Down a side street off the Avenue of the Nations, a drama is being enacted that could drastically affect church life in many developing countries. The marquee carries the title, “Unity: The Price of Union.” The stage scenery locates the action in the Republic of Zaire (formerly Congo; pronounced Zah-ear’) from 1969 to the present. The leading actors, 1,600 black churchmen and 1,100 foreign missionaries, are supported by a Zairian cast estimated at five million, the largest Protestant community in the French-speaking world. Although ignored by many Christians, the drama has attracted a fascinated audience: supporters of more than forty missions of all varieties and sizes in Zaire; world leaders of the ecumenical and evangelical movements; influential churchmen of the Third World.

The onlooker will have difficulty following the complicated, fast-moving plot unless he knows some background. This goes back to 1902, when representatives of seven Protestant missions in (then) Congo first met to discuss common problems. These inter-mission conferences led to formation of the Congo Protestant Council (CPC) in 1928. At that time the fast-multiplying missions needed to coordinate their work and present a common front to active Roman Catholic opposition and to an often unsympathetic colonial regime.

Considering the divergence of national and denominational backgrounds, the CPC worked remarkably well. Only half jesting, some said this harmony resulted from the council’s being composed of conservative liberals and liberal conservatives. The CPC did in fact have a worldwide reputation for being theologically conservative. This was demonstrated in 1958, when the International Missionary Council considered merging with the World Council of Churches. Although it was a founding member of the IMC, the Congo Protestant Council voted against the merger and refused to join the WCC when the fusion did take place.

The CPC, though only a consultative body, encouraged some remarkable interdenominational projects still functioning today. One is a medical center financed and staffed by ten CPC members. Another is a teacher-training school run by eight denominations. A church publishing house is supported by twenty-two council churches and organizations.

Then in 1969 some national church leaders used these decades of doctrinal and practical unity as a platform for turning the council into an organically united church, the Church of Christ in Zaire (CCZ). There the drama begins.

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Act One: Church Of Christ In Zaire
Scene One: Case For Union

Front stage and center, the leading spokesman for organic union was the Reverend Jean Bokeleale. Even before becoming CPC general secretary in 1968, Mr. Bokeleale, then forty-eight years old, was a well-known African leader in ecumenical circles. While chief executive of the 100,000-member Disciples of Christ Church in Zaire, he had been elected to both the Executive Committee and the Central Committee of the World Council of Churches.

During the 1969 CPC General Assembly, the first during his tenure as general secretary, Bokeleale forcefully presented the case for union. “We are a young nation,” he reasoned. “It is now that the Church must bring Christian influence to the country still in the formative stage. But we cannot do this while plagued by shameful divisions and quarrels among ourselves. We must be united if we are to be heard.”

The general secretary argued the case for unity from another angle: the political climate. A CPC news release summarized a lecture on this subject:

Pastor Bokeleale recalled the attitude of the new regime concerning tribalism and the philosophy of unity: one leader, one army, one police, one party, one union, one youth movement. From this came the conclusion of the lecturer, “There is only one Church, and our government recognizes only one.”

Bokeleale echoed accurately the sentiments of numerous political and religious leaders concerning organic church unity. In the opening session of that 1969 General Assembly, the personal representative of President Mobutu Sese Seko made a request to the delegates. “Could you during this forty-eighth session,” asked Minister of State Joseph N’Singa, “give place in your program to consider the unity of all Congolese in the spiritual realm, a unity indispensable in order to assure their immediate happiness and their prosperity?”

Approaching the case for organic union from another side, Bokeleale cited foreign missions as the source of Protestant divisions and quarrels. In a later press conference he stated, “The institutional Protestant mission in Zaire is the base and source of all these difficulties.” He was convinced that if Africans could get together without missionaries present, they would soon resolve all their differences.

In a theme to be developed and used repeatedly, the general secretary said missionaries before 1960 had worked for the unity of the church. Already in the mid-1950s they had begun using the title “Church of Christ in Congo.” Said Bokeleale, “The old-time missionaries obeyed the Word of God and did not want to impose the sin of divisions under which Western Christians suffered so much.”

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Only after 1960, the year of national independence, according to Bokeleale, did some missionaries exploit the ignorance and naïveté of Africans. They encouraged the believers to think of themselves as Baptists or Presbyterians or Methodists—anything but members of the one Church of Christ in Congo. He concluded that the reason was clear: by dividing the Christians, this kind of missionary could continue the domination he had been able to exercise under the former colonial regime.

