WELCOME ADDRESS PRESENTED TO THE DELEGATES TO THE 3RD SOUTH-SOUTH ENCOUNTER HOLDING IN
Ein El SUKHNA, EGYPT BY THE MOST REVD PETER J. AKINOLA CON, DD.
It is highly probable that more than a few of us have made our way to this particular Encounter with a sense of pilgrimage to the cradle of our doctrinal formularies – for Egypt comes alive for us in our salvation history especially at the point of the Exodus. How refreshing indeed it is that we are within the vicinity of the great encounters of the Patriarchs.
As we think also of the early centuries of the Christian faith, It is likely that, like pilgrims, our hearts are filled with expectations of what the setting of those early theologians like Origen, the giant of the Alexandrian School (again, not far away from us); Athanasius; and such great teachers of that School such as Didymus the Blind (as far back as 398) looked like as they grappled with divine mysteries which they sought to put in human language and experience for the edification of the Body.
It is a privilege therefore to claim some affinity over the issues that made the Israelites in bondage cry out to God till He sent a deliverer to lead them out of bondage to the promised land, and laid the foundations for the Jewish faith; and also much later, the concerns that burdened the minds of the Church Fathers in those primal days of the undivided Church.
I welcome you, not only from the comfort of your homes, and your busy ministry locations, but also from the arduous physical as well as mental journey through the many fading signposts and dust-covered stations of Christian History. If one must introduce some elements of nostalgia about it, this is like a homecoming, in the sense of an adult returning to the site of his formative years and his kindergarten days. May I then say, welcome home!
I must welcome you, fellow servants of God, to this Encounter to face the reality of our contradictions: we are children of a historically ancient faith and a well established Church tradition who have become more confused about the primer of our most holy faith.
So, why are we here? Let us return again, for a moment, to the world- famous Alexandrian school. They were faced with real threats about the faith and they focused on issues of intellectual liberty in relation to faith, the interpretation of Scripture and Christology. Those were the challenges of their time and how gallantly they fought and won the battles of the faith that they bequeathed to us as the legacy of their generations. So were the intellectual giants of our Communion- William Tyndale, Cranmer, Latimer, Ridley, Richard Hooker, Michael Ramsay and a host of others, God’s gift to His Church, who over the years upheld the historic faith at a great personal cost.
The rude shock of our day is that the battles we were so sure – for hundreds of years – which our well-articulated creeds had won have now become fresh perplexities. The doctrinal convulsions of the past, at which we smiled contentedly, have now become new monsters on the stage. While the secular world fights back terrorism with every possible strategy, using any available arsenal, we seem to be unaware of the more vicious, yet subtle, terrorism that attempts to discard the divine authority of the living Word of God, the Bible. Even though we are a Church that draws inspiration both from the sufficiency of Scripture and the tradition of the Fathers, the weight of allegiance must always tilt unequivocally on the side of the supremacy of the Scriptures as the mind of God and adequate guide for His Church in all matters of faith and doctrine.
Sola Scriptura was the magna carta of the Reformation. In Martin Luther’s famous defence of his writings before the Diet of Worms (April 18, 1521), he declared:
“Unless I am convinced by testimonies of Scripture or evident reason (ratione evidente) - for I believe neither the Pope nor Councils alone, since it is established that they have often erred and contradicted themselves - am the prisoner of the Scriptures cited by me, and my conscience has been taken captive by the Word of God; I neither can nor will recant anything, since it is neither safe nor right to act against conscience. Here I stand I cannot do otherwise. God help me. Amen”
The point is this: whenever the theological deposit of the Church Fathers, or Reason, become an alibi for departure from the clear teaching of Scripture, and whenever they constitute a threat to its supremacy, we must return to the authority of the Scriptures and leave no room whatsoever for contradiction.
We are children of time and change, and therefore often swayed by its tides and shifts, which we constantly call ‘paradigms.’ However, our paradigms must take their bearing from our immutable God who is both the God of time and eternity. When our paradigms express new facets in the ceaseless disclosure and revelations consistent with Scriptures (Rom. 11:33), then our progress is assured. But when we roam outside that divine orbit and enthrone fallen human reason and prevailing cultural values as our guiding light, our doom is equally assured.
