In this excerpt from Ministers of Reconciliation, Raymond Chang argues that a biblical view of honor serves as a helpful framework for discussing issues of race and ethnic division and unity.
As a second-generation Korean American, I straddle the line between the East and the West. In my upbringing, I was told to be “American” (a euphemism for white) in public and “Korean” at home and at our first-generation Korean church. I hold within me the values of Western individualism and Eastern collectivism. Within me resides both the American spirit of independence and the Korean spirit of filial piety. For better or worse, these forces shape how I live in this world God created.
Our understanding of honor is heavily influenced by our culture. As a Korean American, I view honor through both a Western and an Eastern lens. My Western sensibilities tell me that honor primarily goes to the one who earns it. It is given to the ones who deserve it through their merits. My Eastern sensibilities, however, tell me that honor primarily goes to those who came before me, regardless of their merits. This is because relationships weigh more than achievement (though achievement brings honor to the relationship). In my opinion, there is gold and dross in both of these views. It is appropriate to give honor to those who have achieved and accomplished much—especially if it came at a great sacrifice and led to much fruitfulness.
But this can turn into a form of dehumanization that leads to looking down on those who don’t produce what society values. It is also appropriate to give honor to those through whom God has brought you forth. But this can turn into a form of idolatry that leads us to follow our family above following God. The first approach gives honor based on production. The second gives honor as a result of progeny.
Now, neither of these views necessarily contradicts the Bible, but the practice of them can certainly go awry. Further, the Scriptures suggest another form of giving honor that is pertinent (and arguably, more gospel centered) to the issues surrounding racial and ethnic division and unity. Together, we will explore a third way of giving honor that can serve as a helpful framework that also rounds the edges of both of these approaches.
Honor in the Corinthian Church
In 1 Corinthians 12:23–24, as Paul addresses the divisions within the church of Corinth, he asserts that the remedy to such divisions is found in giving honor to those who have been deprived of it. It is the way in which Paul calls the Corinthian church to care for what we would understand as the minorities in its midst. And as we see throughout Scripture, we honor others (especially those who are marginalized) because Christ honored us.
The church in Corinth was not immune to the influences of the culture around it. Paul writes about how the “spirit of the world” (2:12) or the “wisdom of the world” (1:20; 3:19) bled into the church. In many ways, the Corinthian church mimicked the patterns of the broader society. The Corinthian society was stratified between the haves and the have-nots, and this same stratification entered into the church (11:22). In the ways the broader society was divided, so was the church.
Although the world was divided along the lines of what we would today consider ethnicity/race and class, those who followed Christ were stitched together by the Holy Spirit regardless of their background. Over and over, Paul reminds believers that the church ought to demonstrate the power of the gospel through its unified diversity. The way he calls the Corinthian church to do this is by “giving greater honor” to the parts that they consider less honorable or valuable. Here, he appeals to the ways they instinctively know to do this as they pay special attention to the more vulnerable parts of their bodies (this is what Paul is alluding to in 12:23–24).
Giving Greater Honor Today
This has significant implications for how we navigate the divisions that have infiltrated our churches from the broader society. It doesn’t matter whether your local congregation is diverse or not—we live in a diverse country full of diverse people, and if we do not educate, train, and disciple our congregants to understand the diverse world they live in, they will carry narrow and harmful perspectives into the world where they represent Christ. But what does it mean to give greater honor along the societally fractured lines that have infected the church (such as race), or the ones that have emerged from within the church (such as spiritual gifts)?
One way is to preach the gospel into the issues that emerge along racial lines. As I travel and speak throughout the country, one of the most common series of questions I get from Christians of color within predominantly white evangelical churches and institutions is, Will you actually speak up on issues that matter to us? And if you do, will you speak in a way that will help our brothers and sisters in Christ see the urgency to live into the call of God’s kingdom? Or will you water things down and soften the message out of self-preservation and promotion, perpetuating the racial status quo that makes it difficult for us to dwell together with our fellow siblings in Christ? These questions are hard, but real.
If we desire to be the body of Christ as God intended, we must be willing to recontextualize and apply the gospel to the issues that affect those members who have been deemed less valuable according to the eyes of the world. May we not be like the Corinthian church, whose problem was that, as New Testament scholar Gordon Fee writes, “Although they were the Christian church in Corinth, an inordinate amount of Corinth was yet in them.” If there are divisions in the church that mirror the divisions of the rest of society, perhaps we should take some time to search the Scriptures, listen to the members of our church who come from groups that are often deemed less honorable, explore academic research on the matters facing us, and boldly proclaim the gospel into everything that Christ lays claim to. May we remember Paul’s words in 1 Corinthians 12:26: “If one member suffers, all suffer together; if one member is honored, all rejoice together.”
This post is adapted from “Giving Greater Honor to the ‘Minority’ in Your Midst” by Raymond Chang in Ministers of Reconciliation: Preaching on Race and the Gospel edited by Daniel Darling (Lexham Press, 2021).
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