The general secretary went on to say that this policy of divide to dominate had political as well as religious consequences. To illustrate this, he spoke of a sight he remembered from the days of the Simba Rebellion. It was the headless corpse of a mother floating down the river with a baby still clutched in her arms. Then, addressing himself to the missionaries present at the General Assembly, Bokeleale said, “This is the result of the divisions and disunity you brought to our country.”

Before the 1969 CPC sessions adjourned, a large majority of delegates authorized the drafting of a constitution leading to organic union. Bokeleale had successfully mobilized the impatience of numerous African church leaders toward the denominational differences Western missions had brought to their country. He had expressed the disdain of many Christian countrymen toward the needless overlapping and multiplicity of missions in their land. Perhaps some of the delegates pondered on the similarity between the forty-four political parties in the nation before General Mobutu Sese Seko seized power and the forty-plus missions operating at the time of this General Assembly.

One observer wrote in the official journal, number 223, now called Zaire Church News:

The CPC Assembly was characterized by a restless energy that pressed hard against traditional guide lines, an energy which augurs for considerable change within Congo’s Protestant community in the decade ahead.

The biggest change was to take place in one year, not a decade.

Scene Two: “Miracle Of God”

The 1970 CPC annual meetings were held under the banner “All Things New.” The 119 delegates and observers from thirty churches and missions seemed determined to follow that slogan by focusing their attention immediately on the matter of organic union. Debate on the proposed constitution, drafted by Bokeleale and the CPC National Executive Committee, continued right up until the final afternoon of meetings. Then only one question remained: what to do with the constitution.

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Several delegates urged that the matter be referred to the churches for study before voting took place a year later. This, they pointed out, was normal procedure since the CPC was a consultative body that could only pass along proposals for a vote by member associations.

The general secretary responded that this was not so. The CPC churches were present at the assembly through their delegates; the delegates’ votes were the votes of their churches. He did, however, advise the delegates to take the constitution back to their constituencies for a year’s study, and then vote the following year.

But when the question was finally called for at 3:00 A.M. of the following day, March 8, it was not a move to refer but a straight yes-or-no vote on the constitution itself. The delegates voted into official existence the Church of Christ in Zaire, the largest nation-wide organic union of churches in Africa and probably the most ecclesiastically inclusive “church” in the world. The vote was 32 for, 14 against, and 2 abstentions—just barely the two-thirds majority.

On the local level, the new church differed little from the former CPC. The constitution indicated clearly that the member groups would continue to operate under their own statutes, bylaws, and organization. In matters of internal administration such as electing officers, paying pastors, and operating institutions, the denominations would carry on as before.

The more significant changes took place on the national level. In changing from council to church, the national organization evolved from a service agency, existing to serve the churches, to an ecclesiastical organ whose parts were subordinate to an overall direction. The annual General Assembly, a consultative forum that prepared proposals for the churches to decide on, now became the Synod, an executive body whose decisions were binding on the member groups. The consolidation of power affected also the general secretary: instead of being merely a link between the churches and the government or international agencies, he became head of a united church, and invested with legal powers.

One other change—and later the most controversial—was incorporated into the constitution approved by the 1970 General Assembly. Member groups of the newly formed church were no longer to be called churches or denominations. They now became communautés, or sections, of the CCZ. The Presbyterians, for example, were now to be identified as the Presbyterian Section or “Community” of the Church of Christ in Zaire.

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The General Assembly passed two other important resolutions. One concerned the dissolution of foreign missions as independent institutions in Zaire:

We solemnly declare that as of today all the mission associations cease to exist as autonomous institutions, either through merger with the national Christian community to which they gave birth, or else through the transfer of their legal charter to the aforenamed group.

The director of the CCZ secretariat commented later that this put an end to the missions that for ninety-two years had caused problems in Zaire by their divisions.

The second resolution concerned the CCZ’s relation to major theological groupings in the Protestant world:

—Agreeing that we want to guarantee the unity of the Church of Christ in Zaire, and
—Agreeing that the diverse religious movements overseas constitute a danger for the unity of our young church,
We solemnly declare that the Church of Christ in Zaire will adopt a policy of neutrality toward these foreign religious movements, namely the World Evangelical Fellowship and the World Council of Churches.

Mixed reaction from around the world greeted the formation of the Church of Christ in Zaire. Ecumenical leaders in Europe and North America generally expressed satisfaction; one called the event “a miracle of God in our times.” The Nigerian Council of Churches encouraged its members to follow the CCZ example. The World Council of Churches’ Executive Committee, meeting in Addis Ababa after the General Assembly, cited Bokeleale for his outstanding contribution toward church unity.

