The Doctrine of Salvation among African Christians
by Chigor Chike
This article which is taken form my book African Christianity in Britain will be devoted to how salvation is understood in African Christianity. The first task will be to describe how salvation is understood on the African continent. This will be followed and compared with the understanding of salvation among African Christians in Britain. The comparison will be based on material from a variety of sources, but most particularly the work of African Instituted Church preachers.
2 Salvation for African Christians in Africa
H W Turner in his well known study of the Aladura group of churches in Nigeria in the 1960s an “enlargement” in the scope of salvation compared to his own Western understanding. The church’s statement was of a salvation that embraced the “health of body and soul, the obtaining of goodness and the weal of mankind in all matters or things temporal as well as spiritual”. He notes that by this understanding, the Aladura extended salvation from the spiritual to the temporal and material spheres, thereby “manifesting the divine victory not only over human but over the super human and the cosmic.” He noted, for example, that unlike in the West, their testimonies were about vital things like life and security, calamities avoided, rescues from evil and practical successes. He gave the example of one report of a “spiritual revival” that said, “The outcome was splendid. Souls were won…many were healed…and in an interview with the Estate Housing Committee a house was allocated to him”.
Kenneth Enang, in his study of the understanding of salvation among the Annang people of Eastern Nigeria in 1979, identified that they understood salvation in the following ways. 1) Salvation means first deliverance. Statements from the church leaders during interviews include, “Salvation is deliverance from the power of evil principalities and the enclaves of human enemies”; “salvation is liberation of man from the powers of the demon”, “the defeat of evil entities and the wicked plans of the enemy”, “deliverance from the traps of evil beings”, and “deliverance from ill health and misfortune”. 2) Salvation is wholeness, being in peace — “where one is in unity with himself, with his neighbours, friends and God, he can say that he is in salvation”. 3) Salvation is progress in life, “good health”, “flourishing economic concerns” and “having children.”
The Kenyan theologian John Mbiti has also noted that African Christians, especially those in the African Instituted churches, have broadened the understanding of salvation beyond simply the question of sin and soul (as the missionaries present it) to include a physical deliverance. On deliverance, Kofi Appiah-Kubi writes, “There is more than ample evidence to show that the main preoccupation of many African Christians is redemption from physical dilemmas or evil forces.” On material possessions, Cyril Okorocha’s story about his encounter with a Nigerian business woman provides further evidence. He asked her whether she was saved:
“O yes,” she replied and then proceeded to narrate how in fifteen years in the long distance haulage business none of her vehicles had ever been involved in a road accident. Furthermore, she was very wealthy, had several houses in town and above all had two grandsons and a third was on the way.
The emphasis on deliverance from distress in the present life and blessings in this world are, according to these studies, a common feature of the African understanding of salvation.
My survey of over one hundred books written in the last ten years by African preachers in Africa shows that they rarely use “salvation” or “saved”. When they use “salvation” or one of its related words, it is often in the strict sense of conversion to Christianity. The Kenyan preacher Pius Muiru described how on the night of his conversion, a voice told him repeatedly at night to “give his life to Jesus”. Later in the morning, he looked up six other people known to him “to pray for my salvation”. Another Kenyan preacher, Apostle James Nganga, writing about his own conversion, stated: “When I was delivered my life changed. God started manifesting himself in different ways. He established my life. From a common beggar to a comfortable life.” Very often, salvation is linked to its benefits. Adeboye writes, “The moment you give your life to Jesus Christ, God deposits a seed of greatness in you. From that moment he expects you to end up at the top.” The predicament of the “unsaved” is the opposite: “While God’s children are busy enjoying the blessings, the unsaved are suffering in the flood of destruction.” Pastor Robert Kayanja, founder and senior pastor of Miracle Centre Cathedral in Kampala, Uganda, makes this link between what Christ has done and its benefit to the Christian:
The Salvation of the Lord is the price for your breakthrough. The Lordship of Christ is the ability of God to deliver you and make you successful. Jesus took our illness, sickness, infirmity, diseases…He took our place. He overcame them all. And because he won, we win.
