Using Stories in Honor-Shame Cultures

In honor-shame cultures, using stories is a key element of ministry.

I’ll be publishing a few articles on this in the coming months. For now, some people might be interested in what looks to be a good series over at

The series is called “How Stories Change Honor Codes.”

Here’s a little bit of what is you’ll see:

At the surface rhetorical level, Kent’s engaging parable with a shocking conclusion captured the listeners’ interest.  But more fundamental was how that parable functioned to redefine the listener’s honor code (=the internal value system defining honor and shame).  The parable of a dog rewrote the assumed narrative of honorability and shamefulness.  New attributions of worth were created.  Narratives reconstruct notions of honor and shame by effectively relocating listeners as characters in an alternative plotline.


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Can we deny the truth when affirming Christ’s deity?

In a previous post, I argued that the phrase “son of God” itself does not imply deity. To be clear, I wholeheartedly affirm that Jesus is God incarnate. However, that does not excuse our misusing a key biblical phrase. In my last post, I explained some of the practical reasons why this discussion matters.


In this post, I want to emphasize another reason why this conversation matters. This misunderstanding as to the meaning of the phrase “son of God” highlights a fundamental flaw in the way we view Scripture and, specifically, our approach to interpreting the Bible.

Don’t Misuse Scripture to Prove the Truth

During this Easter season, a lot of people will probably emphasize the point that Jesus is the “son of God.” By that however, they mean that Jesus is divine. You might ask, “So what’s the problem?” The problem is simply this:

When we settle for what is merely true (Jesus has a divine nature), then we miss out on what the phrase actually means.

When the biblical writers use that title, “son of God”, they are not intending to primarily denote Jesus’ deity. The fact that Jesus is divine does not give us the right to force the phrase “son of God” to carry that meaning. To do so is to assume authority over the Bible itself.

I recently read a poignant line in N. T. Wright’s recent work Pauline Perspectives: Essays on Paul:

“By what right do we take scripture and find ways of making it talk about the things we want to talk about?” (377).

In other words, we have no right to misuse the Bible, even in order to prove something true.

One reason this conversation matters is that it signals a common tendency to read our systematic theology into places in the Bible that it doesn’t belong. If we do that with such a key phrase like “son of God,” where else might we confuse systematic theology and biblical theology?

Let me rephrase the question––

How often might we be applying a right doctrine to a wrong text?


son of god

Misapply a right truth to a wrong text fosters bad habits in both ourselves and in those whom we serve. When interpreting the Bible, we need to slow ourselves down and pay attention to the biblical context. Our tendency is to assume our definitions are the same as that of the biblical author’s. This is simply not the case.

I love a phrase John Walton often uses. He says the Bible “does communicate to us and it was written for us, and for all humankind. But it was not written to us.” This is such an important point. We cannot assume that we share the same worldview as the original authors. Thus, we cannot immediately that ancients used the phrase “son of God” in the same we would.

Theological Infallibility?

Many who read this may be quite content to use the phrase “son of God” to emphasize Jesus’ deity. They might strongly react against what I have written, even though I adamantly affirm Jesus’ deity. Why? They think that are protecting a fundamental doctrine of Scripture.

Sadly however, they do not realize the cost that must be paid. When we say that “son of God” inherently refers to Jesus’ deity, the first causality is the Bible itself.

Piece by piece, we change the author’s original intent.

We might subtly switch major and minor points of emphasis. In this way, our systematizing rearranges the biblical story. In the process, it becomes very easy to confuse our theology for the biblical message itself. We can have wonderful theology and teach completely true doctrine and yet still be wrong time and time again when it comes to particular passages.

What does this mean for our doctrine of Scripture? Potentially, one unwittingly confuses biblical infallibility with interpretive infallibility. By confusing the two, conservatives commit an error similar to that of liberals.

How so?
Bible with notes

Do Conservatives Act Like Liberals?

The basic problem conservatives have with liberals is that liberals selectively pick and choose what they will accept as God’s word. Therefore, they like to stuff about loving each other but not the parts about miracles, resurrection, etc.

