Having set the stage for a basic presentation of the honor and shame culture and how it might relate to the church in general and the Corinthian church in particular in connection to the action of speaking in tongues, it is very much worth taking some space to provide a basic outline of the functionality of honor and shame in the world in which both Jesus and the early church arose.
An important first century Roman Stoic philosopher by the name of Seneca, in writing about honor from within an active and functioning honor and shame system, had this to say: “All our arguments start from this settled point, that honor is pursued for no other reason except because it is honor.” This says much about the value system of the Greco-Roman world, though those that live within the confines of western civilization cannot readily relate to such a sentiment, primarily because the pursuit of honor has been primarily replaced by the pursuit of material possessions and wealth.
Though it can certainly be the case that wealth and material possessions were attendant to honor in Paul’s world, this would not necessarily be the case. Even if modern perceptions of honor and shame has been skewed, one can still peruse the wider world in order to find the systems of honor and shame still in operation much like it was operating in Corinth. Christians throughout the world still live within cultures in which one’s true status is largely determined by the values of honor and shame, and are in the enviable position of being able to more easily identify with and understand the situation with which Paul deals in his first letter to Corinth. In a world so governed, the primary motivation for performing a good deed (public benefaction) or for living a life marked by virtue, was the attainment of honor.
The opposite end of the spectrum from honor, of course, was shame. As was alluded to earlier talk about Jesus, a person might seek to increase his honor by publicly shaming a rival through insults, reproach, physical abuse, confiscation of property, and even public execution. Mention of Jesus in connection with this leads to a helpful aside, in that Jesus’ insistence that His disciples turn the other cheek, go the second mile, bless when cursed, and offer the undergarment when sued for the outer garment, gain substantial meaning when understood alongside concerns of honor and shame. Everything that Jesus suggests be done essentially as part of a mission statement, which He then lives out through His passion, would be immediately viewed as honor-disavowing and shame-accruing.
So how exactly was it determined who was possessive of honor and who leaned towards the shameful end of the spectrum? There was no formal system by which honor was assigned. There were no checklists to follow. Rather, public consensus, which is always shifting, plays the most important role. The shifting sands of public consensus meant that one would always have to be on guard, not only performing according to wider public opinion, but also doing one’s level best to shape public opinion and drive the public debate concerning what is honorable and what is dishonorable/shameful. This can be loosely referred to as a governing construct known as the “court of public opinion.”