2013 Gudina Tumsa Theological Forum

Most Lutherans will not have heard of Gudina Tumsa, even though he has been called “the Ethiopian Bonhoeffer” by those who knew him. Rev. Gudina was an extraordinary evangelist, preacher, and church leader in the Ethiopian Evangelical Church Mekane Yesus during its transition from a mission to an independent church. He articulated a wholistic vision of ministry, refusing to serve only the soul or only the body, but integrating service to both in response to the gospel of Jesus Christ. And he was also a pioneer in Ethiopian ecumenism, responsible for organizing the first Ethiopian Council of Churches—a bold move against the oppressive communist Derg regime, which responded by abducting and murdering him in July 1979.

Speakers at the 2013 Gudina Tumsa Forum

In loving memory of Gudina’s remarkable witness and to continue his legacy of wholistic ministry, the Gudina Tumsa Foundation was established by his daughters Lensa and Aster Gudina. It has published a volume of his extant writings (most were destroyed when the Derg confiscated the church’s property in 1981), undertakes development projects and educational seminars throughout Ethiopia, and hosts the Gudina Tumsa Theological Forum. This year’s conference took place on April 12 and 13 at Luther Seminary in St. Paul, Minnesota. The topic was “Ecumenical Challenges: Working in Love, Transforming Lives.” The goal of the conference was to develop a biblical understanding about the present challenges of ecumenism, the relationship between “faith and partnership,” and to reflect on what it means to be the body of Christ across national, confessional, and ethical borders.

Prof. Sarah Wilson of the Institute was one of the conference speakers this year. She spoke on “The Challenge of African Churches in the Ecumenical Discussion, with Special Reference to Ethiopia.” It is very clear after fifty years of bilateral dialogue that many, if not most, church divisions are rooted in human sin—failures to listen and understand, political motivations, refusals to forgive, misplaced priorities. On the other hand, not all divisions are sinful; some are rooted in the struggle to perceive truth. Genuine disagreement born of a struggle to understand, as opposed to false disagreement born of a failure to love, is a triumph and a blessing. Ecumenism therefore does not seek to eliminate all differences and replace them with a single, final, silencing mono-theology. Recent improvements in understanding the cross-cultural nature of the gospel can give us a helpful analogy: ecumenism prompts us out of our home territory to voyage to other places, which are different from home and expand our horizons. We are not asked to leave our home forever, but through encounters with others become better both at home and away. In doing so, we grow in our ability to critique our home as well as see its genuine strengths, while appreciating those of the other place too. This is the basic insight of the ecumenical strategy known as “differentiated consensus”: the same truth may be found in very different cultural and linguistic forms.

The Mekane Yesus church offers an excellent test study in this kind of ecumenism. During the 1970s, through encounters with Pentecostal missionaries, young Lutheran members of the church experienced a charismatic revival. They met with a great deal of resistance and were so frustrated that they were prepared to leave Mekane Yesus altogether. But Gudina Tumsa challenged them: “Jesus died, but he was raised from death. Don’t build a new church, but rebuild your old church. Raise it from death.” Under his leadership, a team of forty people got together to revisit biblical teaching on the Holy Spirit, the Augsburg Confession, and other historic churches’ responses to charismatic renewal. The end result was a report to guide the incorporation of charismatic renewal, especially in worship practice, into the Mekane Yesus church, while remaining faithful to Lutheran doctrine. It is worth noting that, at the time this decision was made, the church had about 200,000 members; today is has approximately 5.6 million members. There is little doubt that this respectful, open, biblical approach to an ecumenical challenge served Mekane Yesus extremely well!

This example is also evidence against the destructive slogan “service unites, doctrine divides” or “spirituality unites, doctrine divides,” which is sometimes heard in ecumenical circles. It is wise here to follow Gudina Tumsa’s foundational insight: there must be a wholistic approach to ecumenism as well. Service, spirituality, and doctrine all go together. To leave out one is to fatally impoverish the others. Yet one often gets the impression that the world church looks to Africa to be progressive on matters of service and spirituality but to leave doctrine to the side as unimportant, or as if it were a luxury for happy and secure times. But doctrine is the basic articulation of who God is, which tells us therefore how to serve and how to express our spirituality. Thus it would be a great benefit if the Ethiopian church could take up the challenge of articulating a wholistic christology on which to base its wholistic ministry. Resources to do so can already be found in the theology of Martin Luther, who laid great emphasis on the unity of the person of Christ, and even farther back in Cyril of Alexandria, the great African theologian and champion of the Council of Ephesus and still posthumously influential at the Council of Chalcedon. It is an extra ecumenical benefit that the Ethiopian Orthodox Church is a direct and faithful heir of Cyril’s christology.