Ancestor Worship?

Qingming Tomb Sweeping

During our recent STM trip to Panama and Colombia, we shared the gospel with quite a few Chinese residents. Two of them approached us separately with the same question, “What do I do about ancestor worship? My mom is a believer in traditional folk religion, including ancestor worship. She would never allow me to trust in Jesus. She said, “Who will burn the joss sticks for me after I die? You must never believe in Jesus!” What should I do?”

First, this question is common not only to those two young ladies, but a lot of women whose homes are steeped in Chinese folk religion. Unfortunately, folk religion is concerned more about tradition, not truth. Many people practice ancestor worship simply because it is passed down from one generation to the next, without thinking through whether it is true or not. We need to sort out what’s real and what’s based on fear, and don’t allow the latter to crowd out the former.

To begin with, the Chinese have always placed a high value on filial piety, the respect for parents and elders, based on Confucianism. This is perfectly in harmony with the biblical ethics, as the Scriptural teaching is:

  • Ex 20:12 “Honor your father and your mother, that your days may be prolonged in the land which the Lord your God gives you.
  • Duet 5:16 ‘Honor your father and your mother, as the Lord your God has commanded you, that your days may be prolonged and that it may go well with you on the land which the Lord your God gives you.
  • Mt 15:4 For God said, ‘Honor your father and mother,’ and, ‘He who speaks evil of father or mother is to be put to death.’ (Also Mk 7:10)
  • Mt 19:19 Honor your father and mother; and You shall love your neighbor as yourself.”
  • Mk 10:19 You know the commandments, ‘Do not murder, Do not commit adultery, Do not steal, Do not bear false witness, Do not defraud, Honor your father and mother.’” (Also Lk 18:20)
  • Eph 6:2 Honor your father and mother (which is the first commandment with a promise),

The problem arises when those who practice folk religion elevate the position of deceased ancestors to “gods” and pay homage to them as if they were deities, asking for their blessings and protection. In return, they burn joss sticks or incense before the ancestors’ photos or image (a form of idols) as rituals, which essentially is a “quid pro quo” transaction. This is idolatry and strictly forbidden in the Bible:

  • Ex 20:3 “You shall have no other gods before Me. (Also Deut 5:7)
  • Ex 20:23 You shall not make other gods besides Me; gods of silver or gods of gold, you shall not make for yourselves.
  • Deut 6:14 You shall not follow other gods, any of the gods of the peoples who surround you,
  • Deut 11:6 Beware that your hearts are not deceived, and that you do not turn away and serve other gods and worship them.
  • Judg 10:13 Yet you have forsaken Me and served other gods; therefore I will no longer deliver you.
  • Jer 25:6 and do not go after other gods to serve them and to worship them, and do not provoke Me to anger with the work of your hands, and I will do you no harm.’

Honoring our parents is the fifth of the ten commandments and repeated in the New Testament. But going beyond “honoring” our ancestors to “worshipping” them as “other gods” is serving idols and provokes God to anger. So, we need to draw the line and stop short of what is prohibited.

Those two ladies’ mothers were acting out of ignorance, fearing that if their daughters become Christians, then they have lost them to a “foreign god”, as they will not burn incense to them after they are gone, which is the only act they recognize as filial piety. But is that true? Not only is this thinking illogical, it even goes against the teaching of Buddhism or Taoism which they supposedly embrace:

  • True filial piety should be expressed while the parents are living, not just after they have passed away.
  • Why is burning joss sticks the only accepted expression of filial piety? We don’t kowtow to our parents or grandparents while they are alive, why insist on this after they are gone?
  • What evidence is there that our deceased ancestors have become “gods”? According to the concept of reincarnation or transmigration taught in Buddhism and Hinduism, the soul of a living being starts a new life (rebirth) in a different physical form body after biological death. The different forms depend on the karma or works done in previous lives, with good intent and good deeds contributing to good karma and good rebirths, while bad intents and bad deeds result in bad karma leading to bad rebirths. There are three good realms and three bad realms where souls may end up, in descending order: (1) heaven, (2) demi-god, (3) human, (4) animal, (5) ghosts, and (6) hell. Superstitious folks have assumed that their ancestors have become god’s or demigods and can bless and protect them, but what’s the evidence that this is the case? That’s their wish, without evidence. Just for the sake of argument, if their ancestors have reincarnated as humans who don’t know anything about their previous life’s descendants, how can they bless or protect them? Worse, what if they have rebirthed as lower than human, why worship them? It just does not make sense!

Unfortunately, superstitious folks are not in the habit of reasoning and discerning – they just follow tradition. What can we do? Fortunately, while “the god of this world has blinded the minds of the unbelieving so that they might not see the light of the gospel of the glory of Christ” (2 Co 4:4), unbelievers can still see good behavior which opens the way to their eventual conversion:

  • 1 Pet 2:12 Keep your behavior excellent among the Gentiles, so that in the thing in which they slander you as evildoers, they may because of your good deeds, as they observe them, glorify God in the day of visitation.
  • 1 Pet 3:1 In the same way, you wives, be submissive to your own husbands so that even if any of them are disobedient to the word, they may be won without a word by the behavior of their wives,

I would therefore recommend that first keep your behavior, and attitude, excellent to establish credibility. Honor your parents and elders so they know you love and respect them. Do whatever you can to meet their needs; provide for them; show them you care. When it comes to the Qingming Festival or Tomb-sweeping Day, use alternative expressions such as clearing the grave of debris or offering fresh flowers as memorials, to show you have not abandoned your ancestors, just doing it differently. When the time is right, pull them aside to explain why you are doing this. Not all cases are successful, but I have seen many instances in which hostile behavior of pagan relatives have been won over by the gentle spirit and good deeds of believers. Above all pray, and God will take care of the rest.

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