THE IMPACT OF LUTHERAN REFORMATION ON AFRICA WITH SPECIAL REFERENCE TO THE EVANGELICAL LUTHERAN CHURCH IN TANZANIA by Rev. Joseph M. Bocko, Ph.D.
Africa is the second largest continent, home to 54 recognized countries and some of the world’s greatest geographical and cultural diversity with a population of 1.2 billion. Christianity today is the fastest growing religion in Sub-Saharan Africa, outpacing even Islam. Africa is a home to a young, vibrant and dedicated Christian community that is swiftly taking its place as a leader in global Community of faith.
Historically, Africans worshipped and believed in God as a Supreme Being from time immemorial. God has different African names based on tribe and culture but has the same characteristics of omnipotence, omnipresence, and omniscience. Africans didn’t know about Jesus Christ until western missionaries reached out to the continent with the Gospel. For African Lutherans, the Reformation marks a great rediscovery of a fundamental aspect of the Gospel message. Faith alone (Sola Fide) through Jesus Christ (Solus Christus) brings salvation, see Luke 7: 48-50. That fundamental aspect of the Gospel message is the justification of the sinner by means of unconditional love and undeserved grace. Salvation Not for Sale touches African minds and hearts in a very special way. The 500th Reformation anniversary highlights this aspect of the Gospel, namely that the heart of the Gospel is not a righteousness that God demands but that God gives. We are saved by the grace of God alone. (Sola Gratia) Ephesians 2:8.
In teaching grace alone, Luther constantly “reminds us that God always takes the initiative, prior to any human response, even as he seeks to awaken that response.” Glory belongs to God alone (Soli Deo Gloria). God’s glory is the central motivation for salvation, not improving the lives of people—though that is a wonderful byproduct. God is not a means to an end; he is the means and the end.
“From Wittenberg, Germany October 31, 1517 to Windhoek, Namibia May 10, 2017” Lutherans (12th LWF Assembly) affirmed that reformation continues. During this time of global Reformation commemoration and celebration, African Lutherans, joined by the global Lutheran community, looked critically at Theological Education, Leadership Formation, Renewal of the Church, and Lutheran Identity.
The 500th Anniversary of the Reformation is such a powerful focal point in Africa in 2017 for the further formation of the global community of faith. This anniversary is commemorated ecumenically through various conferences, church consultations, workshops and cultural events, and publications. The ecumenical commemoration includes: Lutherans, Catholics, Episcopalians (Anglicans), Methodists, Presbyterians, Mennonites, and Pentecostals. According to the ELCT North Western Diocese Bishop Dr. Abednego Keshomshahara, the anniversary is a reaffirmation of (the reformer) Martin Luther’s commitment to reform the church. I visited Tanzania this year. It’s hard to believe that there are, on average, more attendees in Sunday worship services in the Evangelical Lutheran Church in Tanzania than in Europe and North America combined. The second-largest Lutheran church in Africa, the Ethiopian Evangelical Church Mekane Yesus – or “The Place of Jesus” (EECMY), has 7.5 million members and is the largest Lutheran Church in the world.
The Evangelical Lutheran Church in Tanzania’s General Secretary Mr. Brighton L. Killewa said there are 6.5 million Lutherans in Tanzania. There are nearly 20 million Lutherans in Ethiopia, Tanzania, and Madagascar combined. Luther has traveled far indeed, and the farther south he goes, the warmer his reception. I was born and raised in the Evangelical Lutheran Church in Tanzania and went to Lutheran Schools, except once. Our four children were delivered in Lutheran hospitals. The "Serving the Whole Person" approach, which was developed in the 1970s, has helped the Lutheran Church in Africa grow by leaps and bounds. This 'holistic ministry’ in evangelism and development work is quite visible and so powerful.
THE EMBRACE OF UBUNTU BY AFRICAN LUTHERAN THEOLOGIANS:
Ubuntu can best be described as a philosophy of life that in its most fundamental sense represents personhood, humanity, humaneness, and morality. It is the essence of being human. It describes a pervasive spirit of caring and community, harmony, hospitality, respect, and responsiveness that individuals and groups display for one another. Among its important values are group solidarity, conformity, compassion, human dignity, and collective unity.
Martin Luther fought so hard for people to have access to the Scripture, the best resource for knowing God, in a language that speaks to their minds and hearts. The Bible alone is our highest authority (Sola Scriptura). He set an example by translating the Bible into German that empowered German culture and language. In the early 1900’s, there were Bible translations in 113 African languages. By 2015, there were translations in 750 languages. Each translation is like a repeat of Pentecost (Acts 2:16)—Each one hears the message in their own language–the mighty works of God.
When people read the Bible in their own language, they can understand better and relate to God more deeply. The Bible is the best tool we have for becoming more like Christ. First, it’s an incredible guide – lamp for our feet (Psalm 119: 105). And second the Holy Spirit can speak through it to change our minds and hearts (Romans 12:2). With God’s word in their midst, African communities are increasingly finding freedom from sin, fear, selfishness, and destructive behaviors.
Today, almost 500 years after the Reformation initiated by Martin Luther, African Christians are grateful to God that we have inherited a renewal and transforming movement in the church. Today’s African challenges are not new: corruption, endemic poverty, economic instability, globalization problems, and exploitation of human and natural resources are quite real. These problems are like those that confronted the sixteenth century Reformation movement. Unless the church in Africa continues to embrace renewal, fight for justice and play its prophetic role, they can easily lose credibility and effectiveness. There are no easy ways to resolve some of the ethical questions of the twentieth and twenty-first centuries. However, we can learn from the focus of the renewal movement at the heart of the Reformation.