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Preaching the Gospel in honour/shame societies


Published: 20 February 2020 (GMT+10)
World map showing culture divisions

Maintaining honour and avoiding shame are hugely important aspects of life and worldview for the majority of the people of the world, particularly those who live in Asia,1 the Middle East,2 Latin America,3 and Africa.4 They may be Buddhists, Hindus, Muslims, Judaists, animists, polytheists, or atheists, and they have the least access to the Christian Gospel and Christian resources.

In 1990, Christian missionary strategist Luis Bush coined the term ‘10/40 window’ to refer to those nations in the eastern hemisphere plus the European and African parts of the western hemisphere located between 10 degrees and 40 degrees north of the equator. This does not include Indonesia (the largest Muslim nation in the world) or South Africa or South America. Nevertheless, “Two-thirds of the world’s population live in the 10/40 window” and “90% of the people living in the 10/40 window are unevangelized.”5

In these cultures, relationships guide decision making, so the most important identity is the family, rather than each individual, as in the West. The family makes the decisions, and the primary concern of members is to maintain honour and avoid shame (or ‘save face’) for their family, because what a person does brings honour or shame not only upon themselves but upon the whole family—indeed often also upon the entire community. Great respect is usually given to the elderly in the family, and in some cultures this may extend to the honouring of the spirits of dead ancestors by means of food offerings. In such cultures, often the father is the main decision-maker on behalf of the family.

All this makes it very difficult for an individual to withdraw from the family religion and respond to the Gospel (cf. Mark 10:29–30). Indeed, in cultures where major decisions are always made by the group, an individual may not understand or respond when asked by a Western missionary to make a personal decision to accept Christ. So it is ideal if whole families can be brought to Christ and that they then stand together and stay strong despite pressure.

In particular, if the fathers can be reached, then the rest will often be reached as well. This happened in the New Testament with Cornelius (Acts 10) and the Philippian jailer (Acts 16). Even in modern cultures that are not honour/shame, this is true. It occurred with CMI—US CEO Gary Bates and his family, and according to a men’s ministry site:

“When a mother comes to Christ, her family will join her at church only 17% of the time; but when a father comes to Christ, his family joins him 93% of the time.”6

If this is true in our culture, how much more in honour/shame cultures!

We in the West may have more contact with people from honour/shame societies than we realize. We meet an increasing number of international students, migrants, and displaced persons from such countries, whom we now rub shoulders with in classrooms and supermarkets on a daily basis.

Many of these folk are experiencing loneliness and culture shock through separation from established family and friends, and are confused or even frustrated by our individualistic Western ways of doing things, especially on arrival. Most would greatly appreciate genuine friendship. Indeed genuine interest, loving concern, and warm friendship are indispensable aspects of sharing the Gospel with anybody, and particularly with these people from overseas.

The first record of honour and shame in the Bible

Much of the Bible was written in the context of honour/shame events—and being aware of this can avoid misunderstandings.7,8 In fact the Bible begins with an expression of God’s honour as Creator when He created the world and everything in it, and then made Adam and Eve in His own image (Genesis 1:27). God gave them the sublime honour of appointing them to be His co-regents to “have dominion” over His creation (Genesis 1:28, cf. Psalm 8:5–6). He further blessed Adam and Eve with the promise of a multitude of descendants “to fill the earth”, and He gave them a beautiful garden to live in that provided abundant food (Genesis 1:28–29; 2:8–9). Since initially there was no sin, initially Adam and Eve “were not ashamed”—either towards God or towards each other, although they were naked (Genesis 2:25).

Honour/shame culture, work and evangelism

The honour/shame concept influences many things, including work and speech. E.g. some countries have a status system that determines who does the work deemed to be more honourable, and who does the work deemed to be less honourable. Also many honour/shame cultures have honorific words for use when addressing people of different social levels from oneself. Thus words define relationship, (cf. in the West, where words mainly communicate information, facts, and opinions).

