Points of Contact: Confucianism and Christianity

With the influence of Confucius and Confucianism once again rising in China, Christians must find effective avenues of approach to deal with this pervasive cultural force. As with other elements of any culture, Christians can take several possible stances: They can utterly ignore Confucianism; totally reject it; assimilate it into Christianity with little critique; or affirm certain aspects of it while challenging, correcting, and even replacing others with biblical truth.

To ignore this major component of Chinese culture, and to proceed with evangelism and teaching of believers without reference to Confucianism, would seem to be the height of folly. Likewise, utterly to reject a great cultural hero and a predominant feature of Chinese life and thought for more than two millennia would amount to total contempt for generations of very intelligent people. On the other hand, simply to endorse traditional Confucian concepts without subjecting them to a careful biblical examination would be to engage in syncretism. The best course, therefore, would seem to be to strive for a balance between affirmation of those planks in the Confucian platform which accord with the Scriptures and respectful rejection of those which contradict Scripture, while filling in gaps with God’s truth.

Careful consideration

First of all, Confucius himself and Confucianism generally, deserve our careful study. If we are to understand either traditional Chinese civilization or the recent resurgence of Confucian ideals in public life, we must take the time to listen, to read, and to ponder this essential core of China’s identity. I suggest that one begin with a general survey of Chinese culture and society, to put Confucianism into context. China: Ancient culture, Modern Society, co-authored by Dr. Peter Yu and me, provides such an overview.

Next should come an attentive reading of the Analects of Confucius, the main text of Confucianism. Perhaps the best edition is The Analects of Confucius: A Literal Translation with an Introduction and Notes, by Chichung Huang, published by Oxford University Press. For a very brief introduction, see the recent article on Confucius in China Today, reviewed at www.globalchinacenter.org.

After that, you can familiarize yourself with the other three of the “Four Books”: Mencius, The Golden Mean, and The Great Learning. From there, the vista widens to include studies such as those contained in the list at the end of this article.

Profound respect

The more you study Confucius, the more you will respect him. Christians can, without reservation, agree that Confucius was a great scholar, a great teacher, and a great man. Otherwise, how could he have exerted such a great influence on such a great people for such a long time? Even if some of the popular claims made about him may not be completely verifiable, there is enough that is substantial to elicit our esteem. More than a dozen readings of the Analects have only deepened my admiration for him.

Appreciative comparison

We do not have to agree with all that Confucius and his followers have said and done, but we can easily admit Confucianism’s many significant agreements with biblical concepts. The Bible also teaches that children should obey their parents; the young should respect their elders; wives should submit to their husbands; “slaves” should obey their “masters”; and citizens should submit to those in authority over them (Ephesians 6:1-3; 1 Peter 5:5; Ephesians 5;22-33 ; Ephesians 6:5-8; 1 Peter 2:13-25; Romans 13:1-7).

The Confucian concept of “benevolence” (ren) enjoys some overlap with biblical “love.” Confucius’ “negative Golden Rule” - Do not do to others what you don’t want them to do to you – finds its “positive” counterpart in Jesus’ command to treat others as we would have them treat us.

In particular, the breakdown of the family in modern society, including the huge generation gap, cries out for a return to a regard for our parents, forebears, and siblings. The Scriptures provide no warrant for the rank individualism, unbridled hedonism, narcissistic self-pre-occupation, indiscriminate self-expression, and vulgar behavior that characterize much of current Western, even Christian, culture today.

What is wrong with a proper and balanced regard for politeness and etiquette - what Confucius would call li? We don’t have to return to the elaborate rituals of traditional Chinese society in order to enjoy the benefits of gestures of respect and ceremonies at church and in society that help to control our baser impulses and express reverence and honor for people and occasions. I think of graduation exercises, presidential inaugurations, silence and applause at concerts, and of course Christian worship.

Likewise, the Confucian “harmonious society” now trumpeted by the Chinese government resonates with passages in the Bible which urge Christians to strive for peace (Ephesians 4:1-3; Colossians 3:15; Titus 3:1-3; Hebrews 12:12; 1 Peter 3:8-12). Strident, angry confrontation and disputing are everywhere denounced in the Scriptures, and there is no biblical warrant for violent revolution.

Ever since Confucius, Chinese have extolled the value of hard work, and especially of diligent study. Can anyone say that these virtues are foreign to the Bible or useless to us today? Confucius’ emphasis upon a reverent study of the best that has been handed down to us from the past does not conflict either with the Fifth Commandment or the Bible’s repeated calls to study the Scriptures and the examples and teachings of those who have preceded us.

Respectful disagreement

On the other hand, we cannot ignore major points of contrast between the Bible and Confucianism. To name only a few:

Filial piety must be balanced by parental responsibility to treat their children with respect; to listen to them carefully; to allow them freedom to grow into responsible servants of God; and not to “exasperate” them or cause them to lose heart (Ephesians 6:4; Colossians 3:21). If parents displayed more patience and humility towards their children, and less self-righteous pride and know-it-all instruction, perhaps their offspring would respond with less rebellion or inattention (Ephesians 4:1-3; 5:21; Colossians 2:1-4; 1 Peter 5:5). For example, the Bible teaches that a young woman may marry the man she chooses (Genesis 24:57-60; Numbers 36:6).

Again: While young children are commanded to obey their parents, adults who marry must “leave father and mother” and cleave to their spouse; as they establish their own household, the locus of authority shifts from parents to husband (Ephesians 5:22-33). We should note here that Confucius’ own marriage ended in failure, and that the Analects contain virtually no teaching about this fundamental relationship.

