Filial piety (孝, xiào), playing by Confucius’ family rules
The Confucian belief of filial piety (孝, xiào) teaches entire societies to respect one’s parents, elders, and ancestors. Such traditions run through virtually all Chinese families. Confucianism has been embraced for its ability to foster harmonious households and societies through the implicit influence over individuals. Disavowing any of its man-made practices is considered disrespectful and almost sacrilegious. Confucian teaching on filial piety sounds good and virtuous, but leaves many Asian believers conflicted and struggling to put God first.
Leviticus 18:4 ESV You shall follow my rules and keep my statutes and walk in them. I am the Lord your God.
Filial piety echoes the fifth commandment in the Bible, which is to honour our parents, but it has many aspects that mold us into our earthly family’s image, rather than God’s. Ultimately, it will divide our hearts and lead us to compromise our identities-in-Christ.
Ephesians 6:2-3 ESV “Honor your father and mother” (this is the first commandment with a promise), “that it may go well with you and that you may live long in the land.”
To truly follow Jesus as His disciples, we need to put His will first, even if it means going against the desires of those in our own household who follow Confucian teachings over the Bible. It is by walking in God’s great love, rather than the traditions and teachings of this world, that we can testify of God’s unconditional grace to those around us.
Matthew 10:34-37 ESV “Do not think that I have come to bring peace to the earth. I have not come to bring peace, but a sword. 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. And a person’s enemies will be those of his own household. 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.
Some basic tenets of Confucian filial piety
Filial piety is a teaching from Confucianism that is devoid of God, Father of all human beings on earth. In Confucianism, children are eternally bound to their parents. Both husbands and wives continue to be bound to their respective earthly families, instead of becoming independent once they are joined in marriage, as stated in Genesis 2:24. Moreover, men are considered superior to women. All this turns our focus to other human beings and binds us eternally to our earthly families, instead of to God.
Matthew 23:9 ESV And call no man your father on earth, for you have one Father, who is in heaven.
Genesis 2:24 ESV Therefore a man shall leave his father and his mother and hold fast to his wife, and they shall become one flesh.
Quoting different sections of the book, Filial piety and loyalty: Two types of social identification in Confucianism;
“When Confucians were contemplating the ontology of the universe, they did not conceive a transcendent creator as did the Christians. Instead, they recognized a simple fact on the basis of Chinese cosmology: individuals’ lives are the continuation of their parents’ physical lives. Confucian advocacy of filial piety is premised upon this indisputable fact.
Our body, with hair and skin, is derived from our parents. One should not hurt one’s own body in any situation. This is the starting point of filial piety. (Hsiao Ching, Chapter 1: The Starting Point and the Principles)
The Confucian idea of filial piety is constructed on the simple fact that one’s body exists solely because of one’s parents. In fact, Confucians conceptualized family members as one body.
Father and son are one body; husband and wife, brothers, are all one body. The relationship between father and son is like that between head and feet. Husband and wife are a combination of two separate parts of one body; brothers are the four limbs. (Confucian Rites: Chapter on Mourning Dress)
The Confucian scholar TungZhong-Su established the tradition of yang/superior/male and yin/inferior/female.“
Choosing our Saviour vs. our family
The false choice between God versus our parents and ancestors causes a lot internal conflict and confusion for Asian believers. Here are some examples.
1. Filial piety: Revere your parents because they gave you life and raised you
Parents who follow the teachings on filial piety will expect their children to dutifully revere and support them all of their lives. Children who follow these expectations are labeled “good” and those who do not, “bad”. Asian children are taught that they ought to bow to their parents’ desires because of their many sacrifices to raise them. According to the Classic of Filial Piety, Confucius said: “In serving his parents, a filial son reveres them in daily life”. Moreover, the son’s duty is to make his parents happy “while he nourishes them; he takes anxious care of them in sickness; he shows great sorrow over their death that was for him; and he sacrifices to them with solemnity.” If we look more closely, these obligations are what God has already been doing for all mankind.
Matthew 6:31-33 ESV Therefore do not be anxious, saying, ‘What shall we eat?’ or ‘What shall we drink?’ or ‘What shall we wear?’ For the Gentiles seek after all these things, and your heavenly Father knows that you need them all. But seek first the kingdom of God and his righteousness, and all these things will be added to you.
