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I Understand
Volume 7.1 / The Mystery of the Church: Applying Paul's Ecclesiology in Africa

Book Review


The Mystery of the Church: Applying Paul's Ecclesiology in Africa

Book Author: Fabrice S. Katembo
Publisher: Carlisle, Cumbria: Langham Publishing, 2020. pp. 98. $5.07, paper; Kindle, $6.83.
Reviewed by Vandyck Ishmael Lomotey

How can the Church in Africa address some of its critical sociological challenges such as corruption, tribalism, disunity, and political divisions? Katembo Fabrice in his book, The Mystery of the Church provides a robust theological basis based on a Pauline understanding of the mystery of the Church. In this book, the author draws on an understanding of the Church based on metaphors used by Paul to highlight the central unity and indivisibility of the people of God.

Katembo introduces the book by laying a disclaimer that he does not intend to conduct an evaluation of the literary works on the Church. Instead, the focus of the book is to examine the mystery of the Church through the lenses of the Pauline epistles. Most importantly, the book is an attempt to apply theology to the real world by examining African Christianity in light of the mystery of the Church.

The book is divided into two parts. Chapters 1–3 which form part one of the book, focuses on the life and Pauline understanding of the mystery of the Church. Here Katembo draws on several metaphors used by the Apostle Paul to illustrate the meaning of the Church. He also uses Ephesians 3:1–10 as the cardinal text to lay out Paul's interpretation of the mystery of the Church.

Chapters 4–6 form the second part of the book, where there is a shift in focus and tone to African Christianity and its place in the mystery of the Church. The author does this by examining the issue of continuity or discontinuity of African traditional religions with Christianity. He gives a specific attention to the concepts of Christ in African Christianity by reflecting on the writings of John Mbiti and Kwame Bediako. He further examines how an understanding of the believers' union with Christ help in solving the key issues that Africa faces, such as ethnic conflicts, tribalism, racism, etc.

In chapter one, Katembo sets the tone for the rest of the book by characterising Paul as a person heavily influenced by his Pharisaic Jewish ideologies rather than the broader Hellenistic culture in which he grew up (p. 11). Paul was earlier a persecutor of the Church. His persecution of the Church was based on zeal to "protect Israel's separateness from the gentiles" (p. 12). This zeal stems from an ignorance of the fact that no more hostility or separation between Jews and Gentiles exists because of the righteousness of God gained by the finished work of Christ.

After Paul's encounter with the resurrected Christ on the road to Damascus, the scales of ignorance to the mystery of the Church fell off his eyes. At this point he became aware of the mystery of the Church and was called to proclaim it as the Gospel to the Gentiles (15). What then is the mystery of the Church? Katembo explains that the mystery of the Church is the truth that both Jews and Gentiles are to be "fellow heirs of the heavenly blessings in the body of Christ—the reconciliation of Jews and gentiles into one body" (p. 2). This truth was hidden from the people of the Old Testament but was plainly concealed in the promise made to Abraham that through him all nations and people of the world would be blessed.

In order to illustrate the mystery of the Church, the Apostle Paul draws on several metaphors to describe the Church. Such metaphors include the Church as a called-out assembly, the Church as the temple of God, the Church as the body of Christ, and the Church as the bride of Christ. Katembo is quick to dismiss the false dichotomy of the Church as both a visible and invisible body since there is no passage of Scripture to warrant such a distinction (p. 27). The Church is also God's building, and its foundation is Christ. Therefore, there is no other foundation which forms the basis of the Church, not personality, race, tribe, nationality, etc. (p. 30).

The mystery of the Church which has been hidden from prophets and people of the Old Testament is that there will arise "an organism formed of Jews and gentiles and that the Messiah would indwell each member of the body" (p. 46). This mystery is presented by most of the New Testament writers as the basis for the unity of the Church. Therefore, it is sinful to separate members of the Church as a result of their nationality, historical heritage, race, or ethnicity.

In chapter five, Katembo digresses a bit to address ideas shared by John Mbiti and Kwame Bediako on Christianity and African traditional religions. They both assert that there is some positive in African traditional religions, and it is to conclude that Christianity in Africa is rooted in African traditional religions. However, he refutes this assertion by stating that such a view diminishes the enormity of our estrangement from God and the sense that we are lost in sin and misery. The redemptive work of Christ is both exhaustive and powerful to translate Africans from the kingdoms of their traditional religions to the kingdom of Christ (p. 66). African traditional religions, just like any of the other world religions, have no continuity of the understanding of God of the Bible.

In the final chapter of the book, the mystery of the Church is applied to the African context. Katembo identifies one of the biggest challenges of Christianity in Africa as the disunity of the Church. This disunity of the Church accounts for several sociological problems on the continent such as corruption, tribalism, racialism, division, etc. The answer to this problem is an understanding of the believer's union with Christ. How does an understanding of the union with Christ help resolve the sociological problems of the continent? The answer is simple: no union without love can be successful. Since the love of Christ is poured into the hearts of believers, they can walk in pure love (p. 72). All sins originate from selfishness. As people in union with Christ, they are now dead to sin and reconciled with God as covenant members of his household. Such a "reconciliation has placed on us a biblical demand to exercise peace [and unity] within the church" (p. 79).

My overwhelming response to this book is positive, both because of its matter and manner. I have only praise for Katembo's personal engagement with his material and the open statements of his passionate convictions. Without any undue strain on the biblical text, he has shown that the prophetic voice of the Old Testament and New Testament are relevant to our day. In simple and clear terms, he brings to the fore the mystery of the Church. Many theological and exegetical books on the subject leave it as a theoretical concept. However, he goes a step further to deliver an application to the African context. Such a linkage between the union of believers with Christ and the unity of the Church in Africa is a beautiful gift.

Katembo also gracefully disagrees and dispels ideas asserted by John Mbiti and Kwame Bediako on African traditional religions as precursors to Christianity. I sympathise with the idea that all men to an extent are religious, and the African was no tabula rasa when the Europeans reintroduced Christianity to the continent, as noted by Kwame Bediako in his book, Christianity in Africa: The Renewal of a Non-Western Religion. However, I affirm the fact that it will be damaging to claim a continuity between the God of the Bible and that of the African traditional religions. Such an assertion makes it look like Jesus Christ was only a missing piece of African traditional religions. This would be a mistaken view of the finished work of Christ.

Furthermore, I am in strong agreement with the conclusions of Katembo. However, there is one point I wish Katembo would have highlighted, which is the missio Dei and its implications for pursuing peace, reconciliation, and unity in Africa. I am of the certain conviction that what defines the purpose of the Church and shapes its identity is the missio Dei. In order to complete the discussion on the mystery of the Church, it is important to include aspects of the missio Dei. Believers are called into reconciliation with God, but this is only half of the story. The God who invites and calls believers is actively on a mission to redeem the world. Believers therefore become agents and instruments by which God executes his mission in the world.

In conclusion, The Mystery of the Church: Applying Paul's Ecclesiology in Africa provides a robust and biblical background in addressing some of the most challenging issues on the African continent—corruption, tribalism, disunity in the Church, etc. A thorough outline of a Pauline understanding of the mystery of the Church serves as a good framework to address these critical issues.

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