God has gifted Africa with many beautiful, unique and colourful cultures. Our continent is also home to a delightful tapestry of traditions. But embedded in many of these cultures and traditions is the belief that the dead possess power over the living. Many Africans believe they need to appease the dead in order to enjoy a trouble free life. This belief in ancestral worship has become a source of bitter conflict for many Africans who desire to be Christians while holding onto their traditions.
Embedded in many African cultures and traditions is the belief that the dead possess power over the living.
Losing My Tradition
One of the reasons Africans desire to maintain this traditional belief is because they see ancestral worship as part of their culture. It is intrinsic to being African. So instead, they believe that their ancestors mediate for the biblical God. Thus, there is no need to surrender their tradition, which is now connected to their Christian faith.
While is true that Christianity celebrates many cultures and traditions, these are only celebrated provided they do not contradict God’s desires for his people. Cultural expression enriches biblical worship of the true God. However, if these expressions contradict God’s directives for worship then we must abandon the latter out of obedience to God. Listen to the New City Catechism on the meaning of the first and second commandments. “First, that we know and trust God as the only true and living God. Second, that we avoid all idolatry and do not worship God improperly.”
It is my contention in this article that ancestral worship falls foul of both conditions.
Our Ancestors – The ‘gods’
In my home language, Xitsonga, ancestors are called “swikwembu.” This literally means “the gods.” The closest biblical equivalent of this word in English is likewise “gods,” with a lower case ‘g.’ We find similar references in other African languages. In Northern Sotho, for example, the ancestors are called “bademo,” which also means “gods”. But if anyone were to accuse these Africans of worshipping other gods, many would protest saying, “hi phahla swikwembu.” This roughly translates as, ‘We consult or pray to the ancestors.’ For the terminology is ambiguous.
Many of the African words used to refer to ancestors can also mean ‘gods.’
The English word “ancestors” can be translated in two ways in my own culture. The first is “va kokwani,” which means “grandparents” or “forefathers.” The second is “swikwembu.” Because “swikwembu” refers to ancestors, even though its literal meaning is “the gods,” Africans answer that “swikwembu” simply refers to their “ancestors.” Therefore they claim that they are not committing idolatry by praying to or consulting them. This is further encouraged by the fact that the English word “ancestors” is not commonly associated with the idea of “gods.”
Admittedly, my knowledge of the use of African words meaning “gods” as a reference to ancestors is limited. But I assume that many of the African words used to refer to ancestors can also mean “gods.” If this is true for you, it may be a clear sign that your form of ancestral worship is idolatrous.
Is Honouring the Dead Really Worship?
It is difficult for many Africans to acknowledge this. Usually the term “gods” in the Bible is associated with carved images of creatures. Yet similar terms used for ancestors in various African languages refer to the dead. These deceased ancestors are believed to possess the power to influence the lives of the living. Since honouring the dead is not the same as bowing down to a carved image, it is argued, this is not idolatry. But it should be pointed out that when God says, “You shall have no other gods before me” (Exodus 20:3), he is using the word “gods” in a general sense. It is the second commandment that specifically addresses manmade images (Exodus 20:4-6).
If we attribute to the ancestors characteristics of a god in our testimonies, we treat them as gods.
Therefore, while it is true that the second commandment might not apply to ancestral worship, the first commandment certainly does. For if we call our ancestors “gods,” and attribute to them characteristics of a god in our testimonies, we treat them as gods.
How Much Influence Do Ancestors Wield?
When you ask an African how much influence the ancestors have, their answers will differ greatly. For ancestral worship is an experience-based religion. The following quote is from a survey done in Soshanguve, South Africa in 1993, titled African Pentecostalism and the Ancestor Cult: Confrontation or Compromise?
“The ancestors were responsible for the violence that had swept South Africa, said one informant. For they were angry that they were being neglected or ignored by the young people. She said that in the “old days” – when the ancestors were properly respected – there was no killing. Several respondents referred to the visit of Mr Nelson Mandela to his ancestral home in the Transkei after he was released from prison in 1990. The fact that he had supposedly paid homage to his ancestors was the reason why things were going so well for him, and his “power” was increasing.”
