We have a blind spot about “honor and shame”… here’s why

honor and shame graphic

Timothy Tennent book
Timothy Tennent’s book—Theology in the Context of World Christianity: How the Global Church is Influencing the Way We Think About and Discuss Theology—a valuable resource for Christians in cross-cultural ministry

Christians in America and the West have a hard time seeing the pivotal cultural value of honor and shame in Scripture. According to Timothy C. Tennent, there is a blind spot in our systematic theology textbooks:

Since Western systematic theology has been almost exclusively written by theologians from cultures framed primarily by the values of guilt and innocence, there has been a corresponding failure to fully appreciate the importance of the pivotal values of honor and shame in understanding Scripture and the doctrine of sin. Even with the publication of important works such as Biblical Social Values and Their Meaning and The New Testament World, systematic theologians have remained largely unchanged by this research.

Bruce Nichols, the founder of the Evangelical Review of Theology, has acknowledged this problem, noting that Christian theologians have “rarely if ever stressed salvation as honoring God, exposure of sin as shame, and the need for acceptance as the restoration of honor.” In fact, a survey of all of the leading textbooks used in teaching systematic theology across the major theological traditions reveals that although the indexes are filled with references to guilt, the word “shame” appears in the index of only one of these textbooks. This omission continues to persist despite the fact that the term guilt and its various derivatives occur 145 times in the Old Testament and 10 times in the New Testament, whereas the term shame and its derivatives occur nearly 300 times in the Old Testament and 45 times in the New Testament.

This is clearly an area where systematic theology must be challenged to reflect more adequately the testimony of Scripture. I am confident that a more biblical understanding of human identity outside of Christ that is framed by guilt, fear, and shame will, in turn, stimulate a more profound and comprehensive appreciation for the work of Christ on the cross. This approach will also greatly help peoples in the Majority World to understand the significance and power of Christ’s work, which has heretofore been told primarily from only one perspective.[1]

“This omission continues to persist …” Yes, that means there’s a blind spot.

The result? Seminaries in the West teach the Bible with an “honor and shame blind spot.” Pastors-to-be and leaders attending those seminaries acquire the blind spot. In turn, the blind spot has filtered into the common language and understanding of Christians everywhere in the West. Some of them, in turn, export the “honor and shame blind spot” around the world. Systematic theology textbooks from the West are used in seminaries all over the world … and the “honor and shame blind spot” is perpetuated.

Interestingly, the pivotal cultural value of honor and shame—as found in that Eastern book called the Bible—is also prominent in non-Western nations today. In the Majority World—consisting of Africa, Asia, Latin America, and the Middle East—honor and shame is still a pivotal cultural value.

This has major ramifications for cross-cultural ministry efforts … for how we share the gospel of Jesus Christ … the kind of language we use … the degree to which our words touch each others’ hearts … for the depth of friendship between people in the West and people in the Majority World.

Honor and shame in cross-cultural relationshipsMy free 30-page article, “Honor and Shame in Cross-Cultural Relationships,” helps address this need. It is an introduction to the subject of honor and shame. The article helps you understand five basic culture scales through the cultural lens of honor and shame, gives examples from the Bible, and offers practical suggestions to Western believers so they can better understand their friends in the Majority World—for healthier cross-cultural relationships and partnerships. It is available by clicking here.

1. From Theology in the Context of World Christianity: How the Global Church Is Influencing the Way We Think about and Discuss Theology (Grand Rapids: Zondervan, 2007) p. 92–93, (footnotes withheld).

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