Pastor of Chinese ministries,
First Church of the Nazarene of Pasadena
In this article, I will discuss Chinese ancestral practice as a case study for Christian work among Chinese. Hopefully, this will shed some light for those of us who are working across cultures.
H. Richard Niebuhr, in his famous book Christ and Culture, outlined five frameworks to understand the relationship of Christ and the Christian message to each culture. They are:
* Christ against culture; which assumes that everything of this world is of Satan.
* Christ of culture; Christ is to be understood as the highest aspiration and fulfillment of culture. In this way, it is possible to affirm both Christ and culture and deny any necessary opposition between the two.
* Christ above Culture; there is no blanket affirmation or rejection of culture but a synthesis of Christ and culture. The gospel of grace operates through culture as culture is a creation of God.
* Christ and Culture in Paradox; every Christian is a subject of both the realm of God and realm of culture. They are constantly and permanently in tension and cannot be fully reconciled.
* Christ the transformer of culture; sin has corrupted culture, but culture is still intrinsically good and can be redeemed and transformed by grace.
When Western missionaries arrived in China, they faced the same dilemma regarding the Chinese culture. Is Chinese culture all good or all bad? Can we synthesize the two? Can we seek a middle ground? How much Chinese culture should the missionaries adopt to make the gospel message relevant? How much Chinese culture should they urge Chinese people to abandon as they became Christians?
For a start, missionaries to China had all adopted Chinese names. A few examples here: the famous Catholic missionary Matteo Ricci (1552-1610) has a Chinese name: Li Ma Dou. The first Protestant missionary to China, Robert Morrision’s (1782 – 1834) Chinese name is Ma Li Xun, which made him Rev. Ma. Hudson Taylor (1832-1905) founded the China Inland Mission in 1865. His Chinese name is Dai Da Sheng. His descendants remained active in Christian work among Chinese in Asia. His great grandson, James Hudson Taylor III (Dai Shao Zeng) (1929 – 2009), was a president of two seminaries in Taiwan and became president of Overseas Missionary Fellowship (formerly CIM). The great-great-grandson, James H. Taylor IV (Dai Ji Zong), married a Chinese from Taiwan and is active in Chinese missions work. The Taylor family became the Dai family in Chinese Christian circles. In that process, they also learned to speak Chinese, studied Chinese classics, and wore Chinese clothes. Definitely, the Bible, Christian classics and hymns were translated into Chinese. The great Wesleyan hymns have been sung by Chinese in Chinese. Church architecture also took on a western slant.
In the attempt to contextualize the message of the Gospel and the messengers, one major obstacle remained. Filial piety is at the center of the Chinese culture. Honoring the parents and ancestors are synonymous to being Chinese. Ancestral tablets and other means to honor the ancestors are integral parts of the Chinese home. Many Chinese offer incense to their ancestors. Is ancestral practices idol worship? Should Chinese Christians participate in funeral and ancestral rites?
From 1630 through the 18th Century, this became a major point of contention within the Catholic Church as they conducted their missions work in China. Matteo Ricci and the Jesuits, who worked primarily with the Imperial court and the intellectuals argued that ancestral practice served basically a social rather than a religious function. The Dominicans, Franciscans, and others, who worked primarily in the small towns and villages, argued that ancestor worship is a form of idol worship, as Chinese would seek blessings from their ancestors.
The Jesuits and the other missionaries argued with the Pope as to the forms and meanings of ancestral practice. Finally, the Pope sided with the Dominicans and declared ancestral practice as idol worship. The famous “Chinese Rites Controversy” ended with total expulsion of all Catholic missionaries from China in 1721.
Protestant missionaries arrived in China in 1807. This struggle continued. Most missionaries took the stance of the Dominicans. One noted exception was William Martin (Ding Wei Liang). He argued in the 1890 General Missionary Conference that kneeling and bowing before ancestors are cultural forms that do not convey a religious content. Chinese kneel and bow to the elders while they are alive. It is a continuation of the reverence to elders. He reasoned that there are three significant social functions in ancestral practice. First, it will bring the extended family together. Seniors, particularly childless widows and widowers, would be taken care of. Second, clan association would be strengthened. Third, he agreed with the spiritual dimension of ancestral practice. However, the benefit outweighed the concerns. He argued that ancestral practice should be allowed. Yet, his argument was resoundingly rejected by the majority in the conference.
