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Hmong Taboo: A Biblical Response

Updated: Dec 11, 2020

Covenantal Law Expressing the Covenantal Lord:

In the establishment of the nation of Israel, the Lord orchestrated covenantal stipulations that would identify and distinguish His people from the surrounding nations.[1] Deuteronomy 27:22 captures, for our purposes, one of the many commands given to govern the people of God amid their reign and rule in the blessed, promised land. The blessing and curse model correlates directly with the covenantal relationship between the Creator God and the nation of Israel; that is, within their arrangement Israel—functioning in the role of vassal—has moral obligations toward the suzerain King, Yahweh Himself.[2] The covenantal language in context is assumed by previous chapters when the “Lord our God made a covenant with us in Horeb” (Deut. 5:2, italics mine; cf. Ex. 19:5-6).[3] This is reiterated through the strict language in the preceding chapter, 26:16-19, when Moses says,

This day the Lord your God commands you to do these statutes and rules. You shall therefore be careful to do them with all your heart and with all your soul. You have declared today that the Lord is your God, and that you will walk in His ways, and keep His statutes and His commandments and His rules, and will obey His voice. And the Lord has declared today that you are a people for His treasured possession, as He has promised you, and that you are to keep all His commandments, and that He will set you in praise and in fame and in honor high above all nations that He has made, and that you shall be a people holy to the Lord your God, as He promised (Deut. 26:16-19, italics mine).

Thus, the precept stands in saying, “’Cursed be anyone who lies with his sister, whether the daughter of his father or the daughter of his mother’ and all the people shall say, ‘Amen’” (Deut. 27:22, cf. Lev. 18:6). The covenantal people of God, then, were to uphold these requirements as (1) a commitment to their Lord, (2) as an expression of God’s goodness to lead them toward prosperity and righteousness, and (3) to distinguish them from the nations of the world. As Waltke indicates, “what is in the divine interest is in human interest.”[4] Meaning, the revealed will of God is not designed to hinder mankind, but, quite the contrary, is meant to bring forth universal blessing, fortune, and well-being.


To this end, when the Hmong community examine instances of “taboo,” the cultural sphere organizes these endeavors under the spectrum of “incest” due to clan involvement. The question, then, is begged to be asked: Can persons of the same tribal clan court one another in marriage? Does Christian salvation and, hence, Christian freedom grant us exemption from these cultural restrictions? Should Hmong Christians partake in wedding themselves to clan members especially if they are from differing dialectic tribes, i.e., white Hmong, green Hmong, etc.? Though the Scriptures do not provide us clear-cut proof-text on these particular culture-bound questions, it is the belief of the author that the bible administrates sufficient doctrines in order to guide us in walking with wisdom through these endeavors (cf. Prov. 1:7; 4:6-7; Eccles. 2:26; 1 Cor. 1:25; Col. 2:2-3; Jas. 3:17). Thus, in responding to the initial question, my hope in charging Hmong Christians to think more biblically about the Gospel of Christ and our witness to the Truth of salvation is to anchor all things—most emphatically—upon the glory and fame of Christ (cf. 1 Cor. 10:31). That is, the purpose of engaging in these theological and cultural questions are not, primarily, self-serving but rather is intended to honor God in and through all of life and conduct (cf. 1 Cor. 10:33).


All Things are Lawful, But Not All Things are Helpful:


Interestingly, as we embark upon biblical references for our culturally saturated questions, we are met head-on by an epistle that is impregnated with internal strife. Through it all, the Apostle Paul showcases a Gospel-centeredness which informs his response to the covenant community as well as his patience for the people of God. According to Köstenberger, Kellum, and Quarles, “Paul’s response to these problems applies his thoughtful theology to very practical issues and demonstrates that theology for Paul was not static. . . The Corinthian letters show Paul’s remarkable integration of faith and practice.”[5] In light of the Gospel, the apostle initiates critical themes that govern how believers should think through the practicalities of their own life in light of salvation. Three overarching concepts surface, then, in our observation of the first epistle to Corinth: (1) a proper scope of Christian freedom, (2) the conscience of the other(s), and (3) the significance of our Christian witness.


I am Free to Restrain My Freedom. Considering the beauty and renown of Christ, the Apostle Paul counts all things as lost; that is, there is no advantage outside of Christ (cf. Phil. 3:8). Concurrently, in acquiring freedom and rights through salvation, Paul surrenders himself to his fellow image bearers in order “that I might win more of them” (1 Cor. 9:19; cf. 20-23). A phrase that is referenced at least twice in the epistle grants us access into the mindset of the Corinthians which the apostle is seeking to renew. The slogan, as Thomas R. Schreiner contends, may have come “from Stoic sources and was picked up by believers.”[6] As the slogan goes: “‘All things are lawful,’ but not all things are helpful. ‘All things are lawful,’ but not all things build up” (1 Cor. 10:23; cf. 6:23). Meaning, the new freedom that is bestowed upon the Corinthians through the blood of Christ has, now, the potential to be taken into a sphere that is harmful for the broader audience—even those outside the community of saints (cf. 1 Cor. 10:29). As Paul says elsewhere, “For you were called to freedom, brothers. Only do not use your freedom as an opportunity for the flesh, but through love serve one another” (Gal. 5:13). Hence, “His use of all things are lawful always refers to questionable practices,” says John F. MacArthur, “the gray areas of Christian living that are not specifically forbidden in the Bible.”[7] Biblical freedom, then, does not allocate autonomy for the self, but rather tempers and tethers the individual in love to the corporate body. Moreover, though we may have the freedom in Christ to engage in such endeavors, we may not necessarily have the right.


Thus, when engaging in cultural questions of tribal clan marriage, one must unpack the layers that are woven into the peculiar system of the Hmong worldview. The first question that must be addressed is: does the bible restrict us directly from marrying members of the same tribal clan as that found within the Hmong culture? No! That is, there are no proof texts that can be referenced to speak poignantly to Hmong cultural restrictions of tribal clan marriage. Thus, in principle, engaging in the act would not, in and of itself, be considered a breach of covenantal law. Again, the biblical text does not address directly the cultural question at hand. In saying that, the Scriptures still remain sufficient. We are not left to mere speculation nor subjectivism with each respective inquiry. As Matthew Barrett rightfully contends,

Sufficiency does not mean that Scripture addresses all things in the same way. Some matters are not addressed directly by God’s Word. We should not assume, however, that Scripture does not speak to those issues. To the contrary, many issues in life and even many doctrines of the faith may be addressed by Scripture indirectly. . . The same could be said when it comes to practical matters in the Christian life. At times we may need to think through the many implications and applications a particular teaching of Scripture or a specific biblical passage can have not only for our development of doctrine but for living the Christian life.[8]

Correspondingly, the second question follows: should Hmong Christians engage, then, in tribal clan marriage, or in the act of taboo? No! Similar to Paul’s posture with the Corinthians, the argument stands that though freedom in Christ grants privilege to engage in such endeavors—that is, marrying a person of the same tribal clan, as it stands on its own, is morally neutral—there must be consideration for cultural acceptability and the conscience of the other.[9]


When the apostle addresses the Corinthians, he assures them of concrete sins that are contrary to the Christian faith. Deliberate acts of sexual immorality (cf. 5:1-5; 6:13b-20) and idolatry (cf. 8:1-13; 10:1-22) are refuted straightforwardly and firmly. And yet, there are other scenarios within the Corinthian context which leaves open a myriad of practical possibilities. Some stem from the principle of marriage (cf. 7:1-16) while others speak directly to food sacrificed to idols in the marketplace (cf. 8:1-13; 10:23-11:1). The slogan, though conveying truth which the apostle does not necessarily oppose, is tempered amid its applicational force through the nature of Christian love. That is, Christian freedom is not self-seeking nor egotistic, but rather pursues “the good of his neighbor” (10:24). Thus, according to Guy Prentiss Waters, “Paul is ‘free from all,’ but makes himself a ‘servant to all’ for the Gospel’s sake (9:19; cf. 9:20-23).”[10] Though freedom is granted to the believer in areas that are amoral, Christian wisdom instructs the church that this very same freedom does not warrant practice without deep biblical consideration for one’s neighbor. Similarly, tribal clan marriage in the Hmong context may not necessarily be expressed amid the revealed will of God, but its deliberate practice—stripped from biblical principles—can end with devastating consequences.


The Existential Life with the Other in Mind. Another layer of complexity within the cultural strata of tribal clan marriage is the entailment that colors the peculiarity of Hmong marital union. That is, to practice that which is forbidden is to strike at the core of one's Hmongness. This identity, in turn, is intrinsically woven into the tapestry of the Hmong worldview. Thus, to embark upon such endeavors—even after conversion—would be in large part to scar the conscience of one’s brother and cause them to sin in themselves. As the apostle notes, in “sinning against your brothers and wounding their conscience when it is weak, you sin against Christ” (8:12). In kind, the weakness of one’s brother alludes to the fact that the act itself is amoral; that is, there is no real breach of conduct toward covenantal stipulations. Rather the offense, then, is an existential one in nature. By conscience, the brother sins in his heart because he has committed himself to the Lord and, in turn, the rupture of that pledge—when his conscience is tampered—causes him to sin against Christ. MacArthur helpfully articulates,

God confines His spiritual children by conscience. As they grow in knowledge and maturity the limits of conscience are expanded. We should never expand our actions and habits before our conscience permits it. And we should never encourage, either directly or indirectly, anyone else to do that. . . We should be eager to limit our liberty at any time and to any degree in order to help a fellow believer—a brother whom we should love, and a precious soul for whom Christ died.[11]

In the Corinthian context, majority of the meat that was purchased and distributed circulated through pagan temples.[12] Hence, many—if not all—the believers were converted amid polytheistic surroundings. The apostle, then, sought to address these endeavors in order to better situate the saints in handling the scenarios. Paul begins his argument by saying, “Now concerning food offered to idols: we know that ‘all of us possess knowledge.’ This ‘knowledge’ puffs up, but love builds up” (8:1). Meaning, some possess the knowledge to understand that idols do not and cannot overcome salvation in Christ. Yet, in love the saints “ought to be sensitive to how other believers perceived their actions and the potential impact of others following their example (8:1-13).”[13] Furthermore, Paul anchors reality amid the fact that “‘an idol has no real existence,’ and that ‘there is no God but one’” (8:4). Thus, to partake in such a meal would not hinder us nor aid us in our spiritual pursuit toward God. “We are no worse off if we do not eat,” says the apostle, “and no better off if we do” (8:8b). However, believers must not solely operate from the vantage point of the self. Rather, they must be aware that “not all possess this knowledge” (8:7). Therefore, believers are to “take care that this right of yours does not somehow become a stumbling block to the weak” (8:9). Christian freedom, i.e., true freedom, is bound by love to the other for the building up of the church and the glory of God.


To restrict ourselves, then, of tribal clan marriage would be to place our first-generation parents and grandparents above ourselves for the sake of Christ. It is the safeguarding of the other in hopes of building conscience in loving Christ more fully and more deeply. It is to take hold of the mind of Christ, then, in “[counting] others more significant than yourselves” (Phil. 2:3). Yet, as we will see, this not only serves those who are in the covenant community but will also pay dividends in the evangelistic witness of the broader Hmong community.


Being Prudent with Our Public Witness. The last and final layer of our examination will be the faithfulness of church’s witness. What we have seen in Paul’s rebuke against the Corinthian church is the mishandling of their moral failures. In the episode of the man sleeping with his father’s wife, Paul delivers a harsh response, “And you are arrogant! Ought you not rather to mourn? Let him who has done this be removed from among you” (5:2). However, the most beneficial portion of the apostle's correction for our purposes will be when he says, “It is actually reported that there is sexual immorality among you, and of a kind that is not tolerated even among pagans” (5:1; italics mine). That is, their conduct is in such a way that even those contrary to the faith deems it necessarily wicked and abominable.


The tribal clan marriage of the Hmong context, then, operates in the same vein, in that those of pagan disposition deems such acts horrid. Consequently, to commence would, in turn, ruin the church’s witness and credibility. Not saying that the secular world constitutes the grounds for moral stability, but that in a situation in which amoral metrics is in play, cultural sensitivities can assist in measuring the climate of conscience. Similarly, in the topic of food sacrificed to idols, Paul commissions the saints to “Eat whatever is sold in the meat market without raising any question on the ground of conscience” (10:25). His premise for such a charge is that “the earth is the Lord’s and the fullness thereof” (10:26). That is, the apostle draws upon the doctrine of creation in justifying his claim to take on such meals to the glory of God. Nevertheless, Paul tempers his claim if /when the conscience of the other is placed into the equation. Meaning, in the instance where the one bearing the conscience is an unbeliever, the saint is to restrain himself from indulging in cultic meals. Paul goes on to say,

If one of the unbelievers invites you to dinner and you are disposed to go, eat whatever is set before you without raising any question on the ground of conscience. But if someone says to you, “this has been offered in sacrifice,” then do not eat it, for the sake of the one who informed you, and for the conscience—I do not mean your conscience, but his. For why should my liberty be determined by someone else’s conscience? (10:27-29; italics mine)

Thus, for the sake of the Gospel, the apostle charges the saints to keep their conduct among the Gentiles honorable (cf. 1 Pet. 2:12a). “Whether in the company of believers or unbelievers,” contends Waters, “the Christian is to exercise his liberty with a view to the spiritual well-being of those around him.”[14] Correspondingly, for Hmong Christians to defer their salvific freedom for the sake of the unbeliever is to walk in accord with the Gospel of Christ (cf. Phil. 2:5-11). Schreiner helpfully adds, “Living for the glory of God means that believers consider what will lead to the salvation and edification of others, and thus they will not do anything to cause offense.”[15] To this end, all of this is done in keeping in step with a Gospel witness to a dying and depraved world. Tribal clan marriage, then, must be restricted, in my humble opinion, for the sake of Gospel witness to the Hmong people across the world. This current question does not merely have Western Americanized implications, but encompasses a global affair. Thus, our current assessment has enormous ramifications.


Build Your House Upon the Rock:


In thinking through these cultural implications, the church is not seeking for the approval of the natural world. Nor should the church seek to undo the offense of the cross. Rather, the aim of the covenant community is to “lay aside every weight, and sin which clings so closely, and let us run with endurance the race that is set before us” (Heb. 12:1; italics mine). In doing so, the church must be willing to keep the glory of God in view as she engages in the grey areas of life. As the Apostle charges, “So, whether you eat or drink, or whatever you do, do all to the glory of God. Give no offense to Jews or to Greeks or to the church of God, just as I try to please everyone in everything I do, not seeking my own advantage, but that of many, that they may be saved” (10:31-33; italics mine). Accordingly, there is an obligation for the Hmong church to think critically and rigorously through these cultural issues. Moreover, second and third generation Hmong must ponder beyond the self and their attractional desires, and place these so-called restrictions onto broader perspectives. Simply put, these are Gospel-issues which will formulate the contours of our evangelistic efforts for years to come.


Thus, when engaging in the bi-cultural tension of our current context, the Hmong Christian must, first, allow the Word of God to direct and guide her steps through Spirit empowered application (cf. Ps. 119:105). Hence, outside of Christ—who is the living Logos—the church has no grounds for any truth claim. As Cornelius Van Til rightly articulates, “Human reason is not a simple linear extension of divine reasoning. The human activity or interpretation always runs alongside of and is subordinate to the main plan or purpose of God.”[16] Therefore, when engaging in the difficult gradation of the Hmong culture within the American sphere, the Hmong church must anchor themselves in the Word of God which is sufficient to guide our path toward the glory and renown of Christ Jesus. Soli Deo Gloria!

 

***footnotes***

[1] See Gerhard von Rad, Old Testament Theology: The Theology of Israel’s Historical Traditions, Vol. 1, trans. D. M. G. Stalker (San Francisco, CA: Harper & Row Publishers, 1962), 190-203.

[2] See Robin Routledge, Old Testament Theology: A Thematic Approach (Downers Grove, IL: IVP Academic, 2008), 161. Routledge acknowledges that the covenantal system is grounded in ANE treaties which encapsulates many different components. Of those, the document clause is exemplified in Deuteronomy 27:1-26. See also Bruce K. Waltke, An Old Testament Theology: An Exegetical, Canonical, and Thematic Approach (Grand Rapids, MI: Zondervan, 2007), 479-511.

[3] John H. Sailhamer, The Pentateuch as Narrative: A Biblical-Theological Commentary (Grand Rapids, MI: Zondervan, 1992), 470.

[4] Waltke, An Old Testament Theology, 501.

[5] Andreas Köstenberger, L. Scott Kellum, and Charles L. Quarles, The Cradle, the Cross, and the Crown: An Introduction to the New Testament (Nashville, TN: B&H Academic, 2009), 463.

[6] Thomas R. Schreiner, Handbook on Acts and Paul’s Letters (Grand Rapids, MI: Baker Academic, 2019), 142.

[7] John F. MacArthur, “1 Corinthians” in The MacArthur New Testament Commentary (Chicago, IL: Moody Publisher, 1984), 245.

[8] Matthew Barrett, God’s Word Alone: The Authority of Scripture, The 5 Solas Series (Grand Rapids, MI: Zondervan, 2016), 336.

[9] I know that we have not discussed the appropriate distance necessary in order to grant tribal clan marriage. That is, how far does a Yang have to be from another Yang in order to legitimize marital union? I admit that this is a necessary question, but, for now, it is a tangent for my initial purposes. My stance in this article is that we should restrict same tribal clan marriage and, therefore, this question does not need to be addressed at this point.

[10] Guy Prentiss Waters, “1-2 Corinthians,” A Biblical-Theological Introduction to the New Testament: The Gospel Realized, ed. Michael J. Kruger (Wheaton, IL: Crossway, 2016), 235.

[11] MacArthur, 1 Corinthians, 196.

[12] Schreiner, Handbook on Acts and Paul’s Letters,152-156.

[13] Köstenberger, Kellum, & Quarles, The Cradle, the Cross, and the Crown, 489.

[14] Waters, “1-2 Corinthians,” A Biblical-Theological Introduction to the New Testament, 236.

[15] Schreiner, Handbook on Acts and Paul’s Letters, 164.

[16] Cornelius Van Til, An Introduction to Systematic Theology: Prolegomena and the Doctrine of Revelation, Scripture, and God, 2nd ed., ed. William Edgar (Phillipsburg, NJ: P&R Publishing, 2007), 66.

 

McYoung Y. Yang (MDiv, The Southern Baptist Theological Seminary; ThM, Midwestern Baptist Theological Seminary) is the husband to Debbie and the father to McCayden (12), McCoy (11), McColsen (8), and DeYoung (5). He is a Teaching Pastor at Covenant City Church in St. Paul, MN and a homeschool dad to his four children. McYoung is continuing his doctoral studies at Midwestern Baptist Theological Seminary in Kansas City, MO. His ambition is to use his training as a means to serve the local church in living life through the Gospel lens.

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