An examination of ancestral worship in Far Eastern cultures from a biblical perspective
Ancestral worship in Far Eastern cultures is a widespread phenomenon. The practice is centred on the belief that the soul of the deceased lives on and they take active interests in the daily lives of still living family members. It is also believed the soul of the decease retain their personalities and they can actively give blessings or bring disasters upon a family if they are not appeased. The deceased is thought to have need for housing, food and clothing, therefore it is required for families to give offerings and sacrifices to the deceased. These would often take in forms of model houses for the deceased. In some regions, there would be a special building erected to house the souls of family members. In others, family plaques with deceased name's engraved on them would be passed down the generations, which is carefully preserved so that prayers and offerings can be given. Often ancestral worship is not just carried out with respect, but with fear because deceased is thought to be able to bring curses upon a family who deserts them.
Many missionaries working In Far Eastern region may encounter this problem and find it a particular stumbling block to the lost. The worship of ancestors is connected with filial piety. Those who do not worship their ancestors are regarded to have deserted their family, clan and roots. For the lost to give up worshipping ancestors in the Far East, they must understand that Christians also remember their dead, and that they regard the souls of dead Christians to be at peace. Missiologically speaking; missionaries in the field should work together with the churches to make sure that the deceased should be remembered and that the practices of the church do not just integrate ancestral worship as a means of a easy conversion. They should try to change the attitudes of the people so that they can still honour the deceased, but with in the realms of scripture.
In China, the main importance of this worship is the continuity of the family and reverence for the wisdom of the elders. The practice is very ancient extending back before 1000 BC. The practices, essentially a family affair, is held in homes and temples and consists of prayers and offerings before tablets. It is accompanied by an elaborate burial systems, and afterwards visiting the graves with deep respect and a horror of trespassing on or despoiling the graves. The practitioners participate in the worship out of filial virtue without any sense of fear of gain which helps to preserve a strong sense of family solidarity. (Spier, L. n.d)
Ancestral worship stems out of honouring the deceased and not forgetting one's roots. Remembering one's family and honouring them has strong biblical roots, in many places God is described as the God of Abraham, Isaac and Jacob. The priesthood is described as Aaronic priesthood. The Jewish people call them selves the children of Abraham etc. From these numerous examples we can see that remembering one's family is biblically sound. However, God commanded us to worship and serve him only, therefore the wider practice of ancestral worship is strictly forbidden by God as the ancestors will then become idols. In Leviticus 26:1 and Deuteronomy 27:15 God declares that anyone who worships an idol doesn't just sin, but he is also cursed. Many far eastern families have name plaques that are carved out of wood, therefore they are idols when people worship them and God tells us ancestral worshippers are cursed. Further more, at the elaborate burial ceremonies, diviners, spiritualists and mediums are sometimes invited to speak on behalf of the dead. This practice is again strictly forbidden by God as it is written in Leviticus 19:31.
Ancestral worship was also carried out in ancient Rome and some parts of Africa. More often it would be linked with Paganism or Buddhism. In Buddhism dead Buddhists are sometimes treated as deities called Bodhisattvas or Buddhas, regarding different teachings of Buddhism the role of Bodhisattvas and Buddhas are different. However one thing remains the same, people often carve images out of them and worship them. (Ro B,R 1985). The first commandment strictly forbids this, in Acts 14:15 Paul and Barnabas was going to be worshipped but they forbid the men to do this, furthermore Revelation 22 points out that even angels are not to be worshipped, and that God is the only one worthy of worship. Therefore the bowing down to ancestors in worship and offer sacrifices is condemned time and again by God.
In the Chinese culture, the plaques carries a special significance. After the usual burial ceremonies. The plaques would be carried into the family shrine along with other plaques, there it is believed that the spirits of the deceased dwell inside the plaques. The plaques would be used for prayers and offerings. This contradicts the second commandment where God commands an idol must not be worshipped.
