When Japanese kamikaze pilots destroyed a huge amount of American ships in World War Two, the US government commissioned the anthropologist Ruth Benedict to explain their motivation. Her report introduced the West to the honour-shame culture on which most Eastern and Arabic societies are based. Under this moral framework, everyone is encouraged to put the good of their family and society above themselves. This might involve marrying someone your family has chosen, giving wages to parents, or even volunteering for a suicide mission during war. If you do something wrong, your whole family is disgraced. Conversely, any praiseworthy thing you do rebounds to your family and society, this time to their glory.

This insight into honour culture has helped our understanding of the Bible because both Jewish and Roman cultures were based on honour. 

Although Western culture is different, we sometimes experience aspects of it. For instance, we might suffer personal shame if our children go off the rails, or feel disgraced by an unfaithful spouse. We might boast about our children’s achievements or acquire a ‘trophy’ wife in an attempt to win admiration.

In an honour-based culture, your personal standing is tied up with the deeds of those you are responsible for. This can be beneficial all round because it makes you concerned for the welfare and progress of those under you, from members of your family to junior employees. The downside is that in an effort not to be dishonoured by their behaviour you can be controlling and abusive. An extreme example of this is the so-called ‘honour killings’ of some traditions. However, these aberrations should not discolour our view of the honour-shame culture; it is older and arguably more sophisticated than Western individualism.


The head

Because Paul ministered predominantly to Gentile Christian converts he assumed that Christians would follow the honour culture that was the cultural norm at the time. An example of this is in 1 Corinthians 11:1–7. Here he talks about God as the “head” of Christ, who is the “head” of man, who in turn is the “head” of a wife. He explains that the wife is her husband’s “glory”, and the man is the “glory” of God. This means that if the wife does something immoral, such as being improperly dressed, she “dishonours her head”; and if the man also dresses inappropriately he too “dishonours his head”. It is an inter-relationship in which everyone contributes to the glory and honour of each other. In this system, your place in a hierarchy is a privilege and a responsibility rather than a matter of obedience or subservience. After all, Christ is not subservient to God, though God is his “head” according to Paul.

For Paul, “headship” meant the one whom you honour, not the one you obey. However, he did also teach that women should “submit” to their husbands because this too was part of the Roman understanding of moral order. In public life the husband was the ruler/manager of the house (Greek oikodespotes, eg Matthew 10:24; 13:27, 52). However, inside their own house, Roman wives were in charge. Paul commended this aspect of Roman culture in 1 Timothy 5:14 when he used the word oikodespoteo to say that women should rule/ manage inside their house – the same verb that he used about husbands in public life. A Roman man dealt with contractors or employees and took the lead when in public, but a Roman wife organised the servants, mealtimes and everything else inside their home. Paul summarised this, like a Roman would, as “Submit to one another” (Ephesians 5:21).

The modern Church has tended to emphasise only the first half of this Roman set-up – wives submitting to husbands – perhaps because we are used to a hierarchical society rather than one based on conferring honour. But early Christians found it easy to adapt to because it was similar to Old Testament ideals. According to Proverbs, the perfect wife rules over her house, giving orders to servants and even building up a successful business in order to allow her husband the freedom to do the unpaid work of a magistrate in the city gate, where they are both honoured (Proverbs 31:10-31).


Submission has nothing to do with dominance or debasement

Headship confers respect and honour to subordinates. The Church “submits” to Christ and Christ is “made subject” to God (Ephesians 5:24 and 1 Corinthians 15:28 use the same Greek word meaning “submit”), and both gain honour as a result. In our Western mindset, submission has the connotation of dominance, but in an honour-based culture it means that a person’s achievements and character give glory to their head as well as vice versa.


Against individualism

Western societies can also produce heroic acts of self-sacrifice and service that honour a person’s workplace or country, but in general people in Western societies prioritise their own welfare ahead of that of their family or society.

Although Paul commended the honour culture of Rome, he didn’t present it as a specifically Christian lifestyle. He wanted believers to follow the highest standards of the particular society in which they lived – in this case, Roman. There were many bad practices in Roman culture – as there are in modern Western culture – but he commended the good ones.

If we apply this principle to our own culture of Western individualism we will celebrate the potential of each person, and seek to help them to achieve that potential; one way in which many churches do this today is by running projects that teach people life-skills that enhance their employment prospects. We can also help people to think as individuals rather than following the crowd, and ideally help them to find God personally. But, of course, we should also avoid the downside of Western culture: the self-centredness that makes us forget our responsibilities to family and society.

God has given us citizenship, for now, in this world, and as Christians we can shine out in society by meeting its highest and best standards.


David Instone-Brewer is senior research fellow in Rabbinics and New Testament at Tyndale House, Cambridge