Covid-19 cannot stop Missio Dei! Though, admittedly, it did slow us down a bit.

We devote this issue of MD to investigate the issues of honor and shame. Readers might be surprised that the topic could warrant an entire issue. Indeed, many might have only limited knowledge or awareness of them, perhaps considering honor and shame as interesting but of little significance, a sort of missiological adiaphora. So, why an entire issue? The conversation about honor and shame is becoming, indeed has already become, an established critical issue for global missiology.1 That is to say, for contemporary missiology, the honor-shame conversation has arrived. I argue three compelling reasons that this is in fact the case.

First, honor-shame2 issues have risen to a level of increased attention because of the growth of the global church. We are all aware that the standard syllabus of missions issues changes throughout time. What occupied the attention of mission theorists and practitioners in 1900 was significantly different from critical issues in 1970, which in turn differs from the important missiological issues of 2020. We add to and often subtract from this dynamic set of critical topics, responding with our best contemporary understandings. For a season, church growth issues, receptivity theory, and the homogenous unit principle dominated missiological conversations. Similarly, worldview was at one time a central issue in missiology. These missiological “hot topics” (and I could name many more) no longer occupy center stage in most missiological conversations. For good or ill, these once-dominant concerns have given way to more recent concerns in the contemporary missiological syllabus. Issues such as missional hermeneutics, missional theology, missional ecclesiology, short-term missions, holistic missions, creation care, mission and justice issues, reconciliation as mission, diasporic missions and issues of immigration, partnership between the Western and Majority World churches, and the phenomenon of the new sending nations are now prominent. It is also impossible to imagine today a missiology lacking explicit attention to issues that involve the use of power in postcolonial contexts.

All these additions to the missiological syllabus arise out of ever-changing contexts, often catalyzed by the new voices of the global church, which are speaking with greater clarity and power out of their own experiences and contexts. These emerging global voices alert us to the importance of honor-shame. That is, much of the Majority World lives in cultural milieus where honor, shame, and face are dominant concerns in ways that differ radically from how honor/shame function in Anglo-European cultures.

Whether in discipleship or evangelism, empowering local believers to understand God and the good news through the lenses of honor and shame give voice to the deep cultural experiences of much of the global Christian family. Recognizing honor and shame as a critical issue in contemporary missiology is simply to acknowledge the global church speaking authentically from within differing cultural contexts. Honor-shame has arrived, so to speak, because the churches in the Majority World are awakening to their own cultural realities of honor/shame as legitimate theological and missiological issues.

Second, in the past several decades, biblical scholarship has highlighted the significant role that issues of honor and shame play in Scripture.3 Such exegetical and theological work has pointed out ways in which Western biblical interpretation has significantly underplayed, misunderstood, even ignored these important ancient categories of moral evaluation and social engagement.4 The new emphasis on honor and shame issues in contemporary missiology is a corrective to a long legacy of Western interpreters who, due to cultural lenses, have failed to engage them as important issues in the Bible. As this recognition grows, missiologists (particularly evangelicals, Pentecostals, and others from more conservative traditions, who tend to place the voice of Scripture close to the center of the theological task) have begun to take note as well.

Third, most who study these issues contend that honor, shame, and face are not simply the possession of Majority World cultures. Anthropologists, social psychologists, philosophers, political theorists, and missiologists now accept the universality of the basic human experiences of honor, shame, and face. All human cultures possess cultural modes of honorification, recognize experiences of shame (stigma, dishonor, and embarrassment), and engage in face and facework.5 What differs is the quality of those experiences, the diverse ways a majority culture authorizes or rejects different forms and expressions of them, the ways they are lexicalized into local vernacular, and the motivational force their different expressions take for individuals and communities.

