Exploring Distorted Gospels in Africa

Picture of a city street in Africa
Photo by Simon Matzinger on Unsplash

While some churches enjoy a healthy diet of gospel truth, many others in Africa are malnourishing Christ’s chosen people. Because the body is very dynamic, it can get used to bad diet. Unfortunately, bad diets have an uncanny way of eating the body from inside, leading to health problems. Starvation could follow, which can eventually lead to death. The risk for the African church is a normalized diet that distorts and disfigures the beauty of the gospel of Jesus Christ.

But what are believers in Africa doing to avert this dietary hazard?

The Galatian Situation

When we read the great letters of Paul, we stand amazed at their theological depth. It is easy for us to think that Paul penned these truths sitting comfortably in an ancient library. However, Paul distilled the teachings of Jesus Christ and applied them to particular situations in the lives of the early Christians. The particular issue in the Church in Galatia was the question of circumcision (Galatians 2:12; 5:2; 6:13-14). The background context for the “circumcision party” in Galatians 2:12 can be found in Acts 15:1:

“But some men came down from Judea and were teaching the brothers ‘Unless you are circumcised according to the custom of Moses, you cannot be saved’”.

By teaching this, the “circumcision party” was relying on the outward form of the law, and not enlivened by its spiritual meaning (Jeremiah 4:4; Romans 2:28-29). This legalistic observance of the law can be seen in Galatians 2:16; 3:2-3, 10-11, 23-24; 4:21; 5:1. I find this to be a close parallel to some teachings that are infiltrating the Church in Africa, and in Kenya in particular. These teachings usually coerce African believers that they can find more freedom in embracing particular cultural practices. Another prescription is that a mixture of their faith and culture is more acceptable. While a healthy understanding of culture is important, we should reject cultural practices that distort the gospel of Jesus Christ and the freedom it brings. This is the only way to ensure that our Churches are feeding on the right diet. And it is such a diet that can restore the health of many of our churches in Africa.

The Gospel of Jesus Christ

I was moved by Paul’s heart for the Galatians when he exclaims:

“I am astonished that you are so quickly deserting him who called you in the grace of Christ and are turning to a different gospel” (Galatians 1:6)

The urgency of the situation moved him to declare, rather strongly, that:

“But even if we or an angel from heaven should preach to you a gospel contrary to the one we preached to you let him be accursed” (1:8)

And as if the Galatians had not heard well:

“As we have said before, so now I say again: If anyone is preaching to you a gospel contrary to the one you received, let him be accursed” (1:9)

Paul sought to clarify the differences between the gospel of Jesus Christ and the distorted “gospels” of the time. Several themes emerge about the gospel of Jesus Christ:

  1. It involves Jesus’ substitutionary sacrifice for our sins (1:4)
  2. It delivers us from this present evil age (1:4)
  3. It reveals the love and grace of God in Christ towards us (1:6, 2:20)
  4. It justifies us before God through faith (2:16)
  5. It is a spiritual reality and blessing (3:3,14. See an expansion of these blessings in Ephesians 1:3-14)
  6. It brings freedom to live before the presence of God (5:1)
  7. It helps us to overcome sin and bears spiritual fruit in our lives (5:13, 17-22)

These beautiful realities of the gospel of Jesus Christ are disfigured by other different gospels. In Africa particularly, several teachings obscure the beauty of the gospel by focusing on customary laws rather than gospel freedom.

The “gospels” in Africa

From my pastoral ministry, I have observed several teachings that promote a legalistic understanding in the life of believers in Africa. Here I record only three of such teachings and offer a (hopefully 😊) short response:

  1. The teaching of redeeming firstborns

One of the teachings that is gaining traction in African villages and cities is that of redeeming firstborns. This teaching offers that many of the problems we face as a society or as believers are as a result of firstborns making wrong choices. Therefore, by redeeming firstborns, it is possible to stop these generational curses and ill-happenings. An example is a popular preacher in Kenya who even has a service themed around “redeeming firstborns”. During the service, she goes on to suggest to her congregation at 2:12:00: “Lift up your hands: I declare that for me and all the firstborns in my generations, we shall not make wrong choices regarding marriage, regarding career, regarding investments . . . I erase that mark . . .”

In many of such services, followers of these teachers pay tithes in order to accrue the benefits of “redeeming their firstborns”. It is clear that such teachings speak to the surface level issues facing many Africans such as poverty, sickness and suffering. But the true gospel goes much deeper in transforming us from the inside out. In a richer sense, the gospel addresses issues of stewardship, health, and joy.

What does the Bible say about redeeming firstborns? The concept of the firstborn is present in the Old Testament. First, the priesthood in a family was set aside for the firstborn. Second, there are laws concerning redemption of firstborn humans and animals (Exodus 13:12-15; Numbers 3:45; Leviticus 12:2-4; Deuteronomy 12:6). The teaching on redeeming firstborns was based on a ritualistic understanding of the firstborn. This understanding parallels our African communities, which honour firstborns during family introductions, family responsibilities and family inheritances.

