Thursday, September 17, 2015

The Rich Heritage of African Christianity

African and African-American Christians have a rich, diverse Christian heritage.

St. Luke specifically mentions that there were pilgrims from Africa- from Egypt and Libya- present on the Day of Pentecost, when the Holy Spirit gave birth to the Church.

We read of the Ethiopian Eunuch, a minister of Candace, the Queen of Ethiopia, accepting Christ through the witness of Philip in Acts Chapter eight.

The Ethiopian Orthodox Church is one of the oldest national Churches in Christendom. Athanasius consecrated her first bishops. Emperor Haile Selassie, who claimed to be ancestor of King David, was a devout Orthodox Christian, and sent an Orthodox Bishop to Jamaica to evangelize the people there. Bob Marley, the great reggae star, Rastafarian, and prophetic voice, was Baptized in the Ethiopian Orthodox Church, died in its bosom, with the Name of Jesus on his lips. His Baptismal name was Berhane Sellasie, Light of the Holy Trinity.
 St. Mark the Evangelist was the first Bishop in Alexandria, and a martyr there.  Some of the greatest  Church Fathers in the ancient Church are from Africa- Tertullian; Clement of Alexandria; the greatest scholar of the ancient church, Origen; Athanasius, the defender of Orthodoxy at Nicea; Cyprian, bishop and martyr; Augustine of Hippo, one of the two greatest doctors of the Church; Cyril of Alexandria, the defender of Orthodoxy at the council of Ephesus.

There are great female and male martyr-heroes in the Ancient African Church, most notable being Perpetua and Felicity. Saints Perpetua and Felicity are Christian martyrs of the 3rd century from Africa. Perpetua (born around 181) was a 22-year old married noblewoman and a nursing mother. Her co-martyr Felicity, an expectant mother, was her slave. Her family pleaded with her to renounce Christ and avoid being put to death, but she wouldn’t, and the two young Christian women were fed to the lions. They suffered together at Carthage in the Roman province of Africa, during the reign of Septimius Severus, about 203 CE.

Two of the greatest heroes of ancient orthodoxy are from Africa. Athanasius of Alexandria prevailed at the Nicene Council in 325, and Cyril of Alexandria presided over the council of Ephesus in 431 CE.  These councils provided dogmatic definition for how we understand the Person of Christ today. The very canon of Scripture as we have it now was codified in Africa, in ancient church synods at Carthage and Hippo in the late 4th and early 5th centuries.
The ancestors of most African-Americans came in bondage to this country; yet they put their faith in the Lord. They composed spirituals, and took the Exodus as their narrative, a narrative of Liberation. The Church operated as a base for the civil rights struggle the last two centuries, and gave us Martin Luther King Jr. African-Americans suffered centuries of oppression and persecution, by fellow or professing Christians, and they were sustained by their faith in Christ in the Church.

American and European missionaries came to Africa, to evangelize “the savages,” and the missionary enterprise went hand-in-hand with imperialism; yet Christianity took root in Africa, and now has grown to the point where the future of Christianity lies in Africa, not the West. The Anglicans, Pentecostals, and Evangelicals are some of the largest and fastest growing Churches in Africa. The Anglican Church in Africa has produced Bishop Desmond Tutu, who is a prophetic voice for our time, and who led the non-violent opposition to Apartheid.

There is a wonderful African-Christian heritage, from the Ethiopian Eunuch to Martin Luther King Jr. and Desmond Tutu.

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