David A. Okken
Last year was a very difficult year for our young church in Nakaale. The attacks of the Evil One were severe and felt deeply. It was heartbreaking to see church members falling into sin, especially as it happened among three men whose faith in Christ and growth in grace had so encouraged us.
Our hearts ached as we asked ourselves, “How could these dear brothers be following some of the very practices that they had renounced?” As believers in Christ, they had promised to walk in obedience to his commandments. In particular, they had professed their belief that God desires marriage to be between one man and one woman. As husbands, each had promised to be faithful to his one wife. Now, we were discovering, they had decided to take additional wives. In almost twelve years of ministry in Karamoja, I had never felt so discouraged.
In an e-mail update, I shared these struggles that we were experiencing. Among the many encouraging responses that I received was a communication from one brother who reminded me of the great difficulty that the apostle Paul had with immorality in the early church. When we think of Corinth, we remember that the gospel of Jesus Christ had come to an evil culture. That it had come in great power was evidenced by the men and women who had been converted out of extremely wicked lifestyles.
In his first letter to that church, Paul reminded them that some of their members had been sexually immoral, idolaters, adulterers, homosexuals, thieves, greedy, drunkards, revilers, and swindlers (1 Cor. 6:9–10). And even though Paul could write that they were no longer such, but had now been washed, sanