? The Master of Paul is not ashamed to call our servants His own brethren; and are we ashamed? See how He honors us; He calls our servants His own brethren, friends, and fellow-heirs. See to what He has descended!” And later, “And this is the glory of a Master, not to be ashamed to confess them before all.”

Sermon two concludes with a warning against false-humility and vainglory. Humility can puff up “when it is practiced to gain favor of men, and not of God, that we may be praised and be high-minded.” After discussing several biblical examples of true humility, Chrysostom counsels believers, “When it enters into thy thought to admire thyself because thou art humble, consider thy Master, to what He descended, and thou wilt no longer admire thyself, nor praise thyself, but wilt deride thyself as having done nothing. Consider thyself altogether to be a debtor.”

Like other historical theologians, Chrysostom views sin as insulting and despising God. At the end of sermon one has an extended explanation. “[H]e who has offended a greater magistrate offends in a higher degree, and he who offends an inferior one in a lower degree; but he who insults the king offends much more.” Then he provides a practical example of how we dishonor God: “For consider, he that commits adultery knows that God sees him, yet he disregards Him; but if a man see him, he restrains his lust. Does not such a one not only honor men above God, not only insult God, but, which is even much more dreadful, whilst he fears them, despise Him?” Likewise, a thief “does not regard Him, nor stand in awe of Him, nor honor Him.” To convict the listener of sin, Chrysostom plainly asks, “Do you see then that we honor men more than God?” And then later, “For if by honoring men even equally with God, we insult God, how much more, when we honor men above Him?” Chrysostom’s main point is that we fail to honor God, as so are debtors.

Further Resources

  • The Homilies of Philemon in Nicene and Post-Nicene Fathers (1:13), online here.
  • A previous post about Chrysostom’s hermeneutic of honor and shame in John’s Gospel.
  • Te-Li Lau, Defending Shame, esp. pages 139–47 and 216–21.
  • Chris L. deWet, “Honour Discourse in John Chrysostom’s Exegesis of the Letter to Philemon,” in Philemon in Perspective: Interpreting a Pauline Letter, ed. D. Francois Tolmie (New York: De Gruyter, 2010), 317–332.
  • Alan Howell, ” ‘Old Man’ as Cipher: Humor and Honor-Shame Rhetoric for Reading Philemon in Mozambique,” Missio Dei: A Journal of Missional Theology and Praxis 11 (2020), at
Posted in Bible Tagged with:

Article: “Why We Dislike Shame”

The American Interest has published an article “Why We Dislike Shame—and Can’t Get Enough of It.” The article examines why shaming is essential in America today, and offers some suggestions for curbing its excesses. I commend the article for its clarity, balance, and insights. The author, Peter N. Stearns (University Professor of History at George Mason University) works extensively on the modern history of emotions and their social role.

Here are a few of my favorite lines, which hopefully whet your appetite to read the full article.

After an analysis of our post-Enlightenment scorn for shame, he explores its potential: “Shaming also persists because it serves vital social functions and because, even in contemporary Western society, it can work, or at least seem to work. This other side to the argument, focused on shaming not so much as individual punishment but as social practice, is what makes the current issue so complex—and so intriguing.

He summarizes the complexity of shame: “Shaming is awful; it is desirable; its extremes can be disciplined; it is inevitable.” But without ending in despair, he charts a path through these complexities so that shame may play a positive role, especially in modern democracies. 

The author makes a most insightful comment: “One of the reasons for discussing shame is to highlight the kind of complex, ambiguous problem that invites contemplation and debate rather than decisive formulas.” For me personally, this resonated strongly in my attempts to present honor-shame for Christian audiences. Many people, whether one’s context is the public sphere or Christian ministry, have a natural inclination to domestic shame into a sort of philosophical notion or pragmatic tool. But the multi-faceted nature of “shame” and “honor” (evidenced by the proliferation of definitions) calls us to contemplation and reflection, especially as they relate to human identity, morality, and community formation. Our conversations about shame must involve nuance and wisdom, as the concept is not as tamable as we may wish.  

And perhaps my favorite, the proposal of a new virtue—”shameability.” Click here to read more. 

Posted in Culture, ethics

My Response to a Critique

The academic journal Missiology recently published a critique of honor-shame, especially my book The 3D Gospel. The article is entitled “The Culture Problem: How the Honor/Shame Issue Got the Wrong End of the Anthropological Stick”, by Johannes Merz (PhD), an anthropology consultant with SIL International.

Here is the article’s abstract:

The honor/shame issue is an important topic in mission, as portrayed in Georges’s The 3D Gospel for example. Proponents of the shame–guilt distinction draw on the popular culture concept of the early 20th century by assuming that cultures are objects that we can easily grasp and demarcate from one to another. Culture thus becomes a convenient idea to understand difference by generalizing and simplifying the unfamiliar and submitting it to one’s own way of thinking. Current anthropology, however, rejects such a reifying and essentializing approach. Rather, culture is seen as an expression of how humans think, act, and live in the world, and is thus complex, fuzzy, and dynamic. In dealing with the honor/shame issue, we need to get hold of the other end of the stick by starting with humans and treating honor and shame as cultural traits. Accordingly, honor and shame are encountered to different degrees and in different ways across humanity. A vertical and categorical classification and demarcation of cultures thus needs to make room for a more dynamic and horizontal spread of cultural traits. This allows us to account better for human diversity, while simultaneously maintaining humanity’s commonality as cultural beings. To study honor and shame we need to focus on how relationships work in various real-life situations. Such an ethnographic approach builds on observation, participation, and sharing in other people’s lives. It also asks what words and notions people use to express the values that shape their relationships.

From my perspective, the article, perhaps like all publications, has both positives and shortcomings. I share my response here.  

The Positives

I am truly thankful for Merz and this article for several reasons. Several critiques of honor-shame have appeared recently, in blog posts and articles. In my opinion, Merz offers the first substantive and engaging critique. For people thinking about and researching the topic, this will be an important piece with which to interact.

Second, I have actually been waiting for such an article that “updates” our anthropology of honor and shame. For a long time, I have sensed that we are working with outdated conceptions of honor and shame (i.e., Pitt-Rivers conceptual models from 1950s Mediterranean anthropology, or Benedicts antiquated dichotomony). Whenever I hear of someone doing graduate- or doctoral-level research in anthropology, I have encouraged them to research/update notions of honor and shame. Merz has attempted this task.