In 1971 the Christian Theological Seminary (Disciples of Christ) in America awarded him the Doctor of Divinity degree. The citation read in part, “He is actively concerned to develop African leadership … toward self-reliance and a more vigorous role in the worldwide ecumenical dialogue and fellowship.”

Some missionaries on the scene were unsure what effect the new union would have on the church, but they were willing to give it a try. An editorial in the official journal, number 227, read:

Some of us may have doubts and reservations, and we will need to warn and counsel concerning potential dangers, but the decisions should be made by the Africans. Then let us pray for the leaders … trusting the Holy Spirit to guide, inspire, correct, and make His will known to them.
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Other missionaries and Zairian church leaders were openly suspicious of the direction the new church would take. They pointed out that although Mr. Bokeleale, now president of the CCZ, affirmed his non-alignment with the ecumenical movement, he continued to hold key positions in the World Council of Churches. “What difference does it make,” pointed out one missionary, “if the church stays out of the WCC only to become a carbon copy of ecumenical planning and action through the leadership of the church president?” Questions such as this prompted the CCZ press attaché to write an article in the nation’s largest newspaper condemning missionaries for acting like “enemy number one of the Church of Christ in Zaire.”

Bokeleale did not try to dispel such doubts by taking a neutral stand on some key issues dividing the ecumenical and evangelical movements. He openly ridiculed opposition to organic union. Addressing the National Press Club in Kinshasa, he said:

If the Church of Christ is divided, it is the West and the East who have cut it up because we read in the Gospel that those who crucified Christ did not cut up his body. The West especially has chopped up the body of Christ in such small pieces you need a microscope to see them.

In the same press conference, Bokeleale supported theological inclusiveness concerning essentially different church bodies:

In Zaire we have three recognized churches: Protestant, Catholic and Kimbanguist [an independent African church]. Even the existence of three branches of the same religion in Zaire, with opposing tendencies, is a sin, because Jesus Christ said clearly, “on this rock I will build my church.”

In further contradiction of the stated neutrality of the CCZ, some members of the permanent staff spoke openly of their desire to see the church in the WCC. Writing in a Belgian Protestant weekly after the 1970 General Assembly, the CCZ press attaché noted, “The CCZ is not a member of the World Council of Churches (at least not for the moment), and this to the great satisfaction of the fundamentalists” (italics added).

Act Two: Council Of Protestant Churches In Zaire
Scene One: Stirrings Of Dissent

Formation of the new united church caused several CPC member groups to withdraw from the organization. The first was the Norwegian Pentecostal Mission and its associated church in Zaire. This came as no surprise. Mission officials from Norway had attended the 1970 annual meetings and had warned that if the constitution were approved, they would pull out of the CPC. The delegates exchanged glances as they heard a Norwegian mission leader warn what an African church would do if things didn’t go right.

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In August, six months after the CCZ was formed, mission leaders of several evangelical missions working in Zaire met in Chicago. After studying the new church organization, they prepared a statement, saying in part:

The theological and organizational issues growing out of the formation of the Church of Christ in Zaire are of the most serious nature.… It is hoped that very soon Zairian church leaders and missionaries of evangelical persuasion will be able to meet together with those of like precious faith to develop a positive evangelical program including the sponsoring of an evangelical office in Kinshasa.

News of this meeting reached Bokeleale. He immediately branded the Chicago meeting as the same kind of colonialism formerly practiced by Belgians when they sat in Brussels and decided on ways to dominate the Congo colony. A local newspaper headlined the story, “The Church of Christ in Zaire, Prey of the Chicago Imperialists!”

While these stirrings of dissent came from foreign missions, more serious opposition developed from church leaders within the nation. The strongest voice heard was that of Bishop John Wesley Shungu, head of the 80,000-member United Methodist Church of Zaire. In a letter written on May 15, Bishop Shungu informed the CCZ president that certain modifications had to be made in the new church constitution before the Methodists could join. He was especially opposed to the idea that the General Assembly, a consultative body, could make decisions binding on the churches. He wrote:

I am happy that the new constitution has been accepted by the General Assembly in view of being studied by the churches. But it is a great surprise to me that several members of your departments have begun to implement this new constitution before it has been approved by the churches. If you want to receive the cooperation of the churches in Zaire, you must listen to them and begin with them on the local level rather than from the top.