Honor-shame conversations are increasingly important for the Anglo-European world. This is surprising, as many have for some time considered the Western world to represent guilt-based cultures (not shame-based) or justice-oriented cultures (not honor-oriented). There exists today a growing conversation in philosophy and political theory about the value of rehabilitating honor and shame for Anglo-European contexts.6 Similarly, there exists an explosion of critical interaction with issues of face (unsurprisingly, with concomitant issues of honor and shame) in the growing area of face and facework theory (a multi-disciplinary research focus fueled by communication theorists, anthropologists, and social psychologists).7 Finally, even the most casual cultural observer cannot miss the growing prevalence of overt shame issues in contemporary Western cultures. A March 2015 cover story in Christianity Today by former executive editor Andy Crouch, titled “The Return of Shame,” notes how shame is growing as a dynamic of popular culture, aided by the power of social media and the internet. He summarizes the major claim: “From online bullying to twitter [sic] takedowns, shame is becoming a dominant force in the west.”8 This phenomenon has fueled a massive surge of writings addressing the impact of shame on affective disorders and relationships (think, for example, of the tremendous popularity of the work of Brené Brown). In parts of the world that have for centuries been thought of as decidedly non-honor or non-shame cultures, many acknowledge an increasing relevance of these issues.

Many of us who work in honor-shame studies have noted a striking pair of consistent reactions when engaging leaders and churches throughout the world. The first reaction is typically one of hesitant excitement. Upon learning that Scripture and the gospel have much to say about the culturally salient issues of honor and shame, people often react with statements such as “Really? Are you certain this can be the case?” This reaction rests, I believe, on the anticipation of unlocking a new gospel-laden way of understanding deep issues that dominate their cultural environment. A second reaction typically follows: “If this is true, why has no one told us this before?” Many of these leaders puzzle at how missionaries who have brought them the gospel have missed what is so clearly a major issue, both in scripture and culture. The failure of Western theology, biblical studies, and missiology to take honor-shame issues more seriously over the past several centuries has led to concomitant lacunae in the Majority World church.

As with any emerging field of study, there are challenges. One such challenge is definitional. Often those who write on honor/shame do so with different perspectives and usages of even the most basic terminology. As senior Harvard anthropologist Michael Herzfeld observes, the English term honor is an inefficient gloss that covers a great variety of indigenous terminological systems.9 His point is that there is no such thing as honor—only honors of various types and cultural specificities. Honor is never a singular, univocal thing—it is a field concept, a “bundle of virtues.”10 Consequently, to delve into the study of social honor is to find oneself in a very expansive and, oftentimes, confusing place. The same slipperiness exists with shame and shame-laden terms. Authors who use the same terminology to write about very different concepts and experiences frequently compound this confusion. So, for example, shame can be a personal affect (internal) or a social phenomenon (external). Similarly, honor can reference an internal experience (self-esteem, a personal sense of pride, or feelings that derive from affirmation of various kinds) or external social practices (applause, titles, forms of politeness, recognition of different types). The cultural variability of honor and shame, either as an individual experience or as social dynamics creates differences in quality, motivation, and cultural practices.

Some authors who write on honor-shame issues ignore these complexities. This is usually not the case with leading scholars but is often true of those who consume the best honor-shame scholarship and generate resources at a more practical level. Generalization and essentializing result in the stereotypical and careless use of terms such as “honor cultures,” “shame cultures,” “guilt cultures,” and so on. This type of essentializing results in simplistic analyses and solutions. More careful authors acknowledge that no culture is completely one type in contrast to another.11 The honor-shame conversation must work toward a more accurate taxonomic nomenclature. Until one emerges, we will likely continue to use the clumsy terminology as shorthand.

Still another problem with many honor-shame studies is outdated theories or conceptual frameworks. Even Crouch’s generally perceptive CT article is given to designating “shame cultures” incorrectly as concerned with outsider opinion (what the community or society says about you) and “guilt cultures” as focused on behavior and principle. This unfortunate reliance on outdated theory exists within missiology, especially in the area of honor/shame.12 More recent scholarship in anthropology and social psychology now considers these older characterizations to be at best as incomplete, at worst completely wrong. Practitioners and non-specialists often continue to perpetuate these naïve, simplistic generalizations.