Third, I was thankful for personal interactions with Merz. Whenever someone publishes a critique/warning of honor-shame, I email that person to request a chance to discuss the topic personally. Surprisingly, and to my discouragement, authors rarely respond to my invitation for a personal dialogue. However, Merz kindly responded, and we had a fruitful Skype discussion during which he answered some questions. You’d think this would be expected and typical, but I’ve found such interactions to be rare. So, kudos to Dr. Merz!

The article has definite strengths but, obviously, I disagree with some key points, at the levels of both methodology and content. Here they are.

Some Issues

One, Merz (and other recent articles) interact with The 3D Gospel, a self-published booklet. Though I’m grateful to have the book cited and discussed, an academic journal should not cite a self-published booklet. Merz does not even cite, let alone engage, my more academic book published by IVP Academic, Ministering in Honor-Shame Cultures. This was surprising to me, and a significant oversight by the editor. Anybody publishing or researching my work on honor-shame should not cite a self-published booklet but, rather, should engage the full-length publication. This would have resolved many incorrect assumptions.

Two, Merz’s article is admittedly anthropological and not theological. “I focus on anthropological concepts, theory, and methodology that determine how we deal with the issue of honor and shame, rather than studying it as a theological topic” (128). Anthropology is helpful and even essential. But, can we really deal with honor and shame without theology? If the cosmos has been renewed and redefined through Christ, then we must understand honor/worth/value/glory as divinely revealed. If there is any topic that gets radically redefined by Christ, it is the topic of honor! The crucified outcast becomes divinely exalted. We, as Christians, cannot explore the meaning of honor and shame apart from the Christ event. This is not a fundamentalistic rejection of the social sciences but, rather, a Barthian/apocalyptic interpretation of humanity, wherein all cultures are hopelessly alienated apart from divine intervention. Honor is inherently theological, and even Christological. We need theology to “deal with the issue of honor and shame.” If culture is not a mere personality, but “system of meaning” (as per Merz, following Geertz), then we must look to God-incarnate as the source of that ultimate meaning/worth.

Three, the article critiques the concept of honor-shame cultures as a kind of “cultural pragmatism,” as though pragmatism is negative (130-31). I would actually suggest that the practicality of the category affirms its legitimacy and accuracy. Here, I would distinguish between “conceptual pragmatism” (which provides clarity and insights) and “ministry pragmatism” (which promises certain ministry results). I resist any efforts to make “honor-shame” a shortcut or program—a common tendency in evangelical missiology. However, I think we need more conceptual pragmatism— models or concepts that bring greater insights. One reason why honor/shame “is currently one of the big topics in missionary circles” (128) is because it helps people better understand their world, the Bible, and even their own spiritual journey. The concept helps to explain reality. This does not mean the model of honor-shame is reality or that it corresponds to all social realities. But, more accurately, the concept helps to explain much of reality. In that way, I’m glad that “honor-shame” is pragmatic and helpful for people.

Four, Merz portrays anyone who uses honor-shame as a cultural imperialist who walks into a society and brashly slaps the label “guilt-innocence” or “honor-shame” onto all people from day one, and boasts in their cultural mastery. According to Merz, the Western cultural concept of honor-shame: suggests “you can master the main characteristic of your own—or indeed any—culture with virtually no investment [and] without having to engage with people” (133), “provides a double award at very little cost by affirming us in who we are and how we think, and makes us feel that we understand others better” (133), and “does not encourage further study of cultural issues” (134). Besides being humorously untrue, such a critique is quite ironic, at two levels. One, he essentializes those people who advocate honor-shame as being people who essentialize cultures. Two, the author did not read my fuller work on the topic, yet speaks of people who utilize honor shame for interpretative purposes as people who don’t want to “further study.” The entire point of my publications of honor-shame is to help people learn. I agree the category may foster some overconfidence, as when new leaders eagerly label each and every social encounter as either “guilt,” “shame,” or “fear.” However, even such overzealous naivety reflects a desire to learn. Every conceptual model can (and does) get misappropriated, but such a post-colonial critique of the concept is overly suspicious of motives.  

Five, Merz suggests that honor-shame is a tool for essentializing and otherizing a group of people (133). In post-modern anthropology and Western popular society, this is the great sin. We ought not suggest that people are different in any way; we are all humans, all equal. Post-modern anthropology reminds us that all humans share a commonality, and so we should not attempt any definitions or descriptions of cultures. The idea of culture is “complex, fuzzy, and dynamic,” and so should not be straightjacketed.

This point, which moves towards Merz’s conclusion, is actually my greatest area of both agreement and disagreement. Let me explain. I entirely agree with these contemporary anthropological ideas, in which culture is an adjective and noun. I resist the efforts of people to define a culture as simply “honor-shame,” or something else. I agree with Merz’s insights: “Ideas like honor or justice can no longer be viewed as concepts that define culture, but rather as values that act as guiding principles to help us live our lives in all their relational complexities” (139).

Yet, however grand this postmodern approach sounds on the pages of anthropology journals, I find it inadequate and insufficient in reality. This approach works well for people with a PhD in anthropology (such as Merz), but fails the average cross-cultural worker. What about the people going on one-week prayer-trip to Bulgaria, or teaching English in China, or doing a sports ministry in Argentina? Yes, it would be great if they conducted extensive anthropological research to learn how people see themselves! But this ideal is not realistic. Yes, everyone would benefit from a PhD in anthropology to learn the emic nuances of a social network, but that is not a viable plan. So in the meantime, the majority of people stand to benefit from clear, simple, insightful frameworks. 

Honor-shame is not a perfect description of collectivistic societies, but it is far better than no description at all. Most people are culturally imperialistic in that they assume their own culture is the only culture, and so they make default judgments based on their own culture. The purpose of The 3D Gospel is to introduce the idea that other cultures function differently in terms of values and morals. However, Merz’s post-modern approach seeks to erase all differences in favor of a common humanity. This sounds promising and high-minded. But, in effect, it returns us to our original mono-cultural position, and leaves people without advanced anthropological research skills prey to hegemonic notions of culture. In our phone conversation, Merz acknowledged that for some 90% of people, honor-shame can be helpful. For, one can’t understand what one doesn’t see; the words can help us describe things.


Merz wrote his article as a critique, but I think it functions better as a warning to not overly define people. Our descriptions ought not become prescriptions. And with this, we certainly all agree.