Filial piety is based on strict principles of hierarchy, obligation, and obedience. It embraces lasting loyalty to one’s parents. Every generation implicitly controls the next. As a result, Asian parents may find it hard to accept that their children revere God over them. Many fear that their children will neglect them, even though this is contrary to the Bible.
Matthew 22:36-40 ESV “Teacher, which is the great commandment in the Law?” And he said to him, “You shall love the Lord your God with all your heart and with all your soul and with all your mind. This is the great and first commandment. 39 And a second is like it: You shall love your neighbor as yourself. On these two commandments depend all the Law and the Prophets.”
God calls us to respect and provide for our family, both because this is the right thing to do and because He loves them too. While we do owe our parents our love and gratitude, we do not belong to them. As adopted children of God, we now belong to Him. If God didn’t choose to give us life, we would never have been born in the first place. We owe our lives to God.
1 Timothy 5:8 ESV But if anyone does not provide for his relatives, and especially for members of his household, he has denied the faith and is worse than an unbeliever.
Ephesians 1:5 ESV he predestined us for adoption to himself as sons through Jesus Christ, according to the purpose of his will,
Job 33:4 ESV The Spirit of God has made me, and the breath of the Almighty gives me life.
Compared to Jesus Christ, who offered His own life and dignity to give us new eternal life, no parent would ever have made a sacrifice as enormous as God has for us.
Hebrews 7:27 ESV He has no need, like those high priests, to offer sacrifices daily, first for his own sins and then for those of the people, since he did this once for all when he offered up himself.
The Lord of the Bible teaches us to love. Filial piety by Confucius teaches us to uphold a life of servitude, duty, and obligation. When we bow down to and obey human idols and teachings, we become their slaves. If we continue to be emotionally, mentally and spiritually tied (or yoked) to parents who do not fear God or submit to Him, we will find a wide chasm in our hearts between us and our Creator and ultimate Parent.
1 John 4:7-8 ESV Beloved, let us love one another, for love is from God, and whoever loves has been born of God and knows God. Anyone who does not love does not know God, because God is love.
Romans 6:16 ESV Do you not know that if you present yourselves to anyone as obedient slaves, you are slaves of the one whom you obey, either of sin, which leads to death, or of obedience, which leads to righteousness?
2 Corinthians 6:14 ESV Do not be unequally yoked with unbelievers. For what partnership has righteousness with lawlessness? Or what fellowship has light with darkness?
God did not create us to be the security net, trophies or “body parts” for other people, regardless of their positions. On the contrary, God states that we were created for His purposes and that we are to honour Him first with our income and the works of our hands. Moreover, the Bible states that where possible, our parents ought to plan to leave something for our children, as a “good man leaves an inheritance to his children’s children“.
Proverbs 3:9 ESV Honor the Lord with your wealth and with the firstfruits of all your produce;
Proverbs 13:22 ESV A good man leaves an inheritance to his children’s children, but the sinner’s wealth is laid up for the righteous.
The God of the universe calls our parents our “guardians and managers” until we receive Jesus as our Saviour and get to call God our Heavenly Father. Sometimes, our “guardians and managers” can get carried away and try to establish themselves as our lords and saviours.
Galatians 4:1-3 ESV … he is a child, is no different from a slave, though he is the owner of everything, but he is under guardians and managers until the date set by his father. In the same way we also, when we were children, were enslaved to the elementary principles of the world.
There is also a mistaken idea that this is merely a conflict between Asian family values (Confucianism) versus western family values (the Gospel), when in fact, the real issue is whether we will choose to follow God’s commandments over man-made ones.
2. Filial piety: Do well and bring honor to your family
The Bible reminds us that our identity and success are from God. Filial piety will teach us that we owe our identity and success to our parents or ancestors. The truth is all of us, including our families, owe God everything. He does not give us what we deserve for bowing down to idolatrous teachings and is patiently extending His grace to us in the hope that we will turn our hearts completely to Him. Our lives are meant to bring our Heavenly Father glory, not our earthly ones.
Colossians 1:16 ESV For by him all things were created, in heaven and on earth, visible and invisible, whether thrones or dominions or rulers or authorities—all things were created through him and for him.
Matthew 5:16 ESV In the same way, let your light shine before others, so that they may see your good works and give glory to your Father who is in heaven.
