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Spring 1987 · Vol. 16 No. 1 · pp. 57–62 

Indigenizing the Biblical Message for Zairian Churches

Nzash U-Lumeya

A major problem facing today’s growing Zairian Churches is in the area of nurturing. Every Zairian Christian leader agrees that it is urgent to teach God’s people to observe all that the Lord commanded us. But churches are starving spiritually in the midst of a legion of well-trained Bible teachers and well translated spiritual books from all over the world. What is wrong? The answer is easy. Most of the time the biblical message proclaimed and acclaimed in today’s Zairian churches feeds Giraffes instead of the Zairian sheep the Lord told us to tend. Indigenization of the gospel plays an important part of nurturing God’s Zairian sheep.

Without indigenization the Bible is an alien book

Rather than to attempt to summarize all that has been said about what parameters are to be taken into account in indigenizing churches, I will use the verb “indigenize” to mean “culturally wrap.” The eternal Gospel needs to be packaged into Zairian cultural forms and symbols. More than ever the biblical truth must be expressed in the pattern of Zairian community and must meet the felt needs of local believers. It is only then, under the {58} work of the Holy Spirit, that Zairian Christians will mature intellectually, emotionally and spiritually. Indigenization is as indispensable for the survival of Christianity in Zaire as oxygen is necessary for the survival of human beings. Kwesi A. Dickson, a leading African theologian, summarizes the urgency of indigenizing the biblical message in Africa:

It is essential that African Christians should be in a position to express in a vital way what Christ means to them, and to do so in and through a cultural medium that makes original thinking possible. Let Christ call them, rebuke them, accept them in his embrace; let him chasten them and carry them in his arms—but let all this be done in a medium that will give Christ’s approach an eternal impact. The faith can be meaningful only when Christ is encountered as speaking and acting authentically, when he is heard in the African languages, when culture “shapes the human voice that answers the voice of Christ” (4-5).

The purpose of this article is not only to voice the imperative of articulating the gospel in new cultural Zairian forms, but also to explore two critical areas where indigenization of the Biblical message is needed: Biblical exegesis; and Nganga (healer or witch?).


The way some Biblical verses have been explained to Zairians does not help local Christians to feel fully loved. It encourages them to view the Bible and the church as foreign. I am referring here to the way the Noachic Covenant is being taught in Zairian churches. It seems unfair and heretical to many second and third generation Christians. As a pastor and Instructor of Biblical studies, I have had many local Christians come to express their anger and frustration after hearing a harmful explanation of Genesis 9:25. How is this passage being explained? Let us read the text first before reporting its flawed understanding in Zairian context: “. . . cursed be Canaan; a slave of slaves shall he be to his brothers” (Gen. 9:25).

In Zaire most Christian leaders explain the twenty-fifth verse of the ninth chapter of Genesis as prophetically applied to black people, that is, the people of Zaire in particular. As a result, they have relegated all blacks to the role of servants, not {59} only in the life of Canaan in ancient times but also in the existence of his descendants. Since Ham was the one who saw the nakedness of his father Noah, and despised him on this account, he and his posterity are said to be eternally cursed by God. Most Zairians believe that this curse applies to them also, since churches have taught their local members to trace their own people groups to Ham (Gen. 10). They were told that Africa was peopled by the descendants of Egypt and Cush, who carried their father’s curse through the generations to themselves.

Is that correct? Did God curse Blacks in Genesis 9:25? Is the Bible an excluded book? As long as churches remain silent on this issue, Christianity will be always conceived as foreign in Zaire, particularly, and in Africa, generally. The result of this unfortunate doctrine is harmful not only exegetically, but also soteriologically and missiologically. I have encountered Zairian Christians able to communicate the Gospel cross-culturally but who are convinced that spiritual leadership was not given to them. As black African they think that they can never become missionaries.

The belief that those of a naturally bad ancestral (Ham/Canaan) lineage are damned eternally whereas those good lineage are likely to be drawn into the community of God’s people completely veils the Biblical message of salvation by grace. This view diametrically opposes the underlying message of grace proclaimed in the Old Testament. Yahweh does not seem to have chosen Abraham and created the covenant community on the basis of the obedience of Shem. Instead, the divine loving kindness (chesed) leads to the foundation of Israel:

It was not because you were more in number than any other people that the Lord set his love upon you and chose you, for you were the fewest of all peoples; but it is because the Lord loves you, and is keeping the oath which he swore to your fathers, that the Lord has brought you out with a mighty hand, and redeemed you from the house of bondage, from the hand of Pharaoh King of Egypt (Deut 7:7a-8a).

