Culture, the Bible, and the “Honor-Shame” Gospel

Some books about honor-shame cultures that have impacted missiological discussion in recent years. The concept that unites all of these books is that “Most of the world thinks and lives according to the cultural values of honor and shame. … For this reason, we must use an ‘honor-shame missiology’—a biblically rooted approach to Christian ministry among the nations that proclaims and mediates God’s honor for the shamed.” As these authors see it, the cultural glasses that missionaries need to wear should be ground according to an “honor-shame” prescription and the gospel that we preach should resonate with honor-shame concepts. The major aim of this paper is to evaluate their suggestions for communicating the gospel to see whether their prescription is correct or whether it needs a second opinion.

Walter McConnell directs OMF International’s Mission Research Department. An American, he has previously served in Taiwan as a church planter and theological educator, taught Old Testament at Singapore Bible College where he also directed the Ichthus Centre for Biblical and Theological Research, and served as pastor at the Belfast Chinese Christian Church.

Culture, the Bible, and the “Honor-Shame” Gospel

Mission Round Table Vol. 15 No. 1 (Jan-Apr 2020): 12-19

When I was about 45 years of age, I began to experience a life-changing reality. Up to that time, I had excellent vision. But something happened—middle age, some call it—and, along with a lot of other things, my eyes stopped working as well as they had previously. After a long period of heavy reading, I found that my eyes refused to see the words on the page. My experience—which I recently discovered is a form of visual migraine—made the page look pixelated so that it was reduced to chunks of paper that I couldn’t focus on and fragments of words that I couldn’t read. And though a good sleep made things a fair bit better, I was forced to join the legions of people who put on reading glasses every time they pick up a book, and eventually came to the point of needing glasses all the time so that life doesn’t pass me by in a blur.

What is true for many of us when it comes to the way our eyes work is also true when we leave our own culture and enter a different one. In our new setting, things look different. At times, they may seem a bit fuzzy or disjointed. Frequently, especially when we are physically tired, mentally overworked, stressed out, or spiritually depressed, the things going on around us can be extremely difficult to understand. Perhaps we need more prayer. Perhaps we just need a bit more sleep. Or maybe we need a new pair of glasses, a new way of seeing our adopted culture.

One new set of glasses frequently prescribed today is designed to bring the issues of honor and shame into sharp focus, particularly as they relate to understanding certain cultures. Before we turn our sights to this prescription, we should note that the concept of wearing “cultural glasses” is not new. However, to understand the concept as it developed historically and is used today we need a brief overview of the history of anthropology. Anthropologists in the late eighteenth and early nineteenth centuries regularly described culture as something that all humanity shared, but that people’s experience of it progressed through different stages—from savagery to barbarism to civilization. The stage a society had reached could be seen from their technical and other abilities. By the late 1800s, this approach was often stated as an evolutionary process wherein a society that reached a particular stage would progress to the next.[1] While this was often a broad-brush approach for scholars to describe culture through detailing a general overview of human history, the views at times promoted racist ideologies that depicted some groups as naturally more intelligent or culturally developed than others.

The theories describing sociocultural evolution were shattered at the turn of the twentieth century by Franz Boas (1858–1942) who was convinced that the social laws frequently promulgated were not based upon empirical evidence. Though born in Germany and trained as a physicist, Boas is considered the father of American anthropology as, after spending years researching Northwest American Indian culture, he helped to found the American Anthropological Association and taught the subject at Columbia University where he trained scholars like Margaret Mead and Ruth Benedict. Boas was a firm believer in cultural relativism—the concept that all cultures are intrinsically equal. Rather than evaluating one society against another as had previously been the norm, he believed that each needed to be assessed on its own terms. The idea of culture thus shifted from something to which people attain to something that people do—their behaviors, symbols, ideas, and patterns. To recognize what is happening in a culture, one must wear Kulturbrille—“cultural glasses”. Boas saw this as a metaphor for how everyone looks at the world through lenses ground by their socialization in the culture in which they were brought up. Due to the cultural glasses we wear—whether or not we are aware that we wear them—we see the world differently and cannot help doing so.[2] As a result, if we find ourselves without the right pair of culture glasses, we are fated to see our adopted cultures like a pixelated image that bears some resemblance to reality and yet remains indistinct.

While it is important for anthropologists and businessmen to understand culture in order to do their work, it is even more important for those whose aim it is to communicate the good news of Jesus Christ so that people can come to have a living relationship with him. The Bible is clear that the gospel often comes across as foolishness or a stumbling block (1 Cor 1:23). This is true whether we are thinking about first-century Gentiles and Jews or people of the present age. When it comes to people responding appropriately to the gospel, this barrier is formidable enough that we do our utmost not to put anything else in people’s way. The story that there is one true God who created the heavens and the earth, who at a certain point in history became a man, was killed as a criminal on a cross, was buried for three days, and then rose from the dead so that everyone who believes in him can be reconciled to God and receive eternal life is a high enough hurdle that many find it strange if not repulsive. Hearers do not need messengers who add to the offense. Rather, they need messengers who know the gospel and know how to communicate it appropriately in the given cultural setting.

It is for this reason that missionaries have always taught that the best evangelists will be people from the receiving culture. They are the ones who wear cultural glasses with the right prescription that enables them to best know their own people and speak to them in a way they understand. But what about the rest of us? How do we as cross-cultural workers get to know the people and the cultures that we serve? How do we proclaim the gospel in a way that will make sense to their cultures? Is there one gospel presentation that is suitable for all? Or do we need to change the content or presentation of the gospel depending upon the culture we are engaging?

Recently, a flood of books focusing on the topic of honor and shame has been published to help us consider whether our cultural glasses obscure our understanding of the people with whom we work and to encourage us to find new ways of communicating the gospel that will make more sense to our hearers. Though the concepts are found in a wider number of books, our focus is on a few that have impacted missiological discussion in recent years, ranging from a simple introduction of the concepts to a doctoral dissertation that applies them to one specific ethnic group. They are: Jayson Georges, The 3D Gospel, Jayson Georges and Mark D. Baker, Ministering in Honor-Shame Cultures, Werner Mischke, The Global Gospel, and Jackson Wu, Saving God’s Face.[3]

The concept that unites all of these books is that “Most of the world thinks and lives according to the cultural values of honor and shame. … For this reason, we must use an ‘honor-shame missiology’—a biblically rooted approach to Christian ministry among the nations that proclaims and mediates God’s honor for the shamed.”[4] As these authors see it, the cultural glasses that missionaries need to wear should be ground according to an “honor-shame” prescription and the gospel that we preach should resonate with honor-shame concepts.[5] In this paper, I will briefly reflect on this approach, then attempt to evaluate their suggestions for communicating the gospel to see whether their prescription is correct or whether it needs a second opinion.

Overall reflections

One of the most helpful aspects of the approach is its insistence that missionaries from one culture must take the receiving culture seriously. While this idea in no way departs from historical mission literature or practice (though at times it is explained as though it is a revolutionary approach), it reinforces a concept that is essential for proper cross-cultural communication in general and of the gospel in particular. Anyone working in mission who has not grasped the concept that people from other cultures may not relate to reality the way people do in one’s home country needs to sit up and pay attention. Whether or not the authors are correct that most people in the world are from “honor-shame cultures”, it is undeniable that if we are to impact the world with the gospel we must relate to people in a way that they understand, using terms and concepts that they understand. And the responsibility to make sure our listeners understand the gospel falls upon us. If they understand life in honor-shame terms, we should do our best to explain the gospel and Christian truth in this way.

These books are also helpful in the way they call our attention to people who, for whatever reasons, live with deep-seated shame. Shame is often thought to be the result of societal or family pressures on a person who is not acting or performing in line with expectations. But as Priest says, “While it is true that shame arises out of, and is in large part caused by, the disapproval of significant others, the source of the shame is our own thoughts about our selves. … What elicits shame is the acceptance of the negative evaluation of others as the correct one.”[6] Shame exerts such pressure that many feel they are being squeezed in a vice. Who will relieve the pressure? Who will set them free to operate as honorable members of their families and cultures? Many of the lessons found in these books will prepare us to identify such people and societies. Some of the lessons will help us develop skills necessary to address these needs and show our listeners how Jesus addresses their condition and provides a way to escape shame, a way to gain honor.

Another positive is that the authors are aware that their approach “is not a magical key to unlock the door of ministry success.”[7] However, as their acknowledgement that there is no one-size-fits-all approach to gospel proclamation and church ministry plays a minor role in sustained argumentation promoting honor-shame ministry, it is hoped that readers will not miss this brief though important admission. The fact that some who have discovered the honor-shame gospel have reported that it has transformed their approach to ministry has triggered others to warn against the conclusion that any “silver bullet” exists that can greatly increase one’s success in leading people to Christ.

The authors are similarly aware that the terminology they use is somewhat inexact due to the diverse nature of humankind and cultures.[8] As Georges says, “Although guilt, shame, and fear are three distinct cultural outlooks, no culture can be completely characterized by only one. These three dynamics interplay and overlap in all societies.”[9] I believe that this is perhaps the most important statement in the whole of Georges’s little book. Sadly, the concept isn’t developed as it deserves and many readers will miss it, as instead of demonstrating that every individual and every culture exhibits a combination of all of these characteristics (and more) and should be addressed in terms that are needed at a given time in their lives, the major emphasis of the book is on honor-shame to the exclusion of the other characteristics.

Concerns about an honor-shame approach to the gospel

One of the major problems I find with this approach has to do with definition. Just what are guilt and shame and how do they relate to each other? Are these really the main cultural distinctives that drive people in their responses? In some cases, guilt and shame are described as if they are polar opposites so that someone can be placed along a guilt-shame continuum as if the more shame a person felt, the less guilt he would feel. For example, Duane Elmer provides a graphic illustrating this (Fig. 1) and asks his readers to place themselves, their parents, church, and others on the continuum.[10]

What is lost in this graphic is that people don’t fall somewhere between feelings of guilt or shame. Rather, they often feel both at the same time.[11] I can feel high (or low) guilt and high (or low) shame simultaneously. I can feel guilty that I broke the law by stealing something and ashamed that I have let my family down by my actions (even if they are unaware of it). I don’t have to feel one or the other or some combination of both. Similarly, I could be so hardened in my heart (whether by deep-rooted evil or abject destitution) that I feel neither guilt nor shame even though I did something that was universally recognized as being wrong. Erecting a strict dichotomy between guilt and shame fails to be true to logic or experience.