Cultural difference may affect evangelism of honour/shame people by Westerners in unexpected ways. A person may say ‘Yes’ to an invitation to attend a Gospel meeting because it’s the polite way to reply, but they may mean ‘I hear what you say’, not ‘I agree to do what you ask’, so ‘Yes’ doesn’t mean they will show up! Or they may respond to an appeal ‘to accept Jesus’—to save face, including that of the inviter (i.e. to promote harmony), or because they are happy to add Jesus to the gods or spirits they already revere. Thus not because of any personal conviction of sin or desire to be in a right relationship with Almighty God.

However, incited by Satan to seek to be “like God, knowing good and evil” (Genesis 3:5), Adam and Eve disdained their God-given honour and disobeyed the command God had given them (Genesis 2:5). As well as bringing on the forewarned sentence of death, this action resulted in shame—both physical and spiritual.

Their outer bodies now required a covering because their inward sin required a covering. God dealt with their inward shame by slaying one or perhaps two innocent animals, thereby creating the precedent that sin is covered by the shedding of blood (Genesis 3:21, cf. Hebrews 9:22).9 God dealt with their outward shame by providing garments from these animals’ skins to cover their nakedness. Fellowship with God was lost then, and we all now, as descendants of Adam, have inherited a sin nature (Romans 5:12; 1 Corinthians 15:21–22). Thus we sin, and we feel guilt and shame for doing so.

The Gospel

In the West, we tend to summarize the Gospel as:

God is holy. We are guilty of sin. God’s Son, Jesus Christ, paid the lawful penalty for our sins when He died on the Cross and rose from the dead. We need to repent of our sin, ask God’s forgiveness, and receive Jesus as our Saviour and Lord. When we do, we are saved for now and eternity.

All this is wonderfully true, of course, and Bible verses can be cited for each and every item. However, this is a doctrinal statement, and leaves unsaid two other aspects of the Gospel that are hugely important to people of honour/shame societies, namely:

  1. The Gospel deals with our guilt and our shame, as well as our sin.
  2. God extends to believers the enormous honour of becoming members of His family;

God deals with our sin, guilt and shame at the Cross

Sin is doing things which God forbids in the Bible (as well as failing to do what God requires). Guilt is our responsibility for having transgressed against God’s law; it is also used to describe the feeling associated with remorse about things we have done, and in particular sins; (we may also have remorse about failing to do good things). Shame is our feelings of humiliation or distress arising from guilt or from our embarrassment at having done something dishonourable, degrading, or foolish—and been found out.

God’s solution to mankind’s universal sin, guilt, and shame was to send His Son, Jesus, to die on the Cross as the means by which He could forgive us for our sins. At the Cross, the penalty for sin was paid in full by Jesus, and so when we confess our sins to God in repentance and faith, God can justly “forgive us our sins” (1 John 1:9), and “the blood of Jesus, His Son, cleanses us from all sin” (1 John 1:7). Note the wording: “cleanses us from all sin”. Hence when we confess our sins to God and ask His forgiveness, our sin with its consequences of guilt and shame is expiated, atoned for, and abolished for ever.

However, for many people, shame can be a barrier to hearing God’s words of forgiveness, especially when this is due to bad things that other people have done to them or said about them, especially in their youth. They may feel so dishonoured, disgraced, or defiled, and so unlovable, unacceptable, or unworthy, that they may reckon the offer of God’s forgiveness could not possibly apply to them. The answer is Jesus. He knew all about shame—not because of any bad things He had done, but because of the bad things that others did and said to Him.

Jesus took our shame upon Himself

When Jesus died on the Cross, He took all of humanity’s shame upon Himself. He was shamefully charged with blasphemy for claiming to be God (Matthew 26:63–65), and shamefully mocked regarding His divine roles of king (Matthew 27:27–29), of prophet (Luke 22:63–64), and of priest (Mark 15:29–32). He endured shameful spitting (Mark 14:65), shameful scourging (Mark 15:15), and the hugely shameful death of crucifixion, which was one of the most ignominious, cruel, and degrading capital punishments ever conceived. More than all of these, God made Jesus “to be sin who knew no sin” (2 Corinthians 5:21), i.e., by imputation, God made His own sinless Son, Jesus, to actually be all the sin of humanity, with all its guilt, and all its shame!

