November 24, 2008

Giving Thanks

"Oh give thanks to the LORD, for he is good,
for his steadfast love endures forever!" (Psalm 107:1)

First Thanksgiving
This week we celebrate Thanksgiving. While we’re called to continually give thanks to God for His abundant mercies, I appreciate the chance to set aside a special time each year to focus on His blessings to us. Here are just a few of our many reasons for rejoicing:

I thank God that I have been reconciled with Him through Jesus Christ. Apart from Christ as my substitute, I would be without hope and justly face God’s wrath for my sins. But by His grace, I have been saved. Praise God!

I thank God for my wife. Next to Christ, she is my most precious gift. She encourages me, takes care of me, challenges me, and loves me. I simply wouldn’t be the man I am today without her.

I thank God for my children. Having four kids certainly keeps me busy, but I wouldn’t trade them for anything in the world! Children are truly a blessing from the Lord.

I thank God for my church. I’m edified and built up through the ministry of my local congregation. We’re centered on the Word of God, we have great fellowship with one another, and we’re committed to ACFAR’s vision in East Africa.

I thank God for this ministry. I have the privilege of preparing to serve Christ in Uganda. He could have chosen a much better candidate for this task, but I pray that He will be glorified through our efforts in Africa.

I thank God for Paul Carden. As CFAR’s executive director (the ministry I’m serving through), he has to put up with me! Still, he is patient, helpful, wise, and supportive.

I thank God for our supporters. Without the many believers who partner with us through their prayers and sacrificial giving, there would be no ACFAR. They are truly essential to the success of our ministry. I’m humbled to be working with them to advance biblical discernment and cult evangelism in East Africa.

Of course, there are many more things for which I should thank God, and I plan to devote Thursday to doing so. I hope you’ll join me and take advantage of this opportunity as well.

I’ll be back next week with another blog post. See you then!

November 21, 2008

Weekly Round-Up: Witchcraft, Street Preachers, Islamic Conflict, and New Conference Audio

Here's this week's round-up:

1) Joachim Buwembo, "Ugandans losing their heads to a new generation of witchdoctors" in the East African newspaper (Kenya). Witchcraft is a very serious reality in Uganda and East Africa. I have written about this ever-present challenge before, but Buwembo reminds us of the fear, suffering, and even death which Africans struggle with constantly. I pray that the gospel will overcome this darkness!

2) Claire Nabwire, "Street preachers" in the Sunday Monitor newspaper (Uganda). Here is an interesting news story on street preachers in Uganda.

3) Madinah Tebajjukira, "Rebels Muslims seek own mufti" in the New Vision; Ssemujju Ibrahim Nganda, "Mubajje now an imposed Mufti" in the Weekly Observer; and Paul Amoru, "The troubled cleric" in the Daily Monitor newspapers (Uganda). Mufti Sheikh Shaban Ramadhan Mubajje may have begun as a popular Muslim leader in Uganda, but his going to trial for fraud has created many problems for the Islamic community. While he was acquitted of the charges against him, many Muslims still believe that he is guilty. These reports help explain the challenges Mufti Mubajje continues to face.

4) "Karis Theology Weekend Audio Now Up" on the Karis Blog. A few weeks ago I mentioned an upcoming conference with (now Evangelical Theological Society President!) Bruce Ware. This week the church sponsoring the conference has posted the audio, including a discussion on Jesus and salvation. You'll want to download and listen to these MP3s!

November 19, 2008

Book Review: Five Views on Apologetics

Five Views on ApologeticsSteven B. Cowan, ed., Five Views on Apologetics (Grand Rapids, MI: Zondervan Publishing House, 2000), 398 pp.

The Apostle Peter exhorts Christians to “Always be prepared to give an answer to everyone who asks you to give the reason for the hope that you have” (1 Peter 3:15). Believers recognize that God calls us to the defense of our faith—that is, to the practice of apologetics. But how do we defend our faith? How do we give an answer? Throughout church history, Christians have approached the task of apologetics in a variety of ways. Steven Cowan has brought together proponents of five different views to defend their apologetic method and interact with the other contributors. The result is Five Views on Apologetics.

