Ancestor Worship

ancestor shrine 1

Q. A church brother’s mother, who lived in another city, passed away recently. Since his mother was Buddhist, as are his younger siblings, the funeral was conducted using Buddhist ceremonies. He wants to remember her by bringing her shrine home and set it up in own his home. He is a new Christian baptized just last year, and will not be involved in ancestor worship. However, his wife, also a new Christian, does not feel comfortable about this. As a Christian, is it alright for him to set up his mom’s shrine at home?

A. My suggestion is NO, as I see only downside and no upside to what he planned to do. First, his motive. It is commendable that he wished to remember his mom, but filial piety can be expressed simply by setting up her portrait or a collage to celebrate her life. It is not necessary to set up her shrine which carries with it a lot of unwanted connotations, despite the fact that he is not venerating the dead.

Second, the implications. In traditional Chinese thinking, a shrine is associated with ancestor worship, period. It implies that the children will burn incense regularly, and offer food sacrifices during festivals. The church brother may not be doing these things, but that’s the outsiders’ perception. 1 Thes 5:22 “Abstain from all appearance of evil” (KJV). Why appear to be practicing pagan worship when in fact you are not? There is nothing to be gained by this, and potentially everything to lose.

Third, the impact on others. The first one is his wife. Gen 2:24 “For this reason a man will leave his father and mother and be united to his wife, and they will become one flesh.” This is so important that it is quoted 4 times in the NT – Mt 19:5, Mk 10:7, 1 Co 6:16b, and Eph 5:31. The relationship to his wife surpasses that to his parents, no matter how devoted he may be to them. This is especially so now that his mother has passed away. No amount of effort on his part will change anything. However, his relationship to his wife is a different matter altogether. He must safeguard it at all costs, as it is more important than his relationship to his siblings. Since his wife is uncomfortable with the idea, he should find out why and resolve whatever concerns she might have, and not push the idea when it can have many undesirable results.

Then there is the impact on his siblings. As the only Christian in the family, he has the responsibility to share the gospel with his unsaved brothers and sisters. To set up his mother’s shrine in his home may give the erroneous impression that Christianity is compatible with Buddhism/Taoism and compromise his witness. 2 Co 6:17 Therefore come out from them and be separate, says the Lord. Touch no unclean thing, and I will receive you. We are the temple of the living God, and should have no agreement with idols (2 Co 6:16).

Finally there is the impact on outsiders, both unbelievers and Christians. For unbelievers, the consideration is the same as that to his siblings – it will blur the distinction between the sacred and the secular, the clean and the unclean – and weaken his testimony. For Christians, if their conscience is weak, they may be emboldened to do the same (1 Co 8:10), thus causing them to fall (1 Co 8:13).

1 Co 10:23-24 “Everything is permissible”—but not everything is beneficial. “Everything is permissible”—but not everything is constructive. Nobody should seek his own good, but the good of others. I think this is one of those things that is neither beneficial nor constructive, and therefore advise against it. Your church brother should not seek his own good, but the good of others. I hope he listens to your suggestion.

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