Why? “So that in Him we might become the righteousness of God” (2 Corinthians 5:21). This is the great ‘substitution’ of the Gospel. God removes our sin, guilt, and shame forever and imputes them to Christ (Isaiah 53:6), and in their place He imputes Christ’s righteousness to all who believe in Him. If you are a believer, Jesus has removed your sins forever “by means of His own blood thus securing an eternal redemption” (Hebrews 9:12). So “How much more will the blood of Christ … purify our conscience” (Hebrews 9:14).

Jesus “endured the cross, despising the shame, and is seated at the right hand of the throne of God” (Hebrews 12:2). Thus when God looks on you, if you are a believer, He sees you not as you are in yourself, but as you are in Christ Jesus—robed in Christ’s righteousness. God sees His Son in you, and He loves you as He loves His Son.

God gives us the ultimate honour—to be members of His family

Christianity is a family relationship with God! Having dealt with and removed our guilt and shame as sinners, God gives believers the incredible honour of adopting us as members of His own family. God’s Word, the Bible, tells us:

“But to all who did receive him, who believed in his name, he gave the right to become children of God” (John 1:12).
“See what kind of love the Father has given to us, that we should be called children of God; and so we are” (1 John 3:1).
“Beloved, we are God’s children now, and what we will be has not yet appeared; but we know that when he appears we shall be like him, because we shall see him as he is” (I John 3:1–2).
“But now that faith has come, we are no longer under a guardian, for in Christ Jesus you are all sons of God, through faith. For as many of you as were baptized into Christ have put on Christ. There is neither Jew nor Greek, there is neither slave nor free, there is no male and female, for you are all one in Christ Jesus. And if you are Christ’s, then you are Abraham’s offspring, heirs according to promise” (Galatians 3:25–29).

In that honour/shame culture, only sons inherited, so when Paul calls believers of both sexes “sons”, he is saying that they both inherit God’s promises.)

God’s family is the greatest family ever—it comprises all believers, all over the world, in all of time. And believers, as adopted members of God’s family, are “heirs of God and fellow heirs with Christ” (Romans 8:17). As such, not only do we have salvation (John 5:24), and eternal life (John 3:16), but as an essential part of that inheritance, God also gives us the right to sit with Christ on His throne (Revelation 3:21), wearing a crown of glory (1 Peter 5:4), and another of righteousness (2 Timothy 4:8). Surely the most honourable place we could ever occupy! And surely the most honourable role we could ever have!

All pointless unless the Bible is truly true

The Christian Gospel is not the product of human imagination, reasoning, or meditation, but is a revelation from the one true God, recorded in the Holy Bible. Of course, if that Gospel is to be fully embraced by someone of whatever culture, it must be believed as true. And logically that only makes sense if the Bible which presents that Gospel is also regarded as being without error—including in regard to the crucial history of how sin entered the world, and with it death and suffering.

If the Bible is even in part the error-ridden product of fallible humans, we would never know which parts of it we could rely on as truth.


Our expression of the Gospel in any culture must therefore be within the context of belief in and willingness to defend the ‘cover-to-cover’ truth of the Bible as the Word of God. It must also be in total dependence on the power of the Holy Spirit to convince and convert (John 16:7–8). It should present the foundational truths of:

  • The existence of Almighty God (Hebrews 11:8).
  • Our accountability to Him as Creator (Hebrews 9:27), and our sinfulness following the Fall of our first ancestor.
  • That Jesus died on the Cross and rose again (1 Corinthians 15:3–4), as foretold in increasing detail from Genesis 3:15 on.
  • The fact that there is salvation in no one other than Jesus (Acts 4:12).

And it should do so in terms that communicate meaningfully in that culture. This involves sensitivity to the concepts of that culture. For honour/shame cultures in particular, this means understanding and emphasizing the way Jesus deals with our shame as well as our guilt, and the huge ‘family honour’ He bestows upon believers.