From our evangelical standpoint, if the Church called out to be ‘One, Holy, Catholic and Apostolic’ is to be faithful to its calling, then Mission must remain its chief task in a world whose ‘wheel of life is constantly moving towards non-being and self extinction.’ And the integrity of that mission must be solidly predicated on the condition of the Church as the Missionary Agency.
Perhaps it is also worth noting that while a healthy Church, well nourished on the sacred truths of God’s self-revelation is a veritable instrument for reconciliation both on the horizontal and the vertical dimensions, unhealthy Church that has an unhealthy interest in controversies – a Church that relegates the supremacy of the Scripture to the background will become an embarrassing echo of confused secular ideals, and a travesty of her prophetic mandate.
During the first ever Anglican African Bishops’ Conference (AABC) in October 2004, we had noted the sobering fact that the Church in North Africa gave a disproportionate attention to doctrinal debates almost at the expense of mission. We said inter alia
‘We praise God for the Church Fathers who formulated the church doctrines and creeds that were necessitated by the theological controversies of those days: Tertullian, Athanasius, St Augustine, and Ignatius. They fulfilled their ministry in their generations.’
However, it must be said that they gave such a disproportionate attention to the controversies and definition of the Christian faith that there was hardly any time left for mission and evangelism. There were more of disputations, rancour, division and discord among those who were to do the task of evangelisation. So when in the seventh century the aggressive and militant Islamic forces advanced and struck, they met with little resistance from a church that was unprepared, weak and asleep in terms of mission. Thus, the Church in that part of Africa was wiped out.”
There is the fear of sterility in a constantly growing, innovative and changing world that has now driven us to compromise the historical distinctiveness of the Christian faith and to barter with a world of shifting values and opinions. In a bid to be relevant, we have chosen the cheap option of relaxing on our ethical identity to win the sympathy and tolerance from a world that is ready to write off Christianity and consign it to antiquity.
And by that unfortunate option we are also orchestrating the fact that if the world has a pantheon of opinions, which accommodate and justify any mundane practice (e.g. homosexuality), Christianity, to be relevant, should be made to dance along and find some way to make the Bible acceptable. That is where our sterility and decadence has its roots. If only we had the courage like Luther to say:
“I will not waste a word in arguing with one who does not consider that the Scriptures are the Word of God: we ought not to dispute with a man who thus rejects first principles.”
Brothers and sisters in Christ, we have indeed come a long way since the maiden South-South Encounter held in Limuru, Kenya in 1994, through the second in Kuala Lumpur, Malaysia in 1997, resulting in the important “Kuala Lumpur Statement.” Our theme for this Encounter is drawn from our confessions about the Church as enshrined in the Nicene Creed: We believe in One, Holy, Catholic and Apostolic Church.
The One Church
I suppose that most professing Christians would readily agree that the Oneness of the Church is a sacred trust that must be jealously guarded for the Church to fulfil her God-given role in a fragmented and divided world. However else we may understand this unity certain basic doctrinal convictions (in our case, the quadrilateral statement) must be held inviolate as a celebration of our oneness as the people of God. But when the price for our much-cherished Oneness includes a deliberate and wilful demolition of the doctrinal cornerstones of our corporate profession, then we must understand that the rebellious spirit that sponsored the doomed project of the Tower of Babel is at it again.
St. Paul insists, and we all will agree that ‘we are the body of Christ’ but sadly the reality of our time is that while one part of this great body is physically, therefore temporarily, infected or affected by the HIV/AIDS pandemic, for which there is yet no sure cure, another part of it is doctrinally and therefore spiritually, cancerous. This holy assembly must work little harder than ever before to identify distinct ways forward.
The Holy Church
The One (currently sick) Church must be the One, Holy Church. ‘Be ye holy as I am holy’ demands the Lord. Thank God, we cannot lay any claims to a private holiness. Our holiness is derivative. The bible is holy only because it contains the word of the holy God. The Church can be holy only to the extent to which it relates to and is willing to allow God who is the embodiment of holiness to sanctify it. In other words holiness must be by God’s standard, not ours.