Conservatives can be guilty of an opposite albeit similar problem. Conservatives rightly want to protect certain truths, like Christ’s deity. However, if we make texts affirm Christ’s deity when that was never their intention, we functionally deny what they biblical text actually saying.

We may not overtly deny the truth; however, our silence on the main point still shows a certain selectivity that does not honor God’s revelation. When we don’t major on the major points of a given passage, those truths slowly disappear from our consciousness and thus our teaching.

I obviously think liberal denials are far worse that conservative silence. Nevertheless, neither respects the text the way we ought. We are messengers of the Son of God, the King of kings. We should seek to convey his message, not ours, not matter how true it is.

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N. T. Wright, Evangelicals, and Tradition


Good words from Tim Gombis about evangelical responses to NT Wright

Originally posted on Faith Improvised:

Christianity Today’s recent cover story about N. T. Wright discusses both his broader contribution to the church and his most recent book, Paul and the Faithfulness of God .

One particular line in the article struck me, because it reflects a sentiment among evangelical critics of Wright that I find troubling.

Wright’s opponents ask, wisely: Did the Holy Spirit really let the Western church run entirely amok from the day Paul died until the day Wright took up his pen?

Now, Wright does indeed say things in such a way that “no one has ever seen this or said this before,” but it’s often the case that he’s truly bringing to light a neglected theme. Further, this is just good public speaking, reflecting his challenging of a dominant interpretation.


Photo Credit: Sophie Gerrard

It seems to me, however, that it is inappropriate for evangelicals to register this objection to Wright’s…

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Don’t settle for a god when you can have a king

Christ the King

Previously, I suggested from Scripture that the phrase “son of God,” when applied to Jesus, means “king”, . . . not “God.” In this series, I have repeated affirmed Jesus’ deity. I simply distinguish between his deity and the “son of God” title.

Is this even important? Are we just playing with words? After all, some might say, “If he is God, then what does it really matter?”

Jesus is the “Son of God, the King of Israel” (John 1:49). Let me offer two examples to show why it matters that we not minimize this fact (by simply saying that the title itself implies deity).

Many gods, One King

In many cultures of the world, such as Thailand or India, people are accustomed to hearing about or worshipping many gods.

Suppose a missionary arrives at one of these sorts of places, vigorously making the point: “Son of God” means “Jesus is God.” Of course, Jesus is “son of God” and he is God. (As we have seen however, one doesn’t necessarily imply the other.) So, how might people respond?

Locals might respond something like the Athenians to Paul, “He seems to be a preacher of foreign divinities” (Acts 17:18). Many will listen with interest, eager to add one more god to their pantheon of deities. Others will pass by without a second thought, feeling they have no time to worship one more god.

On the other hand, countries like Thailand and others will show very little patience with someone claiming that Jesus is king. Locals would receive such a suggestion quite differently now than if they had merely heard that Jesus was god. They would understand the serious implications of this gospel message. This message demands a change of fundamental allegiance.

Naturally, people will make accusations like those made against the early Christians, who proclaimed Jesus as “Christ” (Acts 17:3). In response, locals will oppose the gospel by saying, “These men who have turned the world upside down have come here also, . . . they are all acting against the decrees of Caesar, saying that there is another king, Jesus” (Acts 17:6–7).

Imagine different the responses I see when I tell people in China that Jesus is “Chairman.” The always grasp the message much faster when I say it that way.

A denarius minted circa 18 BC. Obverse: CAESAR...

Ministry among Muslims

There is an ongoing debate whether Bible translations in Muslim countries should translate “Son of God” literally as “son” or in some other way, like “king.” Such language often confuses Muslims, who think that it implies that God the Father impregnated Mary. This is not the space for me to jump in on that debate.

Instead, I want to point out the benefits of actually doing exegesis and not simply arguing from the conclusions of systematic theology (even if they are right!).

Show people from the text that God this sort of sonship language has a particular function throughout the canon. Use this as an opportunity to show people how to interpret Scripture. This is something many of them have never had to do. They simply absorb whatever is told them by the local Imam.

