How to Shame…Biblically
People who act shamelessly should incur a sense of shame.The apostle Paul explicitly shamed fellow believers, on several occasions:
I say this to your shame. (1 Cor 6:5)
I say this to your shame. (1 Cor 15:34)
Take note of those who do not obey what we say in this letter; have nothing to do with them, so that they may be ashamed. Do not regard them as enemies but warn them as believers. (2 Thess 3:14-15)
But at a time in Western culture when any form of shaming is considered oppressive and hateful, how can shame be a good thing? In other words, how can we shame biblically? In Ministering in Honor-Shame Cultures, we summarize:
The threat of potential shame acts like a cultural stop sign, helping to preserve dignity and avoid offensive actions. Even though the experience of shame will be painful, we can affirm a group’s shaming when (1) the action in question is something God would consider shameful, and (2) the intent of the shaming is restoring the person to right living and right relationship with God and others. This “reintegrative” shaming is restorative and temporary. (p. 44)
Let’s explore these two characteristics of biblical shaming.
1. Theological Shame
The action in question must be shameful in God’s eyes. We should only shame sin. Our shaming should expose people to their theological shame before God. People need to realize how their behavior has dishonored God, and thus placed themselves in a state of spiritual shame. Biblical shame involves bringing sin into the light. I appreciate John Piper’s insights here:
Well-placed shame (the kind you ought to have) is the shame we feel when there is good reason to feel it. Biblically that means we feel ashamed of something because our involvement in it was dishonoring to God. We ought to feel shame when we have a hand in bringing dishonor upon God by our attitudes or actions. (Faith in Future Grace, 129)
But tragically, the social shame most people experience is not legitimately shameful. The cultural definition of what is shameful has been warped and twisted. People carry the burden of shame for the wrong things, and this explains our innate suspicion of any shame. Shame has become a manipulative tool to influence, control, and demean at a purely social level, not a process of revealing someone’s condition before the Glorious God.
2. Restorative Shame.
The goal of God’s salvific work in history is community. God wants people to commune with himself and fellow believers for his glory. God is working in this age to form the church, the new people of God. So in that light, the goal of shaming is to strengthen God’s community. The goal of shaming is not to manipulate people into following Christians rules or attend programs, as is often the case. The primary focus of our shaming should be on relationships, not behavior.
Biblical shaming is restorative. The aim is to reintegrate people into the community. Sin ruptures relationships, but shame can also be used to reverse that rupture, to restore and strengthen social bonds. Healthy shame helps people see how they have hurt and dishonored others (including God). The process creates a pathway for the wrongdoer to right the relationship.
Shame involves isolation and alienation. So, when people sin and break relationships, they already have a sense of shame. Therefore, biblical shaming merely helps people to recognize that shame of their broken relationship. Biblical shaming is helping them understand and overcome the shame that is already present.
Sadly, most shaming is the opposite of restorative—punitive and disintegrative. Unhealthy shaming punishes the offender and makes a spectacle of their behavior. The person is stigmatized and disgraced. The focus on unhealthy control is enforcing the social rules and maintaining power, not sanctification.
Here is an obvious issue—if the aim of shaming is restorative, then biblical shaming can only happen within community. Without community, healthy shaming is not possible because there is no community to which people can be restored. The absence of community (especially in America today) explains why shaming pushes people away instead of drawing them back into relationships.
These two points are general principles. Wisdom is needed to apply them in specific contexts and particular relationships. Thoughts or comments? Please share below.