Five scholars participated in this printed discussion advocating their views: William Lane Craig, the classical method; Gary Habermas, the evidential method; Paul Feinberg, the cumulative-case method; John Frame, the presuppositional method; and Kelly James Clark, the Reformed epistemological method. This book follows the typical format established by previous titles in Zondervan’s Counterpoints series. Each contributor begins a section by summarizing and defending his method, followed by a response to the initial presentation by each of the other authors. After the last view is presented and engaged, the original advocates have a final opportunity to reply to the other contributors. By the time the reader finishes the book, he or she should have a much better understanding of each individual approach and the differences among the methods.

I really enjoyed this book. Apologetic method has always interested me, and bringing together several of today’s leading evangelical apologists to interact with one another on how we should defend our faith was sure to bring forth fruitful discussion and insight. While I won’t focus on which methodology I prefer (even though some of you may already know!), I can say that I richly benefited from each presentation and the back-and-forth of the contributors.

Still, I do wonder if the editor could have chosen better advocates for the viewpoints presented. Almost none of the contributors could be accurately described as a “purist.” As Frame points out in one of his responses: “In my view, not a great deal of difference exists between the methods of William Craig, Gary Habermas, and Paul Feinberg” (132). Kelly James Clark begins his response to Craig by saying, “I could have written William Craig’s essay (at least major parts of it)” (82). Such statements occur frequently, with those involved voicing their general agreement with one another. William Lane Craig even comments: “What we are seeing in the present volume is a remarkable convergence of views, which is cause for rejoicing” (317). Maybe so, but in a book seeking to introduce readers to the peculiarities and differences among various apologetic methods such a “convergence” only muddies the waters. Perhaps including an “eclectic method” or “integrationist method” as a separate attempt to bring together the other views into a new approach alongside more traditional presentations would have been more beneficial.

The work also seems overly technical. Multiple-view books function best as introductions to the central issues of contemporary debates. Having to wade through difficult philosophical concepts and the probability calculus of Bayes’ Theorem is far beyond the capability of most lay Christians. Restricting the discussion of apologetic method to such a high academic level severely limits the book’s usefulness. And this is a shame, since such scholars could greatly help our brothers and sisters in Christ to think more clearly about how to defend our faith.

Consequently, I finished this book with mixed thoughts. On the one hand, it’s an informative work on an important topic for contemporary Christians; on the other, I can’t see recommending it often to fellow believers. Nonetheless, I’m sure it will give helpful insights to those who are somewhat acquainted with philosophical and theological issues related to apologetics, as well as to others who are willing to slowly and carefully work through its contents.

November 17, 2008

The Lord's Resistance Army

Joseph KonyChances are, if you hear anything about Uganda on the evening news, it will have something to do with the Lord’s Resistance Army (LRA). This terrorist organization is led by Joseph Kony, a spirit medium seeking to establish an independent state based on a synthesis of Christianity, Islam, and local (Acholi) beliefs and traditions. Kony and his LRA are widely known for abducting children and using them as soldiers and slaves in their ongoing war, which has created a humanitarian crisis in northern Uganda.

There are few in-depth analyses of the LRA that discuss its cultic dynamics. Thus I was glad to discover an article on the LRA in the latest issue of the Cultic Studies Review (Vol. 7, No. 2), published by the International Cultic Studies Association.

“Innocent Murderers? Abducted Children in the Lord’s Resistance Army” was written by Terra Manca, a master’s student at the University of Alberta, and probes the history, beliefs, and practices of the LRA, with an emphasis on its use of child soldiers. The article’s abstract states:
For over twenty-one years, a guerrilla force known as the Lord’s Resistance Army (LRA) has been terrorizing the people of northern Uganda. The LRA abducts children to help it fight against local civilians and the Ugandan government. LRA commanders use extreme violence to control these children. The LRA justifies the use of this violence with its secretive spiritual and political ambitions. Many of the children in the LRA commit horrendous acts, such as mutilations and murders, against civilians in a effort to survive while they await the opportunity to escape. Some of these children eventually internalize the violence that the LRA subjects them to and become willing participants in the movement. In this article, I discuss how to the LRA’s organization, its use of religious doctrine, and its use of physical coercion manipulate children in an effort to create obedient member of the LRA.
Manca begins by summarizing the historical milieu in which the LRA was born. During the colonial period, Christian missionaries brought the gospel with them, but due to a lack of contextualization Christianity was largely mixed with local traditional beliefs. Additionally, the British generally divided Uganda into the North and South, with the North mainly used as a source of soldiers, labor, and foodstuffs while the South was developed commercially. This separation continued once Uganda gained independence, with the North generally on the losing side of dictatorial rule and political struggles. Many Northern soldiers eventually formed a rebel army to liberate themselves from the oppressive central government. Their ongoing struggle left them at odds with the current administration of President Yoweri Museveni and ripe for Kony to take over what rebel soldiers remained from the conflict, including remnants of the Holy Spirit Mobile Force led by Kony’s cousin, Alice Lakwena.