In the same conference, Hudson Taylor lambasted Martin’s proposal, saying that ancestral practice is idol worship in its totality and should be banned completely. At the next General Missionary Conference in 1907, missionary James Jackson presented a major paper after extensive field research. He affirmed the Chinese desire to revere their ancestors. The grief of losing loved ones and the desire to reconnect with them is honorable. However, these natural humanistic desires were later infiltrated by superstitions such as fear of ghosts. He observed that the ancestral tablets in Chinese homes served two purposes. One is for remembrance. The second is to serve as a home for the spirits of the ancestor, in case they became wanderers in the spiritual realm. People were also seeking blessings as they prayed to these tablets. Following Jackson’s proposal, Chinese Christians were again forbidden to participate in all ancestral practices.
Mak Siu Fai published his Ph.D. dissertation from University of Edinburgh in Chinese, titled “Revering God and Respecting Ancestors: A contemporary Christian Chinese Response to Ancestral Practice.” He argued that “Is ancestral practice idol worship?” is the wrong question to ask. Without understanding the theological and missiological presupposition and pre-understanding behind the question, it is too simplistic to give a “yes” or “no” answer. Using 1 Corinthians 8-10 as the guide as Paul discusses the problem of eating food offered to idols, he suggests a framework for dissecting this challenging problem.
Can Chinese Christians participate in ancestral and funeral rites? Can they eat the food offered to their ancestors? Are bowing and offering incense to ancestral tablets idol worship? Paul’s address in 1 Corinthians 8-10 provides a very good summary of a Biblical position on idol worship and food offered to idols. It helps Chinese Christians think biblically, missionally, and culturally regarding this challenging issue.
Mak suggests that Paul outlined four principles as Christians deal with the issue of food offered to idols. They are:
self-understanding: ignorance and enlightenment
stumbling blocks: conscience and charity
self-restraint: freedom and constrain
self-transformation: strong vs. weak
In the Corinthian church, there are the “strong” and the “weak” Christians. The strong argued that since there is only One True God, all idols are not real. “Idols are nothing at all” (1 Cor. 8:4). These strong Christians are “progressives” and “enlightened.” They fully embrace the truth of the One True God. The weak are those “conservative” and “traditional” Christians who do not fully understand the nature of the One True God. Theoretically, idols do not exist, what we eat and where we eat is not important to God. Even if they eat with their friends in temples, this should be of no consequence. In this sense, Paul agrees with the strong Christians.
However, why do weak Christians not accept food offered to idols? There is a gap between the faith in the One True God and their understanding and emotions. They are “accustomed to idols” (1 Cor. 8:7). When they became Christians, they forsook all things related to idol-worship. In Corinth, weddings, funerals, and social functions were held in temples. These are occasions for building up social ties. The weak Christians faced the damnation of their own conscience, the logical arguments of the strong Christians, and pressure from their non-Christian family and friends. If they ate the food as the strong Christians did, they felt that they had violated their own consciences. If they did not eat the food, they alienates their families and friends. When Paul forbade Christians to eat temple food, the sole reason was compassion for the weak so that they would not stumble. If eating or not eating food offered to idols does not affect a Christian, for the sake of the weak, Christians should not eat.
Idols are not real; however, idols have been tools of Satan. Therefore, Paul strictly forbade Christians to eat in temples (1 Cor. 8:10). Freedom is not a license to do whatever one likes. While Christians have the right to eat idol food, they also have the right not to eat the same. True freedom includes “freedom to do” and “freedom from not doing.” So, a free-act should be a love-act; an act that would build up others and glorify God.
There is a gap in theory and in practice in both the strong and the weak Christians. The strong emphasize knowledge but ignore how their actions affect others; while the weak do not fully appreciate the reality of the One True God. The strong would become prideful, while the weak would try to imitate the strong and bring more confusion upon themselves. The weak Christians would therefore become weaker. They both need mentors with understanding and compassion. With love, logical reasoning, and modeling, the weak can mature in knowledge and faith. The strong also can learn to be humble, transforming their knowledge into love-acts and learning to connect their intellect with their heart. “Is ancestral practice idol worship?” The pastoral and missiological response is to help them figure out whatan idol means to them personally. If their faith in God is true, idols do not exist. However, idols have been used by Satan to confuse people. Help them to process where they are coming from. According to 1 Corinthians 8-10, it is beyond a simple “yes” and “no.” Love, faith, compassion, and understanding of the spiritual reality are all important ways to tackle this challenging question. Ancestral worship is good in its affirmation of one’s connection with their roots and their extended family. However, in everyday practice, it is corrupt and needs transformation.
Mak, Siu Fai, Revering God and Respecting Ancestors: A Contemporary Christian Chinese Response to Ancestral Practice, (in Chinese) Hong Kong: Chinese Baptist Press (International) Limited, 2008.
Niebuhr, H. Richard, Christ and Culture, San Francisco: Harper and Row, 1951.