Help New Converts From Non-Christian Backgrounds Honor Their Families

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.

Help New Converts from Non-Christian Backgrounds Honor Their Families

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 assure 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.

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

My burden is a simple one: We need to help new converts navigate familial issues in a way that honors Christ.

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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.

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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.

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Ajith Fernando is the teaching director of Youth for Christ in Sri Lanka after serving as the ministry's national director for thirty-five years. He and his wife, Nelun, are active in a church ministering primarily to the urban poor, and his ministry includes counseling and mentoring younger staff and pastors.