At first, Northern Ugandans were tolerant of Kony’s group, as they had never enjoyed a good relationship with the government in the South; but by the early 1990s, the focus of the LRA changed from fighting the Southern army to “purifying” the Northern Acholi people themselves. Kony began forcibly abducting children to join the LRA because of his belief that they are ideal for building his future “pure” race and bringing about his dream society.

Because the traditional African worldview doesn’t distinguish between the sacred and the secular, the LRA becomes hard for Westerners to classify. It’s a terrorist organization, a religious movement, and a counterculture all wrapped into one. Consequently, children who want to escape the LRA struggle with physical coercion, spiritual manipulation, and social ostracism. Most live in constant fear for their very lives and completely surrender to their commanders to survive. Some eventually internalize the LRA’s ideology as their own. Still others risk death to escape to freedom (to appreciate the plight of children who leave the cult, see the documentary film War/Dance).

Manca’s article goes into far greater depth than I can cover in this post, including the role of spiritualism in the LRA and a description of the nightmarish life of the cult’s children.

In any case, she has produced an insightful and detailed overview of an important and complex situation in contemporary East Africa. Since her analysis was written from a strictly secular perspective, numerous questions remain, especially concerning the spiritual side of the LRA. For example, how should Christians further research the movement and critically engage it with the revealed truth of our Savior? And how can we reach out with the Gospel to members of the LRA specifically, and to the Acholi people generally? These and other fundamental issues must be carefully addressed as the Africa Center for Apologetics Research develops.

November 14, 2008

Weekly Round-Up: Sserulanda Special Edition

Normally, our weekly round-up brings together several sources to keep you up-to-date with the latest developments in Africa and apologetics issues. Nevertheless, so much has developed recently with the controversial Sserulanda sect that today's list will be devoted to this spiritual group.

As I have mentioned before, the Sserulanda Nsulo Yobulamu Spiritual Foundation believes that its leader, “His Infinite Grace” Mugonza Bambi Baaba, is “God Almighty” on earth. They are also in the process of trying to establish a special free trade zone and run it as an autonomous territory called the Ssessamirembe Spiritual City. While their independent city seemed to be progressing rapidly, now they are under governmental investigation and being accused of crimes and other problematic practices.

Here are the latest reports:

November 12, 2008

Book Notice: Ashes of Faith

Robert Bwire, Ashes of Faith: A Doomsday Cult's Orchestration of Mass Murder in Africa (Amsterdam: Frontier Publishing, 2007), 166 pp.

Ashes of FaithOther than the Lord’s Resistance Army (LRA), the best-known Ugandan cult is certainly the Movement for the Restoration of the Ten Commandments of God. Eight years ago, this Roman Catholic sect ended violently with the murders of roughly a thousand members. The Kanungu Massacre, as it has come to be known, has left many people around the world searching for answers. Robert Bwire, a Ugandan epidemiologist in the greater New York City area, spent time with followers of this cult while working in his home country. Ashes of Faith is one of only a handful of investigative works attempting to reveal what really took place in Kanungu. Bwire also describes other contemporary prophetic movements, including the “Covenant Box Descended into Uganda,” World Message Last Warning Church (Wilson Bushara), and Holy Spirit Movement (Alice Lakwena).

From the back cover:
The "Movement for the Restoration of the Ten Commandments of God", a Ugandan millenarian cult proclaimed the end of the world on December 31, 1999. The cult claimed that Virgin Mary had delivered this message directly to its three leaders: a half-insane failed politician, a defrocked Catholic priest and a former prostitute. When the world failed to end, the disillusioned faithful demanded a refund of property and money generously donated to the cult leadership.

Unable to quell the rising tide of unrest, the cult leaders conceived a macabre plan of permanently stifling dissenting voices. On March 17, 2000, the cult led its unsuspecting followers through a baptism of fire. Over 550 men, women and children perished in a fire as they waited for their salvation from a sinful world. Subsequent investigations uncovered a series of mass graves, bringing the total killed to over one thousand — the largest linked to a doomsday cult in recent human history.