In this issue, we offer a variety of topics and approaches to understanding this important area of honor-shame. In “An Honor-Bearing Gospel for Shame-Fueled Crises,” Werner Mischke asks what the gospel implies for the current global refugee crisis, issues of terrorism, and the poison of racism. His answer? Shame is at the center of such persistent global crises, and Ephesians 2 provides a gospel of hostility-killing peace and shame-covering honor, which can be resources to heal these enduring problems.

Yi-Sang Patrick Chan provides us with a view of Romans 8 through distinctly non-traditional lenses. “Romans 8 and the Conception of Chinese Shame and Guilt” calls for a different view than the traditional Anglo-European approach with which most of us are familiar.

Travis Myers, in his article “Figuring the Disfigured in Zhuangzi and the Gospel of Mark: A Comparative Analysis,” provides a wonderful example of comparative theology, using stories from the Chinese classics of Zhuangzi and three stories from the Gospel of Mark. In this comparative work, he engages issues of disfigurement (and the accompanying stigma, shame, and need for honor) which raise important questions for Christian communities in every context, especially how to view and treat those on whom society has stigmatized and shamed.

Drawing upon his extensive missionary experience, Alan Howell offers a reading of Paul in the book of Philemon, utilizing a Mozambican rhetorical perspective. His article “‘Old Man’ as Cipher: Humor and Honor-Shame Rhetoric for Reading Philemon in Mozambique” provides a fresh cultural reading of that brief New Testament document.

Once a paragon of church growth and global admiration, the Protestant Church in Korea now struggles with significant membership decline and huge public relations problems. Shin-Ho Choi and Mike Rynkiewich, in “Face and the Loss of Reputation in the Korean Protestant Church,” paint a picture of institutional face-loss as a salient factor in the current challenges Korean Christianity faces.

Jackson Wu’s “From One Honor-Shame Culture to Another: A Proposal for Training Chinese Missionaries to Serve in Muslim Contexts” does the missiological community a favor by directing our attention to one of the “new sending nations,” China. He analyzes two very different cultures that both adhere to decidedly non-Western views of honor and shame. In his analysis, Wu proposes a framework for seeking context-specific strategies and training methodologies.

Anthony J. Gryskiewicz’s “Honor and Shame in Ruth” brings helpful insights from this ancient Mediterranean story to the modern, Western reader, especially in terms of face concerns and facework.

Evertt Huffard holds the special distinction of being the very first Western missiologist to write a PhD dissertation that materially addressed issues of honor/shame from a missiological perspective. He did so in 1985 while at Fuller Theological Seminary, writing on the topic of “Thematic Dissonance in the Muslim-Christian Encounter: A Contextualized Theology of Honor.” We are honored that he has continued this distinguished legacy here with his article titled “How Glory Veiled the Honor of God (2 Cor 2:1–4:6)”, in which he draws upon current research to shed light on a well-known, missiologically significant section of Paul’s writings.

Harriet Hill, who has worked extensively in missionary care of various kinds, highlights how missionaries face temptations of shame particular to the missionary task. Her “Missionaries and Shame” illustrates how the missionary calling is fraught with such personal trials and what God’s called servants can do to counter these temptations.

In this issue, veteran missionaries Sherry Faris and Jeremy Davis provide us with real-life case studies from their contexts (Guinea and Peru respectively). These two tangible examples of how honor-shame issues show up in very different contexts illustrate both the universality of these issues and the incredible challenge for those who would attempt to navigate honor-shame issues successfully.

Also, we interview several leaders from Missions Resource Network (MRN), a significant organization among Churches of Christ that equips sending churches and missionaries. They tell the story of how MRN has come to adopt honor-shame insights in profound ways that bear on their work of training individuals and churches for mission. Finally, several reviews highlight recent important works dealing with honor-shame issues.

As guest editor of this issue, my prayer is that these articles, case studies, and book reviews provide a compelling case demonstrating how lively and timely the honor-shame conversation is for missiological reflection. Ultimately, my goal is to convince us all that there exists a tremendous need for thinkers, researchers, and writers to reflect seriously on issues of honor and shame in specific contexts, within particular linguistic frames. To the God who erases and heals our shame and bestows eternal face upon his people be all the honor.

