Dual allegiance:

A reflection on venerating ancestral spirits

How can you help someone wrestling between their ingrained traditions and their new life in Jesus?

Christopher Kabwe Mukuka, MA, is a pastor in East Zambia. He is completing a PhD in World Missions at the Adventist University of Africa in Nairobi, Kenya.

Yomi Adegoke tells us the story of Michelle Yaa.

“Yaa, like increasing numbers of the African diaspora, decided to stop practicing Christianity in favor of a religion of African heritage. Raised a Seventh Day Adventist [sic], she spent her childhood questioning Christian doctrine. When she didn’t receive the answers she sought from church, she stopped attending.

“It wasn’t until the end of university that Yaa reconnected with any form of religion. One day, she says, she began hearing voices. Rather than call her doctor, she called on her ancestors, writing down the names of those she could remember and surrounding herself with the slips of paper. She claims that this took place before she knew what the practice of ancestral worship was. . . .

“She began communicating with her ancestors frequently through rituals.”1

In this case, Michelle called on her ancestors after she stopped going to church. With dual allegiance, a person contacts their ancestors while still professing to be a practicing member of the church. Paul Dosunmu acknowledges that “dual allegiance is a state of mind that is subsequently played out in practical ways.” It can be described as “an internal or psychological system of inconsistencies, doubts, and fears that eventually become manifest in the lives of the religion’s adherents.”2

John Mbiti laments, “Africans are notoriously religious.”3 However, this lamentation extends beyond the boundaries of Africa. Dual allegiance is implicitly or explicitly worshiping the spirits, and it is found regardless of how evangelized or educated a person may be. The inclination to dual allegiance is prominent among many believers, especially concerning the worship, or veneration, of ancestral spirits.4

Ancestors beliefs

In my ministry context, when a person dies, the community ensures that everyone adheres to the veneration of ancestral spirits or risks being charged by community leaders or banished from the village. The community believes that the dead are still alive. This kind of thinking poses a big challenge to helping the community to understand their condition in death and assisting believers to comprehend their purpose in life, leading Paul Dosunmu to comment, “There has been little biblical reflection or no satisfactory missiological consideration of the phenomenon of dual allegiance in the Adventist Church.”5

The belief in ancestral spirits is real and strong. Meyer Fortes declares, “Ancestors are considered vested with mystical powers and authority.”6 Richard Gehman maintains that these are “senior elders of the clan who are responsible for guarding the family traditions and life.”7 These spirits are feared in many communities. It is believed that when “the living fail to follow the customs of the fathers, it becomes the duty of the living dead to correct their mistakes.”8

Ancestors are believed to be living in a community with their descendants. They are also consulted for assistance in times of need and trouble. This agrees with Richard Gehman’s assertion that the living dead may serve as intermediaries between man and God.9 When there is a disease in the family, the blame is on the ancestral spirits who are said to be turning over in their graves. This justifies why they are venerated by giving sacrificial offerings, constructing extravagant tombstones, and erecting houses for them on the gravesite.

Critical dimensions

How does one assess a religion’s validity? Scholars generally recognize three major categories of religion: traditional religion, Western Christianity, and biblical Christianity. Seeking to evaluate the spiritual potency of these categories, Charles Kraft identifies three dimensions: (1) truth—the understanding that comes from continually experiencing divine truth; (2) power—the spiritual power that is received to bring freedom; and (3) allegiance—the allegiance/relationship with God and all the love and obedience that it entails.10

Kraft states that traditional religion has wrong allegiances, counterfeit truth, and satanic power. He maintains that Western Christianity has true allegiance and God’s truth but nothing to address the power issue. He believes that biblical Christianity has true allegiance, God’s truth, and God’s power.11 A deeper consideration of these dimensions is warranted.

Truth dimension

The truth dimension was embodied by Jesus Christ when He declared, “I am the [only] Way [to God] and the [real] Truth and the [real] Life; no one comes to the Father but through Me” (John 14:6, AMP). Kraft states that this has “to be an experienced truth, not simply intellectual truth.”12

Caleb Kim identifies truth categories that may be common among various religions: “the beginning of the universe, God and supernatural beings such as angels and demons, the origin of people, the reason for existence, moral problems such as sin, causes of sufferings, deliverance from sufferings such as salvation in Christianity.”13

However, Christianity unreservedly asserts, “And there is salvation in no one else; for there is no other name under heaven that has been given among people by which we must be saved [for God has provided the world no alternative for salvation]” (Acts 4:12, AMP). All who have joined Christianity must be aware that the focus of veneration is not dual allegiance but God and God alone.

Power dimension

In certain parts of the world, people have been power oriented, and when they are converted, they shift their focus to a power far superior to ancestors or practitioners like shamans, ngangas, and healers. That is the reason why prayers are expressed as if they are physically fighting with the devil.

While converts fellowship with other believers only once or twice a week in church, they are continually with family and community in their daily activities. These believers have learned from their parents and community about the importance of venerating ancestral spirits.

However, conversion demands that we regulate the power even of family in our lives. “He who loves father or mother more than Me is not worthy of Me; and he who loves son or daughter more than Me is not worthy of Me” (Matt. 10:37, AMP).

Allegiance dimension

Every culture has values by which “it judges human relationships to be moral or immoral.”14 This concept certainly underlies the veneration of ancestral spirits. Scripture admonishes, “ ‘ “They worship Me in vain [their worship is meaningless and worthless, a pretense], teaching the precepts of men as doctrines [giving their traditions equal weight with the Scriptures].” You disregard and neglect the commandment of God, and cling [faithfully] to the tradition of men’ ” (Mark 7:7, 8, AMP).

God demands that we present ourselves as living sacrifices and not be conformed to this world (Rom. 12:1, 2). Our allegiance cannot be cajoled, corrupted, or compromised, lest we too hear from Christ, “ ‘So you nullify the [authority of the] word of God [acting as if it did not apply] because of your tradition which you have handed down [through the elders]. And you do many things such as that’ ” (Mark 7:13, AMP).

Authentic religion

The practice of dual allegiance permeates the hearts of many professed Christians. For those venerating the ancestral spirits, let them see that the Bible does not endorse the immortality of human beings; it denies it. God is the only One who is immortal (Ps. 90:9–14, 1 Tim. 6:15, 16).

The Bible teachings confirm that the dead are not conscious and have no part in the activities of life under the sun (Eccl. 9:5). Ellen White states, “Multitudes have come to believe that it is spirits of the dead who are the ‘ministering spirits, sent forth to minister for them who shall be heirs of salvation.’ ”15 She comments that from a scriptural point of view, these spirits are not tangible spirits of dead persons but agents of darkness.

In many communities, people may appear to be very religious like those in Athens, as outlined in Acts 17:22–34. They were ignorant about God, the Creator of the universe. Paul then outlines the character of this God of whom they were ignorant. James Dunn declares, “The personal pronoun ego is emphatic; it stresses the apostle’s resolve to proclaim the unknown God as the only God.”16 Simply to be religious can never suffice, especially if tied to a wrong religion.

The veneration of ancestral spirits is hugely influential, even in Christianity. Reverence for Christ, however, must replace respect for culture. Fear must fall before faith. Truth must triumph over tradition. “Therefore God overlooked and disregarded the former ages of ignorance; but now He commands all people everywhere to repent [that is, to change their old way of thinking, to regret their past sins, and to seek God’s purpose for their lives]” (Acts 17:30, AMP).

  1. Yomi Adegoke, “ ‘Jesus Hasn’t Saved Us’: The Young Black Women Returning to Ancestral Religions,” Vice, Sept. 13, 2016, vice.com/en_us/article/bjgxx4/jesus-hasnt-saved-us-young-black-women-returning-ancestral-religions.
  2. Paul Adekunle Dosunmu, A Missiological Study of the Phenomenon of Dual Allegiance in the Seventh-day Adventist Church Among the Yoruba People of Nigeria (PhD diss., Andrews University, 2011), 34,digitalcommons.andrews.edu/cgi/viewcontent.cgi?article=1028&context=dissertations.
  3. John S. Mbiti, African Religions and Philosophy, 2nd ed. (Oxford, UK: Heinemann Educational, 1990), 1.
  4. See Kelvin O. Onongha, “Dual Allegiance and the Adventist Church in Nigeria,” Asia-Africa Journal of Mission and Ministry 3, 3–16, https://africansdahistory.org/wp-content/uploads/2...-and-the-Adventist-Church-in-Nigeria-by-Onongha.pdf.
  5. Dosunmu, Phenomenon of Dual Allegiance, 32.
  6. M. Fortes, “Some Reflection on Ancestor Worship,” in African Systems of Thought, ed. Meyer Fortes and Germaine Dieterlen (London: Oxford University Press, 1965), 122–142.
  7. Richard Gehman, African Traditional Religion in the Light of the Bible (Plateau State, Nigeria: African Christian Textbooks, 2013), 126.
  8. Gehman, African Traditional Religion, 125.
  9. Gehman, African Traditional Religion, 126.
  10. Charles H. Kraft, “Spiritual Power: A Missiological Issue,” in Appropriate Christianity, ed. Charles H. Kraft (Pasadena, CA: William Carey, 2005), 361–395.
  11. Kraft, “Spiritual Power,” 364.
  12. Kraft, “Spiritual Power,” 363.
  13. Chul Soo Caleb Kim, Cultural Anthropology: From a Christian Perspective (Eldoret, Kenya: Utafiti Foundation, 2019), 164.
  14. Paul G. Hiebert, Anthropological Insights for Missionaries (Grand Rapids, MI: Baker Academic, 1985), 33.
  15. Ellen G. White, The Great Controversy Between Christ and Satan (Mountain View, CA: Pacific Press Pub. Assn., 1950), 551.
  16. James D. G. Dunn, The Acts of the Apostles (Valley Forge, PA: Trinity Press International, 1996), 235.

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Christopher Kabwe Mukuka, MA, is a pastor in East Zambia. He is completing a PhD in World Missions at the Adventist University of Africa in Nairobi, Kenya.

April 2020

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