Honoring Ancestors

Honoring Ancestors

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.


  1. I’m reminded of an experience I had when completing one of my internships. It was at a church with a large Chinese contingent (although I was far from the only “white guy” around). One of the volunteers died very suddenly, and he was the first (only?) Christian in his family. Naturally, the family insisted on a traditional Buddhist funeral service. Although a fairly large group of us from church attended, there was considerable anxiety over what we could and could not participate in during that service (I wish I could say I understood more, but the service was almost entirely in Cantonese, which I do not understand). Ultimately, the one thing that was stressed that we must not do was bow, since that implied worship. Not having any trouble with that interpretation, and anxious not to cause offense (apparently the Buddhists didn’t mind this lack of action on our part), I followed suit.

    Comment by Mark Baker-Wright — October 26, 2009 @ 4:27 pm

  2. How would a Mormon interpret Hubbard’s observation with respect to their baptisms of the dead?

    Comment by Paul VanderKlay — October 26, 2009 @ 5:01 pm

  3. You speak to an important issue so I’ll share an interesting story related to it.

    A few years ago, one of my Chinese students told me about the break through in his father’s mind that eventuated in his conversion. For years the father had resisted his son’s urging him to believe in Jesus because he did not want to offend his own deceased mother. A light went on for my student when he was reading Luke 16, the parable of the rich man and Lazarus.

    My student had his father read the parable and then pointed out to him that grandma was in the position of the rich man. She wanted what was good for her son and grandson and so she wouldn’t want them to join her. She would want her son to believe in Jesus so that he could go to the best place, just as the rich man wanted his brothers to go to be with Lazarus rather than to be with him. The Lord used that parable to open up the heart of my student’s father and he placed his faith in Christ. I’d never seen the parable from that perspective but it strikes me a very legitimate reading in that context.


    Comment by Terry Tiessen — October 26, 2009 @ 6:36 pm

  4. Luk 18:29, 30 And he said unto them, Verily I say unto you, There is no man that hath left house, or parents, or brethren, or wife, or children, for the kingdom of God’s sake, Who shall not receive manifold more in this present time, and in the world to come life everlasting.

    Comment by Dan Bryan — October 26, 2009 @ 7:58 pm

  5. Thinking about all this people from the eastern side… people who was unable to listen the gospel… people who lived all their life long, and never heared anynthing about a man called Jesus…
    How could our God of mercy send this people to hell?

    I would say, the commentaries of professor Mouw are very relevants in this matter, since the easiest way is just to say… “Sorry girl, but your ancestors are burning right now in hell”…

    Romans also give us a little light that we could relate to this topic (and I do not want to overreach theologically) – 4:15 says “for the Law brings about wrath, but where there is no law, there also is no violation.”

    If we take this verse and we think just for one moment in all the people who have died with no knowledge of Christ, it give us a path to follow and understand the inescapable or unavoidable God’s grace.

    However, prior to this verse above, Paul says: 3:21-25a “But now apart from the Law the righteousness of God has been manifested, being witnessed by the Law and the Prophets, 22 even the righteousness of God through faith in Jesus Christ for all those who believe; for there is no distinction; 23 for all have sinned and fall short of the glory of God, 24 being justified as a gift by His grace through the redemption which is in Christ Jesus; 25 whom God displayed publicly as a propitiation in His blood through faith”

    So “all have sinned and fall short…”… That would be our normal argument abou people who do not believe in Jesus, but then, again the verse 25 says “a propitiation in His blood THROUGH faith”…

    Now, returning to these ancestors…
    “How do they might have believed in Jesus?
    Where was the blood for them? Maybe the blood was just for only a few privileged people who was born in north america or south america?

    Paul add the following to this verse: 25b – 26 “This was to demonstrate His righteousness, because in the forbearance of God He PASSED OVER the sins previously committed; 26 for the demonstration, I say, of His righteousness at the PRESENT TIME, so that He would be just and the justifier of the one who has faith in Jesus”

    Is the present time what Paul is talking about(his present time, 2000 years ago) or the present time to those who have the opportunity to hear for the very fist time the good news of Salvation.

    For some people {ancestors), never arrived ‘that’ present time of Jesus, but God in His Grace, Mercy and Love put them in a diferent concept or definition (I do not want to say ‘a place’) while we wait for Him to come back for his Church.

    Comment by Quevedo — October 28, 2009 @ 1:59 am

  6. Dr. Mouw,
    I think it would be okay for me to tell you a very personal story. It is about the mercies of God. My mother died very early at 51, right after I had my second child. My father died two years later as I was carrying my fourth child. I was later, much later, to realize that he had committed suicide. But when he first died I was in despair. My father had never committed his life to Christ, or so I thought. One morning, in desperation I called the pastor who had officiated at my parents’ funerals. He was a Missionary Alliance pastor. When I asked about my father he told me that my father had accepted Christ just a month before he died. Now I understood why my father had recently told me he had trouble staying in the Church services because the hymns made him cry. We never know about another we must instead trust the work of the Holy Spirit.

    Comment by Viola Larson — October 28, 2009 @ 11:22 am

  7. Hey Rich, this is fascinating. I often think if there were another religion I’d be most tempted to follow it’d be some form of ancestor worship. And this stems from a particularly Christian belief in the communion of the saints, but also from watching the effects of the dead on me. Leaders here at Duke Divinity School whom I never met, who died long before I got here, impact me for the good by stories still told about them. I figure stories of older figures, now forgotten by name, are still in the water in ways that inspire faithfulness. What more appropriate thing to do than honor that memory? Of course as Christians we do that by honoring the Christ who saves them and us.

    Comment by Jason Byassee — October 31, 2009 @ 5:27 am

  8. […] experience came to mind when I read a recent blog post by Richard Mouw, president of Fuller Theological Seminary. He faced the question of how one should feel about the […]

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