Bishop Shungu then outlined changes necessary in ten key clauses of the new constitution before the United Methodist Church would work with the CCZ. The changes in effect would have returned the newly created church to the function of the former council of churches. But Bokeleale refused to consider the changes. He insisted that the new church was God’s doing, not his. The Methodist Church then refused to join the CCZ. Scene Two: Alternative to Union

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At the same time, an unexpected figure appeared in the drama: the Ministry of Justice. When Bishop Shungu requested of this government department an interpretation of religious liberty, he received an encouraging reply. Officials in the department offered to help the bishop and other dissatisfied church leaders set up a church organization more to their liking. The director of the justice minister’s cabinet told the Methodist leader, “We are here to help you form the kind of church government you want—provided it does not conflict with government regulations.”

Representatives of eight former CPC member churches and independent groups met in Kinshasa in January, 1971, to consult with one another. They returned a month later authorized by their churches to organize a council of churches.

When the CCZ president learned of their arrival, he first threatened to have them arrested as disturbers of the peace, but instead sent a delegation to Bishop Shungu asking him not to meet and form a new group. Bokeleale went to the inter-mission guest house where some delegates were staying and told the manager to refuse them lodging. Then, learning that the group was planning to meet in the adjoining interdenominational publishing house (in which Methodists are the largest shareholders), he sent word that the group should not meet there. When the director demurred, Bokeleale warned he could not be responsible for damage to the building by young people rioting against the trouble-making dissidents.

Bokeleale also met with Kinshasa-based missionaries to discuss the new development. One missionary asked why he saw such great danger in the formation of a new group that would probably stay small and ineffective. Bokeleale replied that such a question could be asked only by a Westerner, one who was used to shameful divisions at home and had imported those divisions into Zaire. “We have no right to permit you foreigners to come into our country and cut up the body of Christ into morsels. We cannot permit the Church to be divided.”

On February 16, 1971, eight church denominations formally organized as the Council of Protestant Churches in Zaire (CPCZ). Bishop Shungu explained that the new council was nothing more or less than a revival of the CPC, a consultative body to serve its member associations. The emphasis was to be on simplicity of structure and smallness of staff, he said. Wherever possible the new council would work with the CCZ to avoid duplication of effort.

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Bishop Shungu explained the council’s attitude in a letter to the Minister of Interior:

Our new council works in harmony with the Protestant Office of Education as well as the Protestant Medical Office and Protestant Relief Agency and other organizations.… Since these are supported by all the Protestant churches of Zaire, and not only the CCZ, there is nothing to hinder us from working with them.

This desire for cooperation was not entirely reciprocated by the first annual synod of the CCZ later in that month of February. One recommendation of the medical report read: “That the Department treat all Protestant medical organizations without distinction as to membership in CCZ or not.” During the considerable debate following, one delegate said the clause should be dropped lest other groups be tempted to leave the united church. Bokeleale added, “We are here to serve man, and the purpose of the medical department is to serve all. But if you withdraw from the CCZ, you must pay the consequences of your action and go on to create your own system of services.” The recommendation was lost, but some measure of cooperation did develop between the two ecclesiastical groups.

Even while the new counsel was forming, CCZ members were beginning to have second thoughts about the kind of church they had formed. The constitution stated that the autonomy of individual groups would be respected. But little by little, local church leaders began to wonder.

The matter that raised most serious doubts was the change in status of member groups from full-fledged churches to smaller sections of the united church. The General Assembly of 1970 had approved the constitution, including this change. Some CCZ member groups even changed the wording of their stationery to read communauté instead of église. But no group made a similar modification in its incorporation articles; the CCZ members continued to consider themselves autonomous churches as they once were under the CPC arrangement.

Then came a letter from the Ministry of Justice to the CCZ president and member groups:

Considering your new structure whereby all the former Protestant churches becoming members of the Church of Christ in Zaire must now call themselves communities [sections], I have the honor … to ask you to invite the legal representatives of these communities to introduce as soon as possible their declaration to my Department concerning the change of appellation of their former associations.
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Not one CCZ member group agreed to relinquish its legal identity as an autonomous church and become a subordinate section or “community” of the united church. The denominational leaders suspected the change in status as the first step toward losing local autonomy, incorporation, and even properties to the national organization. The president of the Lower Zaire church founded by a Swedish mission reasoned:

Simply changing a few words in our statutes may not seem very serious. But as I look ahead, I wonder what the end will be. If we agree to become just parts of the CCZ, the government could logically say that since the CCZ president is also legal representative of the church, our groups do not need their own legal representatives. We will then no longer be able to speak to the government for ourselves. The government’s next step could be a letter telling us to give up our legal status since we are covered by the CCZ’s incorporation papers. Once we have lost our legal status we cannot own properties or even a bank account. We will have lost everything.

