"Let African Christians be Christian Africans"
The year is 1974 and the place a broken-down hospital being remodeled into mission agency offices in Jos, Nigeria. Four men gather in a dusty worksite surrounded by plastic tarps shaping the "office" of Byang Kato, a young African with capable bearing and laugh creases at the corners of his eyes. In tones more typical of casual conversation among friends than a business meeting, three SIM missionaries give reports to their African boss. Then the conversation turns global. Someone asks, "Byang, what do you hope long-range for Africa, for the future of Christianity here?"
"African Christianity is being consumed by a dreadful disease," he says. "We must find a cure for our theological anemia." Quickly, as if unleashed, Kato outlines a plan.
In the next hour, Kato spelled out four tools that he believed would support steady, responsible development of genuine Christianity across Africa:
- We need evangelical African scholars writing and publishing African theology.
- We need graduate schools in theology so that our best students do not leave the continent in order to learn: one school in French-speaking Africa in the west and another in English-speaking Africa in the east.
- We need a journal. African scholars of theology will seek a place to publish their ideas and read the responses of their evangelical peers across the continent.
- We need an accrediting agency to set standards of theological education and monitor the progress of schools in order to maintain those standards. Scholars throughout the world will want to know what African-educated theologians think about Jesus.
The four men spent the next hour or so strategizing how Kato, in his new position as General Secretary of the continent-wide Association of Evangelicals in Africa and Madagascar (he was the first African to hold that position), could bring that vision about. Then the meeting ended, and each man went back to his own sphere of work. Unknown to any of them, Dr. Byang Kato had less than two years to live.
Byang Kato was born on June 23, 1936, to Henri and Zawi of the Jaba tribe in Sabzuara near Kwoi in central Nigeria. Henri, a tribal fetish priest, looked forward to his son succeeding him in that honored position. To that end, shortly after Byang's birth Henri dedicated his son to the juju priesthood. As spiritual preparation during childhood, Byang experienced bloody sacrifices, exorcisms, curses, and trial by poison. He learned to fear evil spirits and understand dire prophetic predictions.
But Byang also had contact with his region's other local religion: Christianity. In a mission school he heard the story of Noah and the ark and a God who wanted to save his people. At the age of 12, Byang stood up in front of the class and asked Jesus Christ to come into his heart. Later that year he was baptized as a Christian—along with 300 others. His life suddenly got much harder.
Byang's father, disappointed in his son's public rejection of a life-position already chosen and assigned to him, refused to pay school fees ($1.50 a year) and instead assigned his son to a harsh regime of farm work. He deprived him of food and clothing and sometimes resorted to physical punishment. Byang lost about a year of school. Representatives of the local Christian church visited his father and pleaded with him to allow Byang to continue his education. Eventually, the school, Byang, and his father came to a grudging agreement: Byang would work the farm in the morning, go to school in the afternoon, and then (after classes) work a part-time job provided by the school in order to pay for his fees, books, and clothing. Even so, he was still sometimes short of food. But he became an ardent steward of time and a master of study.
Byang's new life solidified at the age of 16 when revival came to Kwoi. Byang recalled, "With my heart breaking within me, and tears streaming down my face, I went forward to confess my sins before the Lord and His people. As a symbol of my sincerity, I took off my shirt and laid it alongside the other gifts. Oblivious to everyone, I knelt in prayer.
'It's not only your shirt I want,' Jesus said to me.
'What do you mean?'
'I want your life, son.'
'Lord, I give You my life. I don't know what You want me to be, but I dedicate myself to You. Do whatever You want with me.'"
Byang immediately exercised his new commitment by working with neighborhood children who could not attend school. Sophie de la Haye records, "One of those children, now a man, said, 'My ability to read and write in Hausa and English I own solely to Kato. I've never been to school a day in my life."
Education came in vast clumps for Kato, often at the price of four-hour nights and years away from family. He graduated from Igbaja Bible School (300 miles south of home) in 1957, studied by correspondence from England for two General Certificates of Education to prepare himself for Western-style education, and graduated from London Bible College with a B.D. in 1966 and from Dallas Theological Seminary with a masters and a doctorate in 1973. He was the first modern African evangelical to receive a doctorate in theology.
Meanwhile, on a school break in January 1957, Byang Kato married Jummai Gundu, a childhood playmate. Between late 1957 and late 1960, Byang and Jummai had three children: Deborah, Jonathan, and Paul. Byang supported his family by teaching and publishing, much of the time simultaneously studying for his next degree. He landed his first full-time teaching job in late 1957 at Kwoi Bible Training School, where he was paid $15.00 a week. Jummai's parents sometimes kept the family from starvation by supplementing their diet from their garden.
Theological education among evangelical Africans of Kato's era had not kept pace with either the cultural or the religious needs of a modern world. From the 1950s through the 1970s, much of African mission work leaned toward the humanistic and pragmatic: Build hospitals. Improve agriculture. Teach Africans to honor their own traditions—even their own gods. While not rejecting the need for Christian humanitarian relief, Kato saw a theological disconnect. He worried about the Christological dangers of syncretism and the universalistic assumption that all religions lead toward one god and that all religious believers belong to Christ—whether or not they know him. Kato believed that Christianity had far more to offer than compassionate care.