Posted in Culture

The Origins of Guilt-Shame-Fear

From where do we get the categories of “guilt,” “shame,” and “fear”? People do not use these terms to classify themselves. Rather, they are outside (etic) terms that researchers have used to describe the primary relational patterns in groups. In The 3D Gospel, I introduce the topic with these words:

Christian missiologists identify three responses to sin in human cultures. Eugene Nida said, “We have to reckon with three different types of reactions to transgressions of religiously sanctioned codes: fear, shame, and guilt” (Customs and Cultures, p. 150). These three moral emotions have become the foundation for three types of culture… (p. 10, 2017)

Some recent publications in mission journals have questioned the validity of the guilt-shame-fear cultural model. They imply, and at times argue, that there is no scholarly support for the idea. They note that Nida did not have in mind three “cultural categories,” and then conclude that there is no scholarly support for such categories, so there is no warrant for developing the concepts as I do in The 3D Gospel. But this argument does not work. There has, in fact, been a considerable amount of scholarship in various disciplines that parallels the guilt-shame-fear paradigm.

I agree that Nida did not intend for the three types of moral reactions to classify cultures. His comment was only a passing reference. I did not cite Nida to prove the culture types, but, rather, to (1) introduce the basic idea of different moral values/responses and (2) explain from where the labels originated. Readers have critiqued the jump from Nida’s comment to my explanation of three culture types. The 3D Gospel is introductory, not an academic book, so it does not explain every logical step or cite all of the relevant sources. Therefore, this post identifies five academic disciplines that have proposed various paradigms similar to guilt, shame, and fear.

1. Psychology

Western psychologists, emphasizing personal and internal aspects, usually identify “anxiety” as the third emotion along with guilt and shame. For example, the journal article “Anxiety, Guilt and Shame in the Atonement” (Theology Today, 1964) draws from the psychology of religion. The psychological understanding of “anxiety”— feelings of dread over future events—is quite similar to spiritual fear. David Augsburger (Professor of Psychology/Counseling at Fuller Seminary) expounded the categories in several of his publications, including Conflict Mediation Across Cultures (1986). He was a leading Christian psychologist of the late twentieth-century, and clearly identifies the three cultural types. Here is his explanation:

“Anxiety, shame, and guilt are the normal and sequential control processes that emerge in the first, second, and third years of a child’s development in every culture. Each culture has its own balanced and its own integrative hierarchy of these internal controls. Tribalistic cultures are dominated by the fear/anxiety motive. Individualistic cultures generally seek to minimize anxiety and shame while socializing the child to have more of a guilt orientation, while many collectivistic cultures generally tend to encourage a shame orientation. … The three function together, although the intensity of each influence varies significantly from culture to culture.” (pp. 82, 126)

2. Missiology

Charles Kraft (Professor Emeritus of Anthropology and Intercultural Communication Fuller Theological Seminary) has an article in Perspectives  titled “The 3 Encounters of Christian Witness.” This article, adapted from his 1991 EMQ article, speaks about ministry approaches in terms of “truth,” “power,” and “allegiance” encounter.

Doug Hayward (Professor Emeritus of Anthropology at Biola University) reaches similar conclusions in “The Evangelization of Animists: Power, Truth or Love Encounter?” IJFM (1997). Though they do not use the language of guilt-shame-fear, the overlap with their categories is remarkable. These articles influenced the final section of The 3D Gospel which outlines some ministry applications and approaches. 

3. Moral Psychology

Richard Shweder (Professor of Cultural Psychology at the University of Chicago) researches the cross-cultural concepts of self and moral reasoning. In 2003 he co-authored an article “The ‘Big Three’ of Morality (Autonomy, Community, and Divinity) and the ‘Big Three’ Explanations of Suffering.” They analyzed hundreds of interviews from India and noticed three clusters of “moral themes”: autonomycommunity, and divinity

Shweder’s three categories (autonomy, community, and divinity) mirror the explanation of guilt, shame, and fear cultures, though with a slight difference. Shweder’s three “moral discourses” focus on the basis of personhood (whereas guilt/shame/fear focuses on moral emotions). The labels explain how cultures define the value and essence of human beings. The three options are: rights and freedoms, status and connection, or spiritual harmony and sacredness. Then by extension, cultures develop an appropriate moral system to protect and preserve their definition of “truly human.”

In his popular book The Righteous Mind (p. 16ff), social psychologist Jonathon (Thomas Cooley Professor of Ethical Leadership at New York University’s Stern School of Business) adopts Shweder socio-moral taxonomy for various global cultures.

4. Cultural Communication

British polyglot Richard D. Lewis developed another cultural model called LMR to forecast cultural behavior. According to his book When Cultures Collide (1999), there are three main styles of cultural communication.

  • Linear-active cultures are factual and decisive organizers, planners and schedulers (i.e., Germany).
  • Multi-active cultures are lively multi-taskers who live according to the moment (i.e., Brazilians).
  • Re-active cultures are courteous and calm listeners who respond carefully (i.e., Japanese).

Similar to the guilt-shame-fear model, Lewis’ LMR model involves three categories plotted on a triangle. Lewis’ LMR describes communication styles, not cultural values or ethics. Though not academic, this model has been influential in the world of international relations and business.

5. International Relations

 Joerg Friedrichs (Faculty Member of International Development at University of Oxford) wrote an article “An Intercultural Theory of International Relations: How Self-Worth Underlies Politics Among Nations” (International Theory, 2016). He introduces an intercultural theory of international relations based on three distinctive ways of establishing self-worth: honor, face, and dignity. This cultural model of self-worth broadly aligns with guilt (intrinsic dignity), shame (internalized honor), and fear (externalized face).


Scholars in various fields have proposed three-fold cultural models similar to guilt-shame-fear. Yet recent critics of the idea seem unaware of the broader scholarship on the topic. They do not engage or cite the above-mentioned publications. Thus, they leave the impression that the entire concept comes from one sentence in Eugene Nida’s book and my self-published introduction. I, too, would question the idea if that were the case! But it is not. 

I am not arguing here that guilt-shame-fear is perfect or faultless paradigm, as though it should not be critiqued, nuanced, or enhanced. Rather, I am noting that the three broad umbrellas has some academic precedent. I appreciate engagement and critique of my publications and the culture model of honor-shame, especially from like-minded believers who are grappling with the theological and missional implications of the concepts. However, such critiques would benefit from knowing the the idea’s intellectual history.

Posted in Bible

New Webzine: Women, Honour, & Shame

The online forum When Women Speak has published a new webzine on the topic of honor and shame. Below is a list of the articles, which are introduced in the editorial. A sentence from the opening page explains why these articles are indeed timely and important—regarding the honor-shame conversation, “women’s voices have been less prominent and less often referred to, and yet, the way women experience honour and shame is quite different to that of men.” To read the full webzine, click here

Posted in Bible, Ministry, Missiology Tagged with: , ,

Perpetua and Felicitas

The Passion of Perpetua and Felicitas is an early martyr story that subverts and transforms the ancient Greco-Roman notions of honor and shame.