References and notes

  1. Especially those Asians who have a Confucian heritage; Confucius or Kongsi (550–479 BC) was a Chinese philosopher who taught the importance of moral values, filial piety, and respect for elders, with harmony in all relationships as the most important aspect of life. Return to text.
  2. Much of the Arab-Israeli conflict today in the Middle-East can be seen as a history of honour/shame dynamics in action. Return to text.
  3. Latin America is a cultural term denoting those countries in the region that speak a ‘romance language’, i.e. one derived from Latin, the language spoken by the Western Roman Empire. Return to text.
  4. Diverse African cultures have strong respect for the aged and those in authority, such as chiefs. Return to text.
  5. Home.snu.edu/~hculbert/1040.htm. Return to text.
  6. A Look at the Numbers About Men and Men’s Ministry, wacmm.org, accessed 27 Jan 2020. Return to text.
  7. Holding, J.P., Honor and Shame in the Biblical World, tektonics.org, accessed 27 Jan 2020. Return to text.
  8. Other examples of honour and/or shame within families in the Old Testament include the accounts of Noah and his sons (Genesis 9:20–27), Dinah (Genesis Chapter 34), Joseph and his brothers (Genesis Chapters 37, 42–46), the Book of Ruth, and King David’s involvements with Bathsheba and Uriah, and with his own son Absalom (2 Samuel Chapters 11–12 & 15–18), to name just a few of many. Return to text.
  9. The Hebrew word translated ‘atonement’ and used extensively in Exodus, Leviticus and Deuteronomy, is kaphar which has the root meaning of ‘covering’ rather than ‘removing’. Thus in the Old Testament, sins were ‘covered’ by animal sacrifices (cf. Hebrews 10:4), until they were removed for all time by Christ’s sacrificial death on the Cross (1 Peter 2:24). Return to text.

Helpful Resources

Readers’ comments

Matthew B.
A timely article! One thing that stood out to me:
In that honour/shame culture, only sons inherited, so when Paul calls believers of both sexes “sons” [Gal. 3:25], he is saying that they both inherit God’s promises.)

There’s actually a book available that explains how the Fall of Man affected every culture around the world, and how Jesus answers the needs of each worldview. It’s The Messenger, the Message, and the Community, by Roland Muller, a long-time missionary to the Middle East (by CanBooks). It is written from a young-earth viewpoint, which makes the book several times better than any book that would try to explain the worldviews without a recent, common ancestor in Adam.
As he wrote on page 113:
When man sinned, three great conditions came upon mankind. By sinning man broke God's law and consequently was in a position of guilt. By sinning man also broke God's relationship and consequently was in a position of shame. Finally, when man sinned he broke God’s trust and was, from that point, in a position of fear. Over the millennia that followed, many different worldviews developed, all of them built around sin’s effect on mankind.

Deborah H. might find a fuller understanding of “shame” from this quote from page 189:
As I have said before, when man sinned, three great conditions came up on mankind. When man broke God’s law, he was in a position of guilt. When men broke God’s relationship, he was in a position of shame. When man broke God’s trust, he was in a position and fear. … Shame is more than a feeling of embarrassment or a sense of unworthiness. It is position we enter into because of our wrongdoing or sin. Salvation has to do with saving us from God’s judgment, restoring our relationship with God, and rebuilding trust between us and God.
David B.
It just goes to show that even after having been a Christian for many decades you can still learn something new. I have long thought of God as ‘Father’ and I have long considered my fellow believers as brothers and sisters. I never put the two together until now that we are His family. For those of us who are virtual or literal orphans, it brings great comfort that we still have the opportunity to be a member of a large and healthy family. This should be a very successful approach in evangelizing and I hope more are inspired to use it. Even if we only have that attitude from our side, it will make our churches much more warm and welcoming. To truly see the stranger at the door as a potential brother or sister will change our mindset away from judgment and into love
Nickolas B.
I wholeheartedly agree with this article, but I feel one important point is missing. To paraphrase Russell: Our expression of the foundational truths of the Gospel should be in terms that communicate meaningfully in that culture. This involves sensitivity to the concepts of that culture.

Keep in mind that part of this cultural sensitivity must necessarily include strategies to combat cultural barriers to the gospel. In Western individualistic societies, apologists must be prepared to answer relativism with the absolute claims of Jesus Christ: “I am the way, and the truth, and the life. No one comes to the Father except through me.” (John 14:6).” This will offend those who want to invent their own beliefs and methods of salvation, but it is a necessary aspect of the Gospel, and it hits home particularly hard in certain cultures.

