Archbishop David Gitari: Biblical Interpretation in Action in Kenya

Fulcrum republishes a 1996 article by Graham Kings on his experience of David Gitari's biblical interpretation in action in Kenya

Archbishop David Gitari:

Biblical Interpretation in Action in Kenya

by Graham Kings

Originally published as ‘Proverbial, Intrinsic and Dynamic Authorities: A Case Study on Scripture and Mission in the Dioceses of Mount Kenya East and Kirinyaga’ Missiology 24.4, October 1996, pp. 493-501. (1)

We doubt whether it will be possible for Europeans to live always in the Highlands. And when these settlers, who are strong, however powerful they may be, wish to take away the lands of the Black people for their own benefit in their own interests, we remember the matter of Ahab when he took Naboth’s vineyard. (2)

This was written in 1928 in the third edition of a radical Kikuyu monthly newsletter, Muigwithania (newsbearer, reconciler, unifier). It was edited by Johnstone Kenyatta who later became the first President of Kenya.

The 140 acres of cattle holding ground at Sagana have been reverted to other use. We have information that one powerful individual has grabbed 60 acres of that land for his own use and some of his supporters have also received a share of this public land. And there was no Naboth to say no! (3)

This was preached in 1991 by David Gitari, Bishop of Kirinyaga. I was in the congregation that day (19 May) together with students from St. Andrew’s College, Kabare, where I had been on the staff since 1985. I remember the electric atmosphere of that Bible exposition.

Sixty-three years separated these differing applications against British colonialists and Kenyan neo-colonialists. Both Kenyatta and Gitari were Kikuyu; both used the scriptural story of 1 Kings 21. Their attitudes toward scriptural authority however were different.

Kenyatta alluded to the story which would have been known to his readers through preaching. (4) It is interesting that he uses the Scriptures against the white people who brought the Scriptures. It seems to me to be unlikely that he viewed the story as the Word of God, but it was certainly useful for his purpose. He may have considered the story to have “proverbial authority,” for Kikuyu proverbs often mention only the main character of a traditional story and the rest is inferred. Perhaps this is an example of someone who does not seem to have been a committed Christian, who uses Scripture for a biblically just purpose, though with traditional “proverbial authority.” (5)

Gitari, however, is a regular expository preacher, in the evangelical tradition, (6) and in his sermon in 1991, he more than alluded to the story of Naboth: he expounded it in depth. He holds a very high doctrine of Scripture’s intrinsic authority as God’s Word combined with an imaginatively shrewd, political acumen. For him, the story of Naboth’s vineyard had the intrinsic authority of God’s Word and the dynamic authority of God’s prophetic Word for that day. To see the background to his, and others’, use of Scripture in mission, we need to outline the context.


Gitari was the first and last bishop of the Diocese of Mount Kenya East, in the (Anglican) Church of the Province of Kenya. This stretched from the fertile agricultural land just south of Mount Kenya up to the deserts near the Ethiopian border. In 1990, after 15 years of extraordinary growth, (7) the diocese died and rose again into two dioceses: Kirinyaga, led by Bishop Gitari; and Embu, led by Bishop Moses Njue who had served as a missionary to West Germany for five years.

Before independence in 1963, the British Colonial Government had exercised the policy of “divide and rule.” Between 1975 and 1990, the diocesan mission strategy had been one of “divide and grow”. Five-year development plans, arising out of Partnership in Mission Consultations, aimed at dividing parishes by particular dates, e.g., a parish of six congregations would divide into two parishes of three, which would then plant more congregations. On this model deaneries and archdeaconries would divide, and this eventually led to the division of the diocese. This growth was based on the integration of evangelism, development, and action for social justice. (8)

In several sermons and addresses, Gitari developed his theology of mission on the basis of Luke 2:52. He applied the words about Jesus growing in wisdom and stature, in favor with God and people, to his desire that every child in the diocese should also have such an opportunity for mental, physical, spiritual, and social growth. Therefore, the diocesan mission strategy included involvement in education, community health work, evangelism, and social transformation. (9)

President Moi took over from Kenyatta on the latter’s death in 1978. Moi is an evangelical Christian who is, however, very wary of the application of the Bible to social ethics. During the 1980s he increasingly tightened his grip on the one-party state, with consequential human rights abuses, but he was forced by international pressure to allow multiparty democracy in December 1991.(10) A local cabinet minister, James Njiru, was the Ahab referred to in May 1991. He and a friend had set up two front companies called Kariko Jaken Tree Nurseries and Jimka Developers and Lodges Company. Having sketched the background, let us return to the sermon preached in May 1991.

Was There No Naboth to Say No?

