The Main Idea in a Sentence: Early Christians adapted honor codes from the ancient Greco-Roman world in ways that are insightful for the contemporary church.
A few years ago, I wrote a series reviewing John Barclay’s paradigm-shifting book Paul and the Gift, which I then applied to a Chinese context. that book focused on the vertical dimension of grace—gift-giving between God and people. Barclay’s next book will examine horizontal gift giving. In the meantime, it’s good to see people beginning to think about the relationships between grace and honor.
Introducing Honor in the Context of Grace
Earlier this year, the Scottish Journal of Theology (vol. 71, no. 1) published an article by Mark Stephens and Georgiane Deal titled “The God who gives generously: honour, praise and the agony of celebrity.” Here is the article’s abstract:
The need for honour, meaning publicly acknowledged worth, has been a feature of social life across the ages. From the ancient world of Greece and Rome, through to the honour codes of contemporary celebrity culture, the quest for honour is often framed in agonistic terms, in that honour is a limited good that demands competitive behaviour.
This article examines the way early Christianity responded to ancient honour codes, with a view to its potential relevance in contemporary culture. It demonstrates the way early Christianity retained something of the language of honour in its ecclesial communities but redefined honour in light of its conception of grace.
In this post, I will highlight a few of these ideas.
Much that is in the first half of the article is not new; however, the authors’ explanations are incredibly clear and succinct. Here is an excerpt:
What is vital to note is that the quest for honour had a material effect on social attitudes and individual behaviour in antiquity. In such a setting boasting was to be somewhat expected, and loving honour (philotimia) could be regarded as a virtue. More fundamentally, an individual’s sense of worth depended substantially upon the affirmation they received from the court(s) of reputation that mattered most to them. (p. 54)
For anyone wanting a nice overview of honor-shame within an ancient Greco-Roman context, I’d recommend they check out the opening sections of the essay.
Grace and Honor in the Context of Scripture
As the authors suggest, the Apostle Paul actually wants believers to be “high achievers,” who are worthy of honor. However, they add, “such achievements and success do not lead to unrestrained boasting and self-advertisement. Rather, Paul’s accomplishments are always situated within a wider theological context of grace and gift” (p. 55).
The authors elaborate by looking at two biblical examples “where Paul uses the language of honour in close proximity to a discussion of gifts” (p. 56). First, they make an astute observation concerning Romans 12:10, in which Paul exhorts reader, “Love one another with brotherly affection. Outdo one another in showing honor.”
Yet, they observe the preceding context, where Paul speaks of the diverse ways that God gifts his people.
For by the grace given to me I say to everyone among you not to think of himself more highly than he ought to think, but to think with sober judgment, each according to the measure of faith that God has assigned. 4 For as in one body we have many members, and the members do not all have the same function, 5 so we, though many, are one body in Christ, and individually members one of another. 6 Having gifts that differ according to the grace given to us, let us use them: if prophecy… 7 if service…; the one who teaches… 8 the one who exhorts… who contributes…; the one who leads…; the one who does acts of mercy…. (Rom 12:3–8)
How does this passage lead to Rom 12:10?The authors write, “Because giftedness is ultimately a consequence of being graced, it is little surprise that Paul can then go on to speak of a community in which people ‘outdo’ one another in giving honour” (p. 57). In a moment, we will see why such gifts (i.e., grace) incline believers to give honor rather than chase honor.
The second text, 1 Corinthians 12, also focuses on the Spirit’s bestowing of gifts on Christ’s followers. They then summarize, “Seen in this light, gifting cannot be a reason for either ranking or division, because all gifts ultimately derive from the one God, rather than the worthiness of the individual” (p. 57).
When we understand that our abilities are gifts from God, we are motivated to imitate Paul who boasted, “I worked harder than all of them – yet not I, but the grace of God that was with me” (1 Cor 15:10).
Seeking Worth in Celebrity Culture
Kanye West serves as a foil a biblical view to honor. West’s obsessive self-promotion seems to derive from an “agonistic” perspective (much like those in the ancient world). An “agonistic” perspective entails the belief that goods (like honor) are limited and thus requires competition. The following quote illustrates how this belief manifests today.
Contemporary celebrity worship is notable for the disposability of its idols. There simply is no guarantee that one’s recognition will endure, only the requirement for endless reperformance. For it is ultimately the audience, disparate and fickle, that determines the worth and worthiness of the superstar. In the absence of stability, envy, boasting and competition seem logical, and perhaps even mandatory. (p. 65)
What happens when the church absorbs the agonistic assumptions about honor and worth? We become just like non-believers and begin to compete for attention, resources, and power. Then, we misrepresent the fact, fudge the numbers, and compromise our strategies of ministry.
How did the early church allow God’s grace to transform their view of honor?
The early Christians did not reject honor. They did not disparage themselves as worthless and inept of doing anything good. Instead,
talent and ability were understood within the broader framework of grace and gift, and identity was not located in the quantity of achievement but rather the faithful deployment of what one had been graced with….
There is something right and good about celebrating the gifts of others, and even our own gifts. (p. 65)
God’s grace undercuts fear and fuels our joy in others receiving honor. The authors’ conclusion highlights a key contrast with practical significance. They write,
The competitive practices of ancient and modern honour are predicated on the fear that honour is limited and many must miss out. But if grace abounds then we have nothing to fear, for there is more than enough to share. (p. 66)
- What do you think of the article’s claims?
- What would you add?