The Bible is full of these kinds of texts. The Bible reflects the custom of other ancient near eastern covenants. When (higher) suzerain kings established covenants with (lower) vassal kings, they typically invoked sonship-language. This is why God says to Pharaoh, “Israel is my firstborn son” (Exod 4:22; Jer 31:9; Hos 11:1).

Divine Kingship

Is there any way to link the two ideas–– deity and kingship? Yes, of course. But there are plenty of resources that can help you develop your thoughts. One helpful and accessible book includes N. T. Wright’s How God Became King.

For now, I’ll conclude with these summary remarks. The entire Bible tells the story of Creator King who seeks to make the world to be a kingdom and a Temple, the place in which he will dwell. In short, God seeks to make a theocracy, although not the type envisioned by terrorists and religious extremists. In Christ, God himself does come into the world to establish his kingdom. This is story we tell in the gospel.

In the next post, I’ll explain how this confusion of terms undermines Biblical authority.

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EMQ Reviews “Saving God’s Face”

Thanks for EMQ (Evangelical Missions Quarterly) for reviewing Saving God’s Face in its April issue!

It was reviewed by Glen Osborn, president, China Outreach Ministries. In his conclusion, he is kind enough to add:

This book helps westerners understand honor/shame and discover new personal depths of God’s great plan of grace and love. We benefit from multiple cultural perspectives of the truth of God’s word and his gospel for the entire world. We are also helped in developing contextualized applications of the gospel for reaching Chinese. The book reminds me that although we never can fully understand another culture, we must try. And we need our brothers and sisters of other cultures to not only help us understand, but to lead us in effectively promoting the gospel within those cultures.

Also, this month’s issue has a number of articles that will serve as good food for thought. For example, …

Surmounting Community Honor and Islamic Law in Muslim Culture

Seeking Asian-American Theologies

New Narratives toward a Biblical Response to Animism: Perspective from Church History & Scripture


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Preaching the “Son of God” for Christ’s Sake

In what sense is Jesus the “son of God”?

His Only-begotten Son and the Word of God 1885...

Previously, I claimed that the phrase “son of God” does not inherently imply deity. This suggestion, however, does not deny his deity. It simply says that deity is not a meaning “built into” the term “son of God.”

In this post, I’ll review a collection of verses that all indicate that the title “son of God” refers to Jesus’ identity as Israel’s king. Other synonymous titles include “Christ” and “Messiah.”

In the next two posts, I’ll unpack why this distinction practically matters for ministry

What does “son of God” mean?

First of all, let’s look at the text. The “son of God” terminology is rooted in the Old Testament. Here are a few of the most important texts.

2 Sam 7:12–14 (cf. 1 Chron 17:11–14)

“I will raise up your offspring after you, who shall come from your body, and I will establish his kingdom. He shall build a house for my name, and I will establish the throne of his kingdom forever. I will be to him a father, and he shall be to me a son.”

Ps 2:2–7 (note the use of terms)

[2] The kings of the earth set themselves, and the rulers take counsel together, against the Lord and against his Anointed [this is the word for “messiah,” מְשִׁיחֹֽ], . . . [5] Then he will speak to them in his wrath, and terrify them in his fury, saying, [6] “As for me, I have set my King on Zion, my holy hill.” [7]I will tell of the decree: The Lord said to me, “You are my Son; today I have begotten you.

Ps 89:26–27 [cited in Heb 1:5]

“He shall cry to me, ‘You are my Father, my God, and the Rock of my salvation.’ [27]And I will make him the firstborn, the highest of the kings of the earth.”

What about the New Testament?

John 1:49

The text couldn’t be more direct. John writes, “Nathanael answered him, ‘Rabbi, you are the Son of God! You are the King of Israel!’”

Luke 23:2 and others.

“Son of God” is quite often equated with the title “Christ.” Recall that “Christ” (or “Messiah” in Hebrew) simply is the title given to God’s anointed. Most typically, this refers Israel’s king. This is stated directly in Luke 23:2, “And they began to accuse him, saying, ‘We found this man misleading our nation and forbidding us to give tribute to Caesar, and saying that he himself is Christ, a king’” (cf. Mark 15:32).