The short story narrates the martyrdom of six young catechumens in Carthage, North Africa in the year 203. In her prison diary, Perpetua recounts her court trial and four spiritual visions. The book concludes with an eye-witness account of their heroic martyrdom. The narrative is sophisticated and inspiring literature. The Passion of Perpetua and Felicitas has historical value as one of the earliest Christian martyrdom stories and as the first Christian text written by a woman. Felicitas and Perpetua rank among the most famous saints in early Church history. In fact, Augustine of Hippo warned Christians 200 years later to not esteem this text as canonical Scriptures! You can read the text here or here.

This post examines the honor-shame motifs prominent throughout the story. The Passion of Perpetua and Felicitas illustrates how Christians adopted and redefined Greco-Roman notions of honor-shame. Moreover, these early martyrdom accounts can help us read other early Christian martyrs, such as Stephen (Acts 7) and Polycarp (c. 155 in Smyrna).

In sum, the story portrays these martyrs as noble and honorable heroes. Perpetua and others were honorable before, during, and after their death for Jesus.

Perpetua’s Honorable Nobility

 The opening paragraph introduces Perpetua as a woman of noble descent, education, and marriage. She is an aristocratic woman of status (1). Perpetua retains this sense of dignitas throughout the trial.

Before their deaths, the victims were paraded through the street for the entertainment of onlookers. The Roman guards forced Perpetua and Felicitas to dress as Ceres, the Roman goddess of fertility. The attire likely sexualized the young ladies. However, the “noble-minded women resisted even to the end with constancy.” They retain their honor by refusing to allow imperial powers to objectify and shame them (cf. Queen Vashti, Esther 1).

When thrown before the animals in the arena, Perpetua retains her status, as traditionally marked by clothes and hair. “When she saw her tunic torn from her side, she drew it over her as a veil for her middle, rather mindful of her modesty than her suffering. Then she was called for again, and bound up her disheveled hair; for it was not becoming for a martyr to suffer with disheveled hair, lest she should appear to be mourning” (20). Her honorable instincts shine even in the face of death.

New Family

Times of persecution pushed martyrs to form new kinship alliances. A new spiritual family replaces traditional family structures, which were gravely important in Roman society. In antiquity, a 22-year-old lady such as Perpetua was defined by relationships with her father, husband, and brother(s). However, Perpetua redefines all three of these relationships.

Perpetua’s (unnamed) father is actually the narrative’s chief antagonist. In a series of four arguments, he begs and even assaults Perpetua so that she will renounce martyrdom. In Perpetua’s own words, the father uses “satanic arguments” to “cast [Perpetua] down from the faith,” which is the work of the devil. After Perpetua denounces the demands and authority of her pater, she has a vision that reveals her true father. Perpetua ascends to heaven and sees a white-haired shepherd, around whom are many thousand white-robed figures. This divine figure says, “Welcome, daughter” and extends food to her (4). Perpetua has a new father in heaven. In the end, the Roman judge casts down and humiliates Perpetua’s father. The Roman trial functions as a double revelation. The scene, as though an eschatological courtroom, denounces the opponent (Perpetua’s father) to shameful judgment, and reveals the hero’s honorable identification with Christ (i.e., “I am a Christian”).

The scene has great irony because the father appeals to the family honor when trying to persuade Perpetua—“Have pity on your father, if I am worthy to be called a father by you. If with these hands I have brought you up to this flower of your age, if I have preferred you to all your brothers, do not deliver me up to the scorn of men. Have regard to your brothers, have regard to your mother and your aunt, have regard to your son, who will not be able to live after you.” The father’s concern for his family’s reputation, and how Perpetua’s actions may tarnish that reputation, leads to his public disgrace. In fact, Perpetua’s martyrdom actually does enhance the honor of her (new, spiritual) paterfamilias.

The story never mentions Perpetua’s husband. Female ascetics in the early church often claimed marriage with Jesus (cf. Acts of Paul and Thecla, St. Barbara). This new spiritual marriage extended Paul’s language in Ephesians 5. As for brothers, deacons of the church attend to Perpetua throughout her imprisonment. They assume the family role of bringing her supplies and keeping her company. These people, often males, function as spiritual brothers in the narrative. The final demonstration of renewed family occurs just before their martyrdom. Felicitas gives birth to a young girl, “which a certain sister brought up as her daughter.” Fellow Christians adopt the child into their own family.

Rhetoric and Power

Today the word martyr means “a person who dies for Christ.” But the term originally meant “witness,” someone who spoke authoritatively and eloquently before others. Martyria was a rhetorical argument delivered in a court. In the early Church, martyrs were socially prominent Christians with the authority and education to publicly defend themselves. In this ancient rhetorical context, martyr stories are not focused on the deaths of passive victims, but their public declarations, even in the face of death.

Martyr accounts like The Passion of Perpetua and Felicitas portray Christians as competing in public competitions. Through their words and divine support, the Christian witnesses emerge victorious and shame their opponents. This function is central to the entire genre of martyr narratives (cf. Stephen in Acts 7, Polycarp). The martyrs claim honor through their public witness, first at their court trial and then in the arena.

Perpetua competes in and dominates verbal honor-competitions. In the opening scene, Perpetua defeats her father with Socratic reasoning. As she says, if a bowl cannot change its name, she too must be called by her essence—”I am a Christian.” Perpetua vanquishes her father’s satanic arguments (2). Later she shames the tribune with her words. They are scandalized and embarrassed, so then treat her better (16). On their final evening, Perpetua and her friends share a love-feast (agape) as curious spectators watch them. However, instead of feeling diminished as exposed criminals, the martyrs shame and expose the onlookers, and many of them believed (17). The next morning, spectators gather for the game’s official procession in order to deride and mock those condemned. But Perpetua stares down the audience and forces them to lower their gaze (18). The shamers have been shamed. Perpetua, through her masterful orator, is a Roman hero who conquers in the face of adversity.

Courage and Noble Death

Perpetua has the courage to die a noble death. She controls the situation with her words and her actions, orchestrating the event to divine plan. In the final scene, Perpetua exercises her courage and control to gain the contest’s ultimate honor. The young gladiator wavers in fear before Perpetua, so she brings his shaky hand up to her own throat. Like Jesus and other Greco-Roman heroes, she controls her own fate and dies a noble death with great courage. In the New Testament, this is most emphasized in John’s Gospel.

