Ethiopia is a country with an ancient history and rich culture dating back to the Old Testament period. Some Bible versions translate Cush in Ezek. 29:10 as “Ethiopia,” and the Oromo, the largest of Ethiopia’s many tribes, is known as “Southern Cushite.”
Christianity has been in Ethiopia for nearly 2,000 years. It became the state religion in 330 A.D. when Archbishop Athanasius of Alexandria sent a bishop to Ethiopia, resulting in the birth of the Ethiopian Orthodox Tewahedo Church, and it remains the predominant religion to this day.
Lutherans are relative latecomers to this African nation—and the LCMS later still.
Lutheran contact with Ethiopia began in the 17th century with the arrival of Dr. Peter Heyling, a young missionary from Lübeck, Germany. Heyling practiced medicine while teaching Lutheran theology to the Ethiopian clergy. Echoing Luther’s work, he translated the Gospel of John and the liturgy into Amharic, the language of the people.
When Islam demanded his conversion, Heyling refused and was martyred. His teachings, however, survived in the Ethiopian desert for nearly 200 years. Once discovered, they laid a foundation for the work of Lutheran missionaries who came to Ethiopia in the late 19th and early 20th centuries.
The missionaries — who were sent by Lutheran mission societies in Sweden, Germany, Norway, Finland, Denmark and the United States — planted a patchwork of independent churches that merged over 50 years ago to form the Ethiopian Evangelical Church Mekane Yesus (EECMY).
Mekane Yesus means “the dwelling place of Jesus.” It aptly describes this rapidly growing church body that is focused on ministering to the whole person with Christ’s gifts in Word and Sacrament.
The LCMS began regular contact with the EECMY in 2000, though informal connections occurred through individual students and professors of the EECMY in the 1970s, 80s and 90s.
The EECMY, with its zeal for missions and revitalization of congregations, has grown significantly from a church of 20,000 members in 1959. Its membership will soon surpass 7 million.
Such rapid growth creates a tremendous need for pastors and provides a challenge for this young church body with a goal of training 10,000 pastors and evangelists in five years.
Because the LCMS has an international reputation for excellence in theological education and pastoral formation, the EECMY has asked the Missouri Synod to assist in helping train future professors who will teach at its central seminary, five regional seminaries and 40 Bible schools.
The Rev. Dr. Berhanu Ofgaa, the EECMY general secretary, says that the EECMY needs a strong Lutheran identity to remain faithful in light of the many challenges the church faces — challenges ranging from Islam to Pentecostalism to liberalism. This is a conviction shared by EECMY President Rev. Dr. Wakseyoum Idosa.
In November, an LCMS delegation led by the Rev. Dr. Albert B. Collver III, LCMS Director of Church Relations and Regional Operations, met with EECMY leaders to discuss and sign a revised working–partnership agreement. The agreement includes provision for theological education and support for Mekane Yesus Seminary in Addis Ababa.
“Though differences remain,” said Collver, “the EECMY has a great respect for the LCMS’ commitment to the Holy Scriptures as the inerrant Word of God and to the Lutheran Confessions. At the same time, the LCMS can learn from the EECMY’s zeal for mission and revitalization of congregations.”
“The EECMY has a strong desire for confessional Lutheran Theology taught to the highest standards,” said the Rev. Dr. Jeffrey Kloha, provost at Concordia Seminary, St. Louis. “By strengthening their graduate programs, pastors and professors of the EECMY will be built up in the Scriptures and Confessions … We are pleased to have several pastors from the EECMY already studying for advanced degrees here through the Global Seminary Initiative. They will return to Ethiopia to strengthen theological education there for the next generation.”
The Rev. Dr. Lawrence Rast Jr., president of Concordia Theological Seminary, Fort Wayne, Ind., expanded on this, stating: “Students from the EECMY have benefited from educational opportunities at Concordia Theological Seminary (CTS) in Fort Wayne for more than a decade now. At the same time, faculty from CTS have built deep and lasting relationships with Mekane Yesus Seminary in Addis Ababa. Through this mutual interaction, we see God at work building and strengthening His church for a robust future.”
“There are great opportunities ahead for the LCMS and the EECMY as this relationship develops,” Collver said. “Thanks be to God for opening this door. LCMS ministry leaders look forward to continuing this work together.”
The Rev. Dr. Albert B. Collver III, LCMS director of Church Relations and Regional Operations, and Deaconess Pamela J. Nielsen is associate executive director for LCMS Communications, contributed to this story.