Mark 1:1,

“The beginning of the gospel of Jesus Christ, the Son of God.”

John 6:69 (cf. 11:27; 20:31; Matt 26:63)

Martha “said to [Jesus], ‘Yes, Lord; I believe that you are the Christ, the Son of God, who is coming into the world.’”

John 18:33–19:22 (Jesus’ trial with Pilate)

This passage is especially insightful and significant. The entire passage intermingles a few key terms synonymously: Son of God, Christ, and King. The key issue at Jesus’ trial and thus the reason Jesus was crucified is that he claimed to be the “son of God” (19:7), “King of the Jews” (18:39).

Therefore, at the climax of the passage Pilate says to the Jews, “‘Behold your King!’ They cried out, ‘Away with him, away with him, crucify him!’ Pilate said to them, ‘Shall I crucify your King?’ The chief priests answered, ‘We have no king but Caesar.’” (19:14–15).

Rom 1:2–4

This text is striking on this point. Paul says his gospel concerns God’s “Son, who was descended from David . . . declared to be Son of God . . . Jesus Christ our Lord.” Notice the lumping of ideas from throughout the passages above.

In summary, “Son of God” itself refers to Jesus’ kingship.

Because of his divine nature, someone might want to say that he is the eternal “Son of God” or the divine “Son of God.” Nevertheless, we should not forget the distinction between the term “son of God” itself and the qualities that describe Jesus as the unique Son of God. The fact that divinity can be attributed to Jesus does not for that reason change the meaning of the title “son of God.”

Who Needs a King When You Have God?

I know some people are willing to use this title to emphasize deity (even if it doesn’t strictly fit the its inherent meaning). They fear that stressing the kingship or messiahship will cause people to dismiss or minimize deity.Português: Estátua do Cisto Rei em Almada.

From one perspective, the concern is understandable; people will always find reasons to reject or minimize the truth.

On the other hand, fear must not control us when interpreting the Bible and developing our theology!

Furthermore, consider the opposite danger––– what if we emphasize deity so much that we lose the fundamental meaning of the phrase “son of God”? Isn’t that something to be very concerned about?

I’m certain some people don’t find this possibility all that alarming. However, there are two problems with this lack of concern. First, we simply have no right to minimize the meaning of God’s word, even if we fear other’s manipulation. Second, in many non-Western cultures, this reversal of meaning (from kingship to deity) is important for very practical reasons.

More on that in the next post . . . ..

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A Gospel Video from

My friend over at has posted an exceptional gospel video. He captures so many key themes that I talk about on this blog

Due to his background, you will notice that he presents honor and shame from more of a Muslim (rather than Chinese) perspective. Nevertheless, the video is still helpful for anyone wanting to understand the biblical story through an honor-shame lens.

I highly recommend people check out his blog. He has great posts every week. His post this past week is called “How to Despise Shame.”

Jesus is both God and the “Son of God”

What does it mean to say that Jesus is the “son of God”? If you are like most people I talk with, you will say it means, “Jesus is God.” This is where we run into a problem.
English: Jesus Christ - detail from Deesis mos...

Yes . . . Jesus is God manifested in the world.

No . . . the phrase “son of God” itself does not inherently imply deity.

Before explaining more of what I mean, I want to first explain why this conversation is even necessary. Then, I suggest a few passages that should tip up off to the fact that something is amiss. In the next post, I’ll dig directly into the biblical text.

Four Reasons Why It Matters

Let me state four reasons why I’m starting this new series on the “son of God.”

1. Common Confusion

First, there is no other way that to say it bluntly. In my experience, most evangelicals I meet don’t know what the phrase “son of God” means. I’m sure that sounds like a gross understatement. It’s not. You will understand why as the series progresses.

2. Practical Importance

Second, there are practical consequences to this discussion. We are not talking about “mere theology.” Missionaries and pastors need to consider the implications of their ministry and preaching. I’ll elaborate more in a coming post.