Shame, Guilt, Fear Triangle[12]

A more multifaceted approach can be found in the trichotomy between guilt, shame, and fear described in The 3D Gospel (see Fig. 2). Adding fear to the motivations for action gives a broader perspective on human reactions to stimuli and recognizes that people’s emotional responses to their own and other’s actions usually blend several motivations. Even so, the book admits that this illustration “simplifies complexities into categories for the sake of clarity” as every culture possesses aspects of each of these three types.[13] In reality, every culture and every person is driven by a far greater number of motivating factors for responding to the world, to their own actions, and their own feeling about themselves. In addition to shame, fear, and guilt, one could be motivated to action due to the physical needs of air, food, water, and warmth. One could also be moved by other emotions such as love, hatred, anger, annoyance, grief, depression, tiredness, and many more. Any of these could be the prime reason for a person from any culture to act in a certain way at a particular time. But in most cases a person’s responses will likely come from a combination of needs, drives, and emotions that are constantly shifting. Though the shame-guilt-fear triangle is an improvement over a binary distinction between guilt and shame, life motivations are not so simply explained as is done by drawing an oval somewhere on the inside of a triangle. The approach founders in its simplistic understanding of culture and its reduction of major human motivations to two or three.


             Fig. 2 Shame, Guilt, Fear Triangle

This leads to another concern that I have. If basic human motivations cannot be boiled down to two or three and if it is acknowledged that all humans exhibit honor-shame, guilt-innocence, and fear-power characteristics (to which I believe should be added many more), it may be that all the props are knocked out from under the suggestion that all human cultures can be divided into two or three categories as well as the explanation of which cultures exhibit which general characteristics. This is acknowledged by Ian Buruma in the “Foreword” of a recent edition of Ruth Benedict’s, The Chrysanthemum and the Sword—the book that is regularly regarded as creating the categories of shame culture and guilt culture.[14] “One might disagree … with the premise of classical cultural anthropology … that such a thing as ‘national character’ exists. It is not a fashionable notion these days. Pseudoscientific theories of race and nation have tainted any idea of ‘essentializing’ collective characteristics. Theorists now prefer to stress ‘hybridity’ or the multicultural aspects of nations rather than think in terms of monocultural identities.”[15] Stephen Pattison takes this further when he says that “Benedict’s work has been extensively criticized, partly because of its basic understanding and definition of shame, and particularly because it is not easy to identify cultures that can be categorized exclusively as shame or guilt cultures…. Nonetheless, her fundamental distinction between shame and guilt culture has continued to generate interest and research.”[16] And even though many consider it a pass é approach, it is the continuing interest in Benedict’s anthropological notion that is on display in these books.

One example will highlight the difficulty of classifying cultures in this way. A poll conducted by LifeWay Research from 27 September to 1 October 2016 asked 1,000 Americans: “Which of these feelings do you seek to avoid the most? Shame Guilt Fear.” While America is regularly classified as a guilt culture, contrary to what we might expect, the overall response was Shame – 38%; Guilt – 31%; Fear – 30%.[17] A graphic from Christianity Today about the research indicates that when compared to all Americans and religious and non-religious groups, evangelicals were about the most “balanced” when it comes to their avoidance of particular feelings.[18] Would anyone categorize America as a shame-guilt-fear culture? Yet this is apparently what the research reveals.

This recent research aside, the books under review here maintain a general understanding that honor-shame cultures are mainly found in Africa, South America, Asia, and the Middle East. It is also accepted that many of the people who live in these areas adhere to the major non-Christian religions.[19] The authors rightly seek ways to communicate the gospel with people from these backgrounds in a manner that they can understand. By focusing on aspects of shame that burden them and honor that they desire, one may be able to show how Christ can set them free and make them acceptable. Even so, it is not readily apparent why the need for an honor-shame gospel is emphasized so much more than a gospel that speaks to the peoples’ religious background. While it is certain that religion and culture can be tightly intertwined, it has long been recognized that the adherents to the historic great religions are frequently more resistant to the gospel than people in nearby cultures who do not follow those religions. For instance, a comparison between the followers of the great religions and animistic people living in the same parts of the world show that animists have turned to Christ in far greater numbers.[20] This has happened without animists being given a specifically honor-shame (or power-fear) gospel. Could it be that religion could be as large as or a greater factor than culture in one’s receptiveness to the gospel?

This may be illustrated by the phenomenal church growth in Africa and Latin America during the past century.[21] Throughout much of this period, little was said about the need of an honor-shame gospel. Even so, the demographic changes in the Christian world were astounding. According to Philip Jenkins, the transformation has been so thorough that “If we want to visualize a ‘typical’ contemporary Christian, we should think of a woman living in a village in Nigeria or in a Brazilian favela.”[22] “Southern Christendom” was clearly exploding in numbers before anyone was articulating the need to preach an honor-shame gospel. Whether it would have advanced at a faster rate with a different gospel is impossible to assess. Even so, this growth among supposedly honor-shame people raises questions about the need for a change in our gospel presentation.

Much more could be said to evaluate different aspects of the methods proposed in these books. We must, however, move on to consider what an honor-shame gospel might look like and whether the glasses needed to see it might need to be reground.