In honor/shame cultures where the family and community are more important than the individual, apologists must be prepared to answer this misplaced loyalty with the absolute surrender required by Jesus Christ: “Whoever loves father or mother more than me is not worthy of me, and whoever loves son or daughter more than me is not worthy of me.”
‭‭(Matthew 10:37). This will offend those who want to honor their family more than their own personal beliefs and commitments, but it is a necessary aspect of the Gospel, and it hits home particularly hard in certain cultures.

In other words, there is a difference between being sensitive to a culture and pandering to a culture (which I’m not saying Russell advocated). Loyalty to family over Christ is a sin. Those in honor/shame cultures need to be told that that aspect of their cultural conditioning is sinful and that they will be held personally accountable by God.
Courtney K.
I notice that many of the articles on Creation.com are translated into other languages. This is one of those articles that has great relevance for being translated.
Andrew B.
I love this content. Thank you for posting on culture, geography, and missiology. Creation teachings are excellent. I love hearing it, over and over again. As an foot-soldier apologist (i.e. in street evangelism, personal relationships), I am immensely grateful for articles regarding the ‘how to’ of tearing down high things that set themselves against the knowledge of God, whether basic or in-depth.
Renton M.
It seems to me that the idea of ‘saving face’ is in direct opposition to repentance, the latter being essential to the receiving of salvation. Individuals need to humble themselves and acknowledge their wrong, not avoid/evade it to ‘save face’.This being so, ‘saving face’, entrenched in a culture, has been the means by which vast numbers of people have been shut away from a basic requirement of the Gospel. It begins to look like a very effective diabolic strategy. A culture influenced by the Gospel/biblical worldview, understands confession and acknowledgement of wrong as a virtue, not as something to be avoided at all cost.
Frank D.
As a result of my reading on honor/shame societies, I have taken to describing crucifixion as “an elaborate status-degradation ritual, during the course of which the subject dies”. Death is the ending point of crucifixion, but that is ancillary; the purpose is to make it clear what Rome thinks of the offender who to whom this is done.
Stephen N.
Thanks for the excellent article. It not only explains the core gospel message very clearly. It is also inciteful in explaining how the honor/shame cultural outlook can be a barrier to the Gospel, and has increased my understanding of this topic. The good news is that one day this barrier will be removed. As Isaiah 25:7–8 (NIV) says:
On this mountain he will destroy the shroud that enfolds all peoples, the sheet that covers all nations; he will swallow up death forever. The Sovereign LORD will wipe away the tears from all faces; he will remove his people’s disgrace from all the earth. The LORD has spoken.
In response to Deborah H., all cultures are broken by sin. She highlights some of the brokenness that can occur in communal, honor-shame based cultures. But there is plenty of brokenness in the individualistic guilt-innocence cultures of the west. Western individualism tolerates great accumulation of wealth with exploitation of workers and lack of charity. It exalts the ‘self-made man’ (or woman), promoting independence from others, society, and ultimately from our Creator. The individualism of western culture has also resulted in objectifying women, and glorifying sex in the quest to satisfy our individual appetites. We need more shame and communal responsibility in the west, just as those in shame-based cultures need a proper understanding of guilt and of individual responsibility for evil behavior.
The Gospel gives us a good and appropriate understanding and application of both guilt and shame, and how they were both dealt with on the cross. Those in shame-based cultures need to realize that their greatest shame comes from dishonoring their Creator and heavenly Father, in whose image they are made. Those in guilt-based cultures need to realize that they are guilty of breaking the moral law of their Creator and supreme Lord, who is the source of all moral virtue and goodness.
The purpose of developing such cultural understandings is so that we can contextualize the Gospel to the hearts and minds of our listeners, as Paul did in Acts 17 and Peter did in Acts 2. Praise God, the beauty of the Gospel is that it deals with both our guilt and our shame.
John M.
I agree it’s good to get the whole family to come to church, but if their sole reason for being Christians is because the father in the family believes, then they aren’t truly Christians. Their father’s faith can’t save them. It’s the same as somebody saying they are a Christian just because they were raised in a Christian family and grew up going to church. Saying you’re something just because it’s all you know doesn’t make it true faith and belief in Christ. That’s like going down the path of Jews from the Bible, thinking that just because they were Jews they were saved.
Jonathan Sarfati
We were not saying that going to church or having a Christian father saves them. “God has no grandchildren.” Rather, there is more chance, humanly speaking, of family members coming to saving faith in Christ if the father does so first.

