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Preaching the Gospel in honour/shame societies

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Published: 20 February 2020 (GMT+10)
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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.

Conclusion

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.

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