Word study alone, however, would not give the full understanding of the concept of salvation. Cyril Okorocha, who has studied this concept in his Igbo tradition and in Christianity, has pointed out that for Africans “every religious quest is a quest for salvation and the central theme of African religiosity is salvation.” The question, “what for African people is salvation?” therefore amounts to “what are African people seeking from God?” or, for the preachers, “what are they offering people in the name of God?” Some of the material already presented answers these questions. Agyin-Asare, the Ghanaian, stated that people get healed when they make a demand in the name of Jesus Christ “our resurrected Lord”. Mike Ofoegbu described how Jesus could enter into a “covenant of prosperity” with the believer by carrying away the believer’s poverty and “nailing it on the cross for ever”.
Further study of the work of African preachers shows that overwhelmingly, what Africans are seeking from God are protection, healing and provision. For example, D K Olukoya, who often discusses the divine battle with the Evil One, writes in The Lord Is a Man of War, “He can decide to daze your enemies or he can simply decide to inject them with a very deadly ‘anaesthesia’ just to clear them off the way.” Mike Ofoegbu in Family Liberation Prayers lists the following problems that constitute “Satanic harassment” for the families concerned: rising and falling in status, lateness in marriage, miscarriage and barrenness, mysterious deaths, divorce and re-marriage, poverty, strange sickness, not having a male heir, a lack of peace of mind, idol-worshipping ancestors and polygamous family difficulties. He urged readers to pray to God regarding the one relevant to them and promised that “God will surely liberate your family in Jesus’ name.”
There is here a strong influence of traditional African thinking. Unlike in the West, where guilt is the main issue, the issue for African Christians is the battle for life against the many dangers they see in their world. So the threats are not so much within as without. Concern about sin is, primarily, not for the avoidance of guilt or the pursuit of heaven, but rather because it could hinder harmony with God and deny them God’s protection and provision. The lack of emphasis on eternal life is probably because they have an integrated view of the world, making no distinction between physical life and spiritual life. Prayers in African traditional religion tend to be for life, wealth, childbearing, good health, longevity, and so on — the same things that concern African Christians.
Turner reached similar conclusions in his study of the Aladura. He pointed out their awareness that there is more evil than can be attributed to human nature and that “a demonic domain of principalities and powers stands ranged against both God and man, [which] leads to a cosmic conception of evil”. This, in turn, “demands a cosmic view of Christ through whom this deliverance is effected” and “a total view of salvation”. Similarly, Mbiti, who has studied the subject more widely, identifies the African worldview as one of two “strong” influences in the African understanding of salvation (the other being the Bible).
This traditional world plays a major part in people’s hearing, understanding, experiencing and application of biblical salvation. This biblical salvation comes where people are, and they open the doors of their world to it. It is inevitable, therefore, that this traditional background colours the way salvation is interpreted and applied.
3 The British Scene
Cyril Okorocha’s statement that “for African peoples, every religious quest is a quest for salvation” is helpful in the consideration of what salvation is for African Christians living in Britain. Rather than asking how these British-based Africans use the word “salvation”, the question is, what are they looking to God for? The answer is that in part, at least, they want the very same things African Christians in Africa are looking for — victory over human and spiritual detractors, good health, prosperity and general wellbeing. There is some evidence of this in the material already examined. For example, Vincent Odulele described God as “a deliverer” and “a restorer” because he can “fix your home and your business”. And because God is a deliverer, he has healed the sick members of the congregation, so “go back to your doctor and say ‘run the test a second time’”. For Gilbert Deya, the blood of Jesus “overcomes” high blood pressure, and for Rosemary Waritay-Tulloch, the same blood of Jesus gives prosperity. I pointed out a similar connection in the African Christian song, “Jesus has given me victory…My Redeemer”, and my survey in 2003 also showed that for African Christians in Britain, Jesus’s saving work is experienced as provision, healing and victorious deliverance from illness and evil forces.
In Dangerous Prayers to Break Satan’s Forces, Gilbert Deya, the Kenyan-born preacher, writes specific prayers for “sending evil spirits back to the sender”, “destroying thousands of enemies around you”, “when the spirits of death is surrounding you”, “when you are around wicked people”, “nine prayers against secret plans of the devil”, and “releasing punishment to those who want to kill you”. K J Akoto-Bamfo, who is based in Britain, writes in Breaking the Power of Despair:
I want to assure you that God has programmed you for success. It’s not his intention that you should be in the cave. Leave the cave of despair, financial and spiritual difficulty, family problems and societal problems.