3. Doctrine of Scripture

Third, the discussion is closely tied to one’s view of Scripture. If we think that “son of God” refers to Christ’s deity, then we may not have as high a view of Scripture as we might think. I’ll touch on this topic in a later post.

4. Biblical Importance

Fourth, the Bible makes a big deal of the fact that Jesus Christ is the “son of God.”

John wrote his gospel “so that you may believe that Jesus is the Christ, the Son of God, and that by believing you may have life in his name” (John 20:31).

In 1 John 5:13, he similarly writes, “I write these things to you who believe in the name of the Son of God that you may know that you have eternal life.”

Likewise, Jesus’ enemies made much of the claim that he is the “son of God.” Compare the temptation narratives (Matt 4:3, 6; Luke 4:3, 9), Jesus’ trial and his execution (Matt 26:63; 27:40, 43, 54).

John 19:7 succinctly states the reason Jewish leaders sought to kill him, “The Jews answered him, “We have a law, and according to that law he ought to die because he has made himself the Son of God.”


Is Jesus the only “son of God”?

There are hints that we have previously run amiss. In his book Jesus the Son of God, even D. A. Carson states that “son of God” has a variety of meanings. (He has posted a free excerpt of his book here). Accordingly, other people and beings are called God’s son(s):

  • In Luke 3:38, Adam is called the “son of God.”
  • The term “Christ” is routinely coupled with the phrase “Son of God.” More on this in the next post. In Jewish history, the term Christ did not connote deity.
  • People are called “sons of God.” For example, …

Jesus, in the Sermon on the Mount, says that peacemakers are “sons of God” (Matt 5:9).

“The sons of this age marry and are given in marriage, but those who are considered worthy to attain to that age and to the resurrection from the dead neither marry nor are given in marriage, for they cannot die anymore, because they are equal to angels and are sons of God, being sons of the resurrection” (Luke 20:34–36).

Likewise, Paul in Rom 8:14 states, “For all who are led by the Spirit of God are sons of God.”

A few last words . . .

Again, my point is not at all to refute Christ’s divine nature. This is a critical doctrine for the church. For now, I simply want to raise the question: Does the phrase “son of God” imply “deity”?

It is very possible for someone to rightly teach that Jesus is God but wrongly neglect to preach Jesus as the “son of God” (biblically understood).

I hope this series helps us avoid that problem.


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Richard Bauckham, Monotheism and UPGs

I want to get your thoughts on monotheism. How does this topic influence your ministry?

If you read much theology, you will come across Richard Bauckham, one of the world’s leading biblical scholars. I want to get you thoughts on one of his books, which may have application for missions. It’s called Jesus and the God of Israel: God Crucified and Other Studies on the New Testament’s Christology of Divine Identity.

I have two polar different contexts in mind. One is an extreme monotheistic culture, i.e. Muslim cultures. Second, his book may have application for polytheistic or animistic contexts.
I’ve linked a brief video where Ben Witherington interviews Richard Bauckham on the subject.

For now, here is my question––

How might this understanding of monotheism help us talk about things like Christ’s deity, the Trinity, and related topics?


I’d like to get people’s thoughts on the subject and hear what others are seeing in their own ministries. I’ve thought about writing on the subject for a while.
If you’d like to hear a longer (and more technical) lecture from Bauckham, you can also check out his talk titled “Divine and Human Community in the Gospel of John”

“The World is Against Me”

Living in another culture can make you cynical . . . or make you even more cynical. On those days, a person is tempted to turn on some Coldplay and check out from the world. Should we?

Coldplay - Us Against The World

I once heard a wise woman warn a group of foreigners of the frequent temptation they would soon face as they entered their new life in China. She said that whenever we as humans face a new circumstance that we don’t understand, our natural inclination is to categorize it as something “bad.” This is all the more true when you don’t know the local language. To add to the problem, reading local people’s body language may prove more difficult than reading Chinese characters.

How does this dynamic affect missionaries in the long-term?

