Shame in Acts

In recent posts we have been thinking about the place of shame in the life story of Jesus and in his parables. Shame is no less significant in the Book of Acts and the Epistles. This post and those following will provide some examples. We will again listen to expert witnesses as we look at the different passages. Here are some examples from the Acts of the Apostles:

Acts of the Apostles 11, 16 and 18

The book of Acts contains several examples of entire households being saved and baptised (Acts 11:14; 16:15, 34; 18:8). The households of Cornelius, Lydia, the Philippian jailer, and Crispus “probably represent not only the immediate families, but also the servants and other individuals who may have been employed under their authority. … People who live within a social setting that is shame-based are more oriented toward seeing the entire social group come to Christ together or resist the message together.”[1]

“In a shame-based culture it is difficult to act in isolation from others, especially those senior to you. [Acts] seems to recognize this reality. … Entire households [are saved together which minimises] the social dislocation and avoid[s] the charge that one person has brought shame on the rest of the family. … The source of the shame is not so much tied to the propositional content of the Christian message, as it is to the scandalizing notion that someone may be acting independently from the will of the larger group.”[2]

Timothy Tennent comments: “In my experience in India over the years, I have seen several remarkable examples of extended families and other larger social groups coming to Christ together. This tendency should not be viewed, as it sometimes is by outsiders, as an abandonment of the need for individual faith and repentance. Rather, whenever an extended social network comes to Christ, it should be seen as multi-coordinated personal decisions.[3] This means that multiple numbers of people are deciding to follow Christ in a single movement, rather than through dozens of individual decisions isolated from one another.”[4] This seems to me to be somewhat over concerned for Western ideas of individuality. It elevates the place of the individual. It would be entirely possible that the gospel could bring about change at a corporate rather than only an individual level.

While we will not dwell on it here, Bruce J. Malina and John J. Pilch have produced a Social-Science Commentary on the Book of Acts which analyses each passage in the light of honour and shame being pivotal values in the New Testament world. Their detailed textual notes point consistently to on-going honour-shame dynamics, and particularly to the social interaction of challenge and riposte.[5] The Context Group[6] of theologians is gradually working through the full text of the scriptures providing commentaries which highlight the honour-shame dynamic.

[1] Timothy C. Tennent: “Theology in the Context of World Christianity: How the Global Church is Influencing the Way We Think About and Discuss Theology;” Zondervan, Grand Rapids, Michigan, 2007; p98.

[2] Ibid., p98.

[3] Tennent notes: “This phrase is my own, but missiologist Alan Tippet refers to these extended social conversions as ‘multi-individual decisions’ or ‘multi-personal conversions’”. See Alan Tippet, “People Movements in Southern Polynesia: A Study in Church Growth,” (Chicago: Moody Press, 1971), p123-241.

[4] Tennent, p98-99.

[5] Bruce J. Malina and John J. Pilch; “Social-Science Commentary on the Book of Acts “; Fortress Press, Augsberg Fortress, Minneapolis, 2008.

[6] The Context Group is a group of theologians and anthropologists of whom, Malina, Pilch, Neyrey and Cook, among others, are leading members. They seek to enable a wider audience to engage with the social realities of biblical cultures.

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