For many centuries, the church in Africa has suffered a spiritual identity and inferiority crisis. The assumption has been that the church in Africa is dependent upon the church in the West for its evangelism, its spiritual edification, its intellectual/academic instruction, and even its funding. Much of this mindset has arisen from the assumption that Christianity has historically flowed from the north (Europe / the West) to the south (Africa). But this assumption can be questioned. In fact, it has been substantially argued that early Christianity in the West was deeply enriched and impacted by the church in North Africa.
Such names as Origen, Augustine, Tertullian, Athanasius and Cyprian are familiar to students of church history, but what is not so familiar is that each of these was African. The cities of Alexandria, Carthage, Hippo and Cyrene were cities where churches thrived in the early centuries of the Christian era. And each of these were (and are) African cities.
In a 2007 book by recently deceased Thomas C. Oden (How Africa Shaped the Christian Mind), the author ably demonstrates that the so called Western university was actually the product of the way learning was approached in North Africa—long before the names of Oxford and Cambridge and Sorbonne became identified as the epitome of education. No doubt the team of Charlemagne and Alcuin had a huge impact upon education in the West, yet it has been shown that this too was influenced by great theological minds in North Africa. This historical reality, by the way, should be thoroughly considered by those who are so quick to speak of the need to “decolonise” education in Africa. It might be that education in Europe, and in the West generally, is the product of Africanisation—not than the other way around!
But, leaving that aside, we need to see that Christianity is not the “white man’s religion” that has replaced traditional African religion. No. When you consider history, the “traditional” religion of Africa is Christianity! As another author has noted, “When we trace the history of the church and dismiss Africa, we miss the birth canal of our faith.” That is perhaps an overstatement (since Palestine is the true birthplace of the church); nevertheless, there is something to be said for this.
The church in Ethiopia has a long and rich history, dating back to Queen Candice’s treasurer (see Acts 8). Philip, under the leadership of the Holy Spirit, evangelised this man, baptising him upon his profession of faith. This African brother then took the gospel back to his country. For anyone who has visited Ethiopia, the Abyssinian artwork that so predominates is filled with the symbolism of the cross. The famed rock churches of Lalibela testify to the presence of the gospel many, many centuries ago.
Over the centuries, as Africans from the north migrated southward, many brought the gospel with them. Contrary to popular history, it was the African and not the European who at first preached the gospel in various places on our continent.
This, of course, is not to deny the historical reality that, in much of Africa, the church failed in its stewardship of the gospel. The result was that our continent became spiritually dark. We should therefore be grateful for the multitude of missionaries that God has raised up—most of them from the West—to make disciples and to plant churches here in Africa. Clearly there remains yet much work. And yet because of the promise of Christmas—the Saviour of all peoples coming to earth—there is hope for our continent.
It is that time of year when we pay special attention to the incarnation of the Son of God, the Lord Jesus Christ. As we do, we should consider the oft-overlooked historical fact that Jesus, when He was an infant, visited and lived for a time (we aren’t told how long) on the African continent.
Shortly after Jesus was born, Joseph was warned by God through a dream to take Mary and the young child to Egypt until the death of despicable Herod the Great (Matthew 2:13–15). This was in fulfilment of Old Testament Scripture, “Out of Egypt I called my son” (Hosea 11:1). “Out of Africa” really applies here!
Jesus was the personification of perfect, idyllic Israel. He was the beloved Servant of whom Isaiah wrote (Isaiah 42, 49, 50, 52 & 53). To fulfil this typology, Jesus, like Israel of old, would experience an Exodus from Egypt. But contrary to Israel, the purpose of this Exodus would ultimately be for the salvation rather than the destruction of Egyptians. Jesus had to fulfil all that was written about Him in order to qualify as the Saviour of His people—all of His peoples, including Egyptians and other peoples in Africa.
When we consider Christmas—the incarnation—we should gratefully acknowledge that, in the providence of God, Africa played a crucial role. It appears that God intended for His Son to spend time in Africa, before spending the rest of His time in Palestine. In a sense, the gospel went from Palestine (Bethlehem) down to Africa and then back to Africa (Acts 2:10; 8:26–40) before it went north to Europe (Acts 16). It is clear that Africa was on God’s mind at that first Christmas. Africa is still on His mind.
The incarnation and Africa were closely connected nearly two thousand years ago. And ever since, the incarnation has continued to impact Africa. The gospel continues to go forth throughout our continent. People are being saved from their sins and churches are being planted. Of course, we are disturbed by the spread of the false prosperity gospel; we are distressed by pastors who abuse those they claim to lead (spraying Doom on parishioners, forcing them to drink petrol, etc.); and we are grieved at doctrinally shallow, often self-obsessed, materialistic and racist churches. Yet we should be hopeful that what God has done in the past in North Africa can occur again both there and throughout Africa.
The incarnate Saviour came to Africa long ago; He can come in power again today. Let us pray and work toward that end. May God graciously revive His church and may Christmas once again become significant both in and for Africa.