When I perform weddings, I regularly use language from the Book of Common Prayer. In the exchange of rings, the bride and groom say to each other, “I give you this ring as a symbol of my vow, and with all that I am and all that I have I honor you.” This language strikes modern hearers as strange, and some people have asked me about it. One person commented that the Bible tells us to honor God. Are we really supposed to “honor” our spouse? Is this a form of idolatry? A second reaction has been that the idea of honoring someone sounds old-fashioned.
Indeed, we rarely hear the word honor today. Honor, however, is prominent in Scripture. The Bible commands us to “honor” certain people. Most importantly, we are to honor God (Rev. 4:11). In addition, we are to honor our father and mother (Ex. 20:12), the elderly (Lev. 19:32), rulers (1 Peter 2:17), church leaders (1 Tim. 5:17), and others who serve Christ faithfully (Phil. 2:29). We are also to honor certain God-ordained institutions, such as the Sabbath day (Isa. 58:13) and marriage (Heb. 13:4). Finally, the Bible describes certain actions as honorable or dishonorable. Abstaining from sexual immorality requires that we control our bodies “in holiness and honor” (1 Thess. 4:3–4). Homosexual activity, on the other hand, comes from “dishonorable passions” (Rom. 1:26).
What, then, is honor? The biblical words often translated as “honor” can have a number of shades of meaning. As a baseline definition, to honor means to esteem and treat another with respect because of who they are or what they have done. Honor has the sense of value, price, or quality. That which is valued and esteemed is “honored.” The biblical use sometimes also means to seek to enhance the reputation of someone.
The biblical emphasis on honoring others has everything to do with the biblical command to honor God.
Honor in the Bible typically has a communal, even public, meaning. In other words, honor is something that is recognized or bestowed by the community. Gamaliel, for instance, was “held in honor by all the people” (Acts 5:34). In the Old Testament book of Esther, the honor shown to Mordecai was very public, much to Haman’s disgrace (Est. 6). Proverbs tells us that the wise and the righteous will receive honor (Prov. 3:35; 11:16) but that honor is not fitting for a fool (26:1).
Historians and scholars have pointed out that one of the cultural dynamics at work in the Mediterranean world in biblical times was that of honor and shame. Public honor was an important cultural value. Public shame was devastating. We often think of honor and shame as indicative of Eastern cultures. During an economic downturn in Korea some years ago, many businessmen lost their jobs. Instead of telling their families and thus bringing shame on them, they still got up and dressed for work each morning, only to spend the day walking the trails at a nearby national park. We cannot overlook the power of honor and shame in many cultures of the world, modern and ancient.
What do these ancient and Eastern cultural dynamics have to do with the church in the modern Western world? First, it is important to see that all societies are a mixture of cultural dynamics. Even if it is true that Westerners are influenced more by personal guilt than public shame, this does not mean that concepts of honor and shame are absent in the West.
Second, biblical teaching on honor transcends any particular time and culture. Honoring the Sabbath, marriage, and father and mother reflect God’s eternal character and commandments. These institutions were established at creation, and thus they have enduring significance. Furthermore, biblical commands to honor others do regularly go beyond cultural norms. Paul tells Timothy to “honor widows” in a culture that typically did not (1 Tim. 5:3). He also exhorts Timothy not to let anyone despise his youth in a time and place that honored elders as examples of wisdom and virtue (4:12).
In fact, the Bible commands Christians to “honor everyone” (1 Peter 2:17) and to “outdo one another in showing honor” (Rom. 12:10). All human beings are made in God’s image and are worthy of honor. As the psalmist writes, God has crowned humanity “with glory and honor” (Ps. 8:5). Significantly, Peter exhorts us, “Honor the emperor” (1 Peter 2:17), at a time when believers were being persecuted for the faith. Honor is not tied to our feelings for someone.
The biblical emphasis on honoring others has everything to do with the biblical command to honor God. God fashioned human beings in His image. When we honor others, no matter who they are, we honor God. As we honor God, we increase His esteem in the world and attest to His ultimate value.
Dr. William Barcley is senior pastor of Sovereign Grace Presbyterian Church and adjunct professor of New Testament at Reformed Theological Seminary in Charlotte, N.C. He is author of The Secret of Contentment and Gospel Clarity.