1 Recently, I presented a paper at the 2019 South-Central Regional meeting of the Evangelical Missiological Society detailing the rise of honor-shame issues in English missiological literature since the late 1950s. Scholarly missiological writings in this area have increased sharply since 2014.

2 One important preliminary point is to clarify the relationship between honor and shame. Though these concepts often co-occur, the conventional pairing of these two notions is a bit misleading. As Unni Wikan, “Shame and Honour: A Contestable Pair,” Man 19 (1984): 635–52, has argued, honor and shame are not binary opposites. They are not antipodal concepts, “the poles of one-and-the-same spectrum of social evaluation” (Gideon M. Kressel and Unni Wikan, “More on Honor and Shame,” Man 23 (1988): 167). This is clear when one notices that shame is an affect. Honor, in contrast, is not. One feels shame. One does not feel honor, though one may indeed feel certain emotions that result from the appropriation of honor. What one normally feels when receiving honor is pride. One feels proud, a somewhat self-directed pleasure that derives from the possession of or adherence to some type of excellence (see Gabriele Taylor, Pride, Shame, and Guilt: Emotions of Self-Assessment [Oxford: Clarendon, 1985]: 20). Pride may take the form of a purely self-referential affect (a highly individualized, internal experience) or may involve relationship to wider social units (see Erving Goffman, “On Face-Work: An Analysis of Ritual Elements in Social Interaction,” Psychiatry 18 [1955]: 217–18; Taylor, Pride, 23 ff.). Viewed this way, honor is a binary correlate to public shaming: shame, as an affect, lies in opposition to pride. Here, however, I adopt the current convention of hyphenating these two terms, creating an umbrella designation. This convention, though imperfect, gains legitimacy from how these cultural dynamics tend to be correlatives.

3 Much of this began with the popular works of missionary and New Testament scholar Kenneth Bailey, The Cross and the Prodigal: The 15th Chapter of Luke, Seen Through the Eyes of Middle Eastern Peasants, rev ed. ([1973]; Downers Grove, IL: IVP, 2005); Poet and Peasant: A Literary Cultural Approach to the Parables in Luke (Grand Rapids: Eerdmans, 1976); and Through Peasant Eyes: More Lucan Parables, Their Culture, and Style (Grand Rapids: Eerdmans, 1980). Parallel to the work of Bailey was that of the so-called Context Group (Jerome Neyrey, Bruce Malina, John Elliot et al.) who engaged New Testament texts using social-scientific criticism arising out of models from anthropology and the social sciences. More recently, the work of David deSilva has highlighted issues of honor and shame as central to understanding the New Testament texts. See, e.g., his Despising Shame: Honor Discourse and Community Maintenance in the Epistle to the Hebrews ([1995]; Atlanta: Society of Biblical Literature, 2008), Bearing Christ’s Reproach: The Challenge of Hebrews in an Honor Culture (North Richland Hills, TX: BIBAL, 1999), and Hope of Glory: Honor Discourse and New Testament Interpretation (Collegeville, MN: Liturgical Press, 1999). Though, much of this earlier work warrants critique and methodological caution. See, e.g., Louise Joy Lawrence and Mario I. Aguilar, Anthropology and Biblical Studies: Avenues of Approach (Leiderdorp, The Netherlands: Deo, 2004). Also see Marianne Sawicki, Crossing Galilee: Architectures of Contact in the Occupied Land of Jesus (New York: Continuum International, 2000). Much of this critique aims at use of outdated anthropological theory and models, which mainstream anthropology now generally rejects.

4 See, e.g., the reviews in this issue of the two recent books: Jackson Wu, Reading Romans with Eastern Eyes: Honor and Shame in Paul’s Message and Mission (Downers Grove, IVP Academic, 2019) and Te-Li Lau, Defending Shame: Its Formative Power in Paul’s Letters (Grand Rapids: Baker Academic, 2020), which each in different ways address the failure of Western scholars and readers to appreciate honor and shame.