The nobility of a courageous death, as Perpetua displays, explains the book’s most famous verse. In her third prophetic vision (10), Perpetua faces a barbarous Egyptian in the arena. Some young men prepare her for the fight. “I was stripped, and became a man. Then my helpers began to rub me with oil, as is the custom for contest.” These sentences have fostered much discussion about “gender-fluidity” and “eroticism.” However, these words are referring to her noble character, not her gender or sexuality. This is evident in the story itself, as in the next scene the referee of the gladiatorial fight refers to Perpetua as “this woman.”

So how did Perpetua “become a man”? In ancient Greece, “manliness” was a noble virtue. To “be a man” meant to face danger with courage, self-control, and resolve. The opposite was an emotional display of fear and cowardice. This ancient virtue system leaks into the Greek language, so the verb “to be courageous” is literally “be a man” (cf. 1 Cor 16:13, ἀνδρίζεσθε, where Paul is speaking to women and men!). Such “manliness” refers to Perpetua’s virtues of self-control and courage, regardless of her gender. In her vision, she conquers the Egyptian (another demonic figure) by striking his face with her heels. This biblical language (cf. Gen 3:15; Rom 16:20) interprets her impending martyrdom as a victory of evil, which Perpetua accomplished by becoming “manly/courageous.”

The Crowds

The onlooking crowds function as another character in the story. Much like Perpetua’s father, they are opponents who embody shame. These blood-thirsty onlookers revel in the violence of death. They demand that the martyrs be “tormented with scourges” (18) and “make their eyes partners in the murder” (20). However, in the end, these crowds are shamed and exposed. The crowds echo the demanding Jewish leadership at Jesus’ trials. The public decrees contrast the heavenly verdict issued from the throne of heaven, as in the book of Revelation. The crowds function as the mouthpiece of the false honor-system. But even as they perpetuate a false reality, their evil advances God’s victory through the martyrs.

And also like Jesus’ passion narrative, the Roman officials are portrayed in a more positive light (though they carry out the execution). The Roman judge “put down” the story’s antagonist, Perpetua’s father. The overseer of the prison, Pudens, “began to regard us in great esteem, perceiving that the great power of God was in us” (cf. Mark 15:39). And the tribune treated the imprisoned martyrs humanly and allowed visitors (16). Though in this last instance, the prisoners shamed them into the action by appealing to their honor—“Is it not your glory if we appear [in the arena] fatter than others?”

Death as Glory

 For early Christians, death via martyrdom was the obtainment of glory. Martyrs imitated Jesus; they participated in his suffering and his glory (cf. Phil 3). For example, the narrator declares the moment Perpetua lies disheveled and exposed before the lions as “her glory” (20). Another member of the group, Saturninus, was “doubtless that he might wear a more glorious crown” upon facing the beasts. Martyrdom was the revelation and obtainment of divine glory. In a pre-martyrdom vision, Perpetua enters into paradise with Saturus. As they walk through a garden, “four other angels appeared, brighter than the previous ones, who, when they saw us, gave us honour, and said to the rest of the angels, ‘Here they are! Here they are!’ with admiration” (11). The heavenly crowds publicly honor them along with previous martyrs.

The narrative also utilizes spatial language—i.e., up and down, raised and lowered—to portray status. In her first prophetic vision from prison, Perpetua sees “a golden ladder of marvelous height, reaching up even to heaven,” which represents the martyrdom itself (4). At the base was a crouching dragon waiting to scare potential martyrs from the ascent. This represents Satan’s efforts to lure persecuted Christians into renouncing Christ and offering a pagan sacrifice, and thus to fail to “climb the ladder.” At the end of the story, the narrator says that the initial martyr Saturus “had first ascended the ladder.”

Another motif, common in other martyrdom stories (cf. Daniel 6), is the submission of vicious animals. For example, a boar is released upon the martyrs, but attacks and kills his master. Then a bear does not exit his den (19). The murderous animals do not attack the holy ones. Ancient Roman officials organized gladiatorial games with exotic animals from around the world. In such events, Romans were the glorious masters of all creation. But martyrdom stories reverse that narrative and portray Christians as masters of creation, co-rulers with Christ over all.

The narrator’s final postscript affirms the honor of the martyrs as ones who honor Christ. “Ah, most valiant and blessed martyrs! Truly are you called and chosen for the glory of Christ Jesus our Lord! And any man who exalts, honours, and worships his glory should read for the consolation of the Church these new deeds of heroism which are no less significant than the tales of old” (21).

For more, see these articles Brian Sower, “Pudor et Dedecus: Rhetoric of Honor and Shame in Perpetua’s Passion” (2015) and Erin Ronsse, “Rhetoric of Martyrs: Listening to Saints Perpetua and Felictas” (2006), both in Journal of Early Christian Studies

Posted in Uncategorized Tagged with:

4 Honor-Shame Motifs of Lamentations 1

The realities of dishonor and shame pervade the book of Lamentations (see previous post). Four motifs express the honor-shame dynamics in Lamentations 1—defilement, loneliness, subjugation, and desperation, as this post explores.


The poet portrays the destruction of Israel is terms of defilement and uncleanness. Israel has become unacceptable and dismissed. The city is a violated virgin.

Jerusalem has sinned greatly
and so has become unclean.
All who honored her despise her,
for they have all seen her naked;
she herself groans
and turns away. 

Her filthiness clung to her skirts;
she did not consider her future. (1:8-9a)

Israel is “unclean,” “naked,” and “filthy.” This state has come about because of her sins and through her enemies. The poet uses verbs of sexual violence against the city. 

The enemy laid hands on all her treasures;
she saw pagan nations enter her sanctuary—
those you had forbidden to enter your assembly. (Lam 1:10)

God’s city has been violated and spoiled. The “Virgin Daughter of Judah” has been trampled in the winepress and lost her purity (1:15, cf. Jer 14:17). The implicit result is disgrace, for both Israel herself and her father/husband YHWH.

Israel’s defilement raises a chicken-and-egg type problem? What came first—Israel’s defilement, or their judgment? Was Israel defiled through judgment? Or, were they judged because they were defiled. The answer is, yes to both. Israel had become an unclean person through spiritual prostitution (1:9). Their skirts have become filthy from sexual fluids. This is a metaphor of Israel’s gross disloyalty to God (not a prophecy about the dress of a Presidential aid). Israel had failed to consider the future consequences of such harlotry. But now she has been exposed for his sin. As a covenant keeping husband, God has publicized Israel’s spiritual disgrace. Theological shame (before God) has led to Israel’s social shame (through Babylon). The exile displayed their shame. Or in the words of Jer 13:26, “I will pull up your skirts over your face that your shame may be seen.”


Israel was completely abandoned. She has no friends or allies. Nobody sought relationship with Israel. The nation was rendered useless and tossed aside like trash. Israel has no covenant relationships, no social connections to help in times of distress. The words “no one” and “none” fill the chapter.

Among all her lovers
there is no one to comfort her.
All her friends have betrayed her;
they have become her enemies. (1:2)

When her people fell into enemy hands,
there was no one to help her. (1:7b)

there was none to comfort her. (1:9, 17, and 21)

No one is near to comfort me,
no one to restore my spirit. (1:16)

“I called to my allies but they betrayed me.” (1:19)

In a society where social relationships define status and identity, such alienation is utmost disgrace. Israel had become an unwelcome relative (cf. Job 19:13-19).

The theme of abandonment is a common motif in the lives of God’s people. Joseph, Job, and Jesus were abandoned by family and friends. They were left to die alone in disgrace, but were later divinely exalted.


Jerusalem was once the queen city. She was the political capital of Israel, but also the dwelling of God, the place where heaven met earth.  But now others rule over Jerusalem. The people of Israel have been enslaved and subjugated. The personified Jerusalem says, “The Lord handed me over to those whom I cannot withstand” (1:14b).

Her foes have become the masters,
her enemies prosper,
because the Lord has made her suffer
for the multitude of her transgressions;
her children have gone away,
captives before the foe. (1:5)

“Her pursuers have all overtaken her” (1:3) and inflict suffering (1:12). Babylon “despises” Jerusalem and her inhabitants (1:8, 11). Israel faces deliberate humiliation from others. They have become less than human. Lamentations 5 articulates how every social class in Israel had been degraded.


The people now live in a state of desperation and turmoil, not order and structure. Instead of celebrating the national holidays as a people, they scrounge for water. The people are in survival mode. They live like rats scurrying for food and are chased away. Such desperation creates feelings of worthlessness.

All her people groan
as they search for bread;
they trade their treasures for food
to revive their strength.
Look, O Lord, and see
how worthless I have become. (1:12)

They only sit and mourn like a dispossessed widow. “She weeps bitterly in the night,
with tears on her cheeks” (1:2).

The roads to Zion mourn,
for no one comes to the festivals;
all her gates are desolate,
her priests groan;
her young girls grieve,
and her lot is bitter. (1:4)

The despair causes mourning, an act of symbolic self-shaming wherein people embody their lowliness and chaos.  


The destruction of Jerusalem brought disgrace and shame upon Israel. The people of God were defiled, abandoned, subjugated, and desperate.



Posted in Bible, OT Tagged with: ,

Honor and Shame in Lamentations

The book of Lamentations features two of my least favorite things in the world—poetry and suffering. I enjoy many other biblical books more than Lamentations. But in seasons of loss and anguish, the voice of Lamentations has drawn my attention like a bright, unavoidable light.

The book of Lamentation consists of five alphabet poems, funeral dirges. The city of Jerusalem was destroyed, and the people of God were decimated in 586 BC. To grieve this tragedy, Lamentations articulates the social devastation and explores theological tensions. And naturally, honor and shame are prominent themes in Lamentations.

This post lists verses explicitly discussing the dishonor and shame of Israel’s devastation. Then I explain the broader theological mindset surrounding these verses.

Honor-Shame Verses

All who honored her despise her, for they have seen her nakedness. (1:8)

Look, Lord, and consider, for I am despised. (1:11c)

How the Lord in his anger
has humiliated daughter Zion! (2:1)

He has brought her kingdom and its princes
down to the ground in dishonor. (2:2)

I became the laughingstock of all my people;
they mock me in song all day long. (3:14)

So I say, “My splendor is gone” (3:18)

Let him offer his cheek to one who would strike him,
and let him be filled with disgrace. (3:30)

You have made us scum and refuse
among the nations. (3:45)

The priests are shown no honor,
the elders no favor. (4:16)

Remember, Lord, what has happened to us;
look, and see our disgrace. (5:1)

The crown has fallen from our head.
Woe to us, for we have sinned! (5:16)

Along with these explicit verses about honor and shame, Lamentations communicates honor-shame realities non-discursively through motifs such as defilement, subjugation, loneliness, and hopelessness (addressed in the next post).

Centrality of Shame

The poems of Lamentations grieve the loss of Israel’s honor. The political subjugation and miserable conditions symbolize the nation’s lost status. The physical and economic destruction of Babylon’s invasion has caused social disgrace. In losing their ancestral home, Israel had lost their status and significance. The poems of Lamentations bemoan their shame and plea for restored honor. The core issue is not material loss, but social loss. Israel’s main problem was not poverty, hunger, or exile, but the disgrace associated with those conditions. After Babylon’s invasion, Israel could repeat Job’s lament:

He has stripped me of my honor
and removed the crown from my head.

He tears me down on every side till I am gone;
he uproots my hope like a tree.
His anger burns against me;
he counts me among his enemies. (Job 19:9-11)

God’s Dishonor

The devastation of Israel created a theological problem—the dishonor of God. How can God be a righteous covenant partner if he destroys his people? Israel’s suffering and shame (seemingly) discredited God’s honor as a patron and provider. If God’s people experience shame, how can God be an honorable king? (cf. 5:19-22). For more, see this post about Old Testament theodicy.

This theological conundrum pushes the poet to explore the cause of Israel’s shame. The nation’s sin and rebellion is the primary cause of the destruction. Israel’s shame is discipline for their sin (Lam 1:5, 8–9, 14, 18, 20; 2:14; 3:39–42). By accepting responsibility for the evil, Israel absolves God of the blame and helps to restore his honor. The fault is not his shameful lack of loyalty or strength, but their disloyalty as his covenant clients.  

God also plays an active role in Israel’s experience. God “humiliates” and throws down” Israel, but his actions are justified because of Israel’s sin. In fact, the destruction is proof of God’s covenant loyalty (albeit to the promises of cursing in Duet 28). God’s past judgments are the basis of Israel’s hope for future restoration. If God was consistent to judge, he will also be consistent to save (Lam 3:20-22). As Israel experiences shame, she interprets the shame in a way that preserves God’s honor, and also invokes God to restore her honor. 

A third reason for Israel’s situation is their enemies (Lam 1:21–22; 2:16; 3:52–66; 4:21–22; 5:2, 8). They have taken advantage of the situation, but will ultimately face the same fate and be stripped naked (Lam 5:2). As with all of God’s opponents, their status is temporary.

For more, see the article “Expressions of Honor and Shame in Lamentations 1” by Balu Savarikannu, AJPS 21:1 (Feb 2018), pp. 81-94.

Image © Saint Mary’s Press.

Posted in Bible, OT Tagged with:

Pledge Allegiance To Christ

Guest Werner Mischke did a blog series on some key books in New Testament studies related to allegiance, or “relational loyalty”. This concluding post summarizes and applies the key ideas. Reposted with permission. 

  • Post #1 introduces the topic of allegiance to “THE CHRIST”—Jesus as King.
  • Post #2 was on allegiance and GRACE, referencing primarily Paul and the Gift by Prof. John M. G. Barclay.
  • Post #3 focused on allegiance and FAITH, in which we referenced Matthew W. Bates’s Gospel AllegianceWhat Faith in Jesus Misses for Salvation in Christ.
  • Post #4 and post 4b focused on allegiance and BAPTISM. We looked at R. Alan Streett’s Caesar and the Sacrament: Baptism: A Rite of Resistance.

In this post, I want to summarize the main ideas. I will also consider several questions and some possible applications.

Summary of Key Ideas

  1. Christ is King of kings; his followers give ultimate allegiance to Christ.
  1. Allegiance and GRACE 

In the ancient world, grace and allegiance were understood as a package deal. As a Christian, you received a magnificent gift (Gk., charis) from a great Patron (God). To receive an undeserved gift was deeply counter-cultural. In reciprocity, you return to the Patron praise, obedience, loyalty—allegiance. This reciprocal aspect of grace was in keeping with the culture.

  1. Allegiance and FAITH 

The Greek word pistis in the New Testament can be translated variously depending on the context as faith, belief, faithfulness, loyalty, allegiance. When it is used in relation to Jesus “the Christ,” that is, Jesus the Anointed One, Jesus the Messiah, Jesus the King, then pistis often conveys the meaning of allegiance or loyalty.

  1. Allegiance and BAPTISM

Baptism expresses one’s identification with the Christ in his death and resurrection (Rom 6:3–5). Baptism is also an oath of allegiance to Jesus the Christ and his kingdom. This oath of allegiance to the Christ may be considered an implicit denial of allegiance to other social structures, which may be inconsistent with the values of the kingdom of God.

Questions and Possible Applications

  1. Identity: To whom do we belong? 

How should believers navigate multiple allegiances under their ultimate allegiance to Christ the King? In every Christian community, believers have multiple allegiances. Allegiance to your family is rightly considered basic. In many nations, allegiance to your country is considered a sacred duty. Among some peoples, loyalty to one’s tribe or extended family carries greater obligations than civic law or national identity. 

Serving in the American military requires an Oath of Enlistment. Servicemen and women “solemnly swear” to “support and defend the Constitution of the United States against all enemies, foreign and domestic;” and to “bear true faith and allegiance to the same; . . .”

The company you work for can also engender profound allegiance from its employees. A person can belong to a sports team, or be a die-hard fan of that team. A political party often requires allegiance from its members.

In what ways might allegiance to Christ benefit or enhance these various other relations? In what ways might allegiance to Christ serve as a critique to these relations? 

  1. The church 

How does allegiance to Christ impact one’s allegiance to the local church? This relates to the question: To whom do we belong? In a culture of choice and radical individualism, how should believers express the primacy of their allegiance to the body of Christ? 

Regular attendance, regular serving with your spiritual gifts, and regular financial support (tithing) are expressions of allegiance. People who call themselves “Christian” but are not committed to a local assembly of believers do not show allegiance to Christ.

  1. Evangelism 

Does the Lord call people to simple repentance and allegiance? How do we navigate the tension between simplicity and fierceness in the call to follow Jesus? The simplicity of following Christ may be referenced in these verses: Mat 18:2–3; 19:14; John 10:27–28; Rev 3:20; 22:17. The fierceness of following Christ may be referenced in these verses: Mat 10:38; Mark 8:34; Luke 9:23; 9:26; 9:62; 14:27–28; 2 Tim 2:3.

  1. Baptism 

What if the church’s teaching on the subject of baptism included the early church perspective of an oath of allegiance to Jesus the Christ? In America, I have witnessed many celebratory baptisms. Should the baptism service be less celebratory and more solemn? What might make a baptism service more solemn? Considering the idea of allegiance as an oath, should children make oaths of allegiance? How might this affect our thinking about baptism of children or of infants?

  1. Tribalism

Christ’s glorious Being transforms all secondary identity factors of the believer. If this is true, what are the practical results of one’s ethnicity, tribe, race, or social status being subsumed within one’s allegiance to Christ? How might allegiance to Christ lead you to rethink your social obligations, where you choose to live, or where your family worships?

  1. Spiritual transformation

Because of “the surpassing worth of knowing Christ Jesus my Lord,” Paul identifies all of his social capital (all of his Jewish moral and ethnic honor), whether ascribed or achieved honor, as “rubbish” (Phil 3:3–8). His experiential knowledge of Christ gives him the honor surplus that fuels his allegiance to Christ even unto suffering: “that I may know him and the power of his resurrection, and may share his sufferings, becoming like him in his death, that by any means possible I may attain the resurrection from the dead” (Phil 3:10–11). 

Paul’s allegiance to Christ is integral to his participation with Christ. This glory of being in Christ relativizes all other aspects of his identity. How do believers get to the place in their journey where they share in the experience of  “the surpassing worth of knowing Christ Jesus my Lord?” Should the suffering of believers be emphasized as normal rather than exceptional? Should everyone who pledges allegiance to the Christ expect to suffer? 


If allegiance to Jesus the Christ is: 

  1. an integral part of the reciprocal nature of God’s grace
  2. a vital aspect of faith in Christ, and 
  3. the oath publicly proclaimed as part of the sacrament of baptism

then it follows: Allegiance to Christ should be regularly proclaimed, taught, and modeled as a normal part of the Christian life.

Posted in leadership, Ministry, NT

Updated: Honor-Shame Research Bibliography

In 2015, I compiled and released an extensive bibliography for honor-shame to facilitate research on the topic. Since then, the amount of resources on honor and shame has greatly increased. Thanks to the work of Chris Flanders, the bibliography has been updated and now has over 550 references.

This bibliography is designed for people doing research and writing. If you are looking to learn about honor & shame, I suggest starting with this list of recommended resources. We done our best to ensure accuracy, but no guarantees.