In the church and in society, all those in positions of leadership must follow the example of Christ, who humbly served others, rather than the imperial pattern which has dominated China up to the present (Matthew 20:25-28; Ephesians 6:9; 1 Peter 5:1-4). Husbands must “submit” to their wives by setting a Christ-like pattern of servant leadership and self-sacrifice (Ephesians 5:25-31). If we take the Scriptures as our guide, there is no excuse for the abuse of authority which seems endemic in Chinese society.

In particular, females of all ages – including young girls, adults, and aged women – must be treated with the utmost respect, care, and tenderness, for they are equally made in the image of God (Genesis 1:26-27; 1 Peter 3:7). Anything else is an affront to their Maker and to Christ, who died and rose for both women and men. Though leadership and authority in the home and in the church is reserved by Scripture for men, that does not mean that women should be deprived of honor or the opportunity to exercise their abilities and gifts in appropriate spheres.

Other major areas of disagreement include the Christian teachings on epistemology (how we know the truth) and salvation. The Bible claims to be the revealed Word of God; Jesus himself said that he spoke only words which had been given to him from God the Father (John 12:44-50). Whereas Confucius was humbly unassertive, even somewhat agnostic, about the spiritual realm, Christians believe that God has revealed absolute truth about this world and the one to come, and that this knowledge finds its focus in the person and work of Jesus Christ. Unlike Confucianists, Christians do not rely solely on human observation, reason, or tradition for authoritative information about life and death; they have grounds for believing that the Scriptures are inspired by God and furnish a sufficient guide to eternal verities (2 Timothy 3:16).

As for salvation, Confucius and his followers concentrate upon how to live well, and prosperously, on this earth and in this age. The Bible does not neglect such matters (see, for example, the Book of Proverbs), but affirms that our relationship with God trumps all other concerns. In contrast to Confucianism, Christians believe that human beings are both good, since they are created in the image of God, and also evil, since we are all fallen (Genesis 1:16, 31; Romans 3:9-18, 23).

Furthermore, where Confucius placed his hopes on the power of humans to improve themselves through study, effort, and conformity to ritual, the Bible teaches that we are dead in sin, slaves to sin, and under condemnation by a righteous God who must punish evil (John 8:34; Ephesians 2:1-3). The only way for us to be reconciled to God is through sincere repentance and faith in Christ (Romans 3:21-26). Improvement of our character only comes by the power of the Holy Spirit, who is given to all who rely solely on Christ for salvation (Romans 7:6; 8:12-13).

Extending this core beliefs outward to society, Christians do not look for a perfectly “harmonious society” on this earth. While they are under obligation to do all that they can to show love for their neighbors and to improve conditions in the world, they place their hopes for a perfect society upon the return of Christ, when he will usher in a “new heaven and a new earth, in which righteousness dwells” (2 Peter 3:13). Their expectations both of individuals and of governments are limited therefore. When humans fail to practice justice, they are saddened, even outraged, but they are not surprised, nor do they harbor hatred against those who have disappointed them. Instead, they pray for their leaders and practice such good works as God enables them to perform, serving as “salt and light” in a dark world (1 Timothy 2:1-2; Titus 3:8; Matthew 5:13-16).

(For more points of both comparison and contrast, see my Confucius and Christ, which is available in Chinese. The English sections are published as Jesus: The complete Man; the English original of the material on Confucius may obtained in digital form by writing me at civirginia@nexet.net.)

Conclusion

We see, therefore, that while Christians can affirm much that Confucianism teaches, they believe that God has provided them with an even more valid, complete, and useful body of knowledge in the Scriptures. And not just information: They rejoice in the grace of God, who has given them new life, brought them into fellowship with himself and with other believers, made them children in a new family with God as Father, empowered them to experience substantial moral change in their lives, and sent them into the world with a mandate to reflect the glory of God by word and deed. Whenever they can, they will join hands with followers of Confucius to promote all that is good and right; when it is necessary, they will gently and respectfully point Confucianists away from the great Chinese Sage to Jesus, the Only Savior.

G. Wright Doyle
February, 2011

For Further Reading

Especially recommended:

  • Lit-sen Chang, Asia’s Religions: Christianity’s Momentous Encounter with Paganism.
  • Jingpan Chen, Confucius as a Teacher: Philosophy of Confucius with Special Reference to Its Educational Implications.
  • Chichung Huang, The Analects of Confucius: A Literal Translation with an Introduction and Notes.

Confucius and Confucianism (and other belief systems):

  • Daniel A. Bell, China’s New Confucianism: Politics and Everyday Life in a Changing Society.
  • Wing-tsit Chan, A Source Book in Chinese Philosophy.
  • H.G. Creel, Chinese Thought from Confucius to Mao Tse-tung.
  • ________, Confucius and the Chinese Way.
  • G. Wright Doyle and Peter Xiaoming Yu, China: Ancient Culture, Modern Society.
  • Philip J. Ivanhoe and Bryan W. Van Nordern, Readings in Classical Chinese Philosophy.
  • Mario Poceski, Introducing Chinese Religions.

Christianity and Confucianism:

  • Julia Ching, Confucianism & Christianity: A Comparative Study.
  • Ralph R. Covell, Confucius, the Buddha, and Christ: A History of the Gospel in Chinese.
  • Xinzhong Yao, Confucianism and Christianity: A Comparative Study of Jen and Agape
  • K.K. Yeo, Musing with Confucius and Paul: Toward a Chinese Christian Theology.