The text has been published in a collection of 24 of Gitari’s sermons, In Season and Out of Season: Sermons to a Nation. (11) The service itself, on Rogation Day, was outside the church at Mutuina, on the southern slopes of Mount Kenya, actually overlooking Kamuruana Hill which had already been grabbed and shaved of trees. It looked bald. Gitari exegeted the story of Naboth using detailed background information from commentaries. In short, the story concerns Naboth who owned a vineyard next to the palace of King Ahab of Samaria. Ahab wanted it for his vegetable garden and sulked when Naboth refused to sell his ancestral land. Jezebel, Ahab’s wife, arranged to have Naboth killed, and Elijah the prophet denounced them both, prophesying judgment.

For his sermon, Gitari had worked on some detailed research, not only of the text but of the context. He then read out the minutes he had obtained of the local council town planning committee for 19 February 1991.

It was agreed that:

The ten-acre plot for the establishment of a tree nursery at Kamuruana Hill be allocated to M/S Kariko Jaken Tree Nurseries.

An application for a motel site at Kamuruana Hill by M/S Jimka Developers and Lodges Company was considered and approved. (12)

Gitari preached, “Of the 16 Councillors who met, there was not a single one with the courage of Naboth to say no,” and added this refrain after each detailed accusation of landgrabbing. Later on, he anticipated the attacks of politicians on him in the words of Ahab and turned the tables on them:

In an earlier story when Elijah emerged from hiding, King Ahab greeted him with the words “Is that you, you troubler of Israel?” (I Kings 18:17). That greeting poses a big question. Who is the troubler of Israel? The prophet or the King? And in today’s Kenya, the people who cause trouble are not necessarily the bishops. Who are the troublers in Kenya? They are the land grabbers, the election riggers, those who sit in Councils and know what is wrong and have no courage to say no! The troublers of Kenya are those who wish to put the clock back so that we can revert to mlolongo. (13) [queuing]

The troublers of Kenya are those who plan transfers of Civil Servants who do not support them politically thus causing innocent people to suffer for nothing (14)

The troublers of Kenya are those who plan to send thugs to raid homes of people at night. (15)

The sermon ended with a plea for repentance and the consequent assurance of God’s forgiveness. So this is a fascinating example of directing the living words of God (which, as Martin Luther used to say, “have hands and feet”) to contemporary issues of justice. It was powerful because of its detailed retelling and because the congregation knew the context and political references.

Scriptural Litany for the Environment

It was followed up with a creative Litany for the Environment. The bishop had phoned the College the previous Friday and asked the students to produce a litany for the Sunday. The morning was transformed as students searched concordances for references to trees, fields, cedars, etc., and dug deep into the background of the passages thus found. Eventually a catena of scriptural passages was set out in dramatic form with various readers as well as versicles and responses by the bishop and the people. (16)

The litany, apart from the final lines, was deliberately made up only of scriptural quotations. Its first section was headed Celebration of Creation and had verses from Psalms 24:1-2; 104:1 6-17; and 24:3-4. The second was headed Judgment on Those Who Destroy the Environment and contained verses from the book of Isaiah (Isaiah 5:20-21; 13:2; 3:14-15; 5:8-9; 10:1-2; 37:23-24; 37:29). The following were originally directed against Sennacherib:

Reader: By your servants you have mocked the Lord, and you have said, “With many chariots I have gone to the heights of the mountains, to the far heights of Lebanon; I felled its tallest cedars, I came to its remotest height, its densest forest.” (Isaiah 37:24)

Bishop: Thus says the Lord,

Reader: “Because you have raged against me and your arrogance has come to my ears, I will put my hook in your nose and my bit in your mouth, and will turn you back on the way by which you came.” (Isaiah 37:29)

The final section was headed Hope for Creation and had verses from Job 15:7-9; Psalm 96:12-13; Isaiah 14:5, 8; 55:12.

Reader: The pine trees and the cedars of Lebanon exult over you and say,

People: “Now that you have been laid low, no woodsman comes to cut us down.” (Isaiah 14:8)

Bishop: For you shall go out in joy, and be led forth in peace; and the mountains and the hills before you shall break forth into singing,

People: and all the trees of the field shall clap their hands. (Isaiah 55:12)

Again the Scriptures were used imaginatively and with performative force, but with discernment. They were not just a quarry for pertinent texts, for not every passage that was suggested, on deeper study, shed light on the current context. They were alive with resonances across the years and lands.

Daniel Chapter 6 and Kenya Today?

