If there was one thing I’d like to see change in the UK church, what would it be? That’s a question I was thinking about the other day.

One answer would be ‘see more people become followers of Jesus’ or ‘be more positively influential in society’. Those things are good – and needed! But on reflection there’s something else I’d love to see more of in the UK church. It’s something more basic to how we live, react and think. It’s something that would make a massive difference. It’s pursuing a culture of honour.

In a few weeks time I’ll have been ordinand for exactly 20 years. Over that time I’ll have been in ordained leadership in 3 churches as well as been a Director of Curate Training for a northern Diocese. I’ll also have been on various church bodies (synods, committees and councils), and attended many church meetings (national, regional, local). I’ve seen many good things over these last 20 years. I’ve met many great people. People who encourage me and give me hope for the future. But on too many occasions I’ve also witnessed people not honouring each other.

Most of the time people don’t see it. I’m sure there are times when I’ve been part of it – when, without realising, I’ve thought things, said things and done things that have dishonoured others. Dishonour is prevalent in much of contemporary culture outside the church and it rubs off on us. When I share in that I’m adopting the spirit of the age rather than the Spirit of God. I’m showing that I’m influenced more by the culture of the day than the culture of God’s kingdom (Rom 12:1). 

It’s all about how we treat people. And it begins with how we think about them. If we can think differently, we will act differently. As disciples of Christ we are meant to think differently (Romans 12:2) – especially about people (Rom 12:9-21).

The bible has much to say on this. As well as honouring God (Prov 3:9) the are 3 groups of people whom disciples of Christ should especially honour:

– First, we’re called to honour OTHERS. That basically means everybody! Romans 12:10 says ‘honour one another above yourselves’. This is a general call to think and act humbly, wanting the best for others above ourselves. This is a call to serve.To be selfless rather than selfish.

– Second, we’re called to honour POLITICAL LEADERS. Romans 13:7 says this. We don’t have to agree with their politics to honour them by showing respect for them, praying for them and encouraging them. It’s all part of honour.

– Third, we’re called to honour CHURCH LEADERS. 1 Timothy 5:17 describes this – in fact saying that ‘they are worthy of double honour’! We’re supposed to give our church leaders twice as much honour as we think!

Sometimes we’re good at this but too often in the church I’ve observed just the opposite, with people, politicians and church leaders being dishonoured. I believe the Lord is calling us to change. We need the Spirit of God to convict our hearts, to change our thinking and to renew our actions. In short, we need a culture change.

If this kind of culture change happened then it would have a massive impact! Not only would churches become even more positive and encouraging places to be, but those outside the church would sit up and notice. It would have enormous missional impact.

So what does a culture of honour actually look like? And what kind of mind-set change is needed as we pursue a culture of honour? There is much guidance on this in the Scriptures. I’ve been studying this recently, so here’s 10 biblical characteristics of people pursuing a culture of honour.

1. Assuming the best

Too often we assume the worst of people. Someone says or does something and we immediately think negatively about them. But God doesn’t call us to imagine the worst (Ps 41:7). Instead we’re called to assume the best, to believe the best and trust that even if someone has done something we don’t understand or even disagree with, that their intentions are good. This is an often overlooked aspect of loving people and is part of what it means to ‘trust/ believe all things’ (1 Cor 13:7).

2. Giving the benefit of the doubt

Rather than choosing to take offence (Prov 12:16), we give the benefit of the doubt. At times this is hard work and we need to be forbearing (1 Cor 12:7). Some people think that living like this is naive. Not at all. It’s consciously choosing to think well of someone rather than being cynical of who they are and what they’ve done. Taking offence is too easy. The harder but better choice is to choose not to. After all, taking offence is always a choice. To give the benefit of the doubt doesn’t mean that we can’t disagree or even politely challenge, but we do so thinking of their point of view first rather than ours and assuming they mean well. If we think like this, our reactions will be very different.

