Traveling the ancient land of Ethiopia, one journeys through a people of many tribes and languages, landscapes, history and faiths. It is a country mystical, colorful, ancient, a land where empires of the both the ruthless and benevolent ruled.
It too is the place where the earliest of church plants occurred, in early New Testament witness. Ethiopia has experienced more than seventeen centuries of continuous Christian witness. More recently while bloodshed-soaked by an oppressive communist government, in recent decades an explosion of Christian conversion is changing the face of this beguiling country.
Here, as in other places, events critical to the advance of the Christian story happened when the Spirit took a problem and turned it into an opportunity. A young Ethiopian born in 1856, lost his father when but a lad. Raiding tribesman stole him from his mother, and after being traded four times he ended up in Massawa on the Red Sea, at a boys’ school run by the Swedish Evangelical Mission. He was converted and early expressed his desire to evangelize his Oromo people.
In a series of bizarre twists and turns, he studied in Sweden and returning determined to minister to his people. In four attempts, each time he was refused entry. In one of his periods of uncertainty, he began to write and translate psalms and hymns and books into the Oromo language. In time he also translated the New and Old Testaments into Oromo. For the next seventy-five years, that became the primary Bible for use and his work was foundational for the eventual spread of Christian faith.
During my recent visit, the patriarch His Holiness Abuna Mathias, patriarch of the Ethiopian Orthodox Church, invited me into his throne room. We were surrounded by symbols and artifacts of an eastern church that refused to see Rome as supreme. Much of the eastern Orthodox and Roman vestments and ceremonies are replications or reinterpretations of the Aaronic sacramental patterns from the Old Testament.
Patriarch Mathias represents over 50 million Ethiopians in a continuing link of early New Testament witness. Philip (Acts 8:26-40) led by the Spirit left the revival fires of Samaria to speak to the Ethiopian treasurer of Queen Candace, as he was returning home from attending Passover in Jerusalem. Hearing the Scriptures explained to him, he believed, was baptized and went on home. In the fourth Century, Ethiopia was the second empire to adopt Christianity as its state religion, after Armenia.
We as Evangelicals sometimes regard our churches as having started with Luther or with the founder of our tribe or denomination. Listening to the Patriarch it occurred to me how misleading it is to see the church only within our own experience. In so doing we can miss the rich history through which the Spirit has been building the church continuously over two millennia.
While there are doctrinal differences, some critical, for centuries this band of people have stood for the trinity, the incarnation of Christ and have learned to live peaceably for hundreds of years with their Muslim neighbors. Today this country is 89 percent Christian: 40 percent Orthodox, 20 percent Evangelical.
In 1930 Haile Selassie became emperor of Ethiopia, layering on himself titles such as, “King of Kings” and “Conquering Lion of the Tribe of Judah.” In 1972 a Soviet-backed communist force called “Derg” established a one-party state. Some half million were killed during its purge, with a million dying from famine. In 1991 the ruling forces were overturned. As often occurs, it was during the harsh repression that the Gospel found access into the hearts of people, with hundreds of thousands receiving Christ during this period.
The astounding growth of the church in the past few decades can be attributed to three primary factors, the first being the gracious activity of the Holy Spirit. After the fall of communism, people, who for the first time experienced the personal work of the Spirit, and enthused by this newly found knowledge and presence, were contagious in faith. Second was the effect of thirty-five ethnic groups having the Scripture in their own languages. Hearing the Bible in one’s own tongue turns words into life-giving music. Third, healing and exorcisms demonstrated faith beyond words. As one said to me, “When someone goes home from a prayer meeting, either changed as a person or healed from a disease, next week their family and friends attend as well. It just can’t be stopped.”
Ethiopia is a crossroad between Asia and the rest of Africa; it is also at a crossroad spiritually. The eastern traditions connect with the African world by location and history and it also has a remarkable affiliation with the Hebrew ethos mixed with the Christian era. Rooted in these traditions, the continuity of the Christian story provides a place where the Islamic message does not have ready access at it seems to have in other northern African countries.
Surviving the communist debacle was no small feat. Rising from the devastation of famine, Ethiopia today seeks commercial productivity to ensure national wellbeing. Now the surging tide of Islamic fundamentalism, turning their neighbor Somalia into a lawless land and wrecking havoc further west, is within shouting distance of this special place called Ethiopia.
The church obviously has two major components: Orthodox and Evangelical, one ancient, the other more recent, both with a sincere interest in finding ways in which they might work together. Pray that those who call themselves by the Christ of Nazareth will work so their combined witness will give strength to the Christian story.
Pray too that their faith will be active and dynamic, finding places and means of cooperation so that the ongoing history of the Gospel narrative will bring peace and strength to this place of antiquity and remarkable possibilities.
Brian C Stiller
World Evangelical Alliance