Wednesday, May 02, 2007

The Church in Northern Iraq, III--The Problem of "Authority"

So we visited the Kurdzman [Kurdish language] Church of Christ in Erbil/Hawler.

The pastoral staff members spoke to us, one of them through an interpreter:
We go everywhere, to the villages. We tell our wives, "We do not know if we will be back."

The Islamists tear up our literature, spit on us and push us out of town. But we go anyway.
The pastors reported the church had recently baptized 11 new believers: three from Iran, one from Syria--10 Kurds plus one Arab. There are, at this time, 15 groups in Erbil and nine outside; a hundred believers in one city, 10 in another, 20 in another, 30 . . .

The Kurdzman Church is growing. Yet, said the pastoral staff members,
Some missionaries cause us problems. They say, "Don't go to the public [i.e., Kurdzman] church. Go to the house church."

We say, "Okay. If you prefer to be underground, that is okay. To each his own."

The [critical] missionaries speak against the public church because they say we will become a proud people. . . .
The Kurdzman Church sponsored a conference for all the Christians in northern Iraq. They invited the missionaries to come as well. Next thing they knew: there were two competing conference on the same weekend . . . and the sponsors of these competing conferences invited the same people!

"There are a million people in Erbil!" one of the pastors exclaimed. "Why couldn't they schedule their conferences on different weekends?"

With no ill-will, but with obvious concern, he said,
Coming from different backgrounds, the missionaries do not get along. They try to make the church in their own image. They do not trust the church to simple people like us (untrained, no university degrees). [Someone from our group commented: "But look at those whom Jesus called: fishermen! He did not call pharisees to do His work!"]

The Kurdzman church is producing fruit. Where is the fruit from the other churches? We have no dollars. We have no education. But we have a church [and a church building]. Where is their church?
Perhaps I should comment a bit on these last statements.

I noticed, not only in Erbil/Hawler, but in the other cities we visited: the Kurdish believers were far more inclined to permit us to take their photos and speak openly about their faith than were the western "missionaries." To put a Scriptural spin on the language: "This, too, was a mystery to me." And I want to speak as one for whom this is a mystery. I do not live there. I do not face the pressures and risks that those who are present in-country face. Who am I to even hint at possible criticism of any of the players in the drama that is now playing itself out among the Christians in northern Iraq--Kurdish, western, or otherwise?

But I think it is worthy of notice and worthy of our prayers: some believers are far more retiring than others. And it is not always the national believers who need encouragement to "speak up." Sometimes I wondered--and felt (and still feel) the need to pray about--the western believers possibly encouraging the national believers into a state of fear.


With all of the things I've already reported, I was particularly astonished at the prayer requests of the pastoral leaders of the Kurdzman Church:
  • Mobile Discipleship materials. "We need a system or course. [Think of all the new believers in Erbil and beyond.] These people need discipleship. Sometimes we invite them here; others, we go to them. So, we need a system or course. We need financial support for translation, printing, distribution and transportation.
  • Seminary for Leaders. [This one, particularly, shocked me. Especially after the pastors' observations about how God has blessed the "simple" people! --Are the Kurdish church leaders looking for the very thing that will stifle their growth? Yes. Study the Bible. But establish a formal, western-style seminary? . . . But back to the pastors' comments . . . ]
  • More diaconate-style leaders. "Leaders shoudl be ministers of the Word, but we are heavily involved in accounting and administrative responsibilities."
  • Christian marriages and families. "Pray for young men and young women to get married and create families so the young women can come. . . ."
Oh. And then there was one last "theme" that struck me while we spoke with the Kurdzman church leaders and after.

Question: Who should have authority to make decisions about the Kurdish-language church in Kurdistan/northern Iraq?

Here, now, there is a growing, established church in Erbil/Hawler and it is led by Kurds. To what extent should missionaries exert influence upon this church? What right do they have to even attempt such influence?

But now move beyond what we might consider "external" influence upon this church. What about the fellowships of believers in other cities? What about the 12 believers who are meeting in the first city we visited many dozens of kilometers away? The Kurdzman Church in Erbil/Hawler has had virtually nothing to do with the creation of this fellowship . . . though many of the participants in City 1's fellowship participated in the Erbil/Hawler church's weekend conference.

So what kind of authority should the Erbil/Hawler church's leaders exert over the church in City 1? And what of churches established in other cities? And what of the "underground"/"house" churches in Erbil/Hawler itself? Who is "in charge"? Who ought to be in charge?

I found these questions rising in my mind several times over. How do you avoid a papal-style "central authority" on the one side without falling into total chaos on the other?

Finally, an interesting story.

A brother and sister are among the leaders of the church in Erbil/Hawler. They are from an Assyrian Church background. They are present in the Kurdish church partially at the encouragement of their father.

Remember, as noted in a previous post, most Assyrian and Chaldean churches are more creatures of ethnic and political realities than they are strong testimonies of Christ among the Kurds (or other nationalities in which the Assyrian and Chaldean Christian communities survive).

So someone once asked the father, "How is it that you have come to love your enemies [the Kurds]?"

"Is that not what Jesus taught?" he replied, without a moment's hesitation.

But the brother and sister--not to mention their father--have had to leave their church in order to reach out to the Kurds.

As I mentioned in my previous post, "Pray that God will raise up more Assyrian and Chaldean Christians who are willing to rise up against the prejudices and fears that currently hold them back from witnessing to their Muslim neighbors."
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