There’s a strong and hugely influential relationship between Africa and Christianity in the early Church. Starting in the Gospels and Acts, we see Africans hearing God’s good news and carrying it to others. This early influence would later, even if only indirectly, have an impact on the Reformation. But what about Africa today? And tomorrow? What might it mean for us to live in line with the Reformation in Africa in the 21st century? Is this possible, even desirable, given the huge gaps in time, culture, and space? What does it even mean to be the Reformed Church in Africa?
What might it mean for us to live in line with the Reformation in Africa in the 21st century?
There are many questions that need to be answered. And this article will, on the balance, ask more questions than it answers. But my hope is that it will move African Christians to take stock, reflect and then get up and take action.
What Do I Mean By Reformed?
If one looks West, we might think that being Reformed is about growing beards, drinking beer, and insisting that we aren’t Roman Catholic. In some cases, hardline Reformed Christians dismiss Anglicanism. Others believe that being Reformed means being politically charged. But that’s not what the Reformation was about. Therefore, these markers do not come close to what it means to be Reformed today.
But instead of debating the finer points of doctrine, I want to cast a simpler and broader vision for what it might look like to be Reformed. I believe that this vision will only strengthen the Church throughout the continent.
Sound Doctrine, Deep Faith
Historically, the Reformation was about practicing right doctrine with a contrite heart and justified soul before God, then proclaiming the true gospel. Of course, determining “right doctrine” is not an open shut case. We should not forget that the Reformation was in many ways a period of intense doctrinal debate. Furthermore, the Reformers’ historical opponents prized contrition too! But, at the very least, being Reformed involves a serious commitment to sound biblical doctrine and deep personal faith.
Being Reformed means being committed to Reformation principles rather than merely the past.
I like how Wim Dreyer puts it. He says that being Reformed is not primarily about following the events of five hundred years ago, but about the response of each generation to the new challenges it faces. Being Reformed means being committed to Reformation principles rather than merely the past. Taken together, wherever and whenever the Reformed church finds itself, it should be serious about its theological heritage and applying that heritage to present challenges.
Are We On The Right Path?
This raises a critical question. Is the Reformed Church in Africa on the right path? Have we lost our way? And if we have, can we find our way back?
The Church (universal) has faced many issues through the ages: doctrinal crises, political warfare, hijacking by greedy monarchs, the emergence of naturalism as well as modern liberalism, and nominalism. In all these, the Church has endured through the love of her husband, Christ. 2000 years after his death, the Church is still here. We should not take God’s gracious and loving preservation of his Church for granted.
We should not take God’s gracious and loving preservation of his Church for granted.
But, right now, in 21st century Africa, are we being faithful to that love? Do we still believe in the glorious truth of justification by faith alone? Or have we danced too close to the fire of works-salvation?
So Many Challenges
Just in my own corner of the world, the last five years have thrown up a plethora of popular slogans and hashtags: the #MeToo movement, Black Lives Matter, and the sudden upsurge in advocates for abortion and transgenderism to name a few. In 2020, facing COVID-19, South Africa was confronted with what was called the “second pandemic,” gender-based violence. Alcohol and substance abuse are also rising significantly. So much pain. Almost pervasive anxiety. Innumerable questions. But what will the Reformed Church do? How will we respond?
Will we hold on to the five solas, the Reformed confessions and early Church creeds? Or will we abandon God’s Word for the accepted worldview of intersectionality and critical theory? Will we stand with the early Church in affirming the truths of Christ’s divinity, his cosmic lordship, or will we affirm the many religions and spiritual movements that surround us?
The path before the Reformed Church has many pitfalls.
These are just some of the questions that the Reformed Church faces in the current socio-political climate. And these vary from culture to culture, of course. But will our generation respond with the preaching of the unadulterated gospel? Will we continue to rely on the Word of God for our doctrine and our devotion? Are we still utterly dependent on the Spirit for our ministry and our missions?
On paper and in theory, we know how we should answer these questions. But in reality it’s much more difficult. The path before the Reformed Church has many pitfalls.
Being A Reformed Church In Africa
Statistics show that Christians make up a vast majority of the African continent. According to data collected by Pew Research, by 2060 more than 40% of the continent’s Christians will be in sub-Saharan Africa. This means that we are in a unique position to preach the gospel.
The problem is not that we are faced with different or unique challenges. These confront every generation. They may change their names and natures, but there will always be challenges facing believers. But will the Reformed Church respond to the world’s challenges like Paul urges? The Reformed church must hold onto the glorious riches of God’s gracious salvation in Christ (Romans 1-11) and walk in loving obedience to him (Romans 12-16). If we take pride in our Reformed tradition as being biblically based, our Christian walk will reflect what the Bible teaches.
We must let our love of the truth cause us to share it with others.
The Reformed Church in Africa is in a strong position with almost endless potential, given the moral and spiritual collapse of many churches in the West. Therefore we must seize the opportunity. We must let our love of the truth cause us to share it with others.
It’s with the love for correct doctrine that we see heart’s transformed for Christ, to live for him. It’s the love of knowing that we are saved by grace alone, through faith alone, in Christ alone, according to the Scriptures alone, to the glory of God alone that prompts us to share the gospel of God’s amazing love and power to save us.
Standing Against Unbiblical Teaching
How often do we see people ensnared in the prosperity movement sharing videos of well-oiled men in fancy outfits who live in palatial houses? How often do we see churches posting messages calling us to obedience under the Law so that we may be saved? I could list more examples, similar to those confronted in the Reformation. But the real question is this: how often do we see these demonic evils and do nothing?
We must tell our people about the wonder of grace.
The African church can never reform, will never grow and prosper (in the biblical, God-ordained and Spirit-filled way), while we allow these evils to taint the minds and souls on our continent. We cannot allow false teachers to speak of ‘justification by tithes.’ We must denounce that evil, and tell our people about the wonder of grace.
As long as Africa still holds the shackles of sin close to her heart, we have failed. When we start preaching the life giving doctrines of the Reformation and reaching out to our brothers and sisters: inviting people to church, to Bible study, giving people the Bible in their own language, getting gospel preaching in the local vernacular, then we will have succeeded. Then we will have been good and faithful servants.