A study in missionary / national politics

They did it against incredible odds. The 14 students who will graduate from the Bangui Evangelical School of Theology (BEST) on June 27 are the first fruits of a heroic effort to produce graduate-level theological education on the African continent. That effort has been dogged by a running crisis that has tested to the limit everyone connected with the fledgling school, located in the Central African Republic. It made the school’s first five years a revealing case study in missionary-African relationships.

Every one of the 14 graduates will be immediately thrust into ministries with considerable responsibility. They will not have to go through the reverse culture shock that has often plagued African seminary graduates who have returned after years of study in Europe or North America. And even though they have not paid the exorbitant costs of training abroad, most observers believe the education they have received is on a par with what they could obtain overseas and much better tailored to their needs.

It is not that there are no theological schools at the college level in Africa. There are a score of schools—some started by missionaries in the last century—but they have drifted into liberal teaching and are tied to the World Council of Churches. There are also departments of religion at many universities, but most of these deal with Christianity, Islam, and traditional religions. Evangelical churches have long refused to send their students to these schools.

This evangelical vacuum was the driving concern of the late Byang Kato, the Nigerian first general secretary of the Association of Evangelicals of Africa and Madagascar (AEAM). The need was most urgent in French-speaking Africa.

Kato led the AEAM in the mid-1970s to sponsor a seminary through its theological commission. It settled on Bangui, the capital of the Central African Republic, as the location because it has a significant evangelical community, the fruit of the work of the Grace Brethren churches. Another positive factor is its reasonably central location between the two major population clusters of French-speaking Africa: West Africa and Zaire. Also, the country’s mercurial ruler at the time, Jean-Bedel Bokassa, in one of his magnanimous gestures, donated a prize property for the school.

Control of the school was vested in a 40-member general assembly, some of whom formed a board of governors. The aim of involving all sectors of French Africa was commendable, but the results, in light of difficult and expensive travel and communications in the region, were unwieldly.

Article continues below

The school opened in October 1977 in the two existing buildings on the property. Its faculty consisted of three missionaries—all Americans with doctoral degrees: Paul White from Reunion with Africa Evangelical Fellowship, Donald Hocking of the Grace Brethren in the Central African Republic, and Floyd Shank from Zaire with the Christian and Missionary Alliance. There were 16 students.

Conflicts emerged immediately between White and Hocking. The presumed asset of operating the school in an evangelical milieu became a liability as Hocking attempted to mold the school in the highly separatist image of the Grace Brethren and sought to insert the pastors of the Brethren churches into school affairs. White, with the support of most of the students, fought for a broader character for the school.

In March 1978, Hocking resigned (and Shank withdrew at the end of the school year). The AEAM national unit in the Central African Republic, influenced by the Grace Brethren, began a campaign to have White expelled and Hocking reinstated.

That fall 17 new students joined the original 16. Of the 33 students, 21 were married. White began singlehandedly to teach the school (with occasional help from visiting professors), and continued with construction of 10 duplexes.

Meanwhile, White was told to leave the school by both the seminary’s general assembly chairman, Isaak Zakoué, and the AEAM chairman. But the general assembly, though inclined to expel White, could not muster a quorum to do so. For the students’ sake, White refused to leave without a replacement. That led the Central African Republic unit of AEAM to withdraw from full membership, and Zakoué to resign the general assembly chair.

He was succeeded as chairman by Dirinda Marini-Bodho, an evangelical official in the Church of Christ in Zaire, the government-induced merger of all Protestant bodies. And that, in retrospect, marked the turning point. Marini told White to go ahead and direct the school until September 1981. But he also brought in the first African professor from Zaire. Two more Zairian professors—both Ph.D.’s—have been added in the two succeeding years.

One reason for the difficulty in shifting from missionary to African staff is that missionaries are usually loaned by their societies, whereas African professors add directly to school expenses.

During all this turmoil, the seminary has continued to grow. Its current 52 students come from the Central African Republic, Zaire, Burundi, Chad, Guinea, Rwanda, and Angola. Caring for them includes providing for the needs of 37 wives and more than 100 children.

Article continues below

A three-story administrative and classroom building has been erected and paid for. David Dacko, president of the Central African Republic, donated a second property plot adjacent to the existing one, and plans call for expansion to accommodate 120 students and their families. White has made fund-raising trips to Europe and North America every year.

Last September, the seminary’s general assembly dealt with the impasse by appointing one of the Zairian professors, Nyanza Paluku-Rubinga as dean, and designating Paul White as academic secretary. It then streamlined the general assembly, reducing its members from 40 to 25 (retaining only 5 missionaries), and appointing a Chadian Brethren pastor as chairman. The restructured board of governors excludes White; its only missionary member is an American Baptist who is black.

Paluku credits White with holding the school together until an African team was assembled and with giving him room now in which to take charge.

Resolution of the administrative impasse has cleared the air. The best indication of this is that churches of West Africa and Madagascar, which had withheld students from the school while it was under a cloud, are now submitting applications.

Accreditation by a recently formed evangelical accrediting association, which was held up during the standoff, should now be granted in due course.

The Grace Brethren, meanwhile, launched their own school in the country—Brethren Biblical Seminary, at Bata—over mild objections from the country’s educational authorities about duplication. Hocking is on the staff. There are six students. A faction in the Grace Brethren churches, largely lay, has submitted a petition that calls for closing the seminary, sending its students to the Bangui Seminary, recalling Hocking, and rejoining the AEAM.

Perhaps the overriding conclusion that may be drawn from the seminary’s drawn-out birth pangs is that while many churches formed by missionaries are determined to remain evangelical, they are also determined to assert their African character. Those who fail to recognize this are engaging in a losing rear-guard action.

World Scene

Nicaraguan authorities backed down when the Roman Catholic church dug in its heels last month. The Sandinists had canceled the usual pre-Easter vacation because of the “imminent threat of invasion” from the United States, and ordered the Catholic church to move its traditional morning Good Friday mass to late afternoon to keep people at their jobs. After the Catholic hierarchy refused, the authorities reversed their order. Catholics have also protested Nicaragua’s treatment of its Miskito Indians in the northeast sector of the country. By contrast, Protestants, through the evangelical development agency CEPAD, have echoed the Sandinist line, issuing a statement that expresses “sadness” at the “war-like, intolerant, and arrogant attitudes of the government of the United States towards Nicaragua.”

Article continues below

The East German government has banned the wearing of a patch with the words “swords into plowshares” (Micah 4:3). It said the patch is misused by youth supporters of a peace movement in East Germany “to express a way of thinking hostile to the state and to participate in an illegal political movement.” The quotation is accompanied by a picture of the monument Russia gave to the United Nations. The monuments depicts a man with a raised hammer about to beat a sword.

German evangelicals awoke to their strength in the media during the first Evangelical Media Congress, held during March in Boblingen, West Germany. The Association of Evangelical Communicators, the congress organizers, arrived at these statistics: its 15 publishers account for more than half the Protestant books on the West German market; its radio missions have more than one million listeners in German-speaking areas; and its magazines have an annual circulation of 30 million copies.

Portugal’s national broadcasting system discriminates against Protestants. That is the charge made by two ecumenical organizations, the Portuguese Council of Churches and the Europe Region of the World Association for Christian Communication (WACC). They objected to a bill that seeks a TV channel for exclusive Roman Catholic use. A WACC statement supported the “minority churches in their struggle for recognition and equal rights and for free and equal access to the media” in Portugal. About 60,000 of Portugal’s 10 million people are Protestant; the rest are Catholic.

Preaching The End Times In New York City

Good crowds at a prophecy conference.

