The new Africa Bible Study (NLT) illuminates the truth of Scripture with a unique, African perspective. This article “Honor and Respect” (p. 1283) explains the spiritual importance of social honour.
What is the secret of a long life on earth? Is it a healthy diet, access to medical care, or a modern system of public safety and protection? An elderly man in Africa would give a very different answer—and so do the Scriptures. While remembering that a good diet and medical care are important, one of the secrets to a long life treasured by Africans is living a life of honour and respect.
An essential part of many initiation rites in Africa is the teaching of honour and respect. Traditionally in Africa, this was such an important virtue that any young man who was disrespectful or did not honour his elders could be subject to harsh punishment, including the ultimate penalty. A tradition of the Sara people in Chad was that a disrespectful youth would be condemned to be buried alive and must dig his grave with his own hands before entering it. Those responsible for his punishment sang and danced to the beat of drums as the disrespected parents watched.
God’s law, as given to the ancient Jews, also teaches honour with seriousness. “Anyone who dishonours father or mother must be put to death” (Exodus 21:17). Today, no Christian would be justified to physically harm another person like in this story or even in this Exodus law. As Christians, we no longer follow laws like this, but Jesus did stress the great importance of treating parents with honour when he was challenged by the religious leaders (Matthew 15:3-5).
When young people in Africa show respect and honour by obeying their parents, they receive promises of long life. A Sara elder will wet his hands with his spit, lay them on the young man, and bless him saying, “May your hair become completely white and may your eyes see your grandchildren’s hair become white.” Such traditions remind us of the teaching of God’s Word. The fifth commandment states, “Honour your father and mother. Then you will live a long, full life in the land the Lord your God is giving you” (Exodus 20:12; Ephesians 6:1-3).
Does the practice of honour and respect apply only to our biological father and mother? Of course not! It also applies to our elders, family, brothers and sisters in Christ, spiritual leaders, and those in authority over us in government. When we do not treat others with honour and respect, we dishonour God and can bring shame to our parents (Proverbs 28:7). Paul advised his spiritual son Timothy to “never speak harshly to an older man, but appeal to him respectfully as you would to your own father” (1 Timothy 5:1). The apostle Peter taught that “for the Lord’s sake, respect all human authority—whether the king as head of state, or the officials he has appointed” (1 Peter 2:13-14).
But what do we do when our parents or leaders misuse their authority? Perhaps they even abuse us or others. Although we are not their judge, these parents or leaders sit under God’s judgement. While showing respect, we must also protect our- selves or others from abuse. Protecting someone from abuse is honouring to them and even to the abuser when done with respect and without bitterness. A person should not continue in the kind of relationship with a parent or elder that allows or encourages a pattern of abuse. Pastors and elders should work to protect any person who is being harmed, even taking the case to the authorities if needed.
Although Peter does not speak directly of an abusive husband, he does say that wives “must accept the authority of your husbands . . . even if some refuse to obey the Good News.” The husband might then “be won over by observing your pure and reverent lives” (1 Peter 3:1-2). It is also instructive to read about how Peter and Paul both showed respect and truth to those who abused them (Acts 4:18-22; 5:26-31; 16:35-40; 19:35-41; 22:24-29; 23:1-5; 25:9-12). Our responsibility is to act with mature love in our treatment of others (1 Corinthians 13), even when they do wrong to us—but in a way that protects ourselves or others as people made in God’s image.
As Christians, we first owe honour to God. “If we live, it’s to honour the Lord” (Romans 14:8). Next, we are to practise honour and respect, first to our parents, then to others. Showing such honour does not require us to give all our financial wealth to those we honour; however, it does increase both our spiritual and physical wealth. When we honour our parents, God promises to reward us with a long life. Combined with our respect for God, “true humility and fear of the Lord lead to riches, honour, and long life” (Proverbs 22:4).
God’s Word and African wisdom teach us to live lives that show honour to others, regardless of whether we know them or not. We are wise in the Lord’s eyes and have understood one of life’s secrets when we have learned to “respect everyone, and love the family of believers. Fear God, and respect the king” (1 Peter 2:17). We are losing some of our traditional values. May God use each of us to teach the next generation of Africans how to respect their elders by the way we publicly respect and honour our elders.
For resources about honor and shame in Africa, see https://honorshame.com/honor-shame-in-africa/.