The honor-shame gospel

Examining the gospel message promoted by these books is of supreme importance. This is not because there is any reason to think that they promote a gospel that Paul would consider “another gospel” and that those who preach it should be accursed (Gal 1:9). Rather, it is to examine whether their explanation about how to bring the gospel to and disciple people from different cultures does what they say it does. We have already noted that the sharp focus this approach places on honor and shame cultures can be simplistic and reductionistic. Even so, it correctly reminds us that “Making disciples … involves more than just repacking evangelistic presentations. The channels through which we proclaim the gospel must also be adapted to the cultural context.”[23] Whenever we share the gospel in another culture, we need to remember that just because a particular tool is popular or has (in some sense) proven successful in one country or culture (or time) does not mean that it will be the right method to use everywhere. At the same time, we should acknowledge that no one method of evangelism will be universally effective when trying to reach people within the culture in which it was devised. Some people’s hearts will be unreceptive no matter what approach we use, and unless the Holy Spirit enlightens their spiritual eyes they will never see the truth.

It is clear that the way we communicate the gospel matters. As Georges believes Western missionaries are frequently guilty of sharing the gospel in a way that emphasizes guilt, he reminds his readers that “For cross-cultural workers, a truncated gospel hinders spirituality, theology, relationships, and ministry.”[24] One cannot agree more. But it must be added that this is equally true of one who only preaches a guilt-innocence gospel and one who only preaches a shame-honor gospel. The gospel is much broader than any particular approach. When it comes to form of presentation, Georges and Baker find that “Many Christians … know of no other option than to continue repeating the guilt-oriented explanation of the gospel.”[25] I would agree that anyone who can only preach such a gospel needs to learn to communicate more of its wholeness and could learn a lot from the honor-shame explanation as it can help them hone their skills for sharing God’s truth with a wider group of people and in a more complete manner.

Even so, there is a sense in which every time we share the gospel our content is necessarily truncated. This is because it is not possible to preach the “whole gospel” in one presentation as it includes what Jesus calls “teaching them to observe all that I have commanded you” (Matt 28:20) and what Paul refers to as “the whole counsel of God” (Acts 20:27).[26] It is clear that few people respond positively to the gospel the first time they hear it. And even if they “accept” the message, it will take them some time before they really understand what it is all about. I will never forget hearing Robert Erion—the former OMF Field Director of Thailand and later an International Director—explain that many Thai people who “accept Jesus” and submit to baptism will spend several years attending church before they come to realize, “Oh, that’s what it’s all about.” A similar reality was disclosed when my wife asked a group of missionary ladies how long it took them from the first time they heard the gospel until they believed. Most of them took many years even though they had grown up in Christian families and in cultures where there were plenty of churches. How can we expect that one gospel presentation, of whatever form we use, will be enough for people who have never heard of Jesus before and who live in societies where little Christian witness is available?

The good news of Jesus Christ needs to be explained over and over in a variety of ways to people who have different needs and interests and attention spans. This is illustrated by Andy Smith’s little book Meaningful Evangelism that introduces nine different ways to share the gospel with people with differing needs.[27] I call his approach the 9D gospel as it recognizes the need to share the good news with people who long for life, have lost their dignity, treasure intellect, value justice, pursue legalism, wrestle with pain, seek power, love harmonious relationships, or are in touch with the spirit world. As is clear from a paper he published in this journal, he would probably add to this list the need to share the gospel with people who seek blessing.[28] And while we can learn important lessons from an honor-shame approach, we shouldn’t stop there because important lessons can be learned from many other approaches.[29]

This introduces one of my major concerns with the honor-shame gospel. In spite of the frequent acknowledgements that all cultures contain aspects of honor-shame, guilt-innocence, and fear-power, the window is barely opened for anything beyond an honor-shame presentation. As Georges and Baker say, “People very well may benefit from an articulation of the gospel in terms of guilt and innocence, but for many people, that does not reach to the deepest lostness and alienation they experience.” And in spite of saying that “Proclaiming biblical salvation in honor-shame terms is not over or against other gospel explanations but contributes to a fuller explanation of God’s multifaceted saving work,”[30] the presentation comes across much more as a choice of this-or-that than a both-and, much less an all-of-the-above. This is particularly seen in the persistent complaint that Western approaches to the gospel focus exclusively on guilt. In many ways, this comes across as a theological and missiological strawman that is easy to knock down even though it may not represent reality and is, in many cases, far from it.

Let me give an example of what I mean. One of the most common “Western” gospel presentations is “The Four Spiritual Laws,” devised by Bill Bright, the founder of Campus Crusade for Christ, now Cru.[31] While many have pointed out flaws in the Four Laws, it is difficult to fault it for being a wholly guilt-innocence presentation.[32] While sin features strongly, guilt never raises its head, and forgiveness is only mentioned in one prayer and as one of the things that happens when a person receives Christ.[33] The closest I can find to a focus on guilt in the Four Laws is in the part that says, “man is continually trying to reach God and the abundant life through his own efforts, such as a good life, philosophy, or religion—but he inevitably fails.”[34] Actually, depending on what criteria one is looking for, it could reasonably be argued that the presentation is honor-centered as it expresses the desire that people be restored to relationship with God. As the first point proclaims: “God loves you and offers a wonderful plan for your life.” The other laws follow on to explain that since sin separates people from God so that they can’t experience the wonderful plan he has for them, God provides a way for them to experience his love through Jesus Christ. When someone receives Jesus as Savior and Lord they can experience God’s love and plan for their life. As it is likely that a high percentage of missionaries from the United States and other countries where Campus Crusade/Cru has worked for the past six decades have learned and used this tool, it is not convincing to hear that all they know is a guilt-innocence gospel or operate out of “a strictly legal framework.”[35]