In June 1987 biblical interpretation was debated in Parliament, in the newspapers and, more importantly, on matatus (small private buses/vans) throughout Kenya. Did Daniel chapter 6 apply to Kenya today? Gitari had preached that it did: David Amayo, the chairman of KANU (the one political party), insisted that it did not:

Bishop Gitari’s Biblical reference to the book of Daniel Chapter 6, about Darius and Daniel, has no parallel in Kenya. Such comparison can only be made with the aim of confusing God-fearing and peace-loving Kenyans. (17)

In June 1987 Gitari preached four expository sermons which focused on issues of social justice and caused this national debate. These were later published, together with the press cuttings of political reaction. (18) This was the third sermon, on 21 June, and was preached at a civic service in St. Peter’s Church Nyeri with the District Commissioner, the Mayor, the Chairman of the County Council and the local Party Chairman in the congregation. (19)

In the recent past, a prominent Kenyan civil servant had been sacked, and in August 1986 a KANU resolution to institute the unconstitutional system of voting by queuing up behind photos of candidates had been hastily passed. There was an outcry from the churches and lawyers and then public debate on “queuing” had been quashed.

After setting the context of Daniel 6 in the Persian Empire with the plot to remove Daniel, the loyal and just civil servant, Gitari referred to the change in the Persian constitution which brought this about:

In Persia the king approved the change of the constitution without any debate. The greatest mistake we can make in our national life is to allow important decisions to be made without allowing sufficient time for all those concerned to debate the issues...

Because the king did not allow a public debate, he was caused to make a blunder which he greatly regretted. The rulers of this world should be extremely careful of those advisers who claim to be loyal to the king while at the same time plotting to undermine efficient, capable and honest servants of the king. (20)

Since politicians and others were debating the biblical interpretation of Daniel 6 that week, on the following Sunday, Gitari preached on 2 Timothy 3: 14-4:7 under the title “All Scripture Is Inspired by God.” After exegetical detail on the background, Gitari continued:

There is not one bit of Scripture that is useless even for the present generation. When the Bible says that “all” Scripture is profitable it means exactly that; it is every part of the Bible which is profitable. But now the Chairman of KANU, speaking on behalf of our beloved party, has come forward to tell us what is not profitable in the Scriptures As far as we preachers are concerned, all Scripture including Daniel 6 is profitable for every generation and is profitable for Kenya today. (21)

Later on he commented on the phrase “in season and out of season”: “Has any politician a right to tell a preacher when it is convenient to preach on certain issues and when it is inconvenient? If I have to choose between what a politician tells me and what St Paul commends, I will take the side of the Apostle” (22).

Gitari’s public use of the Scriptures to back up his earlier use of the Scriptures shows a confidence in their authority and power to highlight and to correct social injustice.

One-Party State?

Another insightful use of an Old Testament narrative inaugurated the new diocese of Kirinyaga in St. Thomas Pro-Cathedral, Kerugoya, on 2 September 1990, “Season for Seeking Advice”. (23) In the wake of persistent criticisms of the government and of demands for an end to the one-party state, the President had set up a KANU review committee chaired by the Vice-President, George Saitoti. Gitari chose the text which focused on the advice sought by King Solomon’s son, Rehoboam, on succeeding his father (1 Kings 12:1-20). Rehoboam had travelled from Jerusalem in the south to Shechem where the people of northern Israel had gathered to make him king. The people had with them Jeroboam, who had recently returned from exile in Egypt. They said they would be loyal if Rehoboam relieved them of the heavy burdens that his father had placed on them. Rehoboam asked for three days to consider the proposition.

The older advisers who had served Solomon suggested that a favorable answer would produce loyalty. The younger advisers urged even greater oppression with the proverbial phrase “thus you shall say to them ‘My little finger is thicker than my father’s loins. And now, whereas my father laid upon you a heavy yoke, I will add to your yoke. My father chastised you with whips, but I will chastise you with scorpions’” (1 Kings 12:10-11). He followed the latter advice. As a consequence the people of Israel rebelled, made Jeroboam king instead, and the kingdom was divided. Rehoboam ruled only the southern kingdom of Judah.

Gitari applied the narrative to the Saitoti commission:

The KANU review committee…has gone round the country listening to what people are saying about the future of their country… Now the government and the party have heard and it is up to them to choose what advice they will follow. The future peace and stability of this country may depend on the kind of advice. Rehoboam rejected the wise counsel of the elders and chose to follow the misleading advice of his contemporaries. (24)

Gitari then went on to summarize the various requests that people had made to the commission. What is fascinating is that he allowed the threat of the text - of the kingdom being divided - to make its own obvious “dynamic” application and did not labour the point. It was well taken and more powerful for having been left unsaid. I certainly remember people understanding, and later discussing, the hidden warning of the one-party KANU losing its monopoly, if it did not reform in response to what Kenyans were saying about the future of their country. The dividing of the kingdom was also applied in discussions to the dividing of the country in civil war as well as to the legal introduction of other political parties.