"Ashes of faith" investigates the background of this bizarre millenarian cult and also provides a rare glimpse into the darker world of extreme religious fanaticism in Africa.

Table of Contents:
Acknowledgments, 9
In the Thrall of Christianity, 11
Apparition Mania, 25
Cult Trinity, 39
The Seer and the Rock, 55
The Ten Commandments, 69
Seeking Thy Kingdom, 91
The Faithful, 107
Last Supper—A Reconstruction, 119
Looking the Other Way, 133
Inferno Aftermath, 143
Conclusion, 157
Notes, 159

November 10, 2008

Tabletalk Magazine on Africa

For many years, I have appreciated Tabletalk magazine. A monthly topical study and Bible devotional combined into one, Tabletalk is published by Ligonier Ministries and covers everything from theological doctrine to church history. Each month readers are treated to edifying material which supports and builds their relationship to Christ.

Tabletalk MagazineNovember's issue is no exception--it is devoted to missions and the global body of Christ. Dr. Peter Hammond, the missionary director of Frontline Fellowship, provides an insightful article on the church in Africa. I was both challenged and encouraged by what he wrote.

Hammond begins by recounting the tremendous amount of persecution that followers of Christ face throughout much of Africa. From Nigeria and Sudan to Angola and Mozambique, believers suffer for their faith. Nevertheless, there is a growing revival amidst the persecution. Thousands of Muslims are regularly reported to convert to Christianity. Our faith is expanding into difficult and oppressive regions including Marxist territories. Praise God for His grace in Africa!

At the same time, Hammond points out a looming danger in the midst of all this growth:
The greatest spiritual needs in Africa at this time are good Bible-based discipleship books, CDs and manuals, and leadership training -- particularly Bible teaching. All of these could be made available for Bible College libraries throughout Africa....

Most pastors in Africa have no formal Bible training. Most pastors have no access to a library, and most own only a few books. Many do not even own a full Bible. Operation World reports that one hundred million Christians in Africa do not even possess a copy of the Bible.

Numerous leaders have gone on record as saying that Africa's greatest need is discipleship. As one pastor put it: "The church has done a good job of evangelizing, but a poor job of discipling. Christianity here is a mile wide and an inch deep!"
I thank God for fellow missionaries who are helping to equip believers in Africa learn God's Word. Nevertheless, I am once again reminded of the great need for biblical discernment and the defense of the faith in Uganda and East Africa. The body of Christ is simply not adequately equipped to counter the errors of cults and other false teachers. Imagine trying to refute a Jehovah's Witness without a full Bible or any other critical information.

The task before us is great, but God's glory shines brightly through meeting these challenges! Lord willing, he will use ACFAR to further build His kingdom early next year.

November 7, 2008

Weekly Round-Up: Ugandan Evangelicalism, Kenyan Challenges, Ghanaian Jehovah's Witnesses, and Defending Exclusivism

Here's this week's round-up:

1) "Evangelists on the rise in Uganda" on France 24. You simply must watch this video on the growth of evangelicalism in Uganda. While the reporters obviously do not have a firm grasp on contemporary Protestantism, evangelicalism, and the charismatic movement in Africa, they still have produced an eye-opening inside look into Uganda's religious atmosphere.

2) "Churches up in arms over shady pastors" in the Saturday Nation newspaper (Kenya). Because of all the prosperity gospel preachers and other charlatans taking advantage of Christians in East Africa, more and more church leaders are calling for additional oversight and regulation by the government.

3) Francis Asamoah-Tufuor, "Jehovah's Witnesses Do Vote In Ghana" in the Ghanaian Times newspaper (Ghana). This news story is fascinating. JWs usually do not vote or get involved in politics, but the JWs in Ghana plan on being a part of their country's political process.

4) Adam Sparks, "Salvation History, Chronology, and Crisis: A Problem with Inclusivist Theology of Religions, Part 1 of 2" in Themelios Journal (in PDF format). When thinking about missions and those belonging to other religions, one of the most debated questions today is on the salvation of non-Christians. Could people be saved by Jesus' sacrificial death on the cross without ever hearing the gospel or believing in Him? Followers of Christ must firmly answer "No," since God has revealed that faith in Christ is our only hope of salvation. Sparks helps us to better understand the exclusivity of our Savior's gospel.

November 5, 2008

Ask Anything Wednesday: How Will We Prioritize

Welcome to Ask Anything Wednesday. Normally this series is once a month, but I received two great questions last week, so I'm answering the second today. Nevertheless, please keep the questions rolling in! Just submit your question--on anything!--in the comments section below and I'll consider responding to it in this monthly feature.

