Lazarus led this training with me, he is on the far left of this photo:
One lesson in this manual is about confession. We talked about the common misunderstanding here that if you sin, you immediately lose your salvation until you confess again. I hit home the point as hard as I could that we are saved by grace, that we sin constantly even in our thoughts and motivations, and in ways that we don't even know. I told them I don't personally believe you can lose your salvation, but even for the Pentecostal Assemblies of God (PAG) denomination, which does believe you can lose salvation, the real doctrine is not that you lose your salvation every time you sin, but only if you reject Christ, for example by leaving the church and persisting in unrepentant sin. One of the saddest things to me is that perhaps most of the Christians in Pentecostal village churches here think that if you sin on the way to church, but die before getting there to confess, you won't be saved.
One pastor asked a serious question during this discussion, because we emphasized that the real problem is not sin, but unrepentant sin. He is officially married traditionally/culturally, but he has not yet "wedded" in the church. He wondered, "Will I still be saved even though I'm living in sin by not being wedded? My wife refuses to be wedded in the church." It broke my heart to hear such a question. The whole issue of weddings for Christians in Uganda really frustrates me. Unlike the US, Christians here must be married in two ceremonies in order to be considered to be officially married and not living in sin - the traditional marriage ceremony, and then the church ceremony where you make the covenant before God and his people. That's not so bad in theory. But in practice the church weddings are mainly about having another big celebration and doing things the American way, down to the details of wearing a white wedding dress and a tux. Because people are trying to impress the community with a big celebration, these church weddings cost a lot of money. So what ends up happening is that people wait ten years to be wedded while saving up the money. In the meantime, they are married and have children and life goes on. So by the time the church wedding happens, it is relatively meaningless, and is really, in my opinion, more about just wanting the celebration.
Thankfully I am not alone in this opinion. In Soroti, the main PAG church in town is encouraging people to be wedded right away and to have smaller, more simple ceremonies. They have even done simple weddings where people are married during the regular church service. They also had a mass wedding last year of about six couples at once that cut expenses. I am so happy about these changes! Back to the original pastor who raised the question, we were all able to comfort him that he would still be saved, and that he cannot force his wife to wed in the church, so he should not live with guilt over this.
On this theme of confession, sin, and salvation, we also discussed the Lord's Supper and how so many Christians in their churches refuse to take part in the meal even when the pastors encourage them to. I think the PAG churches are going through something similar to what my denomination, the CRC, went through in the past. Some pastors have emphasized the warnings in 1 Corinthians 11 so much that people are viewing the Lord's Supper as a meal of fear and judgment, rather than of grace. Some people refuse to take part because they know they are sinners. It's so sad to me that they don't realize the meal is specifically for sinners, those who need Christ and to remember the grace and forgiveness we have in him! The warnings in 1 Corinthians 11 are for those living in unrepentant sin and those mistreating the body of Christ and the poor. But the TLT participants will now be giving their churches good teaching about this.
We also discussed baptism. An unexpected issue came up. Can you baptize a woman who has accepted Christ but is still living as a man's second or third wife? Polygamous marriages still exist here so it's a real issue and just happened this month for one of the pastors in the group. I didn't know the answer according to PAG doctrine. Most of the group told him he could go ahead and baptize her and that it's not against their doctrine, but others were not sure and told him to consult the PAG leaders.
Whereas I would view their stories as coincidences, they did not think so. But during the discussion they came to agree with me that words do not have power alone, it is only that God that has the power and he may or may not act on our words. However, most of them then came to the conclusion that somehow God must be acting on the words of these people uttering blessings or curses even if they are not Christians. But I wonder if other African Christians would say it is Satan who is acting on people's curses. It was a long discussion that needed to be much longer. I think this is a great example of how traditional African religion is still having a big effect on modern African Christians, and I think the TLT members themselves were confused as to how to integrate all of their experiences and ideas with what the Bible says. If I do start a doctorate program someday, I'd love to research and learn more about the intersection of African traditional religion and modern Christianity. There is so much I still don't understand.
As usual, there were exciting new action plans. Most of the students are going to go out and train other pastors and worship leaders in this manual. Annah is going to write new worship songs using biblical language from the Psalms and teach them to her church. Samuel was touched by how little Scripture is used in church services, so his goal is that his church will read Scripture at least four times in every worship service. Continue to pray for these leaders as they make good change in their churches!
I am so glad I had the privilege to do these trainings for the past two years in Uganda, but I am actually really relieved to have it all finished. The trainings are quite tiring and it will be good to do something different for a while.