In the New Testament, Jesus Christ is also defined as “the firstborn among many brothers” (Romans 8:29). This interprets the Jewish understanding of the firstborn, to show that Christ has preeminence in God’s work of salvation. In the context of this verse, Jesus Christ is the centerpiece of all the realities and blessings of salvation. If salvation is a diamond, with calling, justification, regeneration, sanctification, adoption and glorification representing different faces, then Jesus Christ is the entire material.

  1. The teaching of generational curses

The teaching that curses are inherited across several generations is easily acceptable to African culture. Those who study African Traditional Religions (ATR) inform us that fear is a reality for the African: ‘fear of sickness, of death, of sorcery, permeates every aspect of life‘.[1] In Kikuyu culture for example, it is held that curses can be inherited by someone because of parents who ignored customary laws.[2] Further, this sense of seeking security is tied to the African’s awareness of spiritual realities. However, if this is not distilled through the lens of Scripture, it can lead to an unhealthy fear of seeking solutions outside of Christ.

Three responses can be offered in light of Old Testament understanding:

  1. Curses and blessings are based on the actions or responses of individuals to God’s Law (Note the “cursed be anyone” statements in Deuteronomy 27:15-26, 28:45).
  2. What are inherited are not curses but the consequences of wrong actions and sin (Deuteronomy 28:59, 29:27-28).
  3. Curses and their consequences can be reversed through “returning” to the LORD (Deuteronomy 30:1-3). This results in blessings.

These understandings look back towards the curse of the fall in Genesis 3:14-19. This curse has its root in the disobedience of the first Adam and is restored through the obedience of the second Adam (Galatians 3:13). In Paul’s letter to the Galatians, Paul acknowledges that “For all who rely on works of the law are under a curse; for it is written, ‘Cursed be everyone who does not abide by all things written in the Book of the Law, and do them’” (Galatians 3:10). Paul is clear that the Law condemns the person who tries to live by it because no one can fulfill the Law, except Christ. Thus, the Law is like a messenger, a “guardian”, who leads us to grace, when we realize our utter helplessness to fulfill the requirements of righteousness in the Law (3:24-27). Therefore, through faith in Christ, we have peace with God (3:11).

African believers can thus say with Paul that:

“Christ redeemed us from the curse of the law by becoming a curse for us…” (Galatians 3:13)

Yes, the realities of blessings and curses are there in the Old Testament (Deuteronomy 27-28) and in many of our African traditions. But the work of Jesus Christ releases us from the curse of the fall, the power of sin and the fear of death, and instills in us calm confidence in the power of God to live in freedom from slavery (Galatians 5:1).

  1. The teaching of honouring ancestors

Communities in Africa still hold on to the veneration of ancestors. In more than 12 countries in Africa, including Senegal, South Africa and Guinea Bissau, more than 20% of people have sacred objects in honor of their ancestors.[3] This ancestor veneration reduces the glory of God by failing to rest in the mediatorial work of Christ. In my Kikuyu culture, the elder men had to give mburi cia kiama (goats given to the council of elders) in order for them to be accepted and to ascend the societal ladderIn some cases, this would involve the slaughter of these goats as well as the drinking of the local brew called muratina. In contemporary practice, this also involves oathing and even commercialization. Since African men are still negotiating their African culture as Christians, some are lured by ATR adherents, who see no conflict between this practice and Christianity. But we must remember that Jesus Christ is the slain Lamb of Calvary whose blood seals the New Covenant promises and applies them to the believer (Hebrews 9:11-15; 10:14-18). There is no longer any more sacrifice that is needed to win the acceptance of any human being or culture. As believers, we are accepted before God based on the finished work of Christ. And this is the basis of the song that all nations will sing in the end of the ages: “Worthy are you to take the scroll and to open its seals, for you were slain and by your blood, you ransomed people for God” (Revelation 5:9)

Going Forward

Comparing the distorted “gospels” with the gospel of Jesus Christ, therefore, has several implications for us :

  1. We should ingest a steady diet of gospel truth so as to guard ourselves against distorted “gospels”
  2. We should interpret life and its realities through the whole counsel of God. A biblical worldview is sufficient for all of life.
  3. We should rest in the freedom, power, security, and assurance that the gospel brings to our lives.
  4. We have a responsibility to share these truths with our brothers and sisters who have not come to a settled conviction on these gospel realities.


[1] Collium Banda, “The Sufficiency of Christ in Africa: A Christological Challenge from African Traditional Religions,” Masters Thesis, UNISA (2005), 23

[2] P.N. Wachege, “Curses and Cursing among the Agikuyu: Socio-Cultural and Religious Benefits” https://profiles.uonbi.ac.ke/patrickwachege/files/curses_and_cursing_among_the_agikuyu.pdf

[3] PEW Forum on Religion and Public Life, “Tolerance and Tension: Islam and Christianity in Sub-Saharan Africa” (2010), 23. https://www.pewresearch.org/wp-content/uploads/sites/7/2010/04/sub-saharan-africa-full-report.pdf

*This post originally appeared at Theogrimage.


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