"With the need to counter the cults in Africa so great, how are you going to prioritize?"

You’ve asked an important question—one that I’ve given much consideration. At the same time, I’ve only visited Uganda twice and would not presume to yet have enough knowledge or exposure to form a specific plan of prioritization.

With this in mind, for at least the first six months after arriving in Uganda, my focus will be on learning more about the overall religious situation through rigorous, in-depth research. During this process, I’ll seek to discern a specific strategy by asking several crucial questions:

• Which groups and false teachings do East African Christians feel are causing the greatest harm at this time? For example, are they most concerned about syncretism, the prosperity gospel, certain Western cults, and/or specific local groups (like the “abaikiriza”)?

• Which groups and false teachings objectively need the greatest emphasis and response, given the severity of their theological error and their success in proselytizing? Some movements, like the Branhamites and New Apostolic Church, are among the largest and most active, yet (strangely) seem to be among the most neglected.

• Which groups and false teachings have already been addressed by local apologists, and to what extent? In this blog I’ve described a handful of locally produced resources that are still in circulation; other Ugandan Christians are attempting to defend the faith as best they can. We want to complement—not compete with—them and, whenever possible, we will work alongside them.

• Which groups and false teachings already have Christian responses ready for use in early inoculation and training? Through materials we’ve developed and others available through our ministry partnerships, we can immediately place much-needed resources in the hands of Christian leaders and other leaders. (In fact, a shipment of materials for pastors in southeastern Uganda is leaving this week!) For example, we’re providing IRR tracts on Jehovah’s Witnesses and Mormonism, a CFAR manual on practical discernment for pastors, a CD-ROM on relevant cultural issues from Stand to Reason, and pamphlets from Rose Publishing.

The needs before us are evident, and the opportunities to address them are numerous. Above all, as we develop a specific strategy we’ll need much prayer—both during the initial phases of research and outreach and throughout our years of establishing a regional apologetics ministry. Please share in the privilege of advancing biblical discernment among our African brothers and sisters through your daily intercession!

November 3, 2008

A Final Warning

Ephesus TheaterEphesus was the capital city of the Roman province of Asia and a place where the Apostle Paul spent much of his time as a missionary. He briefly visited this city at the end of his second missionary journey, but stayed for about three years during his third. By God’s grace, and through Paul’s faithfulness as well as that of other believers like Aquila and Priscilla, many people were saved. In fact, Paul’s ministry was so successful that “all the residents of Asia heard the word of the Lord, both Jews and Greeks” (Acts 19:10).

Paul dearly loved the church at Ephesus and eventually wrote a letter to them which is now included in our New Testament (Ephesians). Nevertheless, after staying with them for so long he had to return to Jerusalem. What would he say to the Ephesian church leaders in his final farewell? We find his words in Acts 20:18–35.

In this parting address, Paul includes a sober warning:
Pay careful attention to yourselves and to all the flock, in which the Holy Spirit has made you overseers, to care for the church of God, which he obtained with his own blood. I know that after my departure fierce wolves will come in among you, not sparing the flock; and from among your own selves will arise men speaking twisted things, to draw away the disciples after them. Therefore be alert, remembering that for three years I did not cease night or day to admonish everyone with tears (20:28–31).
Pay careful attention! Be alert! Why? Because “fierce wolves” and false teachers will attempt to divide and destroy the church of God, drawing Christians away by corrupting the gospel and God’s revealed truth.

Of the many instructions that Paul could have delivered in his last words to the Ephesian elders, he was compelled to prepare them for this singular challenge. They couldn’t be taken by surprise, or sit by in bewilderment, as destruction unfolded. They had to be constantly aware of the danger posed by cunning and merciless deceivers—and fully prepared to refute them with the truth of Christ and His gospel.

Little has changed since the days of the apostles. The calculated twisting of God’s Word is an ever-present challenge to His church—especially in Africa, where many pastors and church leaders have little if any biblical training. Too often, shepherds in East Africa cannot hear and apply Paul’s warning because they’re unable to practice biblical discernment, properly differentiating between scriptural truth and clever falsehoods.

Will you pray with me that Paul’s impassioned warning will ring loudly in the ears of church leaders across Africa? May we give them the tools and training they need to protect their flocks from the fierce wolves entering their midst!