top of page

Blog Post

The Rest of the Story: The Ancient Intellectual Heart and the Modern Epicenter of Christianity 

I have said these things to you while I am still with you. But the Advocate, the Holy Spirit, whom the Father will send in my name, will teach you everything, and remind you of all that I have said to you.'  John 14:25-26

 

After the stoning of Stephen recounted in Acts, things got dicey for Christians in Palestine. They were forced to scatter to different cities throughout the Roman Empire. Philip wound, up as fate would have it, or more likely as God willed it, in Samaria.


Philip must have been hesitant for, as we know, the Samaritans and Jews had a volatile and sometimes violent history. He had been charged to spread the word that a Jewish man, named Jesus, was God and the savior of the world. The Spirit must have been burning inside Philip because somewhere he got the courage to preach. 


Not only did they not run him out of town but, to his amazement, "they listened eagerly to what he said." Encouraged by their responsiveness, Philip built up a head of steam and he exorcized demons and cured the lame. By the time he was done he had transformed the town and because of his work there the passage tells us, "There was great joy in that city."


From there God asked Philip to make his way to Gaza and on the road, he encountered the queen of Ethiopia and the servant in charge of her treasury. It almost seems like a chance encounter, but the servant is reading a passage from Isaiah and the Spirit prompts Phillip to approach him. 


In a moment the Ethiopian shares the passage that had caught his attention, “like a sheep he was led to the slaughter…in his humiliation justice was denied him.”


And then perhaps the Spirit also prompts this Ethiopian for he asked a question about whom is Isaiah speaking? The perfect opening for Philip to share the good news of Jesus Christ about whom we believe Isaiah was speaking. Right then and there the Ethiopian embraces this profound and amazing and hopeful message. He doesn’t waste a moment, “Look here is water what’s to prevent me from being baptized!” The Ethiopian receives this amazing gift but right as he comes out of the water Philip is snatched away!


This is the end of this Ethiopian’s Biblical story. Just a mere handful of verses. But this inconspicuous, innocent, brief, and simple encounter leads to another story, an incredible story, the rest of the story, from which the ancient intellectual center of Christianity grows, and the modern locus of Christianity emerges.


While Christianity wanes in Europe and North America it's been growing in Africa at unprecedented rates in all of history. And it is the precise nature of the heart of the Christian message that has captured the hopes of so many people throughout history but especially at this time in Africa. And it all goes back to the original moment when this Ethiopian was captivated by those few verses in Isaiah which spoke about a suffering servant, which spoke about a servant of God who was willing to die in an unjust manner to save others. It was the same message that has brought hope of liberation to all peoples that have embraced this gospel from the very first followers of Jesus; he offered a unique path.


Throughout history leaders have sought to bring hope to oppressed peoples but many of them also did this through the path that that relied on their own versions of death and mayhem. But the only death that was central to Jesus' plan to bring freedom was His own. 

 

And I believe it was this that moved the Ethiopian. Working in the royal court he was used to those with power wielding it over others, whereas Jesus humbled and humiliated himself. He was eager to be bound up with a Lord who would not meet violence with violence but was willing to take it upon Himself.  


And somehow through this brief encounter we believe that this Ethiopian was the first to bring the good news of Jesus Christ to the continent of Africa.


This message of freedom and hope has been the genesis of the church in many countries in Africa. Our friend and founder of the African Dream Academy, Rev. Sam Enders, told me that Christianity came to Liberia (as a reminder Liberia was created as a place for enslaved people from America to find a free home).


It was the 1800’s when the frees slaves arrived. The Presbyterian, Methodist, Baptist, and Episcopalians were the first. Natives thought about the heavens and the importance of going to a better place. The contrast of a land where there will be no suffering, no slavery, and no dying. Slavery was at its peak, death and suffering were a way of life.Natives quickly adapted and started national churches. Aladura was the fastest growing. They believed is miracle. They fasted for 40 days once a year.


Sierra Leone has a similar story as do several other countries in Africa like the Congo and more.


Now it is true that in some parts of Africa Christianity virtually disappeared sometime in the 7th century when Islamic influence swept through this part of the world; for the next 1,300 years Christians would be a small percentage of the population on this continent. And it is also true that the efforts to spread Christianity in Africa in the last few centuries have a problematic and mixed history. Colonial powers that brought the Christian religion to Africa all too often tragically brought more colonialism than they did Jesus, even when filled with good intentions. It has even led some to claim that Christianity is a white European religion that doesn't belong in Africa. But the situation is more complex.


Daniel Justice Eshun, (Dean of Chapel, Whitelands College, University of Roehampton, London, UK) Anglican pastor from Ghana makes this startling observation, “…[Christianity] went from the periphery under European missionary leadership to Ghana’s primary religion post-independence.” (Speaking for Ourselves: The Ghanaian Encounter with European Missionaries – Sixteenth–Twenty- first Centuries, Daniel Eshun).