Screen Shot 2015-07-27 at 11.22.03 AM

The bibliography is available online and is fully searchable, by metadata and tags. It can be accessed in two ways:

  1. BASICClick here to view the bibliography. Click around or search to see what is available. Everything has been tagged by topic, genre, source, type, and field. So, you can easily find honor-shame materials related to RomansJapan, the atonement, and more.
  2. ADVANCED: Install the Zotero program to your computer. This allows you import bibliographic data from or Google Books by clicking one button, add auto-formatted references to your research papers with a few simple clicks, and sync all your data on the Zotero cloud for collaboration. It does take some effort to learn the program, but Zotero’s power and simplicity make it a worthy investment, especially for those doing graduate studies and research. If you use Zotero, you can import the honor-shame bibliography in full. To do that–login at, go to, click the red “Join Group” button, and then I will OK your request to be a group member.

Screen Shot 2015-07-06 at 11.21.41 AM


Posted in Resources Tagged with: ,

“In Christ” as a Communal Ethic

I remember reading Neil Anderson’s The Bondage Breaker as a new believer. The long list of “who I am in Christ” statements was powerful. Knowing my position is essential to the Christian life.

But have you ever noticed how those lists of “in Christ” statements all start with “I”? Search for images of “who I am in Christ” and endless resources appear. But search for “who we are in Christ” and you get a bunch of “who I am in Christ” lists! This is quite indicative. Western theology emphasizes the individualistic aspects of salvation in Christ, but neglects the corporate dimensions.

The language of “in Christ” is a Pauline favorite. For good reason, many scholars propose “union with Christ,” or “participation with Christ,” as the center of Paul’s theology. For example, in Galatians 2, Paul says we have freedom in Christ, have justification in Christ, and live in Christ. Our connection with Christ creates a new identity, a new way of being. I have died with Christ, resurrected with Christ, and even sit with Christ (cf. Rom 6; Eph 1; 3). This new covenantal bond “with Jesus,” or being “in Christ,” is, indeed, a central aspect of New Covenant salvation, especially in Pauline epistles.

A Community “In Christ”

However, there is also a communal dimension of “in Christ” language in the New Testament. My relationships with others and activities for others occur “in Christ.” For sure, the majority of “in Christ” verses in the Bible involves individual participation in Christ. But individual union is not the whole story; we are overlooking something else.

Below, I explain five verses that use “in Christ” in a communal way. These verses emphasize what we do “in Christ,” not just what we are “in Christ.” The “in Christ” language locates not only the individual but our communal interactions. We are in Christ. And to say “we are in Christ” is not simply “you and I, two separate individuals, are in Christ,” but “our relationships take place in Christ.” In this instance, the whole is greater than the sum of the parts. You and I together constitute a new relation and form a new identity. Here are some of the verses, then a synthesis.

  1. Paul tells the Christians in Rome to “Welcome [Phoebe, the letter-carrier] in the Lord” (16:2). Later in the chapter, there are several greetings in the Lord (v. 11, 12, 22). Our inter-relations as Christians take place in Christ.
  1. In 2 Corinthians 1, Paul defends his choice to not visit the Corinthians. They seem resentful that he did not keep his promise to come, as if that had severed the relationship. However, Paul says, “It is God who establishes us with you in Christ and has anointed us” (2 Cor 1:21). Paul’s ministry team has been divinely united with the Corinthian believers, and this occurred in Christ.
  1. In 1 Corinthians, Paul negotiates his relationship with the fledgling congregation. He must provide correction, but without distancing or offending. So, Paul applies familial metaphors to frame his relationship. “For though you might have ten thousand guardians in Christ, you do not have many fathers. Indeed, in Christ Jesus I became your father through the gospel. I appeal to you, then, be imitators of me. For this reason I sent you Timothy, who is my beloved and faithful child in the Lord” (1 Cor 4:15–17). In each instance, the human-to-human relationship—i.e., guardian, father, or child—occurs in Christ.
  1. From his prison in Rome, Paul sends the runaway slave Onesimus back to his master Philemon. Paul asks Philemon for a favor, and he even mentions Philemon’s social debt. In verse 20, he says, “Yes, brother, let me have this benefit from you in the Lord! Refresh my heart in Christ.” Philemon is to give Paul a certain gift (i.e., Onesimus) in the Lord. This act of spiritual encouragement from Philemon to Paul would happen in Christ.
  1. The idea of doing things for fellow believers “in Christ” continues with the Apostolic Fathers. Ignatius of Antioch ( 115) instructs believers to “continually love each other in Jesus Christ” (Magn. 6:2).

In each verse, the phrase “in Christ” is rather gratuitous. Paul could have simply said, “Welcome Phoebe” or “give me a benefit.” So, why add the phrase “in Christ”? What is the meaning and significance of these actions happening in Christ?

The Ethics of “In Christ”

The language of “in Christ” frames our relationships. “In Christ” is not simply a heavenly reckoning of our spiritual status, but a new sphere for our interactions and exchanges with others. Our interactions with others occur in the shadow of Jesus’ messianic kingdom. In these instances, the language of “in Christ” roughly stands for the idea “now that Jesus is the King and there is a new honor system in place…”. Remember, “Christ” is not Jesus’ surname, but a declaration of his royal identity. When conjoined with an admonition, “in Christ” means something like, “considering the newly-exalted Messianic ruler,” or “under the jurisdiction of the new king.”

The fact that “Christ is King” reorders the ideology of Christian communities and introduces new social practices. We share a common Lord, and so his peace and love now govern our community. Our practices as his ekklesia derive from our relationship with the enthroned King (Cf. Jipp, Christ is King, 276-77).

Though not ideal, here is a similar good example. When someone from one tribe becomes president of an entire country. The relatives, and entire tribe, of the new president obtain a new status, with new rights and privileges, by virtue of their collective association with the person. Once “their guy” is in office, they act differently (usually harmfully). Likewise, “in Christ” is like stating, “Hey, our guy is in charge now! So act like we have the power to rule!” The powers of this world oppress and plunder. But the ruler of our kingdom, by way of example, leads us to serve and love; our king invites us to co-rule over sin and death. The point being, a new ruler brings new social norms. This is how “in Christ” functions in the examples above.

A new king is on the throne, and so we grant status differently now. This new king/dom redefines and generates new exchanges of honor. We now welcome, greet, partner, relate, reciprocate, and love in entirely new ways because Jesus is king. Because God has vindicated the crucified one, a new calculus of worth and status frames our relationships. The universal lordship of Jesus is the new context for our relationships. This is the meaning of Paul situating Christian-to-Christian relationships “in Christ.”

Posted in ethics, Theology Tagged with: , ,