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In Orthodox and Evangelical Churches, Meron Gabreananaye is Preparing to Elevate the Teaching of Scripture

By Rebecca Van Noord

Meron Gabreananaye’s first impression of Scripture was influenced by her mother’s large Orthodox Bible. Rare and expensive, it was wrapped in cloth and displayed in a prayer niche. It was never read. “In the Ethiopian Orthodox tradition,” she says, “Scripture is elevated to the extent that you are not expected to read it as a layperson. It’s supposed to be interpreted to you through other mediums. I thought of Scripture as unapproachable, dense, and very scary.”

Gabreananaye (pronounced ga-BRAH-na-nay) grew up in Ethiopia’s capital, Addis Ababa, a city of more than 3 million people. She attended Saturday morning liturgical services with her devout, Orthodox mother, but she also attended an evangelical church with her uncle. Her experience there was vastly different. “We had abridged Bibles and freely engaged with the biblical characters and the biblical story,” she says. “We were encouraged to understand it as much as we could.”

These disparate approaches left a mark on Gabreananaye’s spiritual understanding. “For the longest time, it never clicked that this was the same Bible.” As an adult, her experiences of Scripture within two faith communities drove her education as a scholar. She now researches how Scripture is received in different contexts, how it influences society, and how understandings of Scripture are framed by social and historical contexts. After completing her PhD at Durham University (United Kingdom) through the support of ScholarLeaders International, Gabreananaye plans to return to Ethiopia to educate the next wave of scholars at Ethiopian Graduate School of Theology. 

Increasing Bible engagement in the Orthodox Church

Growing up in divergent Christian traditions gave Gabreananaye rare insight into the faith of their followers. “I know both groups of people to be really faithful Christians,” she says. “For many people in Ethiopia, the Orthodox Church is more of a cultural institution, but in our household it wasn’t like that. My mom was very committed to the Lord. Even though I find my personal faith experience leads me toward the evangelical church, I have a deep respect and love for the Ethiopian Orthodox Church.”

The Ethiopian Orthodox Church is the oldest organized Christian body in Africa and one of the oldest in the world. Its history has been characterized by isolation. After the rise of Islam in the seventh century, the church developed what Gabreananaye calls “a symbiotic relationship” with the state in uniting against outsiders. “Outside influences were seen as aggressors—Islam, then Jesuit missionaries, and more recently, evangelical missionaries. The church came to see itself as the bastion of Ethiopian culture, identity, and even nationhood.”

The Orthodox Church was recognized as Ethiopia’s state church until 1974, when the monarchy was abolished. While the church is still very influential, Gabreananaye believes that many people have never experienced the spiritual heart of the organization, which has historically centered around monastic life. “The Orthodox Church’s spiritual identity is found in the monasteries and its ascetic schools,” she explains. “Since most people don’t have access to those—not just because of their geographic remoteness, but also because theological and spiritual mysteries are perceived as being reserved for the worthy—we really cannot completely appreciate or understand its spiritual character.”

But Gabreananaye believes Bible engagement is increasing among laypeople in the Orthodox Church. “The confrontation between the Orthodox and evangelical traditions has been constructive in this regard,” she says. “Evangelical Christians tend to be biblically literate—whether or not Scripture is correctly interpreted. They’ve challenged Orthodox believers on the sacrosanct (sacred by holy rite) nature of Scripture and driven many to the Scriptures. In 2016, members of our graduate school were invited to attend the graduation ceremony of the largest Orthodox seminary in Addis Ababa. Five hundred of the 700 graduating were laypeople—regular professionals who were taking this course to train themselves in the Scriptures for their own edification. This is a phenomenon in the Orthodox tradition, in that the laity are engaging the Scriptures in this way and engaging with evangelicals.”

Challenges to Biblical literacy in evangelical churches

To increase biblical literacy in Ethiopia, the most obvious need is to translate the Bible into all of the country’s native languages. “There are about 80 different dialects in Ethiopia, with Amharic being the official language but not the one that’s widely spoken as a mother tongue,” Gabreananaye explains. “The urgent need to translate the Bible and get it into the hands of many has been at the forefront of most literature-related missions activities in Ethiopia.”

Beyond Bible translation is the need to create and translate resources for Ethiopian Christians of both traditions, to ensure the church is grounded in sound doctrine and teaching. “We have vibrant evangelical churches—very strong, committed, and large,” Gabreananaye says. “However, misuse of Bible through questionable interpretation is a huge problem. The prosperity-gospel movement has spread like wildfire across Africa. Although many evangelical churches have the Bible available in their languages, they’re still relying on Sunday preachers for interpretation. People are easily led astray. So having Bible study materials available to people is essential for the church. … Especially in semi-literate communities, you need the proper tools to read, understand, interpret, and apply the Bible.”

Living and studying in the United Kingdom, Gabreananaye has found it easy to take for granted the wide availability of spiritual resources. “I can just go online right now and order a six-week Bible study for my personal devotion and not have a second thought about it. That is a unique privilege.”

She hopes that Christians in Ethiopia will be able to develop more resources indigenously. While translated resources can be helpful, they often lack a cultural context that readers need. “Developing indigenous commentary and Bible study materials will make Scripture accessible to people from within the social and cultural matrix they inhabit,” she says. “The Christian journey is a universal reality. There are contextually situated questions, challenges, and presuppositions that require the development of materials from within the community.”

Gabreananaye says the uncertainties faced by African Christians don’t have a clear parallel in the West. Her peers in Ethiopia want to know “how to make sense of the devastation of drought and famine, epidemics and civil unrest; how to deal with systemic corruption. These things are not readily addressed by materials designed for the modern, middle-class, Western church.”

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But evangelical churches are addressing another area of need—training for pastors. “Most ministers do not have the opportunity, the finances, or the English-language skills to do a degree in theological studies at one of the English-speaking colleges,” Gabreananaye says. “Although English is the official international language, it’s not well spoken in Ethiopia. So what we need—and what many churches are working to establish—are Bible colleges at the diploma or the bachelor’s level in native languages.”

Gabreananaye is hopeful for the efforts that are being put forward for Christianity in Ethiopia and passionate about her own role in training scholars and pastors. Whatever the challenges, she expresses trust in the power of Scripture and the power of God to bring true hope to Ethiopians: “More than church traditions, what’s important is that people engage the Scriptures, find the Lord, and are able to live in the Lord.”

 

Rebecca Van Noord is a former editor of  Bible Study Magazine . She resides in Bellingham, Washington, with her husband and two children.

Rebecca Van Noord is a former editor of Bible Study Magazine. She resides in Bellingham, Washington, with her husband and two children.


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