3. Speaking positively 

When someone does something that potentially frustrates us, we also have a choice about the words we use to them and about them. God wants us to speak positively. This is what the bible calls ‘blessing’ (Rom 12:14). Blessing is speaking good words over someone – words of life and love and hope. We do this through our prayers and also in the way we speak about them. We’re also called to challenge and warn others about this (eg 2 Tim 2:14), discouraging gossip (Prov. 16:28; Titus 3:2) and not encouraging factions (1 Cor 1:12f). When people annoy us, we’re told not to speak negatively and as such ‘curse’ them (Rom 12:14). Instead we’re called to think and act differently. Jesus has much to say about this in the Sermon on the Mount (Matthew 5:43).

4. Building Up

We speak positively because our intention is to build people up (Eph 4:29). This is God’s desire for us. It’s how he treats us. Conversely we have an enemy who wants to do the opposite – who seeks destruction rather than construction (John 10:10). When we tear someone down (Prov 11:9) we’re actually doing the devil’s work for him. We mustn’t do this. Indeed we’re called to a much more noble task.

5. Forgiving Others

There’ll be many times in life that we will feel like we’ve been badly treated. Sometimes we’ll conclude that people have deliberately been vindictive towards us. We then have a choice to forgive (Col 3:13), or not. To forgive is not to excuse bad behaviour. It’s showing mercy. Letting them off. Not holding a grudge (Lev 19:18). Holding grudges doesn’t help them or us. To forgive means that we think and live as if it’s not happened (1 Cor 13:5). Sometimes this can be very painful and difficult, but the Spirit of God will help us, if we ask Him. It means that next time we see that person we can hold our head high. When we forgive like this we are being Christ-like (Eph 4:32).

6. Holding my tongue

So often we react to a situation by saying something unhelpful and we then regret it. We wish we’d held back and either said nothing or chosen our words more carefully. That’s why the bible says we should be slow to be angry (James 1:19). It’s better to hold our tongue and be patient (1 Cor 13:4), especially in a public setting. This doesn’t stop us talking later in a more measured and personal way in private (Matthew 18:15) which is what Jesus says we should do when people sin against us – being bold and brave and going to see them. Sending an email or just walking away whilst still harbouring anger is not an option.

7. Being kind

If we’re not careful we can become quarrelsome people. Being quarrelsome can even get into an organisation’s culture. Just look at our political system – which is set up to be adversarial! We must not let that happen in a local community and if we see it we must pray and work to see it changed. The bible could not be clearer when it says that ‘the Lord’s servant must not be quarrelsome’ (2 Tim 2:24) but instead ‘must be kind’. Kindness is a wonderful gift and a sign of grace. This is how God treats us (Rom 2:4) in the hope that our lives are changed.

8. Being thankful

Thankfulness is a way of life, so much so that we’re called to be thankful in all circumstances. It’s God’s will for our lives (1 Thess 5:18). Becoming a thankful person means that we remember and recall good things and turn them into thanksgiving. Some of us have never had this modelled for us in our families or church communities. But it’s deeply biblical and foundational to worship (see, eg Psalm 100). There’s always something to be thankful about, even in a difficult person or frustrating context!

9. Being hopeful

Hope is about believing a better future. Our God is described as ‘the God of hope’ and has great resources of hope for us (Rom 15:13), calling us to be people of hope. This means that even if someone keeps treating us badly, we continue to treat them well, praying and believing that a better day is coming. The enemy wants us to give up, give in or to despair (2 Cor 4:8) but God doesn’t want us to lose heart (2 Cor 4:18) and has better plans (Jer 29:11).

10. Showing love

Finally, and to sum all this up, we’re called to love. To love in word and action. To think love. Because God so loved and loves us (John 3:16). This is ultimately what pursuing a culture of honour is all about. We don’t hate (Prov 10:12), we love (John 15:12). And we love sacrificially (John 15:13) even when we don’t feel like it. It’s a command to all disciples (John 15:17). It’s what we do.

Of course a culture of honour can easily be abused. We can be taken advantage of. That’s the risk. But love always involves risk and love is a risk worth taking.

To live like this we need the Spirit of God to so implant the word of God into our hearts and minds that the way we think about people changes. As that happens and as we think and live differently so a culture of honour is built.

UK society desperately needs this. But so does much of the UK church, including the church in the North. That’s why, for the sake of serving God’s transformation of the North, I give myself to pursuing a culture of honour.