The Lowest Ebb
By Robert Reese
Report on a Trip to Zimbabwe, July 4-15, 2015
I was born and raised a confirmed landlubber. As I was brought up in the landlocked country of Zimbabwe and in the Ozark Mountains of northern Arkansas, the ocean was a faraway mystical place that we rarely visited. So I know very little about marine life or tides, about sailing or currents, unlike my brother-in-law in Oregon who carries current tide charts in his back pocket. But I can imagine what the beach looks like at the lowest ebb of the tides. That would be the greatest unveiling of what has been hidden on the bed of the ocean. Some of what is revealed would be ugly, such as trash thrown into the ocean as if it were a giant refuse dump with endless water to cover it up. Some would be attractive, such as sea shells and driftwood that people would like to display in their homes. All that is good or bad under water would suddenly be shown at the lowest ebb. That seems to be where Zimbabwe is at present.
For the past thirteen years I have been traveling to Zimbabwe for short visits, and before that I lived with my family there for almost 21 years, and before that I grew up there as a boy. Since I was born there in 1948, I am not sure if there has been a lower ebb than right now.
Broken factories are lying idle with weeds growing up in the yards as nature slowly tries to reclaim the land. Ruined lives are clearly observable without having to look too far. Death still stalks the land with so much sorrow. This year I offered condolences to two families we have known for decades; one lost a wife and mother to complications from diabetes at age 51, while the other lost a 27-year-old son to an apparent asthma attack. There is no doubt in my mind that those lives would not have been lost in the USA, but the medical system in Zimbabwe is also broken.
Much of what is broken in Zimbabwe is a long-standing man-made crisis; the only added crisis this year is that rainfall was sporadic during the agricultural season, resulting in poor harvests for many Zimbabweans who rely on rain when everything else fails them. As a child of American optimism, I used to believe almost unconsciously in steady human progress, especially when allied to the gospel. That is, when people accept Christ and begin to follow him, their life should get better and better, even in strictly material terms. Like most missionaries, my mission team tried to implement some social improvements, primarily to help new Christians have a better standard of living. Instead, we found that every idea we had was useless in the face of government policy, and I watched as a generation of young people from Zimbabwe left the country for better economic opportunities elsewhere. It was not that our ideas for improvement were all bad, but simply doomed by the system. Organizations that are committed to making the world a better place in God’s name, like World Vision, similarly are fighting a losing battle in places like Zimbabwe. It only takes a few megalomaniacs in power to undermine every hope of a decent living, since they make sure that only their key allies have access to resources.
In a recent issue of Time magazine, several “experts” were asked the question,“Is world peace possible?”
What is known as “kingdom missiology” now dominates mission literature, but it tends to focus on our part in the mission as opposed to God’s part, even though the catch phrase “Missio Dei” indicates the mission actually belongs to God. We are told in current mission articles that we bring in the kingdom of God when we perform acts of kindness in Jesus’ name, so that almost any decent thing we might do as Christians automatically builds the kingdom. This type of theology suits a short-term approach to missions as it makes us feel really good about ourselves without having to ask any hard questions or do any evaluation of the long-term impact our missions might have. It feeds into the spirit of the age in that we come to expect visible progress in material terms, yet it can also be in reality a prosperity form of the gospel, which promises material gain through following Christ. The New Testament does not support this form of kingdom missiology, since the kingdom is still hidden at this stage.
Part of that is because we have tied ourselves too closely to cultures and governments that are becoming increasingly corrupt. But part of it is God’s design to keep his kingdom low-key at this stage of history, as indicated in Jesus’ parables in Matthew 13. God’s part in the growth of the kingdom is front and center in these parables. The essential power of kingdom is the seed which contains life in itself (Matt. 13:3). The kingdom itself seems tiny and insignificant (Matt. 13:31-33); people virtually stumble over the kingdom as if by accident (Matt. 13:44-45). But an often overlooked aspect of the kingdom is that it is locked in a life and death struggle with the kingdom of the evil one (Matt. 13:25-30; 39-43; 47-50).
While the parables of the kingdom are quite mysterious, some things are clear. The seed, which we can sow, is the message of the kingdom as preached by John the Baptist and Jesus. That kingdom was “at hand” with the arrival of Jesus as king. Satan is doing all he can to infiltrate and destroy the kingdom in order to usurp Jesus’ authority. How does one enter the kingdom? John 3:3 says by being born again. Thus part of the message is the need for rebirth into Jesus as king and savior, without which there is no kingdom at all. This is where the church comes in, as the community of the reborn into Jesus. Without gospel preaching and churches of born-again believers there is no actual understanding of the kingdom of God. We can never build the kingdom by political action or by affiliating ourselves with worldly power and wealth. Even good deeds are not enough to launch the kingdom.
Another overlooked fact is that the battle for hearts and minds of people is most often taking place among God’s own people. If someone talks about spiritual warfare, we often associate that with spirit possession as portrayed in various movies, or with the attempt by séances and clairvoyants to contact the spirits of the dead. If we minister in Africa, we imagine that spiritual warfare will be conducted between Christians and witchdoctors. Those are examples of spiritual warfare, but careful examination of the New Testament indicates that the local church (or synagogue) is likely to be the place spiritual warfare is fought, since Satan would like nothing better than to defeat God’s purposes for his people. For example, when Jesus said, “But if I drive out demons by the Spirit of God, then the kingdom of God has come upon you” (Matt. 12:28), he was countering an accusation coming from the establishment of Jewish scholars that Jesus was in league with Satan. He went on to warn these religious experts that by such twisted theology they were actually inviting demons to take possession of their hearts in an eternally damning way (Matt. 12:25-45). Similarly, when the Apostle Paul wrote, “The weapons we fight with are not the weapons of this world. On the contrary they have divine power to tear down strongholds” (2 Cor. 10:4), he was talking about overcoming spiritual problems in the church at Corinth (2 Cor. 10:1-18).
We need to emphasize thorough study of the New Testament to see how God’s mission was undertaken with great impact by the early churches. Those churches also had little clout but lots of faith in the Risen Lord. Today we tend to have lots of faith in forms of government, in accumulation of wealth and connections, and in current models of mission or ecclesiology. Getting back to Zimbabwe, I see that the churches our mission team planted from 1980-2000 know the gospel message, but are attracted to various models that are becoming prevalent. One is the prosperity gospel and a closely allied model is the centralization of authority in the hands of selected church leaders. During one of my lessons on New Testament Survey a student asked about the use of the title “bishop” for modern churches. I replied that the term bishop (or “overseer”) is in the New Testament but not in the way modern Christians use it, since it always assumed a plurality of bishops in a local church; the word is an alternate form of “elder” or “pastor” (Acts 20:17,28; 1 Peter 5:1-2). I noticed that the student looked questioningly at a fellow student when I said “bishop” today conjures up visions of robed clergy who rule over congregations, but that is not how it was in the New Testament.
On the following Sunday, the reason for the questioning look was revealed in the sermon. With a packed audience, including those who came to the Bible school and those who came for a general leaders’ meeting, the “Big Sunday” sermon was used to announce that some new titles were now being used in the churches: one man was now a bishop and another was an apostle! While the bishop was a man everyone respected through a long time of faithful service to the churches, the apostle was brand new among these churches. For me, and it turned out a number of others, this revelation came like a bombshell!
I looked back over many Bible schools and other leadership training forums we had conducted for decades and wondered how people failed to see the New Testament pattern and why they would adopt such a new pattern. Had they forgotten Matt. 20:25-28, where Jesus told the disciples they should not have leadership styles like the Gentiles who lorded it over their subjects, but instead “whoever wants to be great among you must be your servant”?
Over the next couple of days, I conferred with key leaders to express my concern and to ask how they came to the decision to appoint a bishop and an apostle without involving the average church members in the discussion. I pointed out that the use of a “hierarchy,” which was their preferred term for the new leadership arrangement, made it possible for one rotten apple to become either bishop or apostle and then to corrupt all the churches over which he had authority. They admitted that the person who preached the sermon had jumped the gun, as his announcement was premature and not yet endorsed by some others in leadership. Now they are actively praying about the proposed changes as well as talking with those leaders who were just as surprised as I was. At the same time, they represent indigenous churches who do not answer to outsiders but only to God. That’s why biblical understanding is so important since they face temptations from other indigenous church models that place all authority in the hands of a bishop or apostle. Proper contextualization is absolutely important, as it is about being indigenous while remaining faithful to Scripture.
So there was plenty of unattractiveness revealed by the lowest ebb, but what about things of beauty? As usual those were there too, although we may tend for the short term to dwell on what upsets us. Despite the pitiful state of the country being driven deeper into poverty each year, there is a lot of indigenous vitality. I see it primarily in the churches.
The churches we helped to launch many years ago are planting more, especially in the Midlands province, vowing that they are heading toward the capital city, Harare, in church planting. They help each other in seasons of drought, with those who manage to reap an abundant harvest sharing with those who have little. They are striving to be a church for southern Africa, to be independent without being isolated. They have launched their own Bible school with new high standards and numerous local lecturers. While I feared they are becoming too indigenous, they have fallen into this while trying to serve God, and they are willing to listen to outside opinion. Hopefully they are also willing to consult Scripture again to find God’s will. Please pray for these churches and for our churches here in the USA that are tempted by the spirit of the age to depart from God’s long-term plan of evangelism and church planting. People can never really flourish apart from knowing Jesus as Savior and Lord and from being part of the community of God’s people.
*Picture courtesy of: Business Day