Nor is our holiness an end in itself. We are saved to do good works, not to be absorbed by the world for as St Paul in his letter to Titus, (Titus 3: 3-8) reminds us:
‘We too were foolish, disobedient deceived and enslaved by all kinds of passions and pleasures. We lived in malice and envy, being hated and hating one another but when the kindness and love of God our Saviour appeared, he saved…And I want you to stress these things so that those who have trusted in God may be careful to devote themselves to doing what is good.’
As the crisis within the Communion is spreading faster so is the cry for oneness becoming louder. But, taking a queue from the lessons of the Reformation we dare argue that the holiness of the Church should not be compromised on the altar of oneness on any false foundation.
The Holy Scripture is replete with guidelines on how to deal with and relate to those who chose to differ from the inspired and established ways of the church. I refer you in particular to the following:
• Matthew 18:17: If he refuses to listen to them, tell it to the church; and if he refuses to listen even to the church, treat him as you would a pagan or a tax collector.
• Ananias and Sapphira; Acts 5:1ff
• Expulsion of an immoral brother; 1 Corinthians 5:1-5:
• Handling divisive brethren, Romans 16:17 ff
Clearly, we must recognize that there are times when to maintain the integrity of the Church of God we are commanded to deal decisively and courageously with every poisonous teaching that is a negation of Biblical principles of holiness in God’s Church.
And let no one hide under the often-abused virtue of love for the LORD our God who commands us to love is the God who demands absolute and loyal obedience to his holy will and commandments.
‘Whoever has my commands and obeys them, he is the one who loves me’; again he says emphatically, ‘If anyone loves me, he will obey my teaching’; he who does not love me will not obey my teaching.’ (John 14: 21,23, 24)
My brethren, we have no right therefore to continue to disobey certain parts of biblical injunctions and still claim to love Jesus. Obedience to God’s law remains the only true test and clear evidence of our love for God.
The Catholic Church
The universality of the Church means that we are held together by the common confession of the historic, apostolic and orthodox faith by which we share a common claim to the experience of redemption, a common right of adoption, a common outward rite of baptism and a common invisible seal by the indwelling of the Holy Spirit. No narrow exceptions rooted in race, culture, status, or ability can change this universal identity. Peter writes,
“For you know that it was not with perishable things such as silver or gold that you were redeemed from the empty way of life handed down to you from your forefathers, but with the precious blood of Christ, a lamb without blemish or defect “(1 Peter 1:18).
One aspect of this which we regrettably still have to wrestle with is the ‘damaged catholicity of the One, Holy Church’. Brethren, how do we explain our universality in situations in which some arrogantly claim to be ‘the church’ and the rest of us are consigned to the category of ‘others’? Today what we have is a situation of continuing fragmentation of the one church; its commercialization, proliferation, the insatiable appetite for mega structures and superstar syndrome. Nor can we overlook the fact of the huge but hardly justifiable expenditure of time and money we commit to the so-called ecumenical talks- talks that are often frustrating than fulfilling.
The Apostolic Church
The Apostolic deposit from which we learn of the ministry of Jesus Christ remains the most reliable link between the recipient Church and the Church of subsequent ages. All we seek to do in the context of the confusion all around us is simply to maintain the faith ‘once delivered to the saints’ (Jude 3) and to build on the foundation of the Apostles (Eph 2:20).
Furthermore, to be faithfully apostolic at a time such as this is not only to be one with them in faith and doctrine but also in constantly seeking to be like them in total dedication, commitment and practice of mission; in engagement with the erring world around us with a view to transforming it to conform to the mind of Christ and in the onerous task of evangelization so that the church may grow not just by mere additions but by multiplication. That is the New Testament witness. And that must be the Church’s first concern.
As I conclude, it needs re-echoing that we (as Global South) have not been faithful and forthright enough in seeking to fulfil our prophetic role within the Communion. Hence, we continue to pay the high price for the sad fact of our ever-widening departure from the Bible as a worldwide Communion – all because we have reneged on matters that required a firm position.
As we consider the theme, The One, Holy, Catholic and Apostolic Church, we do so prayerfully seeking the face of our God to renew our faith in a decaying world that now threatens even the sanctity of His Church. We must reaffirm, in the words of Richard Chatres, Bishop of London, that “The Church of God, Orthodox, Reformed, Catholic, and Apostolic, is still alive and marching on in creative mission and evangelism” – and the gates of hell cannot overcome it!
That is our Lord’s promise, and it cannot fail!