Christianity in Ethiopia: an interview with Dr. Frew Tamrat

Frew Tamrat
Saturday, January 1st 2022
Jan/Feb 2022

Dr. Tamrat, thank you for taking the time to talk with us at Modern Reformation. Perhaps we can begin with the history and current state of the Ethiopian Church.

For many centuries, Ethiopia considered itself a Christian nation; it is mentioned in the Old and New Testament more than forty times. So, there is historical attachment with Judaism. There are popular extrabiblical legends and accounts of the Ethiopian Queen of Sheba, who visited Solomon in 1 Kings 10 and 2 Chronicles 9. The legends describe a relationship with Israel, where some Jews migrated to Ethiopia. Today, the Ethiopian Orthodox Church claims to have the Ark of the Covenant in northern Ethiopia.

In Acts 8, an Ethiopian eunuch heard the gospel from Philip, although we don’t have recorded documents to indicate if he later spread the gospel in Ethiopia. We believe Ethiopia has been a Christian nation starting from the fourth and fifth century, after Syrians came to the Aksumite Empire and evangelized the king with the gospel. Unlike the Roman Empire, where Christianity grew from the grassroots level, here it was imposed by the rulers and gradually grew among the Jewish population in the north and the pagan population in the south. Ethiopia is one of the most ancient recipients of the gospel, along with Alexandria.

The relationship between Ethiopia and Alexandrian churches, called the Coptic Church, existed from the fourth century until 1959, when the Ethiopian church broke away and started ordaining Ethiopian patriarchs. The Ethiopian Church belongs to the Eastern Orthodox Church, after the Chalcedonian Council in 451, which debated the nature of Christ and resulted in the Ethiopian Church becoming a Monophysite church. Until the modern missionary movement, this was the only Christian denomination in Ethiopia.

Before the spread of evangelical Christianity in Ethiopia, people used to say that there were two religions in Ethiopia: people are born either as Orthodox Christian or Muslim. After the seventh century, followers of Muhammed found refuge in Ethiopia. Because of this, the Islamic world has a high regard for Ethiopia and has become a challenge to the Christian church there. Until the fourteenth century, the Ethiopian Church generally adhered to apostolic teaching. It was later on that other teachings began to creep in and distort the teaching of the Ethiopian Orthodox Church. In 1959, when the church broke off its relationship with Alexandria, they were then called the Ethiopian Orthodox Tewahedo Church (“Tewahedo” means “unity”). From that point, it established its own Ethiopian identity and was no longer called “Coptic.” The name itself, Tewahedo, has theological significance as it is Monophysite. The Ethiopian Orthodox Church does not believe in the two natures of Christ. Rather, they affirm that Christ is one person with one nature. They believe two natures require double or dual personalities. When you evangelize, they will affirm “fully human and fully divine,” but they deny that this means two natures.

Though Islam historically came very early to Ethiopia, attempting to make it an Islamic nation by Turkish and Egyptian Muslims, Ethiopia has never been converted to Islam. There was a time when northern Ethiopia almost became a Muslim nation as the result of a brutal Islamic invasion under Geragne (left-handed) Mohammed. The Ethiopian Empire appealed to Europeans for help as it was the only Christian nation in Africa at the time. In the sixteenth century, the Roman Catholic Portuguese responded with military force to curb Islam’s spread, fighting together with the Ethiopians to defeat the Islamic forces.

As a kind of thank-you gesture, the emperor of Ethiopia became a Catholic. This was a turning point. This caused a civil war between the Orthodox and Catholics, taking the lives of thousands of Ethiopians. When another emperor came, there was theological debate about the two natures of Christ, and he confirmed that Ethiopia would stay an Orthodox nation. This further established the historical relationship between the Orthodox Church and the national identity of Ethiopia.

During the European Reformation, Ethiopia closed itself off from the outside world since foreign influence and theology had led to civil religious war. We were ignorant about the Reformation when it was happening. For two hundred years this continued, until the modern missionary movement in the eighteenth and nineteenth centuries.

It was during this time that the Ethiopian Church began developing some dangerous elements in its theology: salvation by works, the worship of angels, and the veneration of Mary and the saints. What had a very good beginning, with good apostolic history, became twisted.

The modern missionary movement began in Ethiopia in the nineteenth century. The teaching of the Ethiopian Orthodox Church was identified as distorted, far from true teaching, so Protestant missionaries came to bring reformation/revitalization to the existing Ethiopian Church in the north. The church was open, and the missionaries helped with translation of the Bible into the vernacular language.

But the missionaries repeated the same mistake from the past, not learning why Ethiopians expelled Catholics—the sensitive theological issue of the nature of Christ. There was a head-on collision with clergy of the Ethiopian Church on the doctrine of two natures. They also started by attacking the veneration of Mary, so the Orthodox Church expelled missionaries from the northern part of Ethiopia.