A very similar assessment could be made of another popular evangelistic tool commonly used by Western Christians—“The Romans Road to Salvation.” This method uses a number of verses from Romans to guide people through a gospel message. Exactly which verses are used vary according to the version of the approach used.[36] If the Romans Road can be faulted for being a guilt-innocence approach, it is only in a form that uses verses that speak of justification for believers and condemnation for sinners. This, however, is not an essential part of the presentation (though arguably an essential part of the gospel) which often is completed with themes that could be associated with honor from Rom 8:1 and 6:3 that say that there is no condemnation for those in Christ and that eternal life is God’s free gift.

The point here is not to say that missionaries should use either of these approaches but simply to indicate that the common refrain that Western Christians only know a guilt-innocence gospel is overplayed. When two of the most commonly used gospel tools today place no particular focus on guilt, the argument that this is all Western missionaries know vanishes in a puff of smoke. The same is true when one considers the importance of the role played by the theological concepts of adoption, covenant, the bride of Christ, and the family of God in the Western church. While those who cannot get off the topic of guilt when they share the gospel should seek relief from their tunnel vision, it may not be a malady suffered by the majority of theological-seminary or Bible-college trained missionaries. The same is true about the follow-up argument that Western missionaries need to learn an honor-shame gospel. Many are already aware that the gospel must be communicated in different ways with different people at different times. What is needed is for every gospel messenger to understand the essence of the good news and the language and culture of the people they are interacting with so that they will be able to communicate the message as clearly as possible so that their hearers actually understand what is said and how it relates to them.

Some of the works discussed here explain the gospel in terms of “status reversal and group incorporation.”[37] According to Mischke, “Honor-status reversal is when a person, family, or people have whatever degree of esteem, respect, privilege, power, or authority before a community turned the other way around.”[38] It is so important for him that his favorite gospel approach is to tell the story of the Prodigal Son. There is no doubt that reversal of fortune is an important biblical and theological theme. It is clearly one of the things that happen when a person believes in Jesus. However, it does not follow that “the theological reality of status reversal must eventually be shaped into a reproducible evangelistic method.”[39] If this were so, every theological benefit that we receive in Christ should become part of our evangelistic method, else we would need a clear means of discerning which benefits should and which shouldn’t be included.

Could we, should we, devise “a reproducible evangelistic method” that included all the theological concepts associated with salvation? If so, we would have to say something about grace, mercy, forgiveness, sin, judgment, release from judgment, righteousness, holiness, redemption, justification, sanctification, glorification, reconciliation, union (with God and the church), and much more. Each of the biblical themes named here is arguably more important than status reversal and should therefore have a higher claim to be included in a gospel presentation. Practically, there is no way we could address all of these themes every time we shared the good news of Jesus. This is one of the reasons why I earlier said that every gospel presentation is by necessity truncated. The gospel is so expansive that there is just too much to cover. And for this reason we need to return to the various themes over and over again, viewing them from many different angles to help our listeners understand both the broad contours of God’s plan of salvation and the way it impacts them personally and in their familial, cultural, and religious contexts.

It is good to show how the Bible highlights a reversal of status or reversal of fortune in someone’s life when they come into contact with Jesus. When we respond to the gospel, we move from a position of shame to one of honor. The gospel takes us from being “not a people” and unites us with others as the people of God. This is a wonderful reality both theologically and practically. Even so, it shouldn’t be our only message as it isn’t the Bible’s only message. And though the greatest honor and deepest sense of belonging comes when a person accepts the gospel of Jesus Christ, in many cases it also causes him to lose status and group belonging in his original culture. Georges recognizes this as he writes: “In collectivistic cultures, conversion to Christianity may shame one’s biological family and neighboring community. Many unreached peoples do not reject Christianity for theological reasons but because of social and cultural forces that disgrace one’s family.”[40] In other words, a reversal of status in a positive direction may entail a reversal of status in a negative direction. We should not, however, think that people reject the Christian message simply because of social and/or cultural forces. While personal, cultural, religious, and other factors may be involved, rejection of God’s offer of reconciliation through Jesus Christ is fundamentally a theological issue as it impacts their thinking about and relationship with God.

Even so, the encouragement to seek group conversions is well placed no matter what culture one is dealing with.[41] Sharing Bible stories, more in-depth studies, or sermons with whole families or other groups of people are excellent practices that help maintain group solidarity. One could attempt to meet with family or village elders to explain what it might mean for someone to become a follower of Jesus. The importance of how conversion is viewed in the eyes of the larger population was impressed upon me when visiting rural farmers in Thailand who, during an evangelistic visit, asked what was to them a vital question: “If we become Christians, what will happen to us after we die?” This was not an invitation to discuss eschatology and the resurrection life. Rather, it was a desire to understand the very down-to-earth practicality of what would happen to their fleshly remains after death. Would their bodies be respected in the sight of the community or not? To this couple, communal belonging was important for issues pertaining to life and the end of one’s life. Understanding culture well enough to grasp the intent of questions like this makes a huge difference when it comes to providing an answer that will make sense to the questioner and lead them along the path to salvation.


