Indian culture has a high value for respect for parents. Adult children generally live with their parents until they are married, and even then either make frequent visits or live in a multi generational home.
What this leads to is something of a paradox for the Christian ministering in an Indian context. This high respect for parents is something that is beautiful and we want to affirm. At the same time, this can present a major roadblock to someone professing faith in Christ. Turning your back on your native Hinduism or Islam can feel like turning your back on family, specifically your parents. Demographically, our church is is skewed towards younger people, so this is a live question for us. How do we help people who are thinking about coming to faith in Christ process how this will affect their parents? I think the best way is through two seemingly competing passages, the sword of Jesus and the Fifth Commandment.
The Sword of Jesus
Matt 10:34-39- 34 “Do not think that I have come to bring peace to the earth. I have not come to bring peace, but a sword. 35 For I have come to set a man against his father, and a daughter against her mother, and a daughter-in-law against her mother-in-law. 36 And a person’s enemies will be those of his own household. 37 Whoever loves father or mother more than me is not worthy of me, and whoever loves son or daughter more than me is not worthy of me. 38 And whoever does not take his cross and follow me is not worthy of me. 39 Whoever finds his life will lose it, and whoever loses his life for my sake will find it.
It is good to know that Jesus lived in a context similar to India. Like Indian culture, Jewish culture put a heavy emphasis on parental relations. In fact, the Old Testament law emphasized strong families, an emphasis that was affirmed by Jesus. (More on that later.)
But Jesus was a realist. He realized that his teachings would divide families. He knew that some would follow him when the rest of their family did not. And if his followers were given the choice between denying Jesus and splitting a family, his command was to split the family. This sounds harsh even to ears in the modern West, where the value of extended family is often downplayed. But to the original Jewish hearers, this would be almost unbelievable. But such is the value of Jesus.
The Fifth Commandment
But remember that this is Jesus raising his value, not lowering the value of the family. Jesus didn’t nullify the Fifth Commandment, the command to honor your father and mother. Instead Jesus affirmed the Fifth Commandment and even rebuked the Pharisees for allowing people to shirk their duties to their parents. (Mark 7:9-13)
So can we piece these together in a household where the child follows Jesus and the parents do not? I remember hearing one Hindu background Christian talking about how his western friends would always emphasize the sword passage while virtually ignoring the passage about honor due to your parents.
Making it work
The command to honor your parents does not only apply if your parents follow Jesus. In 1 Peter 3, Peter addresses wives who have unbelieving husbands, “ 3:1 Likewise, wives, be subject to your own husbands, so that even if some do not obey the word, they may be won without a word by the conduct of their wives, 2 when they see your respectful and pure conduct.”
Now, the analogy is not exact, but it is definitely close. Just as the conduct of a wife can show the beauty of Jesus and win over husbands who do not believe, a Christian child should strive to show more honor to the parents more than before he or she came to faith. Now this honor may take different contours, the Christian cannot worship idols with the family, the Christian can’t refrain from prayer, scripture, or meeting with believers. But the overall thrust of the believing child’s life should be more respectful, more honoring, and more godly than before he or she came to faith.
And of course, there will be many judgment calls that have to be made, often both difficult and complex. Can you celebrate festivals that are tangentially tied to idols? What if your parents say you can go to Sunday services but not small groups? What about not reading Christian literature apart from the Bible? There are no easy answers to these questions, which is why a new believer needs a mature, godly community around them to help them maneuver the difficult decisions.
But just as, in the first century, Jesus called his followers of Jesus to be devoted to him while still honoring their parents, he still does so today. And just as Jesus gave his followers both his spirit and his church to navigate difficult issues, he does so today.