We Need to Help New Converts from Non-Christian Backgrounds Honor Their Families
The first four of the Ten Commandments focus on our relationship with God (Exod. 20:3–11); the next six address our relationships with other humans (Exod. 20:12–17). The first command that relates to other people is the command to honor our parents (Ex. 20:12), which Paul described as “the first commandment with a promise” (Eph. 6:2).
Jesus himself said that following him may result in going against one’s parents (Matt. 10:34–36). And yet, he never abrogated the fifth commandment. In fact, Jesus not only upheld it; he strongly rebuked people who made religious excuses for not caring for their parents (Matt. 15:3–9). Elsewhere in the New Testament, Paul said that one who doesn’t provide for his relatives “has denied the faith and is worse than an unbeliever” (1 Tim. 5:8).
APPLYING THIS COMMAND
When Youth for Christ (the ministry I work for) first began to see young people coming to Christ from non-Christian backgrounds, we were naturally concerned about the rejection they might face from family members. We tried to ensure them that any rejection they experienced at home would be offset by warm acceptance in the Christian community. Soon, however, we realized that our counsel may have been unwise. Too often, we failed to stress how important it is for new believers to maintain good relationships with their families. In our excitement at seeing conversions, we overlooked the importance of healthy family relationships.
My burden is a simple one: we need to help new converts navigate familial issues in a way that honors Christ.
And one of the best ways for new believers to commend the gospel to their family is simply by being an exemplary family member. When the family sees the markedly different yet positive ways the Christian behaves at home, their hostility to Christianity might diminish. A Christian’s new life might even be what the Lord uses to lead some family members to accept Christ.
At the same time, some new Christians grow apart from their family, partly because of their busy involvement with their new family, the church. As new converts spend more time ministering with those in their local church, they sometimes inadvertently provoke their family members to greater hostility toward Christianity.
HOSTILITY TO CONVERSION
For some non-Christian families, a family member’s conversion to Christianity is repulsive. Some families in Islamic countries represent the most extreme version of this scenario—even killing children who make a profession of faith in Christ, so called “honor killings.”
In many cultures today, honor and shame are the most important values for evaluating actions. Changing one’s religion shames the family. This value system considers dishonoring to the family as a more serious wrong than serious moral sins like adultery or abuse.
New converts need to be wise about how and when they inform their families about their conversion. Sometimes a gradual demonstrating our new life in Christ—like giving up of bad habits and reading the Bible in public—prepares them for the news. But in some homes, even Bible reading would be taboo. Sometimes one family member may be more sympathetic, and it might be wise to inform that person first so that they can prepare others for the news. Especially with minors, it may take a considerable amount of time before a family fully realizes a thoroughgoing conversion has taken place.
New converts also need to think wisely about practical matters—like the time and place of baptism. Baptism in a public place, like a river that runs by the family’s town, may be an unnecessary assault on the honor of the convert’s family. Ideally, unsaved family members would be honored guests at the baptism. Unsaved family members often attend baptisms in our church and when they do we publicly express delight and gratitude over their presence. They in turn are happy to be included in this important event.
FAMILY OBLIGATIONS AND TRADITIONS
We also need to help converts think through their family obligations. As a general rule, Christians should obey their parents, whether they’re Christian or not (Col. 3:20). Only when such obedience involves disobeying the law of God must the child respectfully refuse. Sometimes, parents make unreasonable demands on their children, but unless these demands are oppressive and damaging, we recommend that they obey.
In cultures where family solidarity is strong, some of the most important family events have religious overtones: funerals, acts of remembrance of the dead, weddings, festivals, and family holidays. Not participating in these can be viewed as a serious violation of family honor. We usually talk with new believers about what they can and cannot do at such occasions. Some practices don’t have religious connotations. They can participate in these events without violating their conscience. In a family meal at a special event, part of the food is given to priests before whom the family members kneel. The Christian, of course, cannot do that. But she can help with the cooking, the washing, and the cleaning up. The family may visit a shrine or temple as part of a family holiday. The Christian can certainly join the family on the holiday, but they must stay outside the temple when others go in to worship.
I know of sad situations where parents have disowned their son because he became a Christian. But this disowned son continued to send financial support to his parents when they were elderly, as was expected of sons in his culture. In one case, after many years, the mother reestablished contact and came to spend her last days in his home.
In many community-oriented cultures, brothers help pay for the costs of their sisters’ wedding—even delaying their own marriage in the process. Becoming a Christian doesn’t exempt one from such responsibilities. Sometimes, the fact that they conscientiously and sacrificially care for family needs—unlike non-Christian family members—has been a source of joy and a witness to the gospel.
In short, it’s vital for older Christians to talk often with new Christians, making sure that in following Christ, they haven’t unduly harmed their relationship with their family.
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Editor’s note: For more on topics like this, consider Ajith Fernando’s new book, Discipling in a Multicultural World.