The subject of showing honor to ancestors is an important theological topic for Asian young people who are the first in their family lines to come to a faith in Christ.. Many of them struggle in very personal ways with the issue.
The topic came up again for me the other evening in a discussion here in Shanghai. A gifted young woman, our translator-guide for this round of visits in China, spoke glowingly of her own recent baptism. On her father’s side, she told us, her coming-to-faith is a very positive thing. It means that Christian identity has now been passed on through six generations.
Not so, however, for her maternal line. Her mother had become a Christian at the time of her marriage, but the rest of her family remained Buddhist.. However, now a maternal cousin of the young woman was recently baptized, and this has caused a bit of a family crisis.
The issue is the young man’s role in family ceremonies honoring ancestors. When the family gathers at the cemetery on such occasions, the expectation is that this young man, an only child who therefore carries on the male line in the family, will take the lead in the ritual honoring his forebears. When the young man informed his mother of his intention to be baptized as a Christian, she was distraught—primarily because she saw him as abandoning a necessary familial role in these ceremonies.
The young man went to his pastor for counsel, and received what I consider to be sage advice. It’s OK to continue in this role, the pastor said, as long as the young man is very clear about the difference between honoring ancestors and engaging in an act of ancestor-worship in such a context. Again, good advice. Indeed, it fits the kind of counsel that the Apostle Peter gives in his First Epistle: Christians are to “honor (timao) everyone,” but we are to “fear (phobeo) God” alone (I Peter 2: 17).
But there is a larger challenge, one that causes some distress for many younger Chinese Christians. It was put to me in a poignant manner by a seminary student after a lecture I had once given on a campus here in China: “I was the first in my family line to hear and understand the Gospel,” she said, “and I am so happy to have found Christ. But I feel like I have betrayed my ancestors in accepting a faith that tells me that all who have gone before me are now in hell. Can you help me?”
I gave her the easy answer first. The question of the redemptive status of those who have never heard the Gospel proclaimed is a mystery, I said. We certainly cannot be sure that God sent all of her ancestors to hell. All we can do is to trust in divine mercy and commit their souls to God’s care.
That seemed to help a little, but I decided to go another step. I recalled for her the story in Luke 20, about the friends who brought a young paralytic to Jesus for healing. The house where the Savior was teaching was so crowded that they had difficulty getting to him, so they found a way to lower their friend through the roof into Jesus’ presence. This is how Luke reports the Lord’s response: “When he saw their faith, he said, ‘Friend, your sins are forgiven you’” (Luke 5:20).
My presidential predecssor and mentor of blessed memory, David Allan Hubbard, once preached a profound sermon on this text. He emphasized the fact that it was the faith of the young man’s friends that impressed Jesus: the Savior forgave the young man’s sins “when he saw their faith.” There is a profound mystery here, Dr. Hubbard said; we cannot understand it, but that we can act upon. Sometimes, he suggested, it may be important that we exercise faith on behalf of those who seem incapable of faith themselves, in the hope that the Lord will honor our faith in reaching out to them with forgiveness.
So I told the seminarian who asked me for theological help that she can honor her ancestors by exercising faith on their behalf. This means thanking God for them, and for the way they—many of them at least—acted positively in the light of the truth available to them. She can ask the Lord to honor her faith on their behalf, and commend them to the divine mercies. She seemed greatly encouraged—even comforted—by that counsel.
Am I (and David Hubbard) overreaching theologically? Perhaps. But I worry less these days about overreaching theologically and spiritually when the topic has to do with the wideness of God’s mercy. More importantly, if we are going to pray for the cause of the Gospel in cultures where honoring ancestors is a major theme, we owe it to Christians in those cultures to wrestle seriously with the theological questions posed by that honoring.