The story of Stélio Custema represents another example of God working in the hearts of devoted Christians here in Nampula through the literature ministries of Grace Missions and Editora Fiel.
Stélio was a member of a local Assembly of God church that preaches salvation by works—and the danger of losing your salvation if your works begin to fall short of the required threshold. This used to be the only gospel taught in Evangelical churches in Mozambique and probably is still the predominant one.
Stélio is in his late twenties. His notable devotion to God and His word lifted him at a young age to the positions of Sunday school teacher, evangelist, and instructor of Bibliology to others being trained as teachers by his denomination. His sincere interest in others and zeal for leading them to Christ gave him much influence in his sphere of acquaintances.
The pastor of his local assembly once worked for Wycliff’s Summer Institute of Linguistics (S.I.L.) in Nampula. S.I.L. promotes our Fiel ministry and for years paid the way for all their translators to attend our conferences. Stélio’s pastor participated faithfully for three years until his contract with S.I.L. ended. While attending the conferences he was accepted into Editora Fiel’s reading program and for another three years received one book every month.
Years ago, Stélio discovered the treasure sitting on his pastor’s book shelf and began augmenting his Bible reading with these valuable resources. Like Bila, Valoi, Ibrahimo, and Kizito before him (leaders of Mission Ekklesia featured in previous reports) he was at first shocked and, in Stélio’s case, even outraged when he began to notice evidences of the sovereignty of God in salvation that undergirded much of the writings. These notions blatantly contradicted what he had learned in his church, and he was sure they could not be true. Apparently as he talked about these “blasphemous doctrines” he uncovered Christians who had already embraced them either from seeing them during their own Bible study or more likely from exposure to our ministries. Vehemently he opposed these brothers wherever he found them—but for some reason he could not stop reading the books.
As he read this literature and carried on with his own daily Bible study, God opened Stelio’s eyes to see that the doctrines he was rejecting so vocally were in fact all over the Scriptures! He was devastated, both because of this totally unexpected discovery which at first displeased him, and because his error in opposing the truths he now had to embrace was known by everyone. But embrace them he did. In a short time, God helped Stélio to see His sovereignty in saving hopelessly lost sinners as the glorious, gracious work that it is, rather than perceiving it through the negative lens of his own spiritual leaders. He became an ardent proclaimer of the truths he once abhorred. He could not help himself. The fire burned in his bones if he held back.
After leaving S.I.L., his local pastor had joined the staff of Stélio’s denomination. In order to conform to the teachings of his new superiors, he had readily abandoned truths previously learned through the Fiel conferences and literature.
Two years ago, when Stélio began striving to publicly undo the damage he had caused in opposing the doctrines of grace, his pastor became alarmed, knowing full well that this ran contrary to the private beliefs of the regional pastor. No longer would he lend Stélio his books to study. But God led Stélio to our bookstore and library and soon he was spending hours reading the hundreds of titles available there. Paul Washer, Martin Lloyd-Jones, and Charles Spurgeon were favorite authors. Today’s Gospel: Authentic or Synthetic?by Walter Chantry was especially used to help Stélio recognize the errors in the gospel he formerly taught. The next book that God used to forever transform his thinking was Paul Washer’s Ten Indictments Against the Modern Church. This book opened wide Stélio’s eyes to desperately needed correction in the Mozambican church.
Stélio could not heed his pastor’s warnings to censor his teaching which he conducted several times a week outside the church as well as within. Instead, he tried to win over his pastor using Scripture. That was a failure as the pastor could neither counter his arguments nor accept them and still retain his leadership in the denomination. Frustrated and angry, in June the pastor referred the matter to the regional superintendent of the denomination. The doctrines that most raised the superintendent’s ire were those of election and perseverance. In August, at a joint meeting of all the local assemblies, Stélio was publicly censored as a heretic, his teaching responsibilities were terminated, and the people were warned not to listen to him any longer.
For a young man still in his 20s, the experience of having the denominational head and all the local pastors arrayed against him publicly condemning his beliefs as heresy before their joined congregations was daunting. But God had convinced Stélio and he could not turn back.
During the course of his ordeal, Stélio came, disconsolate, to our bookshop, asking if there was a church anywhere in Mozambique that believed the things in our books. He was immediately told about our own congregation. A short while later, just before last year’s Fiel Conference, he attended his first service with us. The Sunday after that he brought seven of his students with him. And nearly every Sunday since additional people appear who have learned of the church through Stélio.
The problem for Stélio and his students is that they live on the opposite side of town and most cannot get to our location. We have offered to help Stélio set up a worship service on Sunday mornings near his own students and to rotate our four best preachers through the pulpit each month, but it appears neither Stélio nor those students who journey across town with him want to leave our congregation. We are concerned for those left behind who still do not have a place to worship. For the moment we are content to provide a refuge where Stélio can heal and find comfort among like-minded brethren before taking up again his responsibility to his followers.
From what I have seen, Stélio has done an excellent job training his people. All are committed to the true gospel to the point that they were prepared to abandon what is perhaps the largest and most influential denomination in Nampula when their young leader was discredited.
