Issues facing Christians in Sudan and South Sudan today. Mission section.
by Matta Mubarak
The fact there is an issue of disunity among the Sudanese churches is surprising when we consider the environment in which the Christian church lives in Sudan. The Christian church is not generally welcomed and her mission is often seen as something foreign to Sudan. The Christian church has survived moves against it over centuries. I pray it will survive its own disunity today!
Most of today’s Sudanese Christian community is composed of those tribes which were first reached during the missionaries time. They and the first Sudanese Christians of that generation made the most of religious freedom such as they had. I know of very few tribes which came to Christ through the efforts of indigenous Sudanese leaders. Many tribes remain today unreached with the good news of the gospel of our Lord Jesus Christ. With such a big evangelistic task facing us, it is disastrous that the Sudanese Christian church today seems much more willing to divide than unite. We will only make progress when we join together in the common task of mission.
Despite knowing these facts about the historical Christian situation in Sudan there remains still the spirit of disunity among Christian churches. This disunity is not caused by disagreements based around biblical issues. We can disagree on some issue yet still remain united. Most of the complaints I hear are related to tribal thinking among all Christians. Most of the groups that split away from other Christians claim they were not treated well by a certain tribe in “that” particular church. They seek equality and justice for themselves and for their own tribe. It appears that both the first church, and the group that split away from them, follow their own tribal desires. I ask, “Where is the vision for the millions of unsaved in Sudan?” Vision for our unsaved fellow citizens is not the main agenda for many Christians or for their congregations. And it should be! Too often we show selfish concerns about what is best for “US”. We do not ask selfless questions about what is best for “THEM” – the unsaved. Our focus is always “WE”, not “THEY”. This comes down to our tribal focus dominating our Christian focus. It should not be so.
Before his accusers Paul gave this testimony of what Jesus said when He commissioned him: “I will rescue you from your own people (the Jews) and from the Gentiles. I (Jesus) am sending you (Paul) to them (both Jews and Gentiles) to open their eyes and turn them from darkness to light, and from the power of Satan to God, so that they (both Jews and Gentiles) may receive forgiveness of sins and a place among those who are sanctified by faith in me”, Acts 26:17-18 (brackets and italics mine). Jesus took Paul’s focus away from Paul’s own people and set it on every type of person who made up Paul’s world. He wants to do the same for us all today.
One Reason for Today’s Disunity in our Churches
It seems that many church leaders prefer to minister and serve Christ only within their tribes. They do not want to be in a church composed of different tribes. We all need to clearly answer this question: Was it a big mistake by God to place different tribes in Sudan? Should He have only put one tribe in Sudan? Did God get it wrong? When a man plants a field to enjoy he may plant many different colours of flowers. A multi-coloured view is much more attractive than any single colour. God wants us to have churches, each one composed of different tribes. God wants to enjoy looking at His people altogether – and Jesus’ people are from every tribe that exists. Heaven’s focus is on Jesus where people are singing: “You were slain and with Your blood You purchased men for God from every tribe and language and people and nation”, Revelation 5:10 (italics mine).
Running away from other tribes is running away from holding the cross of Christ, see Matthew 16:24-27. Denying ourselves is an essential part of taking up our cross. Tribalism is part of our old self. It must never be allowed to take priority over our Christian commitment. I am committed to Jesus first and to His people. After that, I place my family and tribal background. This does not belittle my tribe, but it keeps the truly Christian focus every follower of Jesus must develop.
Seeking to form a church composed of one tribe is seeking to live a very simple Christian life, but a life which may be empty of Christ’s cross. Such faith is the faith that does not pay a price for the sake of others. Avoiding other tribes to avoid the attendant difficulties of all tribes mixing together is a poor testimony to the uniting power of Christ!
Many leaders do not believe that God can correct their mistakes through others. They are not prepared for God to reveal their own weakness through words spoken or examples lived by leaders of other tribes. Such proud leaders are not willing to obey God if He wants to talk to them through people of other tribes. There can never be Christian unity in the life of Christians together who put their tribe above other tribes.
Some Christians feel that other tribes – even Christians from other tribes – are oppressing them. They feel their voices are not heard by others. Therefore, in any issues related to serving in high positions in the church, they vote tribally in elections. And because they are not able to compete with others in this way they prefer to split away. In isolation they form their own group, a group which will be loyal to their own tribal thinking. Christian brothers and sisters in Sudan, we must realise that tribal ambition and tribal boasting are the mother and father of disunity among Christians. We must get to the place where Jesus Christ is served and honoured as the one undisputed Lord of all. At this place our enemies are not brothers and sisters from other tribes! Satan alone is our enemy. Our Christian struggle is a united Christian struggle against one common spiritual enemy.