Over time, a thousand little cuts of misunderstanding and struggle wear a person down so that he or she grows defensive, agitated, and suspicious of those around.

For a common example, consider buying fruit and vegetables at the local market. Everyone knows that locals get a better price. Speaking Mandarin is not even good enough for the Chinese vendor––he or she wants to hear the customer speak the local dialect, which even Chinese from outside cities won’t know. For now other reason than this, you will pay a higher price for food. Let’s not even begin to talk about taxi drivers and the ways they might try to cheat you.

Finally, to make things worse, missionaries are often forgotten by family and friends back in their home country. Of course, I’m not saying that every person forgets them. What I mean is this (and I’ve heard foreigners say something similar many times over) –– you find out who your real friends are because those you thought were close friends seemly forget to write emails, be available for Skype chats, or send texts. The dictum simply proves true: “out of sight, out of mind.”

In this environment, it’s easy for people to think the world is against them.

Once a person grows lonely and resentful enough, he or she will use Scripture to defend this belief. After all, Jesus did say, “If you were of the world, the world would love you as its own; but because you are not of the world, but I chose you out of the world, therefore the world hates you” (John 15:19).

Not surprisingly, this sort of mentality is not conducive to loving people. Instead, it creates fear, distance, prejudice, and ultimately anger.

English: "The Judas Kiss", (Mark 14:...

The World is Against Jesus

Is the world against us? Yes, . . . sort of. Going back one verse to John 15:18, notice what Jesus says, “If the world hates you, know that it has hated me before it hated you.”

If anyone had a reason to say the world was against him, it was Jesus. No one understands the reality of human hatred and the sin nature better than Jesus who was rejected though he was perfect. Let me repeat that again: the world hated Jesus and yet he was perfect.

How did he respond?

He died for all that those who live might no longer live for themselves but for him who for their sake died and was raised (2 Cor 5:15).

Whereas we can deceive ourselves and think the “everyone is against me” (when really very few people are thinking of us), Jesus knew quite well that all people are sinners and are is rebellion against him. In fact, he even chose Judas as a disciple, even though he knew Judas would eventually betray him (cf. John 6:64–71).

So how should we respond?

First of all, know that the world is not actually against you.

We have joined a global family. In Mark 10:29–30, Jesus said,

“Truly, I say to you, there is no one who has left house or brothers or sisters or mother or father or children or lands, for my sake and for the gospel, who will not receive a hundredfold now in this time, houses and brothers and sisters and mothers and children and lands, with persecutions, and in the age to come eternal life.

Second, it is all right to admit the pain that comes with isolation.

Yes, there are plenty of people who don’t care about you. In fact, John writes, “Do not be surprised, brothers, that the world hates you” (1 John 3:13). Acknowledging that fact (more so than ignorance and denial) magnifies the love of Christ in you that compels you to serve those who disregard you.

Third, don’t withdraw. 

Withdrawing from people will actually cause you more pain than if you were to open up to others and, in the process, get hurt by others. When the heart is away from people to long, it becomes hardened. Life evaporates from the heart, leaving us a mere shell of a Christian. Like a leper, we become desensitized to the point of our own death.

Fourth, consider Jesus (Heb 11:1–3).

We learn from Jesus that self-preservation is not a precondition for vulnerability and personal engagement with others. In fact, it is precisely those times when we feel alone and rejected that we have the opportunity to demonstrate the greatest love (cf. Rom 5:6–10).

Fifth, receive encouragement.

Peter offers us timely wisdom and encouragement when we face the temptation to despair. In 1 Peter 5:6–10, he writes,

“Humble yourselves, therefore, under the mighty hand of God so that at the proper time he may exalt you, casting all your anxieties on him, because he cares for you. Be sober-minded; be watchful. Your adversary the devil prowls around like a roaring lion, seeking someone to devour. Resist him, firm in your faith, knowing that the same kinds of suffering are being experienced by your brotherhood throughout the world. And after you have suffered a little while, the God of all grace, who has called you to his eternal glory in Christ, will himself restore, confirm, strengthen, and establish you.”