The three types of honor are bad honor, good honor, and eternal honor. People use the same word “honor” for all three, and this causes confusion. Failing to note the three kinds of honor affects our discipleship and theology. So here is an explanation of each one.
“Bad honor” is when people are respected for the wrong reasons. Everybody can sense the difference between the “honor” of (1) a corrupt official with an entourage and Land Cruiser and (2) a wise, gray-haired elder in the village. People acknowledge the “status” of the official out of fear rather than genuine respect.
Bad honor comes at the expense of other people; people accrue it by robbing others of dignity. Sure, humiliating you makes me appear superior; but such status is illegitimate in God’s eyes.
This bad honor is temporary—the house of cards eventually collapses. Bad honor is destructive—relationships are sacrificed to pursue status. Bad honor is ungodly—this system of acquiring honor contradicts God’s purposes. Bad honor is acquired by sinning and ends in shame. “For everyone who exalts himself shall be humbled” (Luke 14:1; cf. Psa 35:26).
Common biblical terms for such honor are “pride” (when ascribed to self) or “idolatry” (the false worship ascribed to others). The Bible has many examples:
- King Nebuchadnezzar forced everyone to worship him, and many did, but that honor was fleeting (Dan 4). Bad honor is a defining characteristic of “Babylon” throughout the Bible.
- Eli and sons honored themselves by keeping the preferred sacrifices, but at the expense of despising God (2 Sam 2:30ff).
- Jesus told the Pharisees to not seek the places of honor at a feast, lest they be humiliated (Luke 14:7-8).
- Paul said of their opponents, “their glory is their shame” (Phil 3:19).
Unfortunately, most Christian reflection on honor only involves “bad honor”—honor is synonymous with pride and boasting, so any pursuit or expression of honor contradicts God’s will. But this is only 1/3 of the truth.
“Good honor” is the respect people enjoy for living upright lives: a parent who works hard to provide for children, a person who always shares from their garden, a boss who pays fair wages. These people should have a positive reputation.
People who live virtuously enjoy good honor. This is how God designed his world to work (like how people who eat well enjoy good health). When acquired for the right reasons, honor is a good thing.
The Bible speaks positively about being an honorable person in the eyes of other people. In certain ways, Christians should seek to be honorable before people.
- “Conduct yourselves honorably among the Gentiles, so that, though they malign you as evildoers, they may see your honorable deeds and glorify God when he comes to judge” (1 Peter 2:12).
- Paul took pains to do “what is kalos [i.e., beautiful, proper, good], not only in the eyes of the Lord but in the eyes of man” (2 Cor 8:21).
- The book of Proverbs contains many verses about earning a “good name” or “honor” for wise living. Good honor is a part of God’s common grace for people who live wisely and respect others (Prov 12:8; 13:18; 15:33; 21:21; 22:4; 27:18).
- Being an honorable and respectable person in the community is a key qualification of leaders in the local church (1 Tim 3:7-8, 11).
God’s people should have a positive reputation in their community. This “good honor” is not the goal of the Christian life, but it is a natural byproduct as we live according to God’s Spirit. Christians should possess “good honor” in society; this is how we contribute to the common good. Yet, Christian mission involves a third type of honor.
“Eternal honor” is the honorable status that God grants Christ-followers for all of eternity. God imputes this honor to us. One could also call this “spiritual honor,” or “divine honor,” or “salvific honor.”
“Bad honor” and “good honor” are experienced on earth, and “eternal honor” exists in heaven. The chart below portrays the three types of honor.
- Clarity—Could you imagine if we had only one word for all kinds of humans (i.e., man, woman, child, teenager, elder, etc.). That would handicap our communication. Unfortunately, that is our situation with honor. The word has many varieties, but we use the same linguistic handle for conveying all those meanings. The Bible assumes multiple dimensions of honor, which we must know to correctly understand and explain God’s world.
- Discipleship: Christian growth is not just doing what is right, but it is also doing what is “honorable.” Spiritual maturity includes a heart that “desires to act honorably in all things” (Heb 13:18). The Holy Spirit empowers believers to forego bad honor and to live out patterns of good honor; possessing the promise of eternal honor makes this possible.
Ethics is more than “rejecting cultural honor.” One must account for the three types of honor. This offers a better moral framework for living honorably within one’s community, especially in honor-shame contexts. Biblical ethics involves conduct that is honorable before God and before people.
Also in this series “Defining Honor”: