Reformed in Name, Word of Faith at Heart: State of Reformed Baptist Churches in Nigeria
By: Deji Yesufu
There is a Christian website that bears the URL “slowtowrite.com”. That name is deeply convicting because, for some of us who are apt to put our thoughts on paper, we understand that when scripture says to be “slow to speak”, it also implies to be slow to write. Whatever else this article is meant to elicit, let the readers know that I have given deep thought to its content; I understand that my Lord will judge me by every word written therein – thus I must state the truth as I know it; and, that this publication has only been made possible after a few brothers of like-mind have examined its content and given me permission to publish it. I, however, take full responsibility for whatever is written therein. The Reformed Baptist tradition is growing in Nigeria. Along with this growth, however, is a deep division that might be unprecedented the world over. I understand that the Achille Heel of Reformed folks anywhere in the world is our divisiveness. While understandably “doctrine divides”, it appears to me that what divides us in the Reformed Baptist community is a lot more than doctrine and this is what I hope that my article will tackle.
Pastor Taiye Arimoro is the pastor of Crown Reformed Assembly situated in Ogba, Lagos. It is a Reformed Baptist Church because they assent to the 1689 –London Baptist Confessions. Arimoro’s roots, like most of us Reformed folks in this country, are in the Word of Faith movement. Pastor Arimoro was on the verge of being consecrated a Bishop in that movement when he left and subsequently became Reformed in persuasions, and ultimately started to pastor Crown. Arimoro, in a private conversation with me, tells me that he sees the Pentecostal/Word of Faith sentiment in our Reformed brethren here in Nigeria. When I ask what he means. He gives an anecdote: a white man is invited to speak at a Nigerian conference. Afterward, you can see our brothers “shielding” this man from being acquainted with other brothers at the conference. There is a systematic attempt to ensure no one else has access to these foreign connections. When I question Arimoro as to how he could discern the motive of those doing this. He laughs and tells me that when he was in the Word of Faith movement, that was how he also behaved.
There is a scripture that will be relevant to present at this point: “But I trust in the Lord Jesus to send Timotheous shortly unto you, that I also may be of good comfort, when I know your state. For I have no man likeminded, who will naturally care for you state. For all seek their own, not the things which are Jesus Christ’s” (Philippians 2:19-21). In the first chapter of this epistle, Paul had spoken of people who did ministry from selfish motives though he rejoiced that no matter the motive, Christ was still being proclaimed. Here, he touches on the matter again: there are two ways to do ministry – you may either do it in a manner that benefited yourself – your name, or you may do ministry in a manner that benefits the Lord. When we serve Christ for the sake of the word or with the pursuit of the spread of the gospel at heart, we have the Lord’s things at heart. When we do ministry so that our churches may grow, so that we may earn a reputation before people, so that we may have a name, etc, we are doing ministry for ourselves. Before you rush at justifying yourself, understand that scripture often demands deep heart searching on issues. May the Lord grant us repentance wherever we may have failed him.
When I write about holding to Reformed theology in name alone, while still possessing Word of Faith tendencies at heart, I will be the first to plead guilty on the matter. There is no way I will spend 15 years in the Pentecostal movement and not come out of it with some of their idiosyncrasies. My friend Peter Uka calls me a “closet charismatic” sometimes when I let my charismatism slip. The truth is that if we will be sincere with ourselves, we all still have the tendency to do things the old way and when brothers are kind enough to point out our blind spots, we should thank them and retrace our steps. The problem arises when we choose not to repent but we go on to justify our deeds and even employ scriptures to lend credence to our sins.
A few months ago, I learned that a brother was leading a Reformed fellowship here in Ibadan. Really? Great! That was my initial reaction, and I reached out to him to ask how we could work together. As we discussed, I learned that he subscribed to the 1689 – just as I did. He was doing ministry on the very university campus where I also reach out to students. They hold fellowship in the same hall where Providence Reformed Baptist Church (which I pastor) also holds Sunday worship. But there was a little snag: the brother was made to understand that he could not work with me. When we investigated a little more why this was so: the brother was told that I was an individual not particularly liked by some powers that be. So, today, two Reformed Baptist missions lead ministry in Ibadan in the same location but they are not working together. When I complained about this to a senior pastor colleague, he explained that there was nothing wrong with this arrangement. He said that this other brother has “different sending elders” from me. For this reason, our work must remain separate. “Sending elders”?! Like seriously(?) – to use modern youth parlance.
If this was not shocking enough, I hope this one shocks you. A Reformed Baptist brother has taken another Reformed Baptist brother to a court in Nigeria, where Christian brothers stand before an unrighteous judge to explain matters that border on how money is spent (1 Corinthians 6;1-11). Brothers pointing figures at brothers in a case that is nearing its 18th month in court and there are no Reformed pastors in Nigeria that can adjudicate the matter. When I complained about it, again privately to some senior minister colleagues, they tell me that Baptist churches have autonomy; no church can dictate to another church or ministry how it must do ministry. The best they can do is to separate themselves from the erring parties. They cannot adjudicate such matters.
Historically, Reformed churches were doctrinal at heart – they were biblical; they were holy in practice; and they were missional in vision. The Reformed churches did not achieve all of these at once – just a step at a time. Martin Luther and John Calvin passed on to the churches a commitment to the Bible – sola scriptura. They called believers to judge their lives and doctrine by the word of God alone. It created a revolution in Europe; it predated the Enlightenment, which brought about a revolution in the sciences, the industrial revolution, and much of what we are enjoying in modern times. Then we had the 18/19th centuries which showed us the lives of the Puritans in England and America. These men gave us practical piety, Christian family life, and functional ecclesiology. Most of what we do in our churches today, which we regard as “Reformed”, was developed with the Puritans. Most of the hymns we sing were written by these men in those times. Finally, the Reformed movement gave us a missional vision. Having overcome a crippling hyper-Calvinism, men like William Carey and Adoniram Judson took the bull by the horn and carried the gospel to the East. Their exploits in these nations is what inspired other men to bring the gospel to Africa. Reformed theology gave us functional Christianity in Nigeria and we must ensure that she remains pristine – not adulterated by a false gospel or a false profession.
Pastor Aniekan Epko has been leading a Reformed congregation in Portharcourt since 1998. A few years ago, he was blacklisted among some of his friends in Europe and America. When the matter was investigated, they concluded that Ani still had vestiges of the Word of Faith movement in his ministry. If you have followed the essay so far, you will realize that my argument has been that there is nobody in the Reformed movement in Nigeria that still does not have some vestiges of Pentecostalism/Word of Faith in themselves. If we must cast these stones well enough, we must ensure that we do not live in glass houses. I will be content if Ibadan continues to run two Reformed missions – we need it. We should work together but if that is not practical on this side of heaven, that is just fine. What I cannot live with is sitting pretty in this country while two brothers throw accusations at each other in a court. That that case is still ongoing is an indictment on all of us Reformed Baptists in this country. May God grant that this article will initiate the process by which the matter will be withdrawn from the court and leading Reformed pastors call the two parties and adjudicate the matter. With all the errors that we may pour on the Word of Faith churches, I have never seen them bring their issues to courts of law – or I will admit that it is very rare.
These issues have continued for far too long and those who accuse me of writing to bring attention to myself should admit that I waited long enough – I have been very slow to write on these matters. There are names attached to these issues and all parties know themselves – I have chosen not to mention them. May the Lord grant wisdom to the churches so that these matters could be resolved and so that the Reformed movement, with all our vaunted lip assertion to being biblical, may truly be a light – an example to our dark world, especially to our Pentecostal friends, of how genuine Christian piety is practiced.