So, do cultural distinctions require a change in the content of our gospel message? Do we need a 3D or 9D (or 10D?) gospel? Well yes, and no. We cannot be so simplistic in our preaching of the good news of Jesus that we adopt a one-size-fits-all approach and only use one tool at the expense of all others. As we face a world in need, the honor-shame approach should be seen as adding another tool to our box rather than replacing all the tools we had. Let me return to my eye glasses metaphor. When I first started wearing reading glasses, I found that they helped clarify things that were very close to me so that I could read and thread needles and do other close-up things. However, when I looked at objects that were farther away through the glasses they became dreadfully distorted. I had to develop the habit of looking through the glasses for things that are near and looking over the glasses for things that are far. And as my reading glasses both helped and hindered my sight, the same can be said for wearing honor-shame lenses. They bring some things into a wonderful new focus and, at the same time, cause other things to go blurry. Perhaps what we need is variable-focus cultural lenses that allow us to see what is close, what is far, and what is in between through one piece of glass. But as people, like myself, who wear variable-focus lenses can testify, they require continual minor adjustments so that one can focus on the desired object. And since individuals and societies we encounter have different needs at different times, perhaps we need to make continual minor adjustments as we share the good news of Jesus so that it will be true to God’s word and understandable to our listeners.

[1] Paul G. Hiebert, Cultural Anthropology, 2nd ed. (Grand Rapids: Baker, 1983), 414–15.

[2] While it is true that the only people who can really understand a culture are those who are brought up in it, it can also be argued that “Our Kulturbrille allow us to make sense of the culture we inhabit, but these same glasses can blind us to things outsiders pick up immediately.” Martin Lindström, Small Data: The Tiny Clues that Uncover Huge Trends (New York: St. Martin’s, 2016), 11. Benedict similarly states, “Japanese who write about Japan passes over really crucial things which are as familiar to him and as invisible as the air he breathes. So do Americans when they write about America.” Ruth Benedict, The Chrysanthemum and the Sword: Patterns of Japanese Culture (Boston: Houghton Mifflin, 1946), 7.

[3] Jayson Georges, The 3D Gospel: Ministry in Guilt, Shame, and Fear Cultures, revised (n.p.: Time, 2016), Jayson Georges and Mark D. Baker, Ministering in Honor-Shame Cultures: Biblical Foundations and Practical Essentials (Downers Grove: IVP Academic, 2016), Werner Mischke, The Global Gospel: Achieving Missional Impact  in our Multicultural World (Scottsdale, AZ: Mission ONE, 2015), and Jackson Wu, Saving God’s Face: A Chinese Contextualization of Salvation through Honor and Shame, Evangelical Missiological Society Dissertation Series (Pasadena: WCIU, 2012). The 3D Gospel is the most basic presentation of this theme. Most of its contents is repeated in Ministering in Honor-Shame Cultures. Since Saving God’s Face is Wu’s PhD dissertation, it covers many issues at a much deeper level but leaves others unexplored. Readers may also wish to consult Jackson Wu, One Gospel for All Nations: A Practical Approach to Biblical Contextualization (Pasadena, William Carey, 2015) and Reading Romans with Eastern Eyes: Honor and Shame in Paul’s Message and Mission (Downers Grove: IVP Academic, 2019).

[4] Georges and Baker, Ministering in Honor-Shame Cultures, 13.

[5] So Jackson Wu says that the early chapters of his book “attempt to help the reader see the world through a distinct pair of ‘cultural’ glasses. Reading Scripture with a new cultural lens can be humbling, confirming, and correcting.” Saving God’s Face, xii. The need for proper lenses resounds throughout his book.

[6] Robert J. Priest, “Shame,” in Evangelical Dictionary of World Missions, ed. A. Scott Moreau (Grand Rapids: Baker and Carlisle: Paternoster, 2000), 870–1.

[7] Georges and Baker, Ministering in Honor-Shame Cultures, 30; cf. 164; Georges, The 3D Gospel, 70.

[8] Thus Georges and Baker write that terms such as “Westernhonor-shame cultures and Majority World … along with others such as individualistic and collectivistic, or shame-based and guilt-based, are rather imprecise and broad, but they are convenient and widespread terms that help clarify complex realities.” Georges and Baker, Ministering in Honor-Shame Cultures, 29. Italics original.

[9] Georges, The 3D Gospel, 15. Werner Mischke similarly acknowledges that his examination of guilt-based and shame-based cultures are “broad generalizations” and that “All cultures, all societies are affected by shame and guilt, as well as fear.” Mischke, The Global Gospel, 41. He further adds “that communicating the gospel of Christ in such a way that the message includes both the removal of our guilt—and the covering of our shame—comprises a more ‘global’ gospel.” The Global Gospel, 65. Italics original. See also, Georges and Baker, Ministering in Honor-Shame Cultures, 35. Wu admits that “Since shame is highly related to morality, it is not entirely accurate to sharply distinguish guilt and shame, particularly in human experience.” Saving God’s Face, 165.