But you raise a good point. The following article should address your concern, and that of Christian parents in general:

A ‘no brainer’ test for measuring the faith of our young ones: Are your children (and grandchildren) asking the right questions?
Norman P.
As the Old Testament bears out, all unregenerate humanity is honour/shame orientated: it's the way the humanity is, due to the Fall. Even Western society under Christendom was much the same. The missing dimension is the fear of the Lord, especially today, which in turn stems from the Serpent’s evil tongue, “Has God said …?” (Gen 3:1). Hence the need for severe corrective judgement, without stifling the grace that comes from saving faith.
How great is the need for “epistles written in our hearts, known and read of all men: forasmuch as ye are manifestly declared to be the epistle of Christ ministered by us, written not with ink, but with the Spirit of the living God; not in tables of stone, but in fleshy tables of the heart” (see 2 Cor 3:2–11).
Amee G.
A great article Russell. I am researching this very subject in relation to Australian Indigenous cultures. However, I disagree with Deborah H. All the three culture types lead to unfortunate extremes. The answer is not that guilt-innocence world view should replace shame-honour worldviews. The truth is that the answer to the felt needs of all cultures are found in the Bible. As Russell has pointed out in the early part of the Bible we see that they also had a shame-honour culture.
Robert R.
I like the map, but after a better look, I don't like how the east coast of Australia is coloured as Asian. maybe you could just circle Sydney as Asian. I live on the east coast, and 95% of people within a 1.5-hour drive in any direction are white.
Russell Grigg
Thank you for your comment. The map was meant to indicate that although Australia is a western county a number of people from Asian countries live on the east coast and make up areas of the major cities. Originally, I had thought to have that part striped but that did not eventuate.
Michael C.
Thank you Russell for yet another outstanding and very useful article! The Gospel is for all people across all generations. But as your article and the related articles point out, it is often understood differently. Therefore how we share the Good News is very important. It's not a case of 'one-size fits all'.

I recommend readers get the excellent '3D Gospel' ebook (Google it):
"The Bible speaks to cultures of guilt, shame, and fear. Western theology emphasizes forgiveness of sins, but people in the Majority World seek honor or spiritual power. In today’s globalized world, Christians need a three-dimensional gospel of God's innocence, honor, and power. Is your Gospel 3D?"
Deborah H.
Shame is concern about what humans think of us: Guilt is concern about what God thinks of us. The replacement of an honour-shame culture with a guilt-innocence culture is the Bible's great gift to the world. Jesus never advocated for institutions, not even for the family. He spoke for the individual, the widow, the orphan, the child, the single disciple who makes a personal decision for life. Thus, the gospel liberates us from fear of others and instils only fear of God.

Moreover, honour-shame cultures are repressive and dangerous to women, whose virtue in such cultures consists *only* in chastity, and in whom reside the 'honour' (sexual) of the family. Honour-shame cultures kill their non-compliant women. Honour-shame cultures are most markedly patriarchal and violent. There is nothing to be said in favour of honour-shame cultures in the face of these characteristics. Their currency is male ego and competition, ethics are relative to what 'honour' may be gained from any act (so that murder is fine if it restores 'honour'), and there is no such thing as conscience, rather a fear of censure. Only in the innocence-guilt culture of true faith and accountability to God alone can people find liberty, redemption, and true conscience.
William H.
Wow, the Gospel is indeed such great news. It is true—our shame is removed, all our sin against God forgiven and He in love takes us into His family because on the cross, Jesus His Son took upon Himself our guilt and shame and punishment.
Thanks, Russell, for the insights of how our neighbours from different cultures think and feel differently about honour and shame.
May the Lord help us in making Him known to all.

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