As we’ve blogged about earlier, the Ethiopian Evangelical Church Mekane Yesus has broken ties with its mother church in Sweden over gay marriage and related issues. Now the 6 million-strong church–one of the fastest growing in the world (and the third largest Lutheran church in the world)–is seeking ties with the Lutheran Church Missouri Synod.
Here is a fascinating interview between Rev. Berhanu Ofgaa and Deaconness Pamela Nielsen that tells the story of Mekane Yesus, which means “Place of Jesus,” a name that confesses the real presence of Christ that all Lutherans should start using.
From the LCMS website:
[OFGAA] Coming to Ethiopia, the strategy of the Swedish mission in reaching out was by freeing the enslaved people of the north, preaching the Gospel to them and sending them back to their own homes [in the south.] The Bible was first translated in the Oromo language in the 1880s and this was significant because this is the largest tribe. Following this, other mission organizations joined in, Norwegian and Danish Lutheran missions, [and] finally the American Lutheran mission in [the] 1950s, and they really contributed to the [church's] constitution because one of their leaders was … Rev. Herbert Schaffer. He has a significant history. He was one of the early church leaders in [the] 1960s and also the one who helped to start the seminary in 1960, purchasing the lot.
So in 1959, a century after five missionaries came, the EECMY was founded as an indigenous church with 50,000 baptized members. Within 60 years, the growth is from 50,000 to 6.1 million, organized into 8,000 congregations, 25 synods, like your districts in the LCMS. One synod can have as many as 800,000 members, depending on the size.
So that’s how it is, the ministry of the church is still progressing fast, [we are] one of the fastest-growing churches globally. Having said that about the growth of the church, the decision [to break fellowship with the Lutheran Church of Sweden and the Evangelical Lutheran Church in America (ELCA)] by the [EECMY] church a few weeks ago was not a new decision. This decision was made in [the] last four years by the council of the church, the second decision-making body in the structure of the church. They studied the challenge of human sexuality especially regarding the partner churches that had legalized gay marriage and ordination. So that has gradually resulted in a big conflict between those churches and the EECMY.
The EECMY, having gone through deep theological reflection and study about these differences, resulting in first advising those churches in a pastoral letter to “get back to the Bible and reinstate their relationship with the Church.” But within the time of notification — one year — they didn’t. In fact, writing in their own context, they said, “There was no way we will change the decision we have made.” And that is what led to the 6th council of the church which met about four years ago to decide such decision and then after a year of notification, the 7th council of the church decided to terminate the relationship with these two churches, the Church of Sweden and the ELCA.
So it is that action which was reported to the general assembly of the church in February of this year and the assembly reaffirmed the decisions made by the council. . . .
REPORTER: What is the EECMY’s view of the Scriptures?
OFGAA: EECMY is very conservative. By this I mean, in the constitution of the EECMY, the position that the Bible is fully inspired by the Holy Spirit and infallible and fully the Word of God without any contradiction. So we don’t entertain or permit any attempt of liberalizing or going against that conviction of the EECMY. The EECMY is very evangelical in its view but considers the Bible as fully inspired and the Word of God.
REPORTER: How do you promote Lutheran identity?
OFGAA: We make use of the small and large catechisms. Because they have been translated into Amharic since the mission time, when the missionaries came. Even in the 1950s there were copies of them and we use them in the confirmation classes and we use them when we disciple newcomers and also in our theological schools. That’s where we start.
As Lutherans, we have all the foundational Lutheran documents, and we teach our systematic and confessional theologies. The Book of Concord was translated into Amharic a couple of years ago and it is very much liked and is being distributed. A few copies have been given out so far. But the 8,000 congregations each need at least one, but we only have 1,000 copies. We have a lot to do to distribute that … to all the congregations of the EECMY.
REPORTER: That was one of your requests to the LCMS, to get the Book of Concord to each congregation.
OFGAA: Yes. Also, because of the decision, since the mission time there was an exchange of support and resources coming to our local mission projects that support the work of the church. But now those funds are not continuing, so we are … encouraging communicants to give their tithes to the church. So one of the ways of encouraging this is to build congregational capacity as part of our strategic plan, raising funds and doing mission and generating income.
One of our discussions while we were here was to borrow money from the Lutheran Church Extension Fund, to start some income-generating institutions, like purchasing a commercial building in Addis Ababa [the capital city of Ethiopia] to make the church self-supporting and to replace all the financial shortcomings we experience with this decision.
Yes, there are obstacles to overcome. Mekane Yesus ordains women, for example. But the potential is huge. They don’t even have enough Books of Concord for every congregation! Of course, they are likely to be insufficiently confessional by LCMS standards.
But they want help. Money, to be sure. Losing the Swedish church subsidy was an enormous blow, and it was to their credit that they took the step they did. (Something, I am told, other African and Third World churches want to do but dare not, given their funding from liberal church bodies.) But they want LCMS help with pastoral training!
We could help shape a church body with over twice our membership, no doubt learning from them about the way they grow and their experience in enduring persecution (such as Mekane Yesus experienced under the previous Marxist regime and under Islam).
UPDATE: Just today I had a conversation with someone knowledgeable about the Church of Sweden and its African connections. He said that ordaining women isn’t going so well in Mekane Yesus–it doesn’t accord well with Ethiopian culture–and he thinks that the church body, free from its ties to liberal European churches, might actually go confessional.
HT: Adam Hensley