In response to heavy pressure from Western donors, Section 2A of the constitution was repealed in December 1991 and parties other than KANU were thereafter legal. Multiparty elections were held in 1992, but through the fragmentation of the opposition parties, Moi was re-elected. The KANU kingdom was legally divided, but still held sway. (25)

A Kenyan Passion Play

In 1991 as an evangelistic drama, two students at St. Andrew’s College Kabare, Pauline Wanjiru and Albert Kabiro Gatumu, wrote a Kenyan Passion Play. This was the last week of Jesus’ life with echoes of the current events and political language of Kenya. (26)

Part of it was performed on graduation day, 12 October 1991. In August 1990, the prophetic Bishop Alexander Muge had been threatened by Peter Okondo, a Cabinet minister, that if he went to Busia he “would see fire and may not leave alive.” He went and died. A truck smashed into his car on the way home. On graduation day, a shiver went through the crowd when Jesus was warned by the Sadducees, “If you go to Jerusalem, you will see fire and may not leave alive.” (27)

Another politician, Shariff Nassir from Mombasa, caused a stir when he said that the queuing system of voting would be implemented “whether the people like it or not.” In Kiswahili this neat catch phrase wapende wasipende became infamous. In the Passion Play, the scene portraying the Sanhedrin Council, deciding the fate of Jesus, concluded with the high priest saying this: “I know the people are behind him, but we will have to get rid of him—wapende wasipende.” A gasp went up in the crowd. (28)


This case study has looked at episcopal sermons and student litanies and drama to consider the use of Scripture in mission in the dioceses of Mount Kenya East and of Kirinyaga.

The use outlined here seems to me to be not so much the facile twisting of Scripture to catch people’s attention, but a profound resonance of the living Word in a later age and culture which has echoes of prophetic, political reinterpretations: perhaps like the book of Daniel itself in the second century B.C. and the book of Revelation in the first century A.D. This is more than the proverbial authority we saw at the beginning, for Scripture is recognized in its intrinsic authority as the Word of God and, since it is alive, it has contemporary dynamic authority in life and in death.

We have concentrated on the application of Scripture to social and political issues: however, the dynamic authority that Scripture carries in these various situations is partly due to the fruits of evangelism in the diocese. Since there are so many Christians who revere the Bible and who are politically aware, if a particular application of Scripture is valid, then it does have social and political consequences. This practical dynamic authority, which is based on intrinsic authority, flourishes in an environment of a growing church.


1. This article was published as ‘Proverbial, Intrinsic and Dynamic Authorities: A Case Study on Scripture and Mission in the Dioceses of Mount Kenya East and Kirinyaga’ Missiology 24.4, October 1996, pp. 493-501. It was an expanded version of a paper given at the International Consultation of the Evangelical Fellowship in the Anglican Communion, University of Kent, 28 June-3 July 1993, John Stott, et al. The Anglican Communion and Scripture (Oxford: Regnum Press and EFAC, 1996), pp. 134-143.

2. Kikuyu Central Association, Muigwithania 1928, 1 (3) p 7, cited in John Karanja, ‘The Growth of the African Anglican Church in Central Kenya, 1900-1945’, PhD dissertation, University of Cambridge, 1993, p 162; published as Founding of an African Faith: Kikuyu Anglican Christianity, 1900-1945 (Nairobi: Uzima Press, 1999).

3. David Gitari, In Season and Out of Season: Sermons to a Nation (Oxford: Regnum, 1996) p. 106.

4. The Kikuyu Old Testament translation was not issued till 1951, though the Kiswahili Old Testament translation, which some of his readers would have known, was issued in 1915.

5. Later Kenyatta seems to have misused Scripture and subverted an African Independent Church partly through substituting the name Jomo Kenyatta (J.K.) for Jesu Kristo in its hymn books! See L. S. B. Leakey, Defeating Mau Mau, cited in the review of the book by Leonard Beecher. Beecher continues:

Even the National Anthem had new words substituted for the well established Kikuyu version; these new words enabled the followers of Kenyatta to sing loudly and fervently in support of sedition whenever loyal subjects of the Queen stood to pray God’s blessing on Her Majesty when the National Anthem was sung.

Leonard Beecher, ‘After Mau Mau – What?’, International Review of Missions (1955) 44 (174), pp 205-211.