Byang Kato proclaimed: "Let African Christians be Christian Africans." By this aphorism Kato did not mean that African Christians should rid themselves of cultural practices and adopt Western culture along with Western faith. Nor did he mean that Africans should remain cultural and spiritual Africans while dabbing a bit of Christian ritual onto their religious practice. Instead, he saw a regulating pivot between these two extremes: Scripture. In 1975 he wrote for Bibliotheca Sacra:
It is God's will that Africans, on accepting Christ as their Savior, become Christian Africans. Africans who become Christians should therefore remain Africans wherever their culture does not conflict with the Bible. It is the Bible that must judge the culture. Where a conflict results, the cultural element must give way.
In December 1975, the Kato family gathered for a brief Christmas vacation at a small thatched-roof beach cottage about 20 miles from Mombassa, Kenya. Before the first full day of vacation ended, the most highly educated evangelical African theologian of his day was dead in an apparent swimming accident. Byang Kato was only 39.
Surprisingly, Kato's four-fold vision did not die with him. Today in Africa:
- Books by evangelical African scholars can and do fill at least a small library. These volumes include African Commentary on the Bible (2006), edited by Tokunboh Adeyemo with contributions from 70 African scholars.
- Nairobi Evangelical School of Theology (NEGST) and Bangui Evangelical School of Theology (BEST) educate Africa's future theologians in both English- and French-speaking Africa.
- The African Journal of Evangelical Theology (AJET), based at Scott Theological College in Kenya, publishes scholarly articles twice a year.
- The Accrediting Council for Theological Education in Africa (ACTEA) sets standards and qualifies evangelical schools throughout Africa.
Byang Kato spent his own prodigious intelligence and energy combating the "theological anemia" that he believed threatened the Christianity of his continent. Then, with his four-point plan, he prescribed a protocol for its cure. The theological healing continues—thanks in part to the efforts of others gathered in that room in Jos, Nigeria in 1974, and their various colleagues and friends—but thanks also to the energy, foresight, vision, education, and faith of the African man whom London missiologist Keith Ferdinando named the "Founding Father of African Evangelical Theology."
Carolyn Nystrom is a freelance writer living in St. Charles, Illinois.
Note: This article is adapted from a forthcoming book by Mark Noll and Carolyn Nystrom to be published by InterVarsity Press. Used by Permission.
Sources for Byang Kato: Theological Visionary
Bowers, Paul. "Evangelical Theology in Africa: Byang Kato's Legacy: A Review of Byang H. Kato, Theological Pitfalls in Africa. Themelios 5.3 (May 1980) pp. 33-34.
Breman, Christien M. "A Portrait of Dr. Byang H. Kato," Africa Journal of Evangelical Theology 15.2, pp. 135-151.
Ferdinando, Keith. "The Legacy of Byang Kato." International Bulletin of Missionary Research, Vol. 38, No. 4. pp. 169-174.
Kato, Byang H. "Africa's Christian Future," Christianity Today, October 10, 1975. v. 20, no. 1. pp. 10-16.
Kato, Byang H., "The Christian Surge in Africa," Christianity Today, September 25, 1975. v. 19, no. 25. pp 4-7.
Kato, B. H. African Cultural Revolution and the Christian Faith. Jos, Nigeria: Challenge Publication, date??
Kato, Byang H. "Theological Issues in Africa," Bibliotheca Sacra, 133:530 Ap-Ju 1076, 142-152.
Kato, Byang H. Theological Pitfalls in Africa. Kisumu, Kenya. Evangel Publishing House, 1975.
De La Haye, Sophie. Byang Kato: Ambassador for Christ. Achimoto, Ghana: African Christian Press, 1986.
Manana, Francis. Kato, "Byang Henry Kato, 1936-1975." Nigeria: Evangelical Churches of West Africa. http://dacb.org/stories/aa-print-stories/nigeria/kato_byang.html. Accessed 6-19-2008.
Mbauka, Emele. "From Juju to Jesus Christ." http://dacb.org/stories/nigeria/kato1_byang.html. Accessed 6-19-2008. This article, received in 2001, was researched and written by Rev. Dr. Emele Mba Uka, a Project Luke Fellow, Professor of Theology in the Department of religion and Philosophy at the Federal University of Calabar, Nigeria (UNICAL).
Paas, Steven. The Faith Moves South: A History of the Church in Africa. Zomba: Kachere Series, 2006. pp 160-61.
Plueddemann, James. Personal interview. Winfield, IL: 12-13-08.
Shaw, Mark. The Kingdom of God in Africa: A Short History of African Christianity. Grand Rapids: Baker Books, 1996.
Studd, C. T. "On Advance." The Keswick Week, Fifty-Second Convention, 1927. London: 1927, p. 171.
Tienou,Tite. The Theological Task of the Church in Africa. Achimota, Ghana. 1982.
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