Essentially any book on New Testament backgrounds will include some description of the cultural values of honor and shame. For a full and admirable treatment of the subject, see David deSilva’s Honor, Patronage, Kinship, and Purity: Unlocking New Testament Culture (InterVarsity, 2000). Simply put, most people in the Greco-Roman world were constantly conscious that their social status was potentially in flux, moving up or down by accumulating honor or shame, respectively. Some aspects of a person’s shame would be unchangeable fixtures, such as being born into an unimpressive family. Other shameful realities were more up for grabs, such as failing in a trade or not getting an education. Though shame could be acquired by an individual’s actions, such actions tended to spread shame over the whole group—most notably the household, but sometimes also a professional guild or a religious group.
It is especially important for modern Western Christians to realize that what we call honor is nowhere as potent, and what we call shame is not at all as damaging, as these concepts were in the New Testament era. We equate shame with embarrassment, and we don’t usually allow shame to destroy someone’s social status.
Honor and shame are discussed or assumed in various New Testament texts (consider, for example, Romans 1:16 and 13:7). Readers of Arise will be familiar with Paul’s words in 1 Corinthians 14:35b, “it is shameful for a woman to speak in church.” Modern Western Christians—egalitarians and complementarians alike—tend to assume Paul says, “it is wrong for a woman to speak in church.” Complementarians then explain why it is still wrong, and egalitarians explain why it isn’t. But that’s not what the text says. Whether it is right or wrong is a different question; Paul instead says it is shameful.
Or does he? Egalitarian scholars have put forth two main explanations of how it could be that Paul here doesn’t say what he seems to say. One is that Paul is quoting a Corinthian slogan, or quoting something from the letter he received from Chloe in Corinth (for a clear and helpful explanation of this theory, see Loren Cunningham, David Hamilton, and Janice Rogers, Why Not Women? [YWAM, 2000], 188-91). Another theory is that verses 34-35 are actually an addition to the text made sometime after the original composition (the fullest explanation is by Philip Payne, Man and Woman, One in Christ [Zondervan, 2009], 217-70). Understanding the concept of shame bolsters both of these theories. No modern complementarian Christian whom I know actually believes that if a woman speaks in a worship service, she and all those in that family of believers and in her own family must incur shame; that is, they should be knocked down a notch on the social ladder. But if we insist that Paul said and meant 1 Corinthians 14:35, and that it should be understood and applied literally, then this harsh teaching is the necessary conclusion. And what a shame that would be!