See also John Lonsdale’s perceptive research on these hymns (nyimbo):

The nyimbo were no more anti-Christian than those of any national church that enlists God on its side at time of war. They compared Kikuyu with the children of Israel and the British with the Egyptians. These echoes of an Exodus by a tribe already knowing God were made the more resonant by, the publication of the Kikuyu Old Testament in 1951. Kenyatta was generally compared with the prophet Moses or called a king, leading to freedom and wealth, not to salvation…Many nyimbo had hymn tunes. Whites thought that blasphemous in itself. But hymns were now a popular song form; and no missionary, so far as I am aware, condemned the scabrous marching song of white settlers in the Kenya Regiment set to the tune of “Onward Christian Soldiers.”

John Lonsdale, ‘Wealth, Poverty and Civic Virtue in Kikuyu Political Thought’ in Bruce Berman and John Lonsdale (eds), Unhappy Valley: Conflict in Kenya and Africa (Oxford: James Currey, 1992), p 443.

6. Before being consecrated bishop, Gitari had been the General Secretary of the Bible Society of Kenya and before theological studies in England had been an evangelist in African universities. At the 1988 Lambeth Conference, he was Chairman of the Resolutions Committee. For further biographical details, see David Gitari, In Season and Out of Season, 1996.

7. The following statistics, from diocesan records in the archive of St Andrew’s College, Kabare, bear witness to this phenomenal growth: between 1975 and 1990 the parishes rose from 19 to 93, the number of vicars rose from 30 to 120, of Deaconesses from O to 20, Community Health Workers from O to 308. Sixty-seven church buildings were consecrated, including Embu Cathedral; about 150,000 people were baptized and about 90,000 confirmed. Two missionaries were sent to other countries, to Zaire and West Germany.

8. For further details see David Gitari, Let the Bishop Speak (Nairobi: Uzima Press, 1989).

9. For further details see Grace Gitari, ‘Evangelical Development in Mount Kenya East’, Transformation 1988, 5 (4), pp 44-46.

10. For further details see David Gitari, ‘Church and Politics in Kenya’, Transformation 1991, 8 (3), pp 7-17.

11. David Gitari, In Season and Out of Season, 1996

12. ibid. p 105.

13. This is the Kikuyu word for the “queuing system” of voting which Moi instated in 1986 for preliminary elections and which was open to massive rigging. Moi was forced by pressure from the churches and the people to abandon the system at the end of 1990. See David Throup, ‘Render unto Caesar the Things that are Caesar’s: the Politics of Church-State Conflict in Kenya, 1978-1990’ in Holger B Hansen and Michael Twaddle, (eds) Religion and Politics in East Africa (Oxford: James Currey, 1995), pp 143-176.

14. This may refer to Simon Nyachae, a former head of the civil service who had previously been sacked.

15. This refers to the attempted assassination of Gitari on the night of 22-23 April 1989 by thugs. It was considered by most local people that Njiru was behind this attempt: there was a Presidential Commission of Enquiry, but the results have been concealed. See David Gitari, In Season and Out of Season, 1996 pp 91-92, 138.

16. Graham Kings, News of Liturgy 1991 (August) pp 8-10.

17. Daily Nation, 27 June 1987.

18. Gitari, Let the Bishop Speak, 1989.

19. ibid. pp 32-42.

20. ibid. pp 36-37.

21. ibid. pp 45-46.

22. ibid. p 47.

23. Gitari, In Season and Out of Season, 1996, pp 97-101.

24. ibid. p 100.

25. For further discussion of Gitari’s hermaneutics, see the thoughtful essay by G P Benson, ‘Ideological Politics versus Biblical Hermeneutics: Kenya’s Protestant Churches and the Nyayo State’ in Holger B Hansen and Michael Twaddle, (eds) Religion and Politics in East Africa (Oxford: James Currey, 1995), pp 177-199.

Paddy Benson worked as his publications secretary and edited Gitari, Let the Bishop Speak, 1989.

26. Pauline Wanjiru Njiru and Kabiro wa Gatumu, ‘Kabare Passion Play: The Last Week of Jesus’ Life in an African Context’ unpublished, in the library of St Andrew’s College, Kabare, Kenya.

27. See Throup, ‘Render Unto Caesar’, pp 168-171 for further details of Muge’s death.

28. On the use of drama in education and evangelism, see also John V Taylor ‘The Development of African Drama for Education and Evangelism’ International Review of Missions, (1950) 39 (155) pp 292-301.


Dr Graham Kings is Bishop of Sherborne and theological secretary of Fulcrum. He has also written the Fulcrum obituary 'Archbishop David Gitari 1937-2013: Evangelist, Prophet, Liturgist and Bridge-Builder'.

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