My acquaintance with Stélio began when he showed up at our church the Sunday before the Fiel Conference. He was clearly troubled and unsure what God had in store for him as he endured the tempest that finally resulted in his censure two weeks later. To encourage him, I told him he should get to know Bila from our congregation, who had experienced the same trials from his Pentecostal church in Maputo. I also said he should attend the conference set to begin in two days, where he would find many like-minded brothers and some who were in the same straits as himself. This he himself was longing to do. Then and there I registered him, though it was past the deadline. When he mentioned that he was short of funds, Valoi immediately offered to pay the fee.
At the conference, Stélio distinguished himself among the pastors and leaders present by the understanding he had gained through his extensive reading. Though only 27 years old, at a small group workshop he was chosen by the other pastors and leaders to represent them at the plenary session where they were to present the results of their discussion—which for Stélio’s group was on how to prepare a Biblical sermon. On the spot, Stélio produced an excellent presentation of twelve aspects of a Biblical message. He did not learn those points from his own church experience, but from his reading at our bookstore. A favorite book of Stélio’s is Stuart Olyott’sPreaching, Pure and Simple, an enlargement on a brief but powerful monograph by Al Martin on the same theme.
Stélio prefaced his comments by lamenting that in Mozambique, few pastors feed their flock. Rather, they achieve and maintain their appointments, he said, by seeking to please their superiors however that may be necessary. Doubtless he was thinking of his own leader’s rejection of the true gospel learned through our ministries in order to gain a position as a pastor in the church Stélio had been attending.
Carlos Sel, Lino Sangassanga, Iloida Muandula
The condemnation of Stélio’s doctrine two Sundays after the Fiel Conference was shocking to at least three people present when it occurred. They were Carlos, Lino, and Iloida, three medical students who had just completed the systematic theology course and who belonged to different assemblies in the same denomination as Stélio. They had the highest three scores among the group of 23 students taking the course last August, but more importantly, they truly grasped the doctrines taught and understood the life and death nature of getting the gospel right. They were all Sunday school teachers or youth leaders in their congregation, but they told me they did not see how they could go back to their church knowing what they had learned. I told them they must go back and seek to help others discover from Scripture what they now understood. The goal of our literature and conference ministry is not to divide and plunder other churches, but to help them all awaken and embrace the truth.
But sometimes it cannot turn out that way. The first Sunday after the conference, the threesome were shattered to hear their church leaders pronounce anathema on the very doctrines they had just come to know and love in the preceding week.
Still, they tried to follow my advice—but three months later, one of them, Carlos Sel, showed up at our service with a look of abject misery on his face. He said they did not want to cause problems for our ministry to other churches, but they could not carry on in their local church any longer. They were seeking ways to graciously relinquish their responsibilities so they could leave and join a church that preached salvation by grace. I told them I understood – we had tried to keep their church from losing valuable members. I had already drafted a letter to their regional pastor beseeching him to avoid alienating those members who came to embrace fundamental doctrines that have characterized sound churches from the days of the apostles, St. Augustine, and the Reformers, as they represented some of his best fruit. Before being passed on to the regional head, the letter is being studied by a sympathetic pastor in the leader’s own assemblies who has lined up with the doctrines of grace as a result of taking the systematic theology course.
The results of all this may be the subject for a future newsletter. The pastor reviewing the letter confided to me that the time had come when someone needed to alert the regional head to the doctrinal and moral problems running rampant amongst the shepherds of the church over which he presided. He said many leaders were silently grieved. Others wrongly assured the regional superintendent that all was well. But none dared to openly contradict the superintendent’s own opinions—until Stélio, that is.
In the four months since I wrote the above report, Stélio has become a permanent fixture in our congregation, and even after being with us for so long it is unusual for two Sundays to pass without visits from new friends he has influenced through his own evangelistic and discipleship ministries. Of these people, eleven have become regular attenders, despite the fact that it takes an hour by African “taxi” for them to reach our church from Stélio’s neighborhood.
And readers will be happy to learn that after the stormy seas which once threatened Stélio’s happiness, God has granted him bliss he could not have imagined last August while the ordeal was pressing on him—because another strong believer, a lovely, radiant young woman studying at the university in the same class with one of our members, began frequenting our church in November, three months after Stélio. Her name is Elga Massingarela and she had volunteered to serve at the last Fiel Conference just so she could minister to pastors of the Evangelical community and eavesdrop on the preaching (the conference is normally restricted to church leaders only due to space and financial limitations). Three months later she attended Ekklesia’s Crucified Youth Conference where once more she much appreciated the preaching of the five speakers, four of whom were from our congregation. She quickly determined that she had to go where she could hear this kind of teaching on a regular basis and soon became a faithful participant with us.
With her radiant features, I suspect Stélio noticed Elga immediately—and it was not long before she noticed his spiritual strength and devotion to Christ and His word, attributes that matter to her. They have since given their pledge to one another, though they are courting with deliberation as she has one year left in university. Stélio can hardly contain his gratitude to God for this precious gift hard on the heels of such trial. He has told me that other women had caught his attention before, but closer acquaintance always raised warning flags. This time, after four months, he finds himself increasingly smitten the better he knows this personification of his ideals. For both their sakes, I hope this indeed proves a match engineered by Him who cannot fail and who guides His children through trial and through blessing with a loving and omniscient eye.
The next report will outline exciting developments with Mission Ekklesia, an indigenous sister ministry to Grace Missions, as they use physical resources freely provided by Grace Missions to faithfully minister to churches throughout Mozambique—but especially in Nampula, the seat of our soon-to-reopen medical/evangelistic work.