This does not mean these African preachers ignore the promise of eternity. In
Eternity Unveiled, Albert Odulele described how, on a plane journey in 2004, he was taken out of his body by an angel of God to a place where he experienced “the reality of eternity”. From the experience, he noted:
The gospel is in danger of raising believers who are perfectly suited for the world but unprepared for eternity. We have learnt the principles of faith for health, wealth, wellbeing, family, success, etc. but have largely left out the purpose for these things.
He warned his readers to avoid living for the “things of men” (a reference to Matt 16:23–24), and denounced what he termed the “prosperity of fools” (i.e., like the rich man in Luk 12:16–21). Lawrence Tetteh sounded the same note in Count Your Blessings. He warned those who might trust in their money that “even though wealth is a defence, we must remember that money cannot buy everything…You can have all the wealth in the world but without salvation, your life has no substance.”
Alongside signs of continuity, there are signs of change that can be attributed to the effect of the British context. For example, in an article entitled “Seeking Health with Faith or No Faith”, Bernard Nwulu, an African Christian living in Britain, looks from a Christian point of view at how the British National Health Service is failing black people. He points out that
the goal of Christian mission is not merely an individual, personal, spiritual salvation but also the realization of the hope of justice, the socializing of humanity and peace for all creation.
Nwulu laments that in the context of psychiatric provision, this justice aspect of salvation “is not evident for all people”. Black people were more likely to be removed by the police under section 136 of the Mental Health Act, more likely to be detained in Hospital under Sections 2, 3 and 4, more likely to be diagnosed as suffering from schizophrenia or other forms of psychotic illness, more likely to be detained in locked wards in psychiatric hospitals and given high doses of medication, less likely to receive “appropriate and acceptable” diagnoses or treatment at an early stage and less likely to be offered psychotherapy or counselling. Even when the nature of the illness and frequency of contact with service providers is similar between ethnic groups, “something goes wrong for black people relative to others.” Nwulu advocates a liberation theology approach to tackling this racism in the provision of health care. This involves “internal liberation” in the form of helping people change their self image and “external liberation” in the form of committing to social justice and taking risks “to alter oppressive structures”. This, Nwulu explains, would be conforming to the pattern set by Jesus Christ:
We need to remember that the Saviour came not for the sake of the righteous, but for sinners; not for the sake of the healthy but for the sick (Mk 2:17).
So Nwulu’s understanding of salvation goes beyond the individual to include the socio-political. He addresses the oppression of black people as a people and argues that helping black people get a better self image and opposing the “oppressive structures” holding them down is a continuation of the saving work of Jesus Christ.
Further evidence of this way of understanding salvation comes from the reflections of the black theologian Emmanuel Lartey following the racist killing of black teenager Stephen Lawrence and the “institutional racism” that characterized the investigation by the Metropolitan Police. Lartey, who was from Ghana but was living in Britain at the time, began by pointing out that what happened to Stephen Lawrence and the way it was handled by the police was not new to black people: “Black folk live these realities on a daily basis and have done so for many years.” However, any racial attack is a theological matter. It is in effect an attack against God because
God in his infinite and inscrutable wisdom created human persons with different skin hues…God created humanity in diversity and variety. None of us has a choice as to what our birth place, heritage, culture or skin colour will be. It lies within the providence of God.
Similarly, any discrimination or oppression of black people because they are black is an affront to the Creator:
Every attempt historically to force any human persons to be in essence or existence other than they are, as created by God, is a heinous sin against God who in his wisdom created all.
And any denial by black people themselves of their colour, heritage or language, perhaps due to internalisation of negative stereotypes of blackness or in order to become “acceptable” to white people, is wrong in God’s eyes.
To refuse to be what we are, as created by God, is a denial of God the Creator and a rejection of a loving relationship with God…This is a reflection of the alienation from creation and Creator that is a source of much black self-hatred.
Lartey’s central point is summed up in these words: “God created us ‘different’. We must affirm our difference. It is necessary to recognize that such ‘otherness’ (difference) is crucial in the theological quest.” In other words, an important part of what black people in Britain are seeking from God is the freedom to be black. By implication, salvation is overcoming all the forces, internal and external, that make this difficult. Hence, there is in Lartey’s views (although he has not spelled it out) a view of salvation in a socio-political sense, such as was observed with Nwulu.