5 Many modern Western languages do not lexicalize face issues directly with face terminology as do many other languages. In the modern West we tend to collapse face and face-related behavior into other categories, such as politeness, image, identity and identity management, or various extensions of personal dignity and esteem. Yet, as Ervin Goffman notes in his seminal essay on face, even in modern Western culture, “the members of every social circle may be expected to have some knowledge of face-work and some experience in its use. In our society, this kind of capacity is sometimes called tact, savoir-faire, diplomacy, or social skill.” Yet, all such activity is “modified, prescriptively or proscriptively, by considerations of face” (Goffman, 217). Theorists are clear about this point: face and facework are universal human experiences, present in all cultures.

6 My contention is that since honor, shame, and face are and have always been universal experiences and social dynamics, what actually changed in the modern West was not a loss of honor and shame but two things: honor and shame in new modalities and a narrative that articulates a rejection of former honor-shame modes. Honor and shame remained constant realities, however.

7 The literature here continues to grow, especially that dealing with issues of honor. Representative of this trend are the following: Kwame Anthony Appiah, The Honor Code: How Moral Revolutions Happen (New York: W. W. Norton and Co., 2010); Anthony Cunningham, Modern Honor: A Philosophical Defense, Routledge Studies in Ethics and Moral Theory 22 (New York: Routledge, 2013); Peter Olsthoorn, Honor in Political and Moral Philosophy (New York: State University of New York Press, 2014); Tamler Sommers, Why Honor Matters (New York: Basic Books, 2018).

8 Andy Crouch, “The Return of Shame,” Christianity Today, March 10, 2015,

9 Michael Herzfeld, “Honor and Shame: Problems in the Comparative Analysis of Moral Systems,” Man 15 (1980): 339. Though Herzfeld was referring primarily to the study of honor within the discipline of anthropology, the same definitional confusion seems to occur in several disciplines.

10 David A. Gilmore, Honor and Shame and the Unity of the Mediterranean (Washington, DC: American Anthropological Association, 1987), 93. The enduring power of honor lies in this inclusive nature, bringing multiple positive moral notions together into a single evaluative category.

11 I have argued elsewhere that the over-generalization of cultures as “honor cultures,” “shame cultures,” “guilt cultures,” or “face cultures” is decidedly problematic: Christopher L. Flanders, “There is No Such Thing as ‘Honor’ or ‘Honor Cultures’—A Missiological Reflection on Social Honor,” in Devoted to Christ: Essays in Honor of Sherwood Lingenfelter, ed. Christopher Flanders (Eugene, OR: Wipf and Stock Publishers, 2019), 145–65.

12 This has always been a significant challenge for missiology and is one unfortunate by-product of being a discipline that relies heavily on other academic disciplines. Michael Rynkiewich writes about this general tendency, noting that while missiology “was looking the other way, anthropology walked off in a different direction, and the world itself took some strange turns” (Michael Rynkiewich, Soul, Self, and Society: A Postmodern Anthropology for Mission in a Postcolonial World (Eugene, OR: Cascade, 2012), xi). This is particularly true of mission literature that deals with honor and shame. In chapter 3 of my book, About Face, I discuss at length how recent anthropology has moved beyond, and in some areas rejected the earlier theories of guilt and shame advocated by earlier anthropologists such as Ruth Benedict and Margaret Mead. In effect, missiology seized upon a dated notion of honor (i.e., honor as external, competitive, masculine, zero-sum) associated with putative “honor cultures.” This created a convention of dividing cultures into “honor cultures” (or “shame cultures,” or “face cultures”) that contrasted with non-honor cultures (which, generally, were assumed to be modern Western cultures). Much early missiological writing on honor, shame, and guilt (e.g., Hesselgrave, Hiebert, etc.) assumed the earlier, but now rejected, anthropological theory as foundational.

This post written by Chris Flanders and originally posted at and used by permission of Missio Dei Journal

Photo by Caleb Woods on Unsplash.

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