Ascribed honor versus achieved honor: what does it mean for cross-cultural partnerships?

There are two kinds of honor—ascribed honor and achieved honor. It is important for westerners to understand the difference. It will help them navigate social situations in all honor and shame societies, particularly those in the Muslim world and Asia. The result should be healthier relationships, deeper friendships, more effective cross-cultural partnerships, and ultimately … and more people following Christ to the glory to God.

Ascribed honor is the value given to a person in public based on one’s family, bloodline, and heritage. On the other hand, achieved honor is the value or worth given to a person based on what one has accomplished—usually through some form of competition or challenge; rivalry or warfare can also be part of this.

This contrast is easy for westerners to understand—we acknowledge both the ascribed honor of powerful political families, and we celebrate the accomplishments of great athletes, an expression of achieved honor. However, what westerners do not normally recognize is the intensity to which the pursuit of honor and the avoidance of shame influences the behavior of people. Honor and shame is a core value for family, vocation, politics, religion—in short, for everything that matters in life.

One way to explain the difference between ascribed honor and achieved honor is to let the Bible give us examples. Consider the following verses about the honorable, indeed, glorious, identity of Jesus Christ.

Here are two verses about the ascribed honor of Jesus Christ:

  • “The book of the genealogy of Jesus Christ, the son of David, the son of Abraham” (Matthew 1:1 ESV). Note that the entire first chapter of Matthew is given to establish the honor of Christ’s identity by establishing the Jewish family line through which Jesus came. This was extremely important to the Jewish people, and it makes perfect sense that it appears in Matthew’s gospel, since this gospel more than any other was written to the Jewish audience.
  • “and behold, a voice from heaven said, This is my beloved Son, with whom I am well pleased” (Matthew 3:17 ESV). Following the baptism of Jesus, God the Father declares the honor of his Son by publicly stating his divine love and pleasure toward him.

Here is a classic passage about the achieved honor of Jesus Christ:

  • And being found in human form, he humbled himself by becoming obedient to the point of death, even death on a cross. Therefore God has highly exalted him and bestowed on him the name that is above every name, so that at the name of Jesus every knee should bow, in heaven and on earth and under the earth, and every tongue confess that Jesus Christ is Lord, to the glory of God the Father (Philippians 2:9–11 ESV). Note the the word, “Therefore.” This word is a conjunction, linking the super-exaltation of the Lord Jesus Christ with what he achieved on the cross. His honor was, in this sense, earned or achieved, because of the humiliation he suffered and the work he accomplished (“It is finished!”) through his Passion and crucifixion.

Below is a passage, Hebrews 1:1–5, 8–9 (ESV) describing both the ascribed honor and achieved honor of Jesus Christ:

1  Long ago, at many times and in many ways, God spoke to our fathers by the prophets,
2  but in these last days he has spoken to us by his Son, whom he appointed the heir of all things, [ascribed honor] through whom also he created the world.
He is the radiance of the glory of God and the exact imprint of his nature [ascribed honor], and he upholds the universe by the word of his power. After making purification for sins, he sat down at the right hand of the Majesty on high [achieved honor],
4  having become as much superior to angels as the name he has inherited is more excellent than theirs [ascribed honor].
5  For to which of the angels did God ever say,

You are my Son,
today I have begotten you?
[ascribed honor]

Or again,

I will be to him a father,
and he shall be to me a son?
[ascribed honor]

8  But of the Son he says,
Your throne, O God, is forever and ever,
the scepter of uprightness is the scepter of your kingdom.
You have loved righteousness and hated wickedness;
therefore God, your God, has anointed you
with the oil of gladness beyond your companions
. [achieved honor]

In fact, when you read the first two chapters of Hebrews, one can see it is permeated by the eastern value of honor and shame. The author is making an irrefutable case for the exalted honor of the Son of God, the Lord Jesus Christ.

A western Christian may observe this in a detached, logical way—while the eastern Christian may perceive this with far more relevance and impact. For the western Christian, it would be like looking a map called the Bible and seeing on that map a river called The Honor & Glory of the Son of God. The western believer says, “Ah, yes, there it is, that is a very big river, indeed.”

Christians from an eastern culture—where the value of honor and shame dominates life—would be more likely to receive this passage of Scripture with deep emotional and life-impacting significance. Because of the cultural significance of honor and shame, for them it is unlike seeing the name of the river on a map; it is more like swimming in that river of truth, being influenced by the strong current of the river, terrified by its depth while enjoying its freshness and life-giving purity. The eastern believer cannot compartmentalize this as a facet of truth to be acknowledged, but swims in this honor and shame reality every hour of every day of his life.

Can you begin to see how this understanding about honor and shame could significantly impact the work of facilitating a healthy cross-cultural ministry partnerships between eastern and western Christians?

  • Consider the importance of ministry focused on family, fatherhood, and bloodline as opposed to ministry centered on individuals. Ministry to the family and children is important in western churches; how much more important is it in eastern cultures?
  • What if you are invited to visit the parents of your ministry partner? What is the best way to handle that? What does that mean for your partnership?
  • What does the strong avoidance of shame imply concerning the directness or indirectness of your communication styles? The honor-and-shame practice of ‘saving face’ plays a huge role here.
  • How does honor and shame impact a ministry partner’s willingness to assume risk or to live with caution?
  • Competition, envy, and rivalry are on the dark side of the honor and shame value system. Is this showing up anywhere in the dynamics of your cross-cultural partnership? How do you respond?

Fortunately, the answers for these questions are all in the Bible, because the Bible was written from an honor and shame cultural perspective. What do you think? Do you have an experience or insight that can help others? Please share them in the comments section below.

Let’s serve our cross-cultural partnerships with biblically-informed cultural intelligence, for the honor of the Lord Jesus, and to the glory of God. Understanding honor and shame, and embracing the God’s passion for his glory among the nations, can help us do that.

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  1. […] In this honour-shame culture there are two kinds of honour: ascribed honour and achieved honour. Asc...

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