A third contribution is one that can be discerned from the sermons of Matthew Ashimolowo of Kingsway International Christian Centre. Ashimolowo’s contribution is particularly important because it shows that what has so far been discussed in academic journals is now being preached openly in an African Instituted Church. Like Lartey, Ashimolowo did not set out to articulate a doctrine of salvation. However, it is possible to discern some aspects of one from his sermon series, Black and Blessed. In a sermon entitled “what's gone wrong with the man of colour”, he traces the problem of black people to Biblical times, to idol worshipping and turning away from God. In spite of warnings by the prophets Isaiah, Jeremiah and Ezekiel, black people, who he claims are represented in the Old Testament as “Egypt”, did not listen. God scattered them from their original land and punished them with disunity, slavery and foolishness. Their salvation, Ashimolowo points out, lies in turning back to God in repentance, and this would lead to a restoration of their fortunes as a people. Although Ashimolowo’s analysis could be seen as over-reliant on the Bible for history, it is a serious attempt to look at black people as a group. He also shows evidence of recognizing a social dimension of salvation, although he still roots it in a spiritual problem and leaves the response in the hands of black people themselves.
The interviews I conducted with twenty African Christians in Britain also confirm that this change is happening. Asked what in their experience African Christians were seeking from God, respondents included, “survival”, “someone to help”, “money”, “mortgage”, “material things”, “”salvation”, “kingdom of God”, “everything”, “eternal life”, “purpose of existence”, “protection”, “the miraculous”, “fulfilment in life”, “leadership”, “provision”, “empowerment”, “acceptance” and “guidance”. Taken together, these answers show that these African Christians, like their counterparts in Africa, do not make a distinction between the physical and spiritual aspects of life. When some explained the nature of the relationship between salvation/kingdom of God and earthly blessings, it was similar to the situation in the African context. One person said:
The Bible says seek ye first the kingdom of God and his righteousness and every other thing will be added onto it. So I will say that they are seeking first the kingdom of God. Somebody like me I know that if I worship and serve God it is my own belief as an African that whatever it is that I am looking for God will provide it.
A comparison of the answers based on length of stay showed that African Christians who have lived in Britain for a long period were more likely to bring a social justice dimension into their response. One respondent, who is a black Catholic, said: “In Britain, African Christians are in bondage because of issues to do with institutional racism and discrimination and lack of opportunity.” Another explained that African Christians in Britain depend on God for all manner of things, and for them the church has become:
that community that helps us through God, through the people of God to cope with the pressures of racism, unemployment, inequality and other issues that affect us as Africans in Britain.
Another respondent, who has roots in Nigeria but has lived in Britain for more than twenty years, said:
Christian Africans in Britain are looking for God to uphold us in the land of the stranger. In terms of making a breakthrough in work, studies, to reach places that we have never reached before; in being able to get to and get through the glass ceiling that has been created due to barriers of culture, barriers of skin colour, barriers of sex as well.
“Acceptance” and “acknowledgment” featured in a number of responses. One respondent, who comes originally from Ghana but has lived in Britain for many years, spoke of the challenges of living in Britain in Biblical terms:
I believe that African Christians in this community, their expectation is of a God who would take them out of Egypt, like the Israelites, in terms of their status in this country in terms of breaking through.
She described her own personal experience of being discriminated against. The need was for breakthrough “in the area of accepting us as black people with intelligence and qualifications,” and to be “acknowledged for what we are and what we are able to do to get the reward that we deserve.”
4 Issues raised by the African Christian understanding of salvation
The key feature of the African Christian understanding of salvation is its all embracing nature. Turner, a Westerner, rightly rejects simply seeing this as “materialism” because it is usually accompanied by a strong sense of a spiritual world. It is rather “an integrated view of life” in which “nature, man, and the spiritual world form a total community” and where people seek a peaceful relationship with every aspect of life and expect success to be manifest on the physical level of wealth, physical strength, happy marriage, numerous children, etc. This is similar to the Old Testament idea of shalom, which encompasses the idea of peace, wellbeing and prosperity, and with which God blesses those he favours (e.g., Lev 26:6ff). Everywhere in the Old Testament, peace and prosperity are seen as God’s reward to those whose ways are pleasing to him. For example, Pr 16:7, “When a man’s ways are pleasing to the Lord, he makes even his enemies live at peace with him.” And Ps 128:1–2, “Blessed are all who fear the Lord, who walk in his ways. You will eat the fruit of your labour; blessings and prosperity will be yours.” Where “salvation” or “saved” is used in the Old Testament, it is in a “quite concrete” sense that “covers more than spiritual blessings,” such as deliverance from earthly enemies (Ex 15:2, Ps 3:8), wellbeing (Deut 32:15, Ps 85:9) and “the effect of God’s goodness on his people” (Ps 53:6).
