Msafiri: Ethiopia

Africa messes with your head.

If you like to keep your stereotypes pure and undisturbed, Ethiopia is going to be hard on you. If you think Africa is a huge jungle inhabited by wild animals and primitive tribes, you are going to have to adjust to the cool, dry, urban climate in the hills of Addis Ababa. If you assume civilization—and Christianity—came to Africa courtesy of Europeans and Americans in the 19th century, your stereotypes are about to get knocked senseless by about 18 centuries of Christianity in Ethiopia. If you imagine African “mission fields” as small, weak, struggling churches where “missionaries” (who are, of course, white!) still lead the way to evangelize the Dark Continent, then maybe I better not tell you about the largest Lutheran Church body in northern Africa, the Ethiopian Evangelical Church Mekane Yesus (EECMY).

Ethiopia is an exception in many ways. Unlike almost every other modern nation-state in Africa, Ethiopia was never colonized. The Italian fascists tried to occupy it, but local opposition and British intervention snuffed out Mussolini’s dream of African empire during World War II. While most African countries struggle with the legacy of colonialism, Ethiopians remember the scars—and the martyrs—of the brutal communist regime (1974-1990); that means that in some ways they are more like the post-communist eastern Europeans than other (post-colonial) Africans.

Mekane Yesus” is Amharic for “the place where Jesus lives.” The EECMY is not your usual idea of a small “mission church.” Last year they counted over 5.5 million members, and they are growing at a rate of about 5% a year. (Do the math—that’s a lot of baptisms every Sunday!). They have a growing number of passionate, faithful, and educated leaders. And they are largely independent: foreign missionaries are definitely not in charge here. In fact, the EECMY recently wrote to some of its long-time overseas partners, the ELCA and the Church of Sweden, calling on them to repent of their decisions about homosexual unions and gay clergy.

There are plenty of challenges and problems here, too, of course, to complicate the picture. There are still not nearly enough well-trained pastors, evangelists, and lay preachers (and all those new Christians to teach and care for, remember?)—so who knows what’s really getting preached in thousands of sermons across this huge church! They sometimes describe themselves as “charismatic” (but not “Pentecostal”!) and the style worship in some congregations is certainly exuberant and spontaneous (and loud!). The EECMY subscribes to the Augsburg Confession and Luther’s Catechisms “as a pure exposition of the Word of God,” but it’s hard to say if they are “confessional” the way we generally use the word. (The whole Book of Concord was just published in Amharic, so most of their clergy have not read or digested it yet.) The EECMY takes a firm Biblical stand against same-sex unions and non-celibate gay clergy, yet they started ordaining women pastors ten years ago and now seventeen of the more than 2000 ordained pastors in the EECMY are women. (Even that number may be misleading since each of the 21 synods (like our districts) in the EECMY can decide for itself on this practice; but it is an issue which needs discussion if we are to grow closer.) It’s a safe bet that they will not become a doctrinal “clone” of the LCMS any time soon, but they seem genuinely glad to talk to us. Any talk of full altar and pulpit fellowship seems a very long way off.

Can—and should—a conservative, confessional member of a church like the LCMS be involved here? I think we should: we should find things we can do together with the EECMY, because I think our seriousness about Christian doctrine can help the gospel of Jesus Christ ring loud and clear in Ethiopia. And I want us to be friends with the fastest-growing Lutheran church in the world.

But it may not be easy. It will take a stiff dose of humility, and it will require us to cultivate the habit of patience. Neither comes naturally. I am impatient because I am an American, and I admit to a genetic resistance to humility because I am LCMS (it’s hard to be humble when you’re right). Ethiopia is an ambiguous place, and it will be hard on the impatient or the un-humble. It would be more comfortable to resolve all the ambiguities right away, or else keep our distance until. . . well, until this church gets more unambiguously Lutheran (as we understand the term). Keeping our distance would be easier, cheaper, and more comfortable. Finding ways to work in Ethiopia with the EECMY will mean living with ambiguity which is not in our power to resolve, and practicing patience and humility in situations where I—where we—are not in charge, not in control.

I am sure we have much to learn from the EECMY (e.g., what does it take to baptize five thousand people a week?), and I am convinced we have something to offer them, as well. But I don’t know if I can do it. I don’t know if we (as a church) can do it, because I’m not sure we have the capacity for patience and humility, and the tolerance for unresolved ambiguity we will need here.

Like I said, Africa messes with your head. That’s what I like about it.

[Msafiri means “traveler” in Swahili.]





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