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Church history for Tanzanians (part one)

Though our trip home was eventful, our time in Iringa was tremendously encouraging and fruitful. We went to be part of teaching some theological stuff to TAFES leaders. I was asked to do church history in about 3 hours.  I had ten periods of Christian history, and made an application to Tanzania from each one.

The feedback from one guy was that the Tanzanian church is often quite isolated and insular, so he relished the opportunity to learn from Christians of the past. Here is roughly the first half. (Second half coming up next!)

1. The Gospel to the Gentiles => Christianity is for all cultures

Mainly from the book of Acts, this was all about the early church’s dilemma about the relationship between Judaism and Christianity. After looking at some of the first Gentile conversions like the Ethiopian eunuch, we looked at the Jerusalem Council, and then Paul’s approach in Lystra and in Athens. We talked about how the form of Christianity changes according to culture but the message that Jesus is Lord does not. There were vigorous opinions about how to apply this in Tanzanian cultures!

2. Persecution of the early church => confidence in the face of rising Islamic extremism

Though persecution wasn’t constant during the first 300 years of the church, it was very intense at times. We talked about the various legislative changes that gave Christians some freedom, but were overturned under the next regime, as well as some of the Christian martyrs from this period like Perpetua and Ignatius of Antioch. We saw that even when books were burned, people used as human torches, churches destroyed and church leadership decimated, Jesus’ church continued to grow. It also led us to an interesting discussion about pacifism and non-violence as a means of witness to Christ, which seemed particularly relevant in light of some recent clashes between Christians and Muslims in Tanzania.The participants said they had gained more confidence to pray to the God who will see his church flourish when they experience this kind of tension on their university campuses.


3. Constantine => the warning of nominalism

The change from being an obscure, persecuted cult to being the religion of empire and power was a massive one for the Christian church as Constantine rose to power and then gave toleration to Christians. One of the participants was quite confused about why Constantine had the authority he did, since he was such a flaky convert, and we talked about Christianity’s relationship to power. The participants laughed at the idea that you could just declare a country to be Christian – that doesn’t change people’s allegiances! – but also had examples from their own culture of people who have been brought up with the Christian label but do not know Christ.

4. Nicea => The need to know Bible themes, not just isolated verses

The Trinity is a pretty difficult theological theme to do justice to at any time, but especially in the short period of time that we had. We started by looking at the grace from 2 Cor 13:14 which has Trinitarian elements but is still no silver bullet for defending a theology of the Trinity. This led us to understand Nicea and the dispute between Arius and Athanasius as proof-texting vs. knowing the Bible in context. The participants felt that many Tanzanians know Bible verses without understanding how the Bible fits together or what the overall picture is. They identified this as an area they would like to grow in, and as one reason they were keen to be part of this kind of course.

5. The Great Schism (1054) => Don’t cause disunity because of miscommunication

I didn’t want to get into the intricacies of the filioque clause but we could talk about the differences in language and concepts between the eastern and western churches. What you think you’re saying is not always how you’re being heard. I gave an example from my own experience. In English ‘I love you’ can be quite a strong statement, but in Swahili, the verb kupenda can mean ‘to like’ or ‘to love’, and so when Tanzanian man tells me ‘I love you’, I know not to take that too literally! But if you don’t have that knowledge the situation is potentially confusing, embarrassing or even offensive. This kind of miscommunication happens in the church as well. A para-church group may see themselves as helping the local church, but be perceived as being in competition with it, and that can lead to all kinds of problems. The participants resonated with this situation! We need to learn to listen carefully, and to speak in the language and concepts of others.

6. The Middle Ages (Crusades and the Black Death) => ‘My kingdom is not of this world’

Covering such a massive period, I zoomed in on two major events: the series of nine attacks known as the Crusades, and the Black Death. I chose these because they highlight the best and worst of medieval Christianity. There’s the tremendous violence and suffering of the Crusades, but there’s also the compassion and alleviation of suffering that Christian women and convents brought by nursing the sick at great personal risk in the plague that may have killed up to 60% of Europe’s population. This opened up a discussion about how to best live the kingdom of God and be true to our calling as ambassadors of Christ: by force, or by love?

Categories: Tanzania Uncategorized University ministry Written by Tamie

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Tamie Davis

Tamie Davis is an Aussie living in Tanzania, writing at

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