CAUTION: Honor-Shame is “Unbalanced” and “Extreme”!!
“Watch out! Honor and shame can lead to unbalanced extremes!” At least this is the concern of some people when they hear about honor-shame. They worry that emphasizing honor-shame might lead Christians to neglect essential tenets of orthodox, biblical theology. For example, a recent article at TGC warns readers that “the proverbial pendulum can swing too far.” I too believe Christian theology must be balanced and biblical, but I find these concerns about “honor-shame” counterproductive. Ironically, such concerns actually demonstrate the importance of honor-shame. This post addresses three issues with such concerns that honor-shame might be unbalanced.
(To be fair, the vast majority of people view honor-shame as a biblical and positive perspective; such concerns about imbalance are not the dominant view. But the issue surfaces enough to require a response. For a direct response to the recent TGC article, see Jackson Wu’s helpful post “7 Dangers for Missionaries from Guilt-Innocence Cultures.”)
1. Who is Unbalanced?
If you go into a seminary library, how many theology books assume a guilt-innocence paradigm compared to honor-shame? If you browse a sermon archive, how many sermons emphasize salvation as forgiveness of sins compared to union with Christ or honor from God? What is the ratio—10:1, 100:1? Where is the pendulum at the present time? In the middle? So, who is unbalanced?
I find the concerns about imbalance ironic for this reason—people warn about “honor-shame” becoming unbalanced, but they don’t ask whether a dogmatic emphasis on a particular 16th century, German contextual theology is perhaps unbalanced.
In the picture above, the Western theologians are standing together on one end of the scale, while the handful of honor-shame advocates try to balance the scale. But the massive imbalance in Christian theology as a whole requires significant effort to rebalance. The goal here is not to re-tip the scales in favor of honor-shame but to balance a lopsided conversation. So we must honestly ask, where is the imbalance?
In my experience, the actual concern about honor-shame is not that our theology might become “unbiblical,” but that Western theology might lose its position as the default, normative, and privileged theology for global Christianity. In other words, “our” theology might not be “the” theology. This partly explains why honor-shame gets treated as a “missions fad” or “cultural contextualization,” for this keeps honor-shame out of the theological conversation (see more below). This power dynamic in global theological discourse is worth further investigation.
So yes, theological imbalance is a legitimate concern. For this reason we must step back and examine the larger theological landscape to assess where the actual imbalance lies.
2. The Imbalance is Hypothetical, Not Real
I have never heard nor read any evangelical Christian say that honor-shame changes or replaces any tenant of orthodox Christian theology. Absolutely nobody teaching about honor-shame actually advocates rejecting guilt-innocence/Western. The threat of imbalance only exists in the minds of those feeling threatened, not in reality. (As proof of this piont, the TGC article has zero citations.)
In fact, honor-shame advocates such as Jackson Wu, Werner Mischke, and myself go out of the way to affirm the validity and importance of Western, guilt-innocence theology. We realize that “new” ideas have a higher burden of proof, so our books intentionally address this specific concern. For example, I say in Ministering in Honor-Shame Cultures (pp. 22, 193):
“Western theology itself is not “wrong,” but simply incomplete and limited by cultural blinders. There remain areas of biblical truth that Western theology has not yet examined because cultural conversations have not yet prompted such a theological inquiry. One such “blind spot” in Western theology is honor and shame. Our objective is not to replace or correct Western theology, but to complement it. …Our explanations do not unfold the entire biblical meaning of these concepts, but highlight those aspects most relevant for honor-shame contexts. We aim to complement, not replace, existing theological paradigms associated with evangelism and conversion.”
And recall my first book was The 3D Gospel, not something like The New Gospel or A Better Gospel. I obviously affirm guilt-innocence as a vital and essential component of biblical theology, along with fear-power and honor-shame motifs.
Someone once noted to me that the website HonorShame.com only addresses honor and shame (as if that proved the imbalance). My response: “Well of course, that is the domain name! Do you visit www.Flowers.com to buy a toilet plunger? If I started www.Cookies.com, that doesn’t mean that I think people should only eat cookies.” I purposefully started HonorShame.com as a niche website to address one particular issue, not as a comprehensive website for Christian theology.
So to repeat, this talk of “imbalance” or “overreaction” is only a hypothetical problem. Yes, the problem might happen, as I too am concerned about. But until the problem does actually happen, people should give honor-shame a fair listening, instead of evaluating honor-shame based on what they fear might happen.
3. The Concern Misrepresents Honor-Shame
People concerned about honor-shame often misrepresent the topic. I shall address two oft-repeated misconceptions—i.e, “honor-shame is about cultural contextualization,” and “honor-shame doesn’t address sin.” As we shall see, such misconceptions are syncretistic—the results of thinking about honor-shame through the lens of Western culture and not the Bible.
1. Cultural Contextualization. People say that “contextualization must be biblical, not cultural” or “Scripture, not culture, must be normative.” I affirm these aphorisms. However, what they do not realize is the cultural assumption that they themselves make—they assume honor-shame is a “cultural” paradigm. Most Westerners perceive honor-shame as cultural candy to sprinkle on top of evangelistic presentations so “those people” can better understand the truth. To treat honor-shame as merely cultural clothing to dress up the gospel is unbiblical and syncretistic.
We must realize honor and shame are essentially theological concepts rooted in the character and mission of God. Because honor and shame are such foundational elements of the biblical story, our theology must somehow address honor-shame to be fully biblical. A commitment to biblical contextualization necessitates a regard for honor-shame. Remember, honor-shame is a theological reality, not merely cultural values. To treat honor-shame as merely “cultural” (as most Westerns tend to do) is itself unbiblical and culturally syncretistic.
2. Absence of Sin. People falsely assume “shame cultures don’t believe in sin.” For example, the TGC article suggests that honor-shame cultures “lack categories for transgression.” The implication is that obedience, sanctification, and ethics are not possible within an honor-shame framework.
A few comments in response. One, sin is a biblical concept; it’s not a guilt-innocence or honor-shame idea. Two, many agree that biblical cultures were oriented towards honor-shame, yet the Bible talks a lot about sin. So obviously honor-shame cultures have some conception of sin.
Here is the actual problem—the guilt-innocence definition of sin as strictly “a legal transgression” impairs Westerners’ ability to understand how honor-shame cultures (such as the Bible) define sin. Honor-shame cultures have a profound sense of sin, but it is rooted in relationships (not rules). Kwame Bediako explains the issue:
“Some suggest that ours is a “shame culture” and not a “guilt culture,” on the grounds that public acceptance determines morality, and consequently a “sense of sin” is said to be absent. However, in our [African] tradition, the essence of sin is in its being an antisocial act. is makes sin basically injury to the interests of another person and damage to the collective life of the group.” (Jesus and the Gospel in Africa, 2004, p. 26)
If anything, honor-shame helps us obtain a more biblical view of sin. As I say in Ministering in Honor-Shame Cultures: “[A]ny Christian theology of sin devoid of the theme of shame is clearly sub-biblical. A shame-less view of sin fails to see how shameful sin truly is.” Honor-shame not only enhances (1) our theological understanding of sin, but also (2) our spiritual capabilities to overcome that sin and lead lives of God-honoring obedience. That is, a biblical view of honor/glory makes sanctification and ethics more possible.
I too am greatly concerned about any theology that prioritizes culture and neglects sin…and this is the reason we need honor-shame! As these two examples demonstrate, the concerns about honor-shame actually demonstrate the importance and necessity of honor-shame. In my experience, a bigger threat to biblical, balanced theology is actually a false, overly Western misconception of honor and shame. This is why we must learn the biblical truth about honor and shame.
I greatly appreciate when people voice concerns about Christians not being “balanced and biblical” in our theology. I actually share their concern—and believe honor-shame can be a powerful, biblical antidote against unbalanced theology and cultural syncretism.
Hi Jayson, great observations.
I think the mantra should be “contextualized evangelism and holistic discipling”. In our evangelism, we emphasize the parts of the salvation narrative (honor/shame, innocence/guilt, or power/fear) that resonates with the hearer. In discipling we bring in and teach a complete Biblical understanding of Christ’s work on the cross (but still through their cultural lens, not ours).
In the TCG article, I see the fear that people from an Honor/Shame background won’t be taught about guilt, repentance and redemption, which I can understand. But don’t I see the author promoting going back to the Bible and let God add to the author’s understanding of salvation by understanding the honor/shame (and power/fear) dimensions of salvation, which I think is just as needed.
Yes Bart, you make a very important point—start in evangelism with the paradigm that is most natural/common for people, but be sure to include all aspects over time, especially during the discipleship process.
Thank you, thank you. That is what I felt when somebody pointed me to the TGC post, but I was unable to put it into words. Marc
Yes, thanks. Many people have mentioned to me a similar thing.
Excellent response, Jayson. As I have been teaching on this topic this year in Trinidad and the US, the few objections I face deal with the same topic–where is repentance? I point out that repentance is more than ONLY a change of direction from the transgression of specific laws. Repentance involves a transfer of allegiance and loyalty (a concept that Haitians innately understand but most Americans don’t), and the adoption of a new honor code that matches God’s revealed values, not only his revealed commands.
