Formations 09.27.2015: Defending the Culture of Dignity

1 Timothy 5:1-7; 6:1-2, 17-19

Saint Timothy, Orthodox icon

Saint Timothy, Orthodox icon

Sociologists from California State University and West Virginia University recently published a paper identifying three different ways human beings have regulated interpersonal relationships:

• In an honor culture, men maintain their honor by responding to insults of various sorts by “self-help violence.” These cultures generally arise where legal authority is weak or non-existent and where a reputation for toughness may be the only effective deterrent against attack.

• In a dignity culture, all citizens are legally endowed with equal rights. Dignity doesn’t depend on one’s reputation, and having a thick skin and the ability to shrug off slights are seen as virtues, not signs weakness. As a last resort, persons in a dignity culture may appeal to third parties (such as courts or the police) to resolve intractable conflicts. Overall, dignity cultures “practice tolerance and are much more peaceful than honor cultures.”

• In a victimhood culture, “individuals and groups display high sensitivity to slight, have a tendency to handle conflicts through complaints to third parties, and seek to cultivate an image of being victims who deserve assistance.”

Victimhood culture thus combines an honor culture’s quickness to take offense with an overdependence on the coercive institutions that serve as a last resort in a dignity culture. Some, like economist Steve Horwitz, have observed—and decried—a rise in behaviors and attitudes that might be associated with such a culture. Horwitz defends the “culture of dignity” as a preferable alternative to the thin-skinned and coercive stance of both the honor and the victimhood cultures.

The world of the first Christians was unquestionably a culture of honor. To what extent Jesus and the apostles nudged that world toward a culture of dignity is subject to debate, but Jesus’ example of foreswearing the demands of honor (for example, by turning the other cheek) and his apparent disregard for the “dishonor” associated with lepers, tax collectors, prostitutes, and Gentiles, would suggest that he was an early advocate for a way of organizing human relationships that assumed the dignity of every individual and was not preoccupied with affronts to personal honor.

In today’s text, Paul encourages Timothy to behave appropriately with respect to the many sorts of people under his pastoral charge. This includes respect for his elders and his peers, compassion for widows, and dignity for slaves. Furthermore, Timothy is to lead in such a way that others relate properly: families are to take care of their weakest members, masters are to consider slaves as brothers, and those who have worldly wealth must not think they are above everyone else.

Ronald Bailey, “Victimhood Culture in America: Beyond Honor and Dignity,”, 11 Sep 2015


• Where have you observed relationships within cultures of honor, dignity, or victimhood?
• Do people in our culture truly act as if dignity is the unalienable right of everyone? Explain.
• What should proper relationships look like in a twenty-first century setting?
• How does your faith shape the ways you relate to others?

Reference Shelf

Widows in the New Testament

The Pastorals (1 Tim 5:3-16) provide the most comprehensive statement about widows in the NT and reflect a more developed ecclesiology. Those who are called “real” or “true” widows may be part of a service order in the church (1 Tim 5:3). These were to be “enrolled” or “adopted into a fellowship by election.” They were to be at least sixty years of age, married only once, persons of integrity, known for charitable service, and resolved not to marry again (vv. 9-10). Their role included that of setting a worthy example to younger widows and being responsible for the care and comfort of those in need. Whether this constituted a semi-clerical office or was a matter of widows being designated to care for widows (cf. Acts 9:36-41) is a matter of debate. In any case, they were to be “honored.”…

It may be that too many widows were relying upon the church’s care. The Pastorals’ solution is to distinguish the truly needy (those who are totally reliant upon God, v. 5) from those who might reasonably be expected to secure other means of support. Younger widows were to be cared for by their relatives or extended family, under the strong admonition that “one who does not care for relatives…has disowned the faith and is worse than the unbeliever” (v. 8).

Paul D. Simmons, “Widow in the New Testament,” Mercer Dictionary of the Bible, ed. Watson E. Mills et al. (Macon GA: Mercer University Press, 1990), 959–60.

Words to the Rich

Before his last charge to Timothy, Paul cannot resist the opportunity to say one more word about the rich. “As for those who in the present age are rich” is probably a reference to those in the church who are rich. They are rich “in the present age” as opposed to the age to come. Timothy is “to command them not to be haughty” (lit., hypselophronein, “to think of exalted things,” but with the meaning “to be arrogant,” that is, to act in such a way as to give the impression that one is more important than anyone else). Don’t bet your life “on the uncertainty of riches,” which are temporary and undependable. There is a play on words here: riches are uncertain, but God richly provides! “They are to do good, to be rich in good works, generous, and ready to share.” What the rich are to do is set out in four phrases that form two pairs.

They are to do good,

to be rich in good works
[they are to be] generous
and ready to share.

The first pair refers to doing good; the second pair refers to being generous. First, “they are to do good” and “to be rich in good works.” There is a certain synonymity here, and the repetition enhances the importance of the command. The second phrase is more emphatic and intensive than the first, and continues to play on the word “rich.” The message is clear: in addition to being materially “rich,” they must be “rich” in good works. Second, they are to be “generous,” that is, ready and willing to share with others. Once again, there is a progressive synonymity with the second phrase being more emphatic and intensive. Furthermore, the Greek word translated “ready to share” (koinonikous) comes from the word for “fellowship” (koinoni). Indeed, this kind of generosity and sharing had been a mark of the fellowship of the early church since the earliest days in Jerusalem (Acts 2, 4) and was behind Paul’s driving passion to deliver the Jerusalem collection. Sharing is at the heart of Christianity because it is the demonstration of self-denial! “If any want to become my followers, let them deny themselves…” (Mark 8:34). Good and generous deeds are treasures that “neither moss nor rust consume and where thieves do not break in and steal” (Matt 6:20). These treasures not only establish a solid foundation for the future but enable one to “take hold of the life that really is life” (6:19).

While an eschatological note is certainly sounded here, we must be careful not to limit Paul’s promise. By living the life he has heralded, a life of obedience and faithfulness, one “may take hold of the life that really is life” in the present. This is that “eternal life” to which Timothy was called and for which he made the good confession. It has its beginnings in this life, and one can enjoy it here and now, and still there is its final consummation and completion in the future when the believer fully shares in the life of the sharing God. All this and heaven too!

W. Hulitt Gloer, 1 & 2 Timothy–Titus, Smyth & Helwys Bible Commentary (Macon GA: Smyth & Helwys, 2010), 209–10.

Darrell Pursiful is the editor of Formations. He is an adjunct professor at Mercer University and an active member of the First Baptist Church of Christ in Macon, Georgia.


For further resources, subscribe to the Formations Teaching Guide and Commentary.

Additionally, the Smyth & Helwys Bible Commentary series is a scholarly but accessible means for enhancing your study of each lesson. To purchase the volume quoted in today’s Reference Shelf, please click Here.

Print Friendly, PDF & Email