Sixteen prominent fundamentalist preachers and teachers gathered at the end of March in New York City to affirm that we are living in the end times. It was one of the largest prophetic conferences in the area in at least two decades. There was little new about what they said or how they said it, but they were surprised by how New Yorkers received it.

Article continues below

The city’s subways were not filled with hymn singing, but churches were well filled night after night. Noontime meetings in lower Manhattan’s John Street Methodist Church drew 150 people a day from among the 700,000 people who work in the financial district’s offices.

That was “very good attendance for a 1:00 P.M. service,” said Warren Danskin, pastor of the 60-member church. Its heritage dates back to the time of the revivals ignited in England and America under the preaching of John Wesley, George Whitefield, and others during the Great Awakening.

The event, the International Prophetic Congress, was sponsored by Jack Wyrtzen’s Word of Life Bible Institute. It ran nine days, with the speakers rotating round-robin style among 13 churches, Northeastern Bible College, and Nyack College.

It began in the Calvary Baptist Church, the Manhattan stronghold of evangelicalism, and continued in noontime and evening meetings in the Bronx, lower Manhattan, Long Island, Staten Island, and New Jersey.

From the beginning it was clear that the timetable of prophetic events was going to be presented with fundamentalistic certainty.

“I happen to be pre-trib, pre-mil. If you disagree, that’s all wrong, and we’ll forgive you for that and other sins,” said evangelist Wendall Calder with a smile.

“The Rapture could occur tonight,” he went on. “Wouldn’t it be a tragedy if the Lord came and broke up this congress?” In loud, fast-paced sentences, pounding the pulpit and his Bible, he summarized the country’s moral ills and urged listeners to prepare for the Rapture.

J. Dwight Pentecost, from Dallas Theological Seminary, outlined the scriptural basis for belief in the pre-tribulation Rapture. Charles W. Anderson, founder of Northeastern Bible College, described the horrors of the Tribulation. “Always orient yourself with this,” he said. “Terrible persecution is about to break on mankind,” but the Rapture will save the faithful.

John F. Walvoord, president of Dallas Theological Seminary, then sketched the different views of millenialism and explained why the pre-tribulation premillenial position is the proper one to hold. “We are now 30 minutes away from atomic missiles,” he said. “In one week, 50 percent of our population would die. Many are therefore comforted that the Rapture will come before these things. If it were not for this hope, I would be a pessimistic person. The world is headed for trouble,” Walvoord stated.

Article continues below

After four messages and three invitations, the grand old man of Southern Baptist preachers, 81-year-old Vance Havner, took the theme of “What shall we do about it all?”

He has no organization behind him, no secretary, and has followed advice handed down to him years ago: “Dirt, debt and the devil are alike. Stay away from all of them.”

Other speakers were Jack Murray, Paul Bauman, Marvin Rosenthal, Louis Goldberg, Charles C. Ryrie, Renald Showers, B. Sam Hart, Lehman Strauss, Donald R. Hubbard, Joe Jordan, and David Wyrtzen.

Many of them regularly speak at prophetic conferences around the country, but rarely at the same place at the same time. Some of them took a few hours to compare notes at a breakfast near the end of the congress.

At one meeting “8–10 young people sat on the front rows writing furiously,” said Goldberg. “I’ve never seen response like this in this area. It’s phenomenal to me.”

Calder, who had never before preached in New York City, said, “People asked me after I had preached for an hour, ‘Why did you quit?’ You sense it during preaching—tenderness and responsiveness in the people.”

Throughout the week, Murray said, the “thrust has not been on escapism but on how we live in the light of this hour.”

The death of Chester Bitterman, the Wycliffe Bible translator who was murdered in Bogota, Colombia, last year, has shaken the “provincialism in American fundamentalism,” he said. “The big, big thing this time is holy living in the light of his coming.

“Who am I to say we will not be in deep, deep water before the Rapture.”


Have something to add about this? See something we missed? Share your feedback here.

Our digital archives are a work in progress. Let us know if corrections need to be made.