Therefore we can see from scripture that the practice of bowing down to plaques and worshipping them by offering incense, burnt offerings and food are strictly forbidden by the first and second commandment. The first commandment guards against polytheism and points to the status of God. The second points to the fact that God is spirit and forbid all forms of creation worship. The belief that the deceased can communicate with the living or influence their lives in ancestral worship is clearly refuted by the passage in Luke 16 of the rich man and Lazarus. The rich man's request for Lazarus to warn his family is denied by Abraham, Abraham's specific reply implies that the dead can only talk if they rise from the dead. The only other mean of speaking to the dead is by using witchcraft or a medium, which is described in 1 Samuel 28. Even then one could argue that the witch did not actually call forth the spirit of Samuel, but a demon. Anyhow the practice is forbidden in the Old Testament Laws, therefore the whole practice of ancestral worship must be rejected according to careful measuring against the commandments of God.
However, there are those who have adopted the practice of ancestral worship. For example the Catholic church in China. This is because it was a huge stumbling block for the Chinese to overcome due to the fact that ancestral worship is strongly linked with filial piety, which is considered a Confucian virtue. To the Chinese to not worship the ancestors would be the same as mocking them, to leave their graves untended and to leave their memories to rot. Due to the lack of understanding about idolatry and the belief that the deceased could provoke disasters, it is very difficult for the older generation of Chinese people to give up this belief and start totally follow God. To those who are outside the Christian community, they often think that Christians do not honour the dead because we do not worship out ancestors. Instead they think that becoming Christians means leaving the dead uncared for.
The Roman Catholics first entered China during 16th century. Their initial efforts were very successful but due to the issue of ancestral worship, their efforts were destroyed and Roman Catholicism were eventually banned. Initially, the Jesuits took ancestral worship as mere ceremonies and did not object to it. When the Dominicans and the Franciscans entered China in the mid 17th century, they objected to ancestral worship strongly. The Pope was informed and sent a decree which rejected ancestral worship. The emperor at the time in turn forbade all Roman Catholics in China. It was not until 200 years later that Pope Pius XII accepted ancestral worship in China as a mere expression of respect for the dead, and he believed that these rituals helped teach the young generation to respect their own culture. He considered it right for the believers to bow or to practice other forms of rituals before a dead person, an image of a dead person, and a tablet of a dead person. (Ro B,R 1985, P152)
It seems that out of sheer desperation the Catholics in China have accepted ancestral worship out of a lack of progress. However there were protestant missionaries who supported this practice as well. These missionaries included W. Martin, A. Young and T. Richard. They emphasised on contextualisation and promoted forms of symbolism for Christian faith in local areas. They did not believe in coping the western symbolism of Christianity but thought to adopt local ideas and symbolisms to form indigenous Christianity. They thought that ancestral worship had only serve to teach the Chinese to give reverences and respect for the dead; therefore they did not see a conflict with the Christian faith. In particular W. Martin wrote a paper which examines the three points of ancestral worship in China: posture, invocation and offering. He pointed out rightly that within the Chinese culture, the postures of kneeling and bowing was not just reserved for worship, but also was used to show respect for elders and parents. As for invocation,as long as the Chinese don't ask for protection from the dead, it would not be considered idolatry. On the point of offering he suggested that if the west can offer flowers for the dead, why can't the Chinese offer food? (Ro B,R 1985)
In conclusion, I would consider ancestral worship idolatry because of the practices. It is in violation against first and second commandment and people should not carry it out.
- Spier, L (n.d) Ancestor Worship [online]. Available at <http://www.themystica.com/mystica/articles/a/ancestor_worship.html> [Accessed 03/03/2010]
- Anon (n.d) Chinese Ancestor worship [online]. Available at <http://www.religionfacts.com/chinese_religion/practices/ancestor_worship.htm> [Accessed 03/03/2010]
- Lindemans, M, F. (1998) Ancestor worship [online]. Available at <http://www.pantheon.org/articles/a/ancestor_worship.html> [Accessed 03/03/2010]
- Ro B,R (1985) Christian Alternatives to Ancestor Practices. Taiwan: Asian Theological Association