The different understandings that scholars have of the interplay between guilt and shame are astounding. For instance, one psychologist distinguishes them in this way: “Although many people use these two words interchangeably, from a psychological perspective, they actually refer to different experiences. Guilt and shame sometimes go hand in hand; the same action may give rise to feelings of both shame and guilt, where the former reflects how we feel about ourselves and the latter involves an awareness that our actions have injured someone else. In other words, shame relates to self, guilt to others.” Joseph Burgo, “The Difference between Guilt and Shame,” Psychology Today, (accessed 17 February 2020). Note how this contrasts greatly with the view of a professor of theology and apologetics at an evangelical university. “Though Guilt and Shame are twins, born in the garden, only moments apart, they aren’t identical. Guilt is usually tied to an event: I did something bad. Shame is tied to a person: I am bad. Guilt is the wound. Shame is the scar. Guilt is isolated to the individual. Shame is contagious.” Dan DeWitt, “The Difference between Guilt and Shame,” The Gospel Coalition, (accessed 17 February 2020).

[10] Duane Elmer, Cross-Cultural Connections: Stepping out and Fitting in Around the World (Downers Grove: IVP Academic, 2002), 180. It should be noted that Elmer begins his chapter, “Guilt and Shame,” by saying: “In my attempt to clarify and simplify, I run a danger of becoming simplistic and losing accuracy. Guilt and shame are two of the more difficult concepts to explain without getting mired in unnecessary detail.” Cross-Cultural Connections, 171.

[11] This is recognized by Wu, Saving God’s Face, 149.

[12] Georges, The 3D Gospel, 16. The note accompanying this diagram that it is “only for illustration, not based on actual research” should alert the reader that they should not read too much into it. Timothy Tennent fluctuates between describing the guilt-shame dichotomy and the guilt-shame-fear trichotomy. Timothy C. Tennent, Theology in the Context of World Christianity (Grand Rapids: Zondervan, 2007), 77–101.

[13] Georges, The 3D Gospel, 16. As the attempt to provide clarity distracts readers from the reality that life and culture are unfathomably complex, I’m afraid this attempt remains unsuccessful.

[14] Though she does propose these categories, Benedict recognizes that the Japanese are a very complex people who express both shame and guilt characteristics. “They are terribly concerned about what other people will think of their behavior, and they are also overcome by guilt when other people know nothing of their misstep.” Ruth Benedict, The Chrysanthemum and the Sword, 2–3.

[15] Ian Buruma, “Foreword to the Mariner Books Edition,” in Benedict, The Chrysanthemum and the Sword: Patterns of Japanese Culture (Boston: Mariner, 2005), ix. Further down the page he reports, “I have had my doubts about cultural interpretations of political affairs and expressed skepticism in the past about the distinction, made famous by Ruth Benedict, between shame cultures and guilt cultures. The risk of cultural analysis is that it assumes a world that is both too static and too uniform.” See also Young Gweon You, who writes that “it is dangerous to define one culture as shame-based and another as guilt-based, for we may see both characteristics in one culture. It is a matter of which is more dominant, and shame and guilt must not be defined in a hierarchical way.” You, “Shame and Guilt Mechanisms in East Asian Culture,” The Journal of Pastoral Care 51, no. 1 (Spring 1997): 57.

[16] Stephen Pattison, Shame: Theory, Therapy, Theology (Cambridge: CUP, 2000), 54. For another important critique of Benedict, see Marilyn Ivy, “Benedict’s Shame,” Cabinet 31 (Fall 2008), (accessed 6 February 2020). For a Christian counsellor’s response, see David W. Augsburger, Pastoral Counseling across Cultures (Philadelphia: Westminster, 1986), 119–26 and his broader discussion of anxiety, shame, and guilt, 111–43.

[17] Bob Smietana, “Americans Want to Avoid Shame, Make their Loved ones Proud,” LifeWay Research (23 May 2017), (accessed 6 February 2020).
A reviewer of my paper perceptively questioned whether the American public who responded to this survey were using the same definitions of guilt, shame, and fear as the researchers. More generally, the same question should be leveled at all who treat the English word “shame” as though it is equivalent to the Chinese “羞恥” the biblical terms “בֹּשֶׁת” or “αἰσχύνη” or similar terms found in other modern or ancient languages. (Similarly for “guilt”, “fear”, and other words.) Though there may be some degree of semantic overlap between the terms, we cannot assume that modern or ancient words occurring in different languages are equivalent in meaning. Even in one language a broad semantic range may exist for one term.

[18] “Lord of our Shame,” Christianity Today (July/August 2017): 16.

[19] Though Georges and Baker say that these are “Islam, Buddhism, Hinduism, and Taoism,” it is probably better to consider Taoism (or daojiao) and Buddhism, as practiced by many, to be aspects of Chinese folk religion. For an introduction to “Chinese Popular Religion,” see Winfried Corduan, Neighboring Faiths, 2nd ed. (Downers Grove: IVP Academic, 2012), 388–422.

[20] It might be argued that many animists have turned to Christ because theirs is a fear-power culture rather than a shame-honor culture. Arguments to this effect must take into account the reality that many people who follow the great religions are basically animists at heart and in practice.

[21] See Scott W. Sunquist’s excellent study of the growth of the church in the twentieth century: The Unexpected Christian Century: The Reversal and Transformation of Global Christianity, 1900–2000 (Grand Rapids: Baker Academic, 2015).

[22] Philip Jenkins, The Next Christendom: The Coming of Global Christianity (Oxford: OUP, 2002), 2.

[23] Georges, The 3D Gospel, 60. It is curious that not long before making this remark, Georges essentially repackaged “The Four Spiritual Laws” for three different cultures (56–7).

[24] Georges, The 3D Gospel, 13.

