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Ancestral Worship

Statement of the Issue

In the Southern African culture ancestral worship or veneration plays a significant role in society and is widely practised. Generally, deceased loved ones are seen as intermediaries between the Creator and mankind, sought for healing, revelation, protection and blessing. The deceased ancestors are usually “cared” for by the living and are believed to reciprocate this by providing a blessing to those who care for them. Many people in our churches are still practising these beliefs and customs associated with African Traditional Religions and ancestral worship.

Statement of the Position

The Salvation Army believes that Scripture is the primary guideline for our life and practice. Culture, while an important aspect of our lives, is not to be the primary director of our lives and should not supersede Scripture. Cultural practices that are aligned with Scripture should be retained whilst those that are contrary to the Word of God should not be practiced. Salvationists have a mandate to challenge the practices of their culture that are not in harmony with Scripture.

The Salvation Army believes that God alone should be the only proper object of religious worship. Therefore attributes or worth due to God should not be given to the deceased person. Anything that replaces God or the attributes of God in our lives causes us to sin and is viewed as idolatry from a Biblical perspective. If we give our ancestors reverence or respect that is due to God, or if we look to our ancestors to provide us with something that only God can give, we are in conflict with sound Biblical teaching.

The Salvation Army recognises that the visiting of the grave of a loved one and/or remembering with fondness the life of the deceased person poses no conflict to Biblical doctrine. However, communication or bringing gifts/offerings/sacrifices to the dead should not be practised.

The Salvation Army believes that Jesus Christ alone satisfies the conditions for being a mediator between God and man and His sacrifice is sufficient to bridge the gap between God and man. No other person, living or deceased, is able to be a mediator between God and man and no sacrifice we offer will make us acceptable to God.

Biblical Considerations

For the Christian, Scripture and not culture is to be our primary source of guidance (2 Timothy 3:16-17).

God is not an impersonal force, distant or unreachable but rather He loves us, is Holy and is involved with our everyday experiences (1 John 4:8, Matthew 5:48, Psalm 37:23, Matthew 10:29-30, Romans 8:28-31). God is also able to heal (Psalm 103:2-4), bring revelation (James 1:5), protect (Psalm 91) and provide for us (Philippians 4:19).

The Bible clearly teaches that Christ is our only way to God and there is no other mediator but Him (1 Timothy 2:5, John 14:6, Acts 4:12). Christ is uniquely qualified to be the mediator (Hebrews 9:15) since He alone was a perfect and final sacrifice (Hebrews 10:11-14, Hebrews 9:12-14) and He alone is truly and properly God and truly and properly man (John 1).
The Bible makes it clear that after death, we will be judged (Hebrews 9:27) and will either be in heaven or hell. We will not return as ancestors to communicate with the living (Ecclesiastes 9:6). There are also direct commands found in Scripture not to attempt to communicate with the dead (Deuteronomy 18:10-12, Isaiah 47:9-11).

Exodus 20:3-5 clearly states that we are not to be in submission (bow down) to or serve anything before or in the place of God. The practice of ascribing religious worth or attributes that belong only to God to anything or anyone is the sin of idolatry (Ezekiel 14:4).

Practical Responses

The Salvation Army calls on all Salvationists to:

  • Recognise that Christianity and ancestral worship are in direct opposition to each other
  • Identify the God glorifying and destructive elements within each of our past cultures
  • Recognise and retain those positive cultural practices and beliefs and discard the negative ones and teach that our identity is to be found in Christ and not in our culture
  • Affirm that the Bible, and not culture, must be our only source for Christian faith and practice
  • Teach others that bringing gifts to the dead is of no value to the Christian since the dead are incapable of helping or communicating back with us
  • Teach that Christ’s sacrifice is sufficient and that He alone is capable of mediating between us and God
  • Demonstrate the power of prayer to God through Christ Jesus alone
  • Encourage dialogue with those involved in ancestral worship while not compromising our Christian doctrine
  • Stress that those who have a personal relationship with Christ and live in obedient faith are eternally secure and that they need not fear anything, spiritual or physical, in this life or the one to come.

Care should be taken not to ostracise those involved in ancestral worship. Whilst we must address the sin, we should show love, grace and care to those involved. It must also be recognised that when someone repents or does not practice ancestral worship, they may be ostracised or even harmed by the community/family that continues to practice ancestral worship. Special care should be taken to encourage those for whom this is the case. The threat of this however should not stop Christians from making a stand for what they believe in and know to be correct.