February 2020 Feature
Many Chinese families observe rituals during Chinese New Year. Christians sometimes wonder whether they should partake in certain rituals, such as offering joss sticks to ancestors or hiring professional Lion dancers, which are believed to bring good luck. Some friends and relatives might not mind if Christians do not participate, but many others get offended, for refusal to participate can make one seem an unfilial child. Since they do not practice the rites of filial piety, some assume that the Christian faith has made them less Chinese or even “immoral”.
Given such misunderstandings, it is important to question whether our restraint will become a stumbling block, preventing relatives and friends from coming to Christ. Here, I will reflect carefully on rituals and their significance; whether it matters if Christians practice them; and how we can modulate rituals and use them to display Christ’s love to friends and relatives.
Rituals and their functions in life
In Matthew 15:1-20, we encounter the Pharisees debating with Jesus. The Pharisees found fault with his disciples never washing their hands before eating, contrary to the “tradition of the elders” (Matt 15:2). Jesus replied that the Pharisees loved traditions more than God’s Law, and were unable to see how traditions could contradict God’s Laws; practising rites seemingly outweighed the cultivation of godly virtues and one’s love for God.
Traditions are concrete expressions of, and uphold, the Law. For example, honouring our parents is a Law established in the Ten Commandments. Later in Matthew 15, Jesus rebuked the Pharisees for exempting sons from taking care of their parents and instead devoting their money to God. By endorsing this, the Pharisees “nullif[ied] the word of God for the sake of [their] tradition.” (Matthew 15:6). Evidently, the tradition was undermining the Law of honouring parents.
The Laws help us fulfil the goal of human life: To Love God with all our heart, soul and mind, and to love our neighbour as ourselves (Mark 12:30-31). As Paul puts it in Galatians 3:24 (NKJV/ NIV), “the law was our guardian (or tutor) to bring us to Christ so that we might be justified by faith.” The relationship of Tradition, Law, and Love is clear: Tradition or ritual is the concrete expression of the Law; the Law is a guiding principle that points us to our true goal; the true goal is to love God and neighbour.
Why rituals matter
Rituals matter because they embody laws and values. Rituals performed by Christians signal to observers – including non-Christian friends and relatives – that Christians embrace the laws and values assumed in those rituals. In Romans 14, Paul suggests a quarrel had broken out between the Roman Christians regarding whether certain types of food (most likely those offered to idols) should be eaten. To both groups, Paul declared:
“One person considers one day more sacred than another; another considers every day alike. Each of them should be fully convinced in their own mind. Whoever regards one day as special does so to the Lord. Whoever eats meat does so to the Lord, for they give thanks to God; and whoever abstains does so to the Lord and gives thanks to God.” (Romans 14:5-6)
Christian rituals matter because they are expressions of our faith done unto the Lord. But how we interpret a ritual can differ and even create conflict. A valid expression of love to God by one may be offensive to another. To overcome such conflicts, Christians need to look beyond rituals, asking whether it is performed “for the sake of Christ, or to simply please men and themselves?” Correction is needed for the latter, but if it is for Christ’s sake, we must respect the decision and trust their discernment.
Discernment in rituals
In Romans 14, Paul asserts that all things should be done for the Lord and we should allow space for Christians to decide what they would do without accompanying judgement. He adds in Romans 15:1-3:
“We who are strong ought to bear with the failings of the weak and not to please ourselves. Each of us should please our neighbours for their good, to build them up. For even Christ did not please himself but, as it is written: “The insults of those who insult you have fallen on me.”
If a new Christian feels they are paying respect to idols by eating food offered to them, they will refuse. But if they see a more mature Christian eating the food, they may feel pressured to follow, resulting in guilt. Here, the mature Christian has caused them to stumble. Thus, Paul states that mature Christians should, for the sake of weaker Christians and others, refrain from eating food offered to idols. In addition, if a non-Christian tells you that you are recognising an idol by eating food offered to it, you should avoid doing so (1 Cor 10:28). We may have the freedom to do many things, but sometimes we must exercise restraint for Christ’s sake.
Paul takes Peter to task in Galatians 2 for inconsistencies in his dietary choices. With Gentiles, Peter ate everything, but once “certain men from James” (Jewish Christians) came to Antioch, Peter began to “draw back and separate himself from the Gentiles” (Galatians 2:12). He started eating only kosher food. But what was the issue? Analysing the plausibility structures, the Gentiles could notice the discrepancy. To the Gentiles watching, Peter’s behaviour implied two classes of Christians. “First-class Christians” ate only kosher food, while “second-class Christians” ate all foods. Paul believed this ritual would send a wrong understanding of the gospel where in order to become a “first-class” Christian, one had to eat kosher food and become circumcised, essentially becoming a Jew.
In conclusion, if rituals corrupt the Gospel or alienate people from Christ, we should abandon them. But if they bring people closer to Christ, we should continue them with discernment.
 Pious practitioners of Chinese traditions believe that rituals fulfil their human destiny or Heavenly Mandate (“道” Dao).
 As Chinese, if we claim to be filial but avoid all rituals that express this piety, our claims will be seen by non-Christians as hypocritical. On the other hand, if we practise those rituals by caring for our relatives’ needs, listening to their hurts, and acting humbly before them, our actions embody those values. They render our claims of Christ’s love to be believable and plausible. Hence, we must always be aware of what a ritual signifies and the message we are sending when we practice or avoid them. We need to ask, “what kind of plausibility structures about the Gospel are we conveying to those observing our witness?”
Dr Lai Pak Wah is Vice-Principal and Lecturer of Church History and Historical Theology at the Biblical Graduate School of Theology (BGST), where he teaches courses in church history, cross-cultural apologetics and Christian spirituality. A graduate from BGST (Grad Dip CS) & Regent College, Vancouver (MCS, ThM), Pak Wah completed his PhD at Durham University, where he specialised in the theology and spirituality of early Christianity.