This sense of an all-embracing salvation is retained in the New Testament, even though the more spiritual aspect of forgiveness of sin receives a stronger emphasis. Crucially, Jesus’ own words show this wider sense. In Luke 7:50, Jesus says to the “sinful woman” regarding forgiveness of her sins, “Your faith has saved you”, and Mk 10:52 uses the same Greek word for the blind man to imply restoration of sight. In Mk 5:28, he uses “saved” with a double meaning when he told the woman who had been suffering from bleeding, “Daughter, your faith has healed you, go in peace and be freed from your suffering.” Kenneth Barker observes, “Here both physical healing (‘be freed from your suffering’) and spiritual salvation (‘go in peace’) are meant.” This suggests that, in the way he used the word, Jesus did not make a distinction between physical and spiritual salvation.
Different Christian peoples around the world are also declaring their understanding of salvation in broad terms. The World Council of Churches in Bangkok in 1973 affirmed that salvation was “of the soul and the body of individuals and society, humankind and the ‘groaning of creation’ (Rom 8:19)” and included in its examples, “peace of the people in Vietnam, Independence in Angola and justice and reconciliation in Northern Ireland.”
Problems arise when some African preachers totally ignore the spiritual dimension of salvation regarding the forgiveness of sin with the goal of eternal life with God. In many cases, salvation is presented as though it is all about material blessings. This has led to the charge of “Prosperity Gospel” (i.e., the reduction of the gospel message to the promise of material prosperity). Although many people who make this charge would not know much about the philosophical root of that emphasis in the African worldview, and it is by no means a charge that can be made of all African preachers, it is a charge that has substance and implies serious dangers. The first is the danger of an over-realised eschatology, the possibility that the consummation to which the Christian looks forward is expected in the present and the “essential eschatological perspective of faith is lost.” This would be disastrous because the transformative and sustaining power of the hope for the coming reign of God for both individual faith and the church’s life would be lost. As Gutierrez has pointed out, confidence in the future is vital for a “commitment to the creation of a just society in the present. And regarding the Church, Hans Kung has rightly warned that a church that forgets that itself and its time are temporary “makes too many demands upon itself; it grows tired and weak and will fail because it has no future.”
Secondly, the African understanding of salvation can reduce the seriousness with which sin is treated. Cyril Okorocha found that two Nigerian Christians he spoke to saw their salvation in terms of prosperity and triumph over their enemies, but said little about their personal sin. Where sin is considered in this approach, it is often as a possible barrier to blessing. This limited understanding does not reflect the seriousness with which sin is treated in the NT and may not be the sufficient deterrent needed for building a just, moral society. What is needed is a balance between the concern for material needs and eternal life. In Britain, Albert Odulele’s Eternity Unveiled, written after he came back to life from the experience of dying and in which he echoes Jesus’s message in Mat 6:20–21 (“don’t store up treasures on earth”) is a step in that direction.
Africans see salvation in a way that covers the whole person. Examples include deliverance from the power of evil; being at peace with one’s self, neighbours, environment and God; progress in life; good health; having children and getting the material things one needs. Sometimes, the word “salvation” itself is used to mean conversion and given the connotation of something that should precede these blessings (or breakthrough). This African understanding has been influenced by the African worldview. Salvation for them covers all spheres of life because they have an integrated view of the world, and it focuses on overcoming dangers because they see evil powers ranged against them. The analysis of the work of British-based African preachers shows that most have retained this understanding with little change. Interviews with African Christians in Britain and other available material, however, show a changing understanding attributable to the British social context. Racism in Britain is prompting British-based African Christians to understand what they are seeking from God in social justice terms, such as desiring acceptance in Britain and the breakdown of racist barriers.
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African Christianity in Britain by Chigor Chike is published by Author House, and available from here
Chigor Chike was born in
These posts are by guest authors for Fulcrum