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Filial Piety: A Christian Perspective

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Filial piety is one of the bedrock values of Chinese society. Rooted in Confucianism, it is the belief that honoring one's parents is a person's most important responsibility. It is also the philosophical underpinning the traditional practice of ancestor worship.

The mainland site Gospel Times, recently re-posted an article from a personal blog titled The Christian View of Filial Piety. In it the author explores the similarities and differences between the Chinese concept of filial piety and the Biblical teaching to honor one's parents.

I. Crises arising from an aging society

According to recent statistics, there are about 23,400,000 people in the country who are over 65 years of age. According to a survey of several large cities, 30% of the population consists of empty nesters. In Beijing, Shanghai and Tianjin that number is more than 30%. The fifth population census showed that among those who were 65 years or older, 11,990,000 are over 80, accounting for 13.6% of the population. The widowed elderly accounted for 38%. In addition, chronic diseases and Alzheimer's disease affect more than ten million people. There are tens of millions of these elderly people who are in dire need of social pensions and community service. According to surveys, there are about 14 million seniors who have applied for entry into welfare agency retirement homes. At present, there are only about one million beds in all the various welfare agencies, which is far from meeting the needs of all the elderly. However, there is also the contradiction that nursing home utilization is not all that high given the total amount of welfare agencies; the utilization is much lower than in developed countries, where 5-7% of seniors enter into senior homes. (Quoted from Baidu Encyclopedia "aging society" entries.)

China's baby boomer generation came earlier, which triggered a series of social problems. For example, it restricted economic development and created social pressures caused by the pension problem and a reasonable ethical crisis. On January 30, 2012, the Xinhua website featured an article titled, "Octogenarian Sleeps Outside Daughter's Doorway; This Year is Cold. The article was about an elderly man who did not receive any care from his six children (who were experiencing differences) and froze for four days and three nights. 84-year-old He Daxing from Qijiang County has six children, yet he was homeless. On January 26, the youngest daughter-in-law signed an agreement to send the grandpa to his youngest daughter's home, but his daughter would not accept the responsibility. The helpless elderly man had to sleep in the stairway in front of her door for four days and three nights. The sad thing is, so far, none of his children are willing to take their father into their home.

Recently, a popular Hong Kong film, "A Simple Life," featured a "peach sister" who goes to live in a nursing home after a stroke. When this film premiered in Mainland China, audiences were moved by the bond between Roger and peach sister, and felt dismayed by the seniors' lifestyle in nursing homes. Mother Teresa once discussed the times when she served the elderly in nursing homes. She saw that their living environment was very good; they were taken care of, had people to wash the sheets and serve them food, or even have meals delivered to their room. However, she could see in their eyes that they were not happy, and she felt that all these people had to look forward to while staying in nursing homes was to await death. Mother Teresa asked an old man, "Where are your children? Have they visited you recently? The old man replied, "The children live not far from here, but are too busy. They came about five years ago to visit." They were too busy.

Although the cases mentioned above are not comprehensive, they are an accurate reflection of the plight of China's elderly. Whether it is the rural elderly who lack a warm abode, or urban elderly who have nursing homes but are devoid of joy that comes from the soul, this topic is a heavy topic indeed. How do we enable the elderly to joyfully enter into and inhabit old age? Christians must not and cannot avoid this issue. We should clarify our positions from a level of faith, while calling our community to respond to this reality.

II. The Biblical concept of honor

1) The concept of honor in the Old Testament

The Ten Commandments can be divided into two sections: the first four are about God, and the latter six are about man. The first commandment concerning man (which is really the fifth commandment) says, "Honor your father and mother, that your days may be long in the land that the LORD your God is giving you." (Exodus 20:12) This is God's command regarding filial piety. In God's eyes, parents are to be respected, even senior parents who are difficult to get along with. They are to be honored. It is apparent that God values and emphasizes filial piety.

The family is the basic unit of society; when families are in harmony, society is in harmony. When families are in conflict, social harmony is disturbed. The Bible tells us: "Honor your father and your mother, as the Lord your God commanded you, that your days may be long, and that it may go well with you in the land that the Lord your God is giving you." (Deut. 5:16) This applies to each individual person as well as to the nation as a whole. Deuteronomy says: "If someone has a stubborn and rebellious son who does not obey his father and mother and will not listen to them when they discipline him, his father and mother shall take hold of him and bring him to the elders at the gate of his town. They shall say to the elders, This son of ours is stubborn and rebellious. He will not obey us. He is a glutton and a drunkard. Then all the men of his town are to stone him to death. You must purge the evil from among you. All Israel will hear of it and be afraid." (Deut. 21:18-21) Although this is the law of the Old Testament towards the Israelites, here lies the spirit of the teachings of this age, for personal morality, religious piety, and the necessity of social order. Honoring parents is not only an individual responsibility, but also a societal necessity. The Old Testament elevates the command to honor your parents to a very high level.

2) The concept of honor in the New Testament

Jesus rebuked the Pharisees for making an excuse not to care for their parents: "But you say that if anyone declares that what might have been used to help their father or mother is devoted to God, they are not to honor their father or mother with it. Thus you nullify the word of God for the sake of your tradition" (Matt 15:5-6). And, while Jesus was being crucified, he looked specifically to his disciple John and told him to take care of his mother Mary. Jesus is the best model for us to emulate. Luke 15:21 records the parable of the prodigal son who came home, and the first sentence he spoke was: "Father, I have sinned against heaven and against you." Christianity emphasizes living a life of love through the practice of loving acts. The most important thing is loving God, followed by loving your neighbor as yourself. Those who love God, must love others. In loving others, we manifest the love of God. John 4:20 says, "Whoever claims to love God yet hates a brother or sister is a liar. For whoever does not love their brother and sister, whom they have seen, cannot love God, whom they have not seen." All those who love God should also love his brother, for this is God's command. Since God wants us to love those brothers who surround us everyday, parents are commonly included as those whom we are called to love. For Christians, respect for the elderly is not as simple as social morality, but rather the fear of God.