Christian Unity is a Gift from God we must Accept, not Reject
Since unity in the promised Holy Spirit is the gift of God to His church in Sudan, South Sudan (and everywhere else), and since this unity was made possible by the cross of Christ, then when we cause disunity among the churches we are misusing God’s gift. See Ephesians 1:1-14. Because we did not create this unity, and it was not our gift to other people nor their gift to us, we are responsible to God. We must keep and guard Christian unity in the face of any attempts from within the church or without the church to tear it apart. Every one of us is responsible to keep unity in the church, Ephesians 4:1-7. This is not the job of a particular group. The Bible urges us to turn this loyalty for our tribes (with which we are born) into loyalty for the church of God (to which we are born again). We are to be eager to preserve the unity God gives us. We are to make every effort to keep it. This zeal to see the church of God living in God-given unity is a mark of our Christian discipleship. Our local church pastors and Christian teachers must take the lead in explaining and applying Bible passages like, Ephesians 4:11-32.
Our Disunity Shows a Distorted Body of Christ
Sudanese Christians need to be as eager and zealous to maintain the unity of the whole Christian church as they have been eager and zealous to defend their tribes in previous days. If we cannot bear with others within the church, what poor Christian commitment we have! Ephesians 4:1-2. How can we claim that we will follow Christ, even if it will cost us our lives, if we get upset with a brother or a sister just because he comes from another tribe? I agree with Francis Foulkes when he writes in his commentary: “It is folly not to strive now to keep a unity in peace and love”.
Being the people of one Lord Jesus Christ should bind us together more than anything else in Sudan. The Christian family bond is more than colour, tribe or dialect. The privilege of belonging to the South part of Sudan, or Northern Sudan or Western Sudan, is for the benefit of all of Sudan. Geographical location, tribal distinction, or any other merely human difference is not to be the grounds for disunity. Our Christianity should make us better citizens of Sudan, not worse, Ephesians 6:6-9.
The church that is composed of one clan or tribe living together in unity does not necessarily mean they are united by God’s Spirit. They may be united on merely human distinctiveness. But the church made with people from different tribes, people with different social and racial backgrounds, people from a different history, when they work together in the unity of Jesus Christ, they show that Jesus has made them one. This is the real unity of Christ – unity in Christ, Ephesians 2:13-14; 2:19-22. This visible unity is attractively evangelistic, Acts 19:8-10; 19:17-20; 20:27.
Because Jesus is the only Lord who can conquer any tribe’s bad behaviour, only He can tame us to be in submission to Him. That submission includes putting our tribalism second, with our Christianity deliberately and definitely put first. As we do this we are in a position to obey Jesus. He commissions us as disciples to go and reach every tribe in the world, Matthew 28:18-20. People will see and hear our gospel.
It was God’s wisdom to create us different from each other so that we can serve one another. If we were equal in everything and everyone was perfect, how can we show our ability to bear with one another in Christian love? “Accept one another”, Romans 15:7; “Honour one another above yourselves”, Romans 12:10-11; “serve one another in love”, Galatians 5:13; 1 Peter 4:10; “Bear with each other and forgive…”, Colossians 3:13.
In Biblical teaching, Christ is to be put first and other people put next, Philippians 2:1-11. Our attitudes must keep ourselves at the bottom of the list, verse 5. Otherwise we will cause no unity, instead of promoting Christian unity. We are requested not to keep our privileges to ourselves. Like Jesus we must use who we now are (in Christ) for others. We must live for the blessing of others, not for the advancement of ourselves.
What makes Satan succeed?
Satan appears to succeed in his programme against God’s children. He promotes disunity and division in whatever ways he can. The disgraceful things Christians do happen because Satan never asks his forces to do little things. He always asks them to do something very great, even something that will cost them to do. Satan makes big demands of the people under his leadership and he expects sacrifice from his evil forces. They never disobey him. They willingly serve him. This is why many Christians simply fall as victims under his power. ”Be self-controlled and alert. Your enemy the devil prowls around like a roaring lion looking for someone to devour”, 1 Peter 5:8.5 Satan loves to destroy Christians.
Is it costing us anything to be Christians in Sudan? Do we follow the crowd or dare we stand out from it? Do we resist the evil thoughts put into our minds by Satan and his forces, or do we crucify our old nature along with the crucified Christ? See also “In your anger … do not give the devil a foothold”, Ephesians 4:26-27; “take your stand against the devil’s schemes”, Ephesians 6:10-11.