When we choose to follow God, we will automatically live honourable lives, love our parents and provide for their needs – and therefore give our fathers and mothers reason to rejoice. To outsiders, it may look as if we are filial (孝顺) children but our motivation is to bring God glory, not our parents nor ourselves.
Proverbs 23:25 ESV Let your father and mother be glad; let her who bore you rejoice.
3. Filial piety: Continue to fulfill your parents’ and ancestors’ desires after they die
Confucianism teaches that people should honor the dead as though they are still living. We are to continue to owe our parents an “eternal debt”. For this reason, filial piety teaches people to pray to and make offerings for their ancestors (necromancy), which the Bible strictly forbids, along with sorcery, fortune telling and other forms of witchcraft.
Deuteronomy 18:10-13 ESV There shall not be found among you anyone who burns his son or his daughter as an offering, anyone who practices divination or tells fortunes or interprets omens, or a sorcerer or a charmer or a medium or a necromancer or one who inquires of the dead, for whoever does these things is an abomination to the Lord. And because of these abominations the Lord your God is driving them out before you. You shall be blameless before the Lord your God,
It is Jesus Christ that we owe an eternal debt to. He does not desire burnt offerings or earthly sacrifices, but for us to live with humble joyful hearts that love and obey God.
Psalm 51:16-17 ESV For you will not delight in sacrifice, or I would give it; you will not be pleased with a burnt offering. The sacrifices of God are a broken spirit; a broken and contrite heart, O God, you will not despise.
2 Corinthians 9:7 ESV Each one must give as he has decided in his heart, not reluctantly or under compulsion, for God loves a cheerful giver.
Confucianism, a philosophy and human tradition from this world
The doctrine of filial piety has become embedded into the collective Chinese psyche over a span of 2,500 years. While it may have some interesting ideas, it is not based on God’s eternal truths.
Psalm 119:89-91 ESV Forever, O Lord, your word is firmly fixed in the heavens. Your faithfulness endures to all generations; you have established the earth, and it stands fast. By your appointment they stand this day, for all things are your servants.
Developed by a politician and philosopher who promoted harmony in the state through harmony in the family, filial piety is now seen as Chinese culture and tradition. The Bible warns us against “philosophy and empty deceit, according to human tradition“, which are propagated by the “elemental spirits of the world“. God’s Word challenges all believers who were once beguiled by Confucian teachings with the question; “…now that you have come to know God, how can you turn back again to the weak and worthless elementary principles of the world, whose slaves you want to be once more?“
Colossians 2:8 ESV See to it that no one takes you captive by philosophy and empty deceit, according to human tradition, according to the elemental spirits of the world, and not according to Christ.
Galatians 4:8-9 ESV Formerly, when you did not know God, you were enslaved to those that by nature are not gods. But now that you have come to know God, or rather to be known by God, how can you turn back again to the weak and worthless elementary principles of the world, whose slaves you want to be once more?
Families that are bound to Confucian teachings of filial piety will focus on their relationships on earth. As believers, our focus is on our eternal relationships with God.
No tradition or philosopher, no matter how wise-sounding, will ever be able to bring eternal salvation to our household. Only Jesus can. It is when we faithfully follow Jesus by loving Him first and loving others second, that we can bring a far, far greater hope and joy to our families.
Let us turn away from ungodly worldly principles that have no eternal value and submit our family relationships to the one true Teacher of all truth, Jesus Christ. He has entrusted us with a critical mission of family reconciliation – to bring prodigal members of our earthly families who are lost back to their Father in heaven.
Matthew 23:8,10 ESV But you are not to be called rabbi, for you have one teacher, and you are all brothers. Neither be called instructors, for you have one instructor, the Christ.
2 Corinthians 5:17-21 ESV Therefore, if anyone is in Christ, he is a new creation. The old has passed away; behold, the new has come. All this is from God, who through Christ reconciled us to himself and gave us the ministry of reconciliation; that is, in Christ God was reconciling the world to himself, not counting their trespasses against them, and entrusting to us the message of reconciliation. Therefore, we are ambassadors for Christ, God making his appeal through us. We implore you on behalf of Christ, be reconciled to God. For our sake he made him to be sin who knew no sin, so that in him we might become the righteousness of God.
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