Even Abraham, the patriarch, was called on the ground of the same principle of God’s love and grace (Gen. 12; 15; 17). Neither he as an individual or his ancestral background had anything that could attract Yahweh. And so also Ezekiel contrasted {60} God’s free grace toward the Israelites with their miserable past (16: 3, 45). Therefore the Biblical affirmation that there exists an eternal blessing or curse upon segments of human beings because of Ham/Canaan, Shem and Japhet does not seem to have a clear scriptural warrant. The traditional exegesis of Genesis 9:25 appears to be an exegesis.

A more careful exegesis will observe that Genesis 9 is in the genre of a narrative. Verses 1-17 establish a covenant with Noah and all his household as a fulfillment of the promise given in Gen. 6:18. The covenant is universal (9:13); God’s design is to live peacefully with all earth’s postdiluvian peoples (Gen. 9:8ff). The curse in 9:25 comes from Noah to Canaan, not to Ham or his other three sons: Cush, Egypt, and Put (Gen. 10:6ff). Furthermore, our own interpretation must be christocentric. The progressive revelation of the Old and New Testament culminates with Christ taking the curse upon himself (Galatians 3:13). It is God’s intent to bless everyone who believes in Jesus regardless of ancestral background.

That the Africans are cursed is not—by any stretch of the imagination—the primary message of the Noachic covenant. We need to do justice to the Biblical text. To affirm the “incompetence” of the Africans/Zairians from Genesis 9:25 is a terrible distortion of its precise meaning. Unfortunately it is leading many Zairians astray through provoking a crisis of their identity.

Having removed the false exegesis which has hindered Zairian Christians from recognizing that they belong to the same covenant as do other Christians, we must find indigenous ways to express the loyalty we owe to the same covenantal Lord. He is our “Nzambi Mpungu” (God the Master); we are fully his people and we must participate in furthering his kingdom on earth.

Because Bible translators assumed that our languages were impoverished, they did not always come up with words which effectively expressed the Biblical covenantal terminology. Words like “Mutaku/Motako” may be the dynamic equivalents of the Hebrew notion of agreement. Zairian convenantal concepts will help to establish the fact that there is no dichotomy between black and becoming a disciple of Christ.

The area of healing is another domain where cultural insensitivity has created much unhealthy conflict in the churches. Here also a clear Biblical response is urgent. {61}


The nganga is a powerful figure in Zairian beliefs. He/she is consulted by those who are going through existential crises such as illness, unemployment, bad luck, infertility, marriage and death. No matter how one views a Zairian nganga, whether as a medical practitioner or as a Witchdoctor, one can not deny his/her impact both in the Zairian “sitz im glauben” and “sitz im leben.” In fact the nganga’s influence on Zairian life extends from birth to death. The traditional maternity, for example, require nkisi to help the mother readjust in her daily life and to protect the new-born against illness and evil eyes. A nganga provides both of these services to the parents. Traditionally, those who are mourning consult a nganga for guidance and advice while coping with their sadness.

Since the eighteenth century there has been a growing antipathy between Zairian churches and groups of the Nganga (Axelson 157). Church leaders portray them as Witchdoctors while some members of local churches consult them and call them traditional medical practitioners/healers. Who really is Nganga? I feel that a reflective biblical effort to understand the nganga needs maturation within the Zairian Christian context. To ignore the ongoing use of ngangas by Zairian people, both Christians and nonChristians, is to miss the most critical area of African beliefs that needs to be challenged by the gospel. A balanced evaluation of the nganga phenomenon must be articulated ontologically and missiologically in Zairian Christian literature. This process will clarify the issues and enable Zairian Christians to make mature decisions during their existential crises. Because of the diversity of “banganga” and their variety of their methods of treating tropical diseases, an involvement of a local church in the process of finding an appropriate traditional healer for a church member seems biblical (1 Cor. 12:26 and Gal. 6:2). Who is Nganga? There is no easy answer. Each case needs careful analysis before discerning a Biblical response.


To believe in Jesus Christ is not the end of a Christian life but its starting point. Once we are born again, we are called to enter into the covenantal community of God’s people where {62} we are fed by his word of God. Its eternal meanings are communicated to us through cultural forms. Expressing the Christian message in Zairian cultural forms is what the Holy Spirit is expecting us to articulate in order to help indigenous churches win the lost for Christ.


  • Axelson, Sigbert. Culture Confrontation in the Lower Congo. Sweden: Gummessons, 1970.
  • Dickson, Kwesi A. Theology in Africa. Maryknoll, NY: Orbis Books, 1954.
Nzash U-Lumeya is a Zairian Mennonite Brethren currently enrolled in a doctoral program in the (Fuller) School of World Mission.

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