By God’s providence, the missionaries came to southern Ethiopia where there was a high concentration of pagans and animists. They received the gospel and established Protestant, evangelical churches. In Ethiopia today, there is a clear demarcation between the north, which is highly Orthodox dominated, and evangelicals in the south.

What is the current relationship between the Evangelical Church and the Ethiopian Orthodox Church?

The Ethiopian Orthodox Church sees itself in a certain way. To them, “orthodox” means pure Christianity, and outsiders are perceived as bringers of foreign, nonorthodox religion. We have seen in the past state-sponsored persecution against evangelicals as a foreign, white-man’s religion: they have given us the slang names of “anti-Mary” or “Pente.” There is some improvement now, but for many years, we evangelicals were seen as heretics and a foreign threat. If someone wants to insult you in Ethiopia, they will call you “Pente,” as someone who denies the faith. While it’s not as bad as other times, there is not a strong, flourishing relationship. I cannot preach in an Orthodox Church. I would be forced to leave and maybe be beaten. In the past, there have been state-sponsored efforts to eliminate the evangelical movement. Evangelical churches have been denied the privilege of tax-free status, which the Ethiopian Orthodox Church has. Especially in rural parts of the country, you are excommunicated from social participation and isolated from societal affairs. These are some of the “crosses” evangelicals are bearing in our country.

For evangelicals in Ethiopia, the focus is the gospel; it is not tradition or religion, but salvation that is by faith in Christ and not by works. This is our main, distinguishing mark: our sinfulness and salvation through Christ. For the Ethiopian Orthodox Church, it is tradition. We seek to be aggressive proclaimers of Christ. The most important thing is the good news of the saving work of Jesus Christ.

What strengths and opportunities does the Ethiopian Evangelical Church have, and how can we pray?

Today, Ethiopia has one of fastest growing evangelical churches in Africa and in the world. Almost 20 percent of Ethiopia’s 118 million population is now evangelical. It is a young church, filled with children and youth with almost 70 percent under the age of thirty. We see the need to invest in the young people. Another unique strength is that it is an indigenous church, starting with its own identity from the beginning. It is largely self-led and supported, not primarily missionary supported. We have different denominations, but there is general unity of evangelical denominations.

Ethiopian people have basic knowledge about the Scriptures, such that when you evangelize, you don’t start from scratch. The Ethiopian Church is really changing; we are less on the receiving end of the gospel. Instead, we are mission sending, mission minded, and globally engaged. The present government has given us relative religious freedom to preach the gospel, unlike some previous generations. Our geographic location, in the horn of Africa, is strategically important—near the Middle East and its gateway to Africa.

But we have many challenges. It is believed that there are up to 63,000 local churches in Ethiopia. However, this numerical growth is not met by maturity. There is a theological famine, and many churches are largely without properly trained pastors. Islam also continues to grow. It is now 33 percent of the population and continues to be a challenge for the church and the country as a whole. We are also currently facing political instability, with religious extremism rising. Internal civil war in Ethiopia right now is a hindrance to preaching the gospel. We believe the gospel can bring peace if leaders have changed hearts. Globalization is another challenge to the church as postmodernism is now well introduced in Ethiopia, denying absolute truth. Liberal thinking can creep into our institutions, denying the inerrancy of Scripture, the deity of Christ, and miracles, seeking to redefine and “demythologize” the Scriptures. In all these things, we recognize our need for the Lord and for the global church’s prayer and support.

What do you think the Western Church can learn from the Ethiopian Church and its experiences?

There is a lot the Western Church can learn from the church in Ethiopia. In spite of the challenges, the church grows in persecution. We are not promised that we will be saved from experiencing this. If the church shuns persecution and compromises its identity in this, it will die.

When you travel to Europe and the United States, many churches that came out of the Reformation have quite elderly congregations. The church in the West needs to invest in young people and children for the sake of the gospel in the next generation.

Working in unity! In the Western world, denominationalism separates the church. Primary issues can bring us together in unity. Too often, churches divide over secondary issues that are not salvation issues.

Please tell us a little more about your work at Evangelical Theological College.

ETC has been in existence for the last thirty-seven years, after having begun as an undergraduate institution. The college grew after the fall of Communism in 1991. In thirty-seven years, 1,620 students from Ethiopia and around the world have graduated to serve in many different capacities and in many countries. We currently have 650 students in Addis Ababa, and we are accredited by the Association of Christian Theological Education in Africa. Our purpose is to prepare servant-leaders for the Ethiopian Church and beyond, and I’m very grateful to the Lord for calling me to this and for empowering ETC to fulfill this mission.

Dr. Frew Tamrat lives with his wife and two children in Addis Abada, Ethiopia, where he is the principal of the Evangelical Theological College (ETC). He has a master’s degree in New Testament from Gordon-Conwell Theological Seminary and a PhD from Columbia International University.

Saturday, January 1st 2022

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