[25] Georges and Baker, Ministering in Honor-Shame Cultures, 163. The idea is stated in a more nuanced fashion by Jackson Wu who writes: “Many who are more accustomed to a law-based presentation of salvation could benefit from hearing a message about the restoration of God’s glory and the removal of human shame.” Saving God’s Face, 9.

[26] Perhaps we should distinguish between big-G and little-g senses of the gospel. Big-G gospel could be seen as the good news of Jesus Christ that moves people from the “kingdom of darkness” to the “kingdom of light” so that they become members of God’s family and kingdom. The little-g gospel is the more inclusive good news of Jesus Christ that explains how we should live as members of God’s kingdom, explains the wideness of God’s love, grace, and so much more, and that we learn through life-long discipleship. The big-G gospel answers the question, “What must I do to be saved?” The little-g gospel answers the question, “How then shall I live?”

[27] Andy Smith, Meaningful Evangelism: Choosing Words that Connect (Manila: OMF Literature, 2011).

[28] Andy Smith, “Presenting the Good News as a Blessing,” Mission Round Table 14, no. 2 (May–August 2019): 33–9, (accessed 6 February 2020).

[29] For an examination of ways to communicate the gospel with people who hold to a number of different worldviews, see David J. Hesselgrave, Communicating Christ Cross-Culturally, 2nd ed. (Grand Rapids: Zondervan, 1991), 193–285. Among a number of motivations for accepting the gospel that spring from various cultural patterns, Hesselgrave mentions guilt and shame cultures as (briefly) described by Benedict, though he instantly shows that her explanations have been rejected and replaced by others. Hesselgrave, Communicating Christ Cross-Culturally, 591–2.

[30] Georges and Baker, Ministering in Honor-Shame Cultures, 163.

[31] Bill Bright, “The Four Spiritual Laws,” (accessed 6 February 2020).

[32] Contrary to Georges, The 3D Gospel, 56–7, Mischke, The Global Gospel, 57–9, and Tennent, Theology in the Context of World Christianity, 82. Wu, in Saving God’s Face, acknowledges that the use of “laws” in “The Four Spiritual Laws” pertain more to natural laws than legal laws. Even so, he sees it and other common tools as reiterating “the human problem in traditional, Western legal terms, ‘Everyone is guilty before God.’” Saving God’s Face, 19–20. Quote from 20.

Sam Wunderli unites law and shame so that the purported shame cultures are driven by law. As he sees it, in a proper biblical worldview, “The doctrine of creation, which opposes human concepts of an eternal regulating law, such as Dharma or Tao, occurs as the most basic issue. Not a law, but a personal God is in charge of the universe. We are answerable to Him.” Wunderli, “The Significance of Shame and Guilt-Oriented Consciences for Cross-Cultural Ministry” (MA thesis, Columbia Biblical Seminary, 1990), 185.

[33] See Bill Bright, “Have You Heard of the Four Spiritual Laws?” (Peachtree City, GA: Campus Crusade for Christ, 2007), 10, 13. The minor place of forgiveness in the Four Laws along with the placement of Jesus upon the throne of one’s life calls into question Mischke’s critique that says the “Content entirely based on ‘laws’ or ‘principles’ from Scripture” and that there is “No mention of a King or ‘gospel of the kingdom’.” The Global Gospel, 58. Mischke apparently fails to grasp the close connection between “legal” and “regal”. Some of the other things that Mischke says are left out of the Four Laws could not be expected to be found in a tool that is this simple and are similarly missing from his own telling of the story of the Prodigal Son. The Global Gospel, 221–2.

[34] Bright, “The Four Spiritual Laws,” 5.

[35] Georges and Baker, Ministering in Honor-Shame Cultures, 163.

[36] The verses often include Rom 3:23; 6:23; 5:8; 10:9–10; and 10:13. Other verses that could be included are Rom 3:10; 5:1, 12; 6:3; 8:1, 38–39, and undoubtedly others. They are arranged by topic for presentation.

[37] See Georges and Baker, Ministering in Honor-Shame Cultures, 167–77. Cf. Mischke, The Global Gospel, 181–204. This is related to the theme that Bible scholars refer to as “reversal of fortune.” A biblical example that shows how fortune can be reversed from good to bad and bad to good is Joseph’s reversal from favored son to slave, from head steward of a house to prisoner, from prisoner to high-ranking official. Another example is the reverse of expectations between Haman and Mordechai and the Jews in Esther.

[38] Mischke, The Global Gospel, 181.

[39] Georges and Baker, Ministering in Honor-Shame Cultures, 171.

[40] Georges, The 3D Gospel, 70. Cf. Georges and Baker, Ministering in Honor-Shame Cultures, 186.

[41] Group conversions, mass conversions, or people movements have always been looked on with a measure of suspicion by many and triumph by others. Charles Peterson, who ministered to the Lisu in China from 1931 and was present when many from that tribe turned to Christ en masse, took a realistic view, knowing full well that such movements produced both tares and wheat. As he wrote: “Mass movements always bring a certain amount of anxiety, because many who profess to be ‘followers of God’ do not know what it is to have a living faith in the Lord.” Even so, he was happy to work with those who had made professions and help them understand what the faith actually entails. Charles B. Peterson, “Mass Movements among the Lisu,” China’s Millions, British ed. (November 1950), 122.

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