Disunity aims to satisfy our old human nature which always wants to identify more with tribal thinking instead of with spiritual thinking. Only our transformed nature, with its Christian thinking, really helps us to grow spiritually for the glory of God. We will never grow by following our old nature. We are aware that Satan may use his power to influence tribal groups for evil purposes, “for we are not ignorant of his designs”,
2 Corinthians 2:11 (English Standard Version). “Put to death, therefore, whatever belongs to your earthly nature”, Colossians 3:1-11, “for we know what his plans are”, Good News Bible. But as Sudanese Christians we choose to stand out against this influence. We have more important things to do, like the evangelisation of the lost in our country!
Satan uses disunity to hinder the visionary leaders of our churches and to disable them from reaching tribes as yet unreached with the gospel of our Lord Jesus Christ. Caught up in trying to resolve inter-tribal disputes they cannot focus the congregation on to evangelism. So disunity becomes an enemy for evangelism. It serves only the interest of human nature and it leads to a concentration on tribal interests. It does not help in outreach to the lost people of every tribe and nation. It can be easily seen that disunity comes from the kingdom of darkness, 2 Corinthians 2:5-11, especially verse 11.
The unity of God’s people is not found by the privilege of getting high positions for ourselves or tribal colleagues, nor is it found by gathering people around us who we can lead, people who come from just one clan or a single tribe. These things do not show the Holy Spirit’s unity. Probably they are a merely human, tribal loyalty. Despite of all the other differences we Christians may have due to our backgrounds, we are now first of all brothers and sisters in Christ. We are created by one God. All of us belong to Him. So nothing should break our God-given unity. The Bible correctly understood and applied will unite us with a real Christian unity. Our different interpretations about disputable matters, held correctly with respect to others, will not break this unity, Romans 14:1-15:7.
God has accepted all people in His church, with all of our different weakness, so that we can have the privilege of patiently and lovingly serving them all. In our many and varied expressions of His one Church we must reach out to every person we possibly can. The Christian gospel and the principles of Christian discipleship are the same for everyone.
Turning the church into a place of bad news
The Bible teaches that the church is to take the good news out to other people and seek to bring them to Christ, Matthew 28:18-20. Jesus entrusts the church with good news. The church should be the source of good news for the lost. But our carnal thinking says, “No”. We have turned the church into a place of bad
news! For many people the church has become a place of bad news because of our behaviour and the way we treat each other. What a tragedy when church becomes a place to spread news against another tribe or clan!
The Bible says we should be united as one body in Christ Jesus despite our different backgrounds, Ephesians 2:14-22, Colossians 3:11. The flesh says, “No, my church should be composed of my tribe only”. To whom must we listen? The problem gets worse as some people then think they have the right to eat better and more than others, and to possess the best things and to live in a place that stands out among others. They see other people through the eyes of their culture, not through Christian eyes opened by the word of God. Serious Christians must stand against what is clearly wrong.
Each one of us needs to examine our motives. Why are we in this ministry? What motivates us to seek a place in the church? We have to be very careful. The enemy will help us think that unless we get what we seek in the church it is of no use being together in unity. This is the same lie he used for our mother, “Did God really say, …” Genesis 3:1-5.8 Immediately Eve’s eyes were taken away from worshipping God and put on to pleasing herself. When things that cause disunity are allowed to be the focus of our churches, valuable time for reaching out to the lost quickly disappears.
Our Lord Jesus questioned the faith of those who accepted the praise of other people but who made no effort at all to live “to obtain the praise that comes from the only God”, John 5:44. He suggested their faith was not genuine. Since we know how we should live as Christians, we will only ever be happily fulfilled when we do it. That is also when God’s purpose to reach the lost will be enabled.
Using this chapter and Scriptures quoted:
1. Give examples of a tribal focus getting in the way of local outreach to the lost.
2. List “every type of person who makes up your world”.
Include those you know well and those you barely know at all.
What does Revelation 5:9-10 tell us about God’s view of tribalism?
3. What are the weaknesses of a single tribe congregation?
What are the strengths?
What are the weaknesses of a church made up of a whole variety of tribes?
What are the strengths?
4. Read Galatians 2:11-14.
What was Peter’s main mistake (from these verses)?
How did it affect others, because he was a leader of the church?
From the surrounding chapter see what Paul did to challenge this error.
5. How can Christians “make every effort to keep the unity of the Spirit”, Ephesians 4:3?
What should happen when a tribal demand for loyalty clashes with this?
Explain how to “be strong in the Lord”, Ephesians 6:10.
6. Why is a multi-tribal multi-racial church such a great witness to Jesus Christ?
Comment on the church – seen by outsiders – as a living, a loving and a loyal
7. Give examples of where you think “spiritual thinking” should supersede “tribal thinking”.
How is evangelism hindered by tribalism?
What can be done about this?