In essence, what you have consistently presented is that the honor-shame paradigm complements the others and is rooted in the Scriptures. I would say, in fact, that it is easier to trace honor-shame metaphors throughout the progress of redemption than it is to trace legal metaphors! This teaching is vital, not only for missions, but for reaching the younger generation in the West who doesn’t think in legal terms as much as previous generations.
An observation: the honor-shame teachings are originating from missiologists, not theologians, which is precisely what happened in Acts 14-15 at the Jerusalem Council. Our missiology must be theologically informed as much as our theology must be missiologically informed. There is at least one powerful example of this in Scripture!
Final observation: both Reformed and Anabaptist theological positions are indeed 16th-17th century German contextualized theology (mostly by lawyers). It’s good stuff, but it doesn’t answer a lot of questions that the societies in the Global South are asking and it deals with many issues that the Global South don’t care about. This is truly threatening to many Western theologians who think that any addition to their system MUST be syncretism. As you, I share the same concerns. Theology is not a domain for innovation! However, humility is the open door to further learning. God’s revealed Word is more extensive than my systematic theology. Sorry.
Thanks for your ministry. Keep it up!
Sean, thanks for sharing those points. Good comment about missiology and theology being in dialogue—unfortunately both sides seem put off by the other, so there is little interest to enter each other’s world.
Regarding point number 2, The Imbalance is Hypothetical, Not Real:
I was first introduced to Honor and Shame aspects in seminary when I read Joel B. Green and Mark D. Baker’s Recovering the Scandal of the Cross. The book strongly rejected penal substitution as a Western-biased atonement theory. (Note: I read the first edition). I was horrified when many of my fellow students ate it up, and many of them deny penal substitution to this day.
All this to say, for those of us who consider penal substitution to be biblical, if not central, for orthodox Christianity, especially Reformed theology, the imbalance is not just hypothetical, but real.
Hi Don L, thank for the comments. Your point is well-taken. I’ll offer some observations.
1. Honor-shame is not directly related to the PSA. That is to say, some teachers of honor-shame affirm the PSA, and others have genuine doubts about it. An emphasis on honor-shame doesn’t necessitate a particular view of the PSA.
2. However, I would say that honor-shame does impact one’s view of the PSA in two ways. One, honor-shame actually helps us better understand the historical origins and foundations of the PSA. As you read Anslem’s Cur Dues Homo, from which the PSA grew out of, you see the importance of God’s honor being satisfied (https://honorshame.com/atonement-honor-shame-cultures-2/). And two, when people learn about honor-shame they tend to realize that legal metaphors are not the only images for biblical salvation, as Western theology tends to presupposes. This is not a rejection of PSA or legal motifs in the Bible, but a more complete understanding of the picture.
3. About Green and Baker’s book, they did release a 2nd edition in 2011 (https://amzn.to/2L5AmKw) that addresses the shortcoming and misunderstandings of the first book. Also, Mark D. Baker was my co-author for _Ministering in Honor-Shame Cultures_ (IVP Academic, 2016), and in that book we repeatedly affirm the validity of guilt-innocence/Western theology, as indicated by several of the quotes above.
Hopefully these points provide some context and clarity. ~Jayson
Hi Jayson, I appreciate the response. I had heard they made some revisions to the book, but the book left such terrible scars on me, that I seriously considered dropping out of that seminary and transferring. Suffice to say, I have no desire to buy and read the book a second time.
You wrote that some honor-shame teachers “have genuine doubts about” PSA. Unless Mark Baker has changed his mind and no longer openly rejects PSA, that seems like a gross understatement. My fellow seminary students didn’t just have doubts about PSA, they thought it was divine child abuse and a distortion of a “loving” God. So unless Baker has changed his thinking, I think it would be more accurate and forthcoming to simply say that some H-S teachers accept PSA, and some reject it.
I don’t want to come across as too negative. I have benefited from studying honor-shame dynamics. And I don’t think H-S emphasis neccesitates rejecting PSA.
The whole discussion, though, is about balance. You wrote that the imbalance was hypothetical, and not real, that it might happen, but has not yet. I am testifying to you that the imbalance has already happened, and your point number 2 is inaccurate. We need to acknowledge that the pendulum can and has previously swung too far, and this can continue to be a possibility. Rather than hide from it and say it is all hypothetical, and we ought to reflect on what we can do to prevent that.
The imbalance has not happened, and his point number 2 is entirely accurate.
The golden rule of statistics applies here — “correlation does not imply causation.” Just because someone might have studied H-S and denied PSA (correlation) does not imply that one has anything to do with the other.