In fact, he observes that for the entire 400 years of missionary endeavors, Christianity remained on the margins not only in Ghana but throughout Africa. It was due to attitudes such as that of 18th century missionary Rev. Thomas Thompson whose aim was, “to strike at their false worship and endeavor... to convince them of their false notions and to expose the folly of their idolatrous and superstitious rites.”  (Speaking for OurselvesThe Ghanaian Encounter with European Missionaries – Sixteenth–Twenty- first Centuries, Daniel Eshun). Mind you, this was for wanting to worship on Tuesday instead of Sunday. The withdrawal of colonialism enabled the Ghanaians to shape Christianity in the same way the Apostle Paul shaped it for those in Asia Minor, in other words based on local culture and customs.


Not only is Christianity not primarily a European religion, it has a more ancient and lauded history in Africa than it does in not only North America (of course) but Europe as well.


This is the rest of the story that the Bible does not tell us – about what happened after Philip and the Ethiopian’s encounter.  


What we do know for a fact is not the “how” but the “what”. And the “what” is that Christianity in the early centuries found its intellectual center, it's theological center, and its heart, not in its place of birth (that is Palestine) but in Africa, particularly northern Africa.


One book called the Acts of the Scillitan Martyrs written in 180 AD tells some of the early hardships Christians faced in Tripoli, Tunisia, Algeria, and Morocco.  By 250 A.D. over one hundred bishoprics existed centered in Carthage.  …God has a long history in Africa and so does Christianity… (Oxford Dictionary of the Christian Church)


Listen to a few of these names from the first four centuries of Christianity all from Africa, Tertullian, Perpetua, Felicity, Clement of Alexandria, Origen of Alexandria, Athanasius, and Augustine of Hippo. The two women Perpetua and Felicity were amongst the first Christian martyrs recorded by history outside of scripture. Tertullian, Clement, and Origen are on virtually everybody's list of profound thinkers who helped establish Christian thought in the early centuries. Athanasius is credited more than any other human being with the creation of the Bible as we have it today! And Augustine outside of scripture is the most revered and quoted Christian thinker in all of history whose influence is still incredibly strong today!  


Christianity not only took hold in the intellectual center of North Africa but perhaps because of this Ethiopian’s encounter with Philip a few centuries later in 330 AD…“King Ezana of Ethiopia declared Christianity its national religion… And though it's presence waned in certain parts of the continent as one writer observed... when the Portuguese landed in Ethiopia in 1493, they found—to their shock—that it was already full of churches!” *


This is the amazing, incredible way that God uses people, even misguided people, to transform lives and bring the good news because, despite those colonial’s distorted understanding of scripture, the power of the message of Jesus couldn't be lost on the people of Africa in modern times who find His love, His sacrifice, and His hope irresistible.


And because of it the numbers are staggering. According to the Pew Research:


At the same time Christianity has shrunk in Europe and North America, it has grown enormously in sub-Saharan Africa … where there were relatively few Christians at the beginning of the 20th century. The share of the population that is Christian in sub-Saharan Africa climbed from 9% in 1910 to 63% in 2010, while in the Asia-Pacific region it rose from 3% to 7%. Christianity today – unlike a century ago – is truly a global faith. (Pew Research)


Latin America surpassed Europe as the continent with the most Christians in 2014, and Africa passed Latin America in 2018. (Dr. Gina A. Zurlo)As of 2023 there is an estimated 718 million Christians on this continent.


What does this mean for us today at Brick Presbyterian Church and in our country?


First, it reminds me of my father’s admonition as I was growing up (much to my chagrin) that the world does not revolve around me! Sometimes in our American context we have the false impression of being the center of all things.


Second, it shows us the irresistible story of Jesus’ life, death, and resurrection. It is a story for all people, from all places, and from any time, for it is a story of hope, a story of love, a story of forgiveness and a story of reconciliation. 


Third, it is heartening to know that as we hear about the diminishing of the influence of Christianity here in North America and Europe that it is thriving and growing like it has never grown before and places like Latin America, Africa, and Asia.


Finally, it offers us a challenge – how can we learn from the Christian witness of people in Ghana, in the Congo, in Liberia, in Sierra Leone, in South Africa and so many other places on that continent? How might you and I share this good news in the way that opens people up to God's loving promises? It shows us that should God prompt our spirit, the way God prompted Phillip’s spirit, don't hesitate to share…you never know however brief a conversation can change the planet forever. Amen. 

 

 

Further Reading: 

Introducing World Christianity Edited by Charles E, Farhadian, pages 38-50.

Speaking for Ourselves: The Ghanaian Encounter with European Missionaries – Sixteenth–Twenty- first Centuries, Daniel Justice Eshun

Black Imperialism: Americo-Liberian Rule over the African Peoples of Liberia, 1841-1964 Author(s): M. B. Akpan

Source: Canadian Journal of African Studies / Revue Canadienne des Études Africaines, Vol. 7, No. 2 (1973), pp. 217-236

 

7 views0 comments

Recent Posts

See All

Comments


bottom of page