III. Similarities and differences between the Biblical and traditional Chinese views of honor.

Both the Christian faith and Confucian Culture regard parents highly. Your parents play a strong role in building your character and molding your morality. Filial piety is at the center of Confucian ethical practice. "The Analects of Confucius" has the following passage: Son Tour asked regarding filial piety, and Confucius responded: Today's filial piety, who is able to keep? As dogs and horses, which we own and nurture, can we allow them to be disrespectful?" Confucius stressed that "filial piety" includes "respect." Mencius said: "Care for the elderly, and the old man, our children, and the young man. The spirit of Chinese culture is filial piety through respect and a sense of dearness. This sense of dearness between parents and children reflects the spirit of love and action through Christ. This dear respect, not founded on rights and responsibilities, and is not utilitarian, but directed at people's hearts; Mencius referred to it as pure intention and sincerity.

Chinese culture and Christianity have the same emphasis on filial piety, but there are some major differences. First, the Chinese view of piety is clear in their texts: "All people are born with innate goodness" and honoring their parents is part of the natural conscience. Everyone knows it; it is not taught. So, parents are the supreme authority; "there is no one in the world that is not a parent," and no matter how parents scold their children, children must unconditionally obey and honor their parents. Any resentment or anger is a lack of filial piety. Obviously, this is not humane. Christian faith is lived out in life, and the Bible teaches that filial piety is important. Loving your parents is loving God; the way you show your love for God is through loving others. Ephesians 6:1 says: "You must obey your parents in the Lord." This is the standard of Christian piety. The so-called "in the Lord" does not mean parents have to be Christians, but that Christian piety must be according to the requirements of God. There is only one God. When parents' filial requirements conflict with the will of God, it is important to obey God rather than the parents' teachings.

Secondly, Christian piety originates from the love of God, who is loving, entirely selfless, one-directional, and gives sacrificially. Confucian filial piety comes from the concept that humans are naturally good intentioned and inherently good. Christian filial piety centers on God, originates from God and is for God, while Confucian filial piety originates from the person attributed. For this reason, we see the emergence in Chinese culture of the worship of humans in the place of God, as manifested in ancestral worship and other superstitions.

IV. How should Christians implement honor

In the New International Version of the Bible, honor is translated as "respect" and has several meanings: to take care of (Ps. 91:15); obedience (Deut. 21:18-21, Eph. 6:1); respect (Lev. 19:3, 20:9). It can be understood as supporting parents, obeying parents, or respecting parents.

1) Alimony -- "Filial piety is the first priority." While parents are alive, if children refuse to support them, then they demonstrate a lack of filial piety. Honor your parents, so long as they live, and not in their death do you begin to worship. Gu Yin Zeng said: "the slaughter of cattle as a worship to ancestors is not as good as honoring them while they are alive and feeding them with chicken meat and bread." Xiu said: "The Festival of Abundance is not as good as supporting them and taking care of them." As the saying goes: " Eating a raw pea in life is better than eating a pig after death." The ancients have taught that the ideal form of honor to parents is to care for and provide for them so that they may live a full, sustaining life, rather than merely paying respects after their death with generous sacrifice.

2) Submission -- Obedience mainly refers to the need to better understand our parents - what they are thinking, what needs they have, what they are afraid of - and to obey their wishes. Here, the word "obedience" does not refer to indulging or giving into parents' sins, but obeying them in the context of our relationship with them throughout our lives. Obeying our parents also includes understanding them, knowing that a person gradually ages and experiences increasing difficulties. We need all who are children to understand and accept this predicament.

3) Respect -- Because of our respect and obedience, we enable parents to receive honor. Respect for parents is not merely in the form of etiquette, but also in grace. As they age, some of their habits and the way they do things might grow to be improper, and they might do a lot of things we would never expect them to do. The Bible says: "Love is the bond of perfectness" (Col. 3:14), and indeed it really is. In the Bible, Noah and his family came out of the ark to till lands and vineyards. On one occasion, he drank too much wine, and his naked body was lying on his tent. His youngest son saw him and ran out of the tent and told his two brothers. They heard and took clothes and went back to cover him up. After his father awoke, and was made aware of the matter, he cursed his son Canaan, but blessed the two sons who covered his shame (cf. Gen. 9:20-27).

4) Evangelism -- How do we honor parents in our practical lives? We talked about emotional and physical needsall of which we need to take care of. In the "spiritual" sense, what matters greatly is the salvation of our parents; if the parents are not saved, then all you do to honor them is in vainas it will only sustain them for this lifetime rather than all of eternity. So, you must pray for their souls. Pray for opportunities to share. Ask some of their peers to help share the gospel with them. Pay attention to opportunities for them to participate in some Gospel Evangelistic camp or the like. Moreover, it's not only about helping them receive salvation, but also letting them grow spiritually; you have to care about their spiritual growth and maturity.

Let us thank God for the blessing of love and for the warmth of family to enjoy. Lord, by your grace, we should have a grateful heart to honor you, and by the grace of your Word, we obey your commands. Lord, your word is before us, and we have to lean upon you today. I pray you will help us so that we may obey your word, to have humility and obedience towards your word. We believe that through your grace we are truly blessed.

Original Gospel Times article: The Christian View of Filial Piety

Original blog post: The Christian View of Filial Piety

Image credit: Wikipedia 

ChinaSource Team

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