Editor’s note: The Rev. Berhanu Ofgaa, general secretary of the Ethiopian Evangelical Church Mekane Yesus, visited LCMS leaders at the Synod’s International Center in St. Louis March 27. Following is a Q-and-A interview with Reporter, conducted by Deaconess Pamela J. Nielsen.
REPORTER: What is the purpose of your visit to the LCMS International Center?
OFGAA: The purpose of my visit is to … strengthen the relationship we have had and also share our views and challenges with the leadership of LCMS.
REPORTER: Tell us about your church’s history.
OFGAA: The Lutheran Church of Ethiopia, known as the Ethiopian Evangelical Church Mekane Yesus (EECMY), has been in Ethiopia for over a century. The first arrivals were the Swedish Evangelical Mission, the mission wing of the Lutheran Church of Sweden. Then [The American Lutheran Church] missionaries who started planting Lutheran churches in Ethiopia came in [the] 1950-60s. But the vision came first from the Germans, who wanted to reach out to an unreached area in Ethiopia in the 1840s and established a mission known as Hermansbruck. It took them a century to reach their destination. In the 1960s-70s, all this came together.
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: Now you face the future, having made this break, and today you are here visiting the LCMS.
OFGAA: Well, this decision is not without a consequence. The church as you know, has foreseen what it costs — one is, what it is to be cut away from people you lived with for over 100 years. Also, when you are connected and tied in such a missionary relationship, there are many resources and personnel and services between these churches and all this would be affected by this decision. These are some of the challenges the church is confronting and I have been sharing [them] with the leadership of the LCMS during my visit here. I’ve received the open welcome and also understanding about our challenge and willingness to participate in the resolution of this great challenge the church is undergoing.
REPORTER: How has your visit been?
OFGAA: Generally, I’ve been welcomed very warmly even with the president of the church and shared my view and the view of my church with leadership at different levels.
I especially appreciate arrangements made by [the Rev. Dr. Albert Collver III, director of LCMS Church Relations] from his experience having visited Ethiopia two times and his participating deeply in the problems and challenges of the church. During my visit, some of the items we raised are what this decision means to the seminary, which is the backbone of the ministry of the church.
We have one central seminary and five regional seminaries and about 40 Bible schools leading the training of the ministers of the church. This educational institution, in one way or the other, used to depend on these partner churches and now the effect this [decision] brings on the ministry of these institutions has been discussed with the leadership of the LCMS. We have reached consensus to exchange personnel — missionaries who can participate in the teaching and leading of the seminaries and an exchange of resources to replace the supports we lost because of the decisions we made.
Also, [we discussed] an understanding of supporting the strategic plan of the EECMY — which is one-of-a-kind — the plan of reaching out to 30 million people in the coming five years. And we had a warm welcome about that plan and also an interest [by the LCMS] in working with the EECMY about realizing this vision of the EECMY.
REPORTER: Could you comment on the LCMS visit to the EECMY in February and how you have found the LCMS to be encouraging in supporting your decision?
OFGAA: Yes, especially as we acknowledge the expectation, it’s more than the usual. Because the visit in February was a time when we were in very desperate need and when we were challenged in the joint meeting with the leaders of partners and the local church held every year, known as the Committee of Mutual Christian Responsibility. It was a time of radical leadership making decisions, there were some sympathizers with those churches [who wanted to legalize same-sex marriage] and we experienced the moral support and ideal support from the LCMS and the contribution of [Collver] during this meeting. This means a lot to us and was very encouraging.
REPORTER: What is the most important thing that our two church bodies share?
OFGAA: Starting from the EECMY side, the EECMY, as we said, is a fast-growing church, active in mission but placed in an economically poor country. Like the lame person that was healed, when Peter and John said, “Gold and silver I don’t have, but I give you what I have” [Acts 2:6]. We say the same thing, even if we don’t have gold and silver, we exchange with the LCMS a rich society. We have rich experiences and culture. We share with the church in the west, but still, we expect the support in our needs, in areas of economic need, and your expertise in training pastors. So there is a lot we both can exchange and nurture [in] one another in ministry.
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.
REPORTER: Are there costs to being faithful in this world?
OFGAA: Usually the devil entices by money, like he did with Jesus. But Jesus did not yield to that, He didn’t say yes when the devil said he wanted Him to eat bread and take the things of this world. So that’s what we in the church also need to do, we don’t need to compromise with any impositions made that way.
REPORTER: How did the years under communist rule help prepare you for this?
OFGAA: Much of the strength of the EECMY in combatting … this problem comes from the experience the church has undergone during the communistic government. You know about the two decades of the military communist government. This has trained the church on how to stand for truth. When truth is compromised, one is forced to make a choice. That experience has trained us how to say yes to truth and no to everything else and face the consequence.
How God intervenes, when we, for the sake of God and truth, decide such a painful decision. We are all aware of the participation of God helping us and sending things to the way He wants and blessing even if the decision was for the worst. So that experience we had during those horrible times has strengthened and trained us. Even during the occupation, the energy was from the laity, not from the leaders, the laity went beyond and stood for the truth and said, “This is not right, we stand for what is right and face whatever it costs us.”
REPORTER: What kind of persecutions do Lutheran Christians face today?
OFGAA: Persecutions are of many differing kinds, of course. Nowadays we are living in a more democratic government and the external experience of persecution we went through during communist government is not there. But this does not mean everything is OK. For example, there’s interreligious persecution like opposition from religious extremists, even burning of churches and damaging property. Also, there are times even in this world when things seem peaceful, [but are not]. For example, the Bible is not allowed to be taught in the church schools, even with religious freedom we are not allowed to do that. So that is persecution that is silent when things seem peaceful. So we confront even things like this in these days. Persecution is still there. We are fighting in this, where truth and evil are standing side by side and the confrontation we have with truth against evil is something we continuously [fight]. The victory is at our side, because the victorious Lord is for us, that’s our conviction.
Deaconess Pamela J. Nielsen is associate executive director of LCMS Communications.