We Attribute Divine Power to Ancestors
The article cited contains many more testimonies like these. But this example provides a balanced view of what many Africans believe about their ancestors. I have heard numerous testimonies similar to these. Yet many of us have not considered the theological implications regarding our ancestors. If we look closely at the quote, we notice that many Africans attribute sovereignty and providence to the ancestors. They reign over the land and have power to bless or curse the land.
What many Africans believe about ancestors is similar to what Israel believed about God
This is the kind of relationship that God had with Israel. It is similar to the view Israel’s neighbouring nations had of their gods. King David, in spite of his failings, had a successful reign because of his relationship with God. On the other hand, Israel went into exile because they turned away from God. In the Old Testament, success is attributed to God. Indeed, in other Ancient Near Eastern, or even later Roman literature, success is attributed to the relevant god or gods.
If we compare this to the testimony quoted above, there is a startling parallel. It is clear that what many Africans believe about ancestors and how they relate to them via ancestral worship, is similar to what Israel believed about God and how they related to him! Therefore, ancestors are African “gods.” My home language bears witness to this by calling them “swikwembu.”
God is at Work, Not the Ancestors
In order to avoid any association with idol worship, many Africans say that ancestors are merely their forefathers. Any authority they possess was gained in death; not because they are divine. Therefore we have to answer ancestral theology with biblical theology. The authority and honour regularly attributed to ancestors must only be attributed to God.
If we are to remain faithful to the teaching of Scripture aspects of African tradition must be abandoned. For God alone was the single sovereign over Nelson Mandela’s release from prison. He is responsible for Mandela’s rise to power as the first black president of South Africa. God was at work; not the ancestors.
God is the one who gives kingdoms to whomever he wills. To attribute such power to deceased ancestors is to claim for men what only God possesses
Nebuchadnezzar recognised this in Daniel 4. After being humbled by God, this is what the Babylonian king says. “The Most High rules the kingdom of men and gives it to whom he will” (Daniel 4:32). Our forefathers and ancestors, whether dead or alive, do not have power over the kingdoms of men. For God is the one who gives kingdoms to whomever he wills. To attribute such power to deceased ancestors is to claim for men what only God possesses.
What About Ancestors as Mediators?
One argument commonly heard in defence of ancestral worship is that they mediate between God and man. In response to this it should be pointed out that God never uses the dead as mediators. He only uses the living. We see this in the Levite priestly succession, which God established for Israel. After his death, Aaron did not remain a mediator between God and the living. His descendants succeeded him. For this reason Jesus had to become a man so that he could be a mediator between man and God (Hebrews 2:17). And one of the reasons he remains our mediator today is because, unlike our forefathers, he is still alive.
One of the reasons Christ remains our mediator today is because, unlike our forefathers, he is still alive
The author of Hebrews puts it this way. “The former priests were many in number, because they were prevented by death from continuing in office” (Hebrews 7:23). This confirms that the dead cannot mediate for God. “But [Jesus] holds his priesthood permanently, because he continues forever. Consequently, he is able to save to the uttermost those who draw near to God through him, since he always lives to make intercession for them.” (Hebrews 7:24-25).
Therefore the reason Jesus is the mediator between God and the living is because unlike our forefathers who are dead, he lives forever. The dead do not mediate between God and the living.
Ancestral Worship is Idolatry
We can conclude that ancestral worship is idolatry. If Africans maintain that ancestors mediate for God, they are not mediators of the biblical God. For the biblical God does not use the dead as mediators; only the living. Jesus is the only mediator through whom the living approach God, because he lives. Furthermore, as we saw above, what many Africans believe about their ancestors, crediting good or bad, curses and blessings, to them, is a form of idolatry. For it attributes divine power to mere deceased men.