Which you seem to agree with. Your words — “I don’t think H-S emphasis necessitates rejecting PSA”. In other words, the former has nothing to do with the latter.
Further, there are far more guilt/innocence teachers who deny PSA than honor/shame teachers. Given that, if we wanted to draw erroneous conclusions, our conclusion should be that “emphasizing guilt/innocence might lead Christians to neglect tenets of orthodox, biblical theology.”
That, of course, would be a bad conclusion. As is the first one.
Last, you’re criticizing Mark Baker based on an out-dated version of a book, the new version of which you don’t want to read. That is, at the very least, unfair.
I see all dimensions of fallen nature wound around each othe much like DNA. Redemption redeems us fully and completely. Shame and True Moral Guilt are both in the Atonement as is regeneration and conversation. I cannot imagine an either-or dichotomy in the Atonement. If Guilt alone is found in Christ then death, shame, and rebellion are left hanging on to us.
I never even heard of shame as an important dimension of the Fallen Nature in the church. I was introduced to Shame-Honor by a Jewish Psychiatrist not a preacher. But Guilt with a lot of judgment was always present in every sermon and Bible study. Thus the embalance was always an overemphasis on G-I.
For several years I trained Disciple Makers in Asia and they too had teaching on G-I not on S-H. Their theology was Western.
Hi Vince, thanks for your response.
In response to your comment “correlation does not imply causation” — Green and Baker’s book is an example of causation, not merely correlation. Charles Hodge’s penal substitution is written off in the book BECAUSE he had a guilt-oriented view.
Regarding “criticizing Mark Baker based on an out-dated version of a book” … we are talking about whether the imbalance HAS HAPPENED in the past, not necessarily IS HAPPENING presently. (Hence you stated “The imbalance has not happened,” and not “The imbalance is not happening.”)
Thus, Mark Baker’s book, even in a previous edition, is relevant. Even if it can be shown from a more recent edition that he has changed his mind, it doesn’t take away what he said in the past.
If you want to defend the assertion that “The imbalance has not happened,” you need to read the first edition of the book and tell me why you think the book is not imbalanced based on its emphasis on honor and shame.
Thanks Jayson, I was glad to see yours and Jackson Wu’s response to the TGC article.
There is so much that could be said, but you both have blessed your readers with your comments….and illustration!
I don’t want to stir up the matter further in an unhelpful way but I have a further concern that we should not be looking for ‘balance’ at all, because I don’t see Scripture being balanced, but rather having a greater emphasis on honour-shame. and we don’t need to apologise for that in any way (not that you do), or be fearful of as so many seem to be. I have also found that the greater my understanding of God’s honour-shame emphasis in Scripture, the greater my understanding and clarity in teaching what God says about obedience. HS is not a threat to guilt-innoncence but only enlarges one’s understanding of how it fits within the gospel.
Anyhow I put a few of my thoughts on a post over at my blog..http://blog.zebrapost.net/2018/07/balanced-or-biblical-3-needs-for.html
Thank you for writing this. It is wonderful.
It seems to me that scripture makes it clear that sin is both a Condition and an Action. We are Dead in Trespasses and Sins.
We are Dead in Shame.
Repentin as hard as I can I can never get myself totally delivered from bondage and shame.
Every year as I grow in my faith I discover more areas of bondage and shame. Those that overemphasize guilt focus on the negatives rather than the positives of discipleship.
In my mind the law simply serves as a guide as to how to honor God and others. Honoring God and others should be our supreme desire and the law a map to that destination.
When someone has their house broken into and burglarized, their most intense emotion is not their material loss, but the sense of being violated.
We operate a small farm with two employees. If the employee smokes they often ask what are the rules for smoking. I try to communicate that they should respect our common spaces, but have one rule or law. Cigarette butts shall not be seen indoors or out. To throw a cigarette butt wherever one wishes shows contempt for others who occupy the same space, in this case the owner of the property and patron.
When our children were young, we had one overriding rule or law; there shall be no name calling. No one could call their brother or sister a butt head, a scum bag, an idiot, a tattle tale, etc. We didn’t know it at the time but we were teaching them to honor each other, which they do to this day.
I consider it a blessing to have felt the sting of contempt from others. It has taught me how God feels when my sin shows contempt for Him. I grew up reciting the Ten Commandments in church. They have served me well. However it was not until I realized that breaking, or bending, or sneaking around those commandments was dishonoring God, that I was truly motivated to keep them.
Make no apologies for enlightening the world on the concepts of honor and shame. They are the core of our relationships with God and others. The only harm they do is that of threatening the status of those who have climbed the ladder of guilt innocence theology.