This line of reasoning may not be far wrong. The director of religious affairs in the Ministry of Justice recently asked a visiting delegation of pastors from the Ubangi area, “Why did you form this united church? Now you no longer have your autonomy.” The president of the Mennonite Brethren denomination informed the Ministry of Justice of his group’s refusal to relinquish its identity as a church. He was told, “Either you stay in CCZ and become one section of it, or you remain a church and leave CCZ. You cannot be a church within a church.” The Mennonite Brethren withdrew.

There the curtain falls on Act Two. More will certainly follow in the drama still being enacted in Zaire. Act Three may belong to the government. On December 31, President Mobutu Sese Seko signed a law that, among other things, recognized the CCZ as the only Protestant church in Zaire. The Ministry of Justice has been preparing to explain the implications of the law, for the resulting situation was not immediately clear. On the performance observed thus far, however, a critical reviewer can make some evaluation.

A Critic’S Review

The drama being enacted comes under the category of modern tragedy. In the late sixties, church leaders and believers in Zaire seemed on the verge of an expression of unity wonderful and new in the Protestant world. Behind them were decades of working across denominational lines in spiritual harmony admired around the world. The common bonds of belief were essentially biblical and conservative. More recent in memory were horrible but triumphant and maturing years of suffering during the Simba Rebellion. President Mobutu Sese Seko’s remarkable efforts toward national unity and identity now stirred them to do “their own thing” within the church.

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Some well-meaning church leaders and missionaries interpreted this deep sentiment as a mandate for organic church union. Through skillful legislative action they apparently achieved this union quickly and completely. But other equally Christian, equally sincere churchmen and missionaries objected to both the principle of organic union and the procedure of using a consultative assembly to impose decisions on member churches.

Then the scene turned ugly. Christian brother clashed with brother; charges of dictator drew counter-charges against agitators; angry attacks appeared in nationwide newspapers and letters to the government; the supporting cast of millions was pushed to one side or the other. And somewhere in the swirl of action, the decades of practical unity risked being trampled into the floor of the stage.

What would have happened back in 1969 if hard-pushing proponents of church union had heeded the editorial warning in the official CCZ journal, number 223: “It would be a tragic paradox if, in attempting to bring about organic union … the unity we already enjoy to a very large degree would be destroyed.”

The church story in Zaire is also a tragedy because what started as a question of church government became a more serious issue of religious freedom within the Protestant community. It was politically expedient to blame all opposition to organic union on mercenary white missionaries paid to keep Zairian believers divided and docile. But this did not solve the problem that other Protestant citizens of the nation had as much right to their preference of church organization as the united church leaders.

During the 1969 General Assembly, a delegate warned that a one-church system in the Protestant community might eventually threaten religious liberty. Another delegate responded, “Yes, we know. But at this critical time in our country, we must be willing to give up some freedoms.” Some Zairian Christians did not share this willing attitude. They chose rather to exercise their right to form an ecclesiastical structure more to their liking. For this they have come under attack by those determined that there be only one church.

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The Zairian church drama is not without irony. Foreign missions are accused as the source of disunity and conflict in the nation’s Protestant church life. But division and dissension now exist on a nationwide scale. This was something the missionaries in their alleged penchant to divide did not accomplish. It was African leadership that created the split in the name of unity.

But it would be erroneous to conclude that Zairian Protestants are neatly divided into liberal and evangelical camps, or into any other convenient generalization. The great majority of Christians in both the united church and the council of churches are true followers of Jesus Christ in the biblical sense. The same is true of their leaders.

It would be equally wrong to conclude that progress achieved through decades of practical unity has been lost. Church leaders dispute the question of organic union. But born-again believers at the grassroots level of the church practice the wholesome, generous spiritual oneness they have always shown. They are doing intuitively what Francis A. Schaeffer said others learned only through bitter experience: “If division comes, Christians must not polarize.”

We hope and pray that the leading figures in the Zairian church drama will sort out their differences in a similar display of their essential oneness in Christ.

Robert L. Niklaus has been a missionary in Zaire with the Christian and Missionary Alliance since 1958. He is responsible for publications of an interdenominational publishing house in Kinshasa and has edited the CCZ’s journal. He has the B.S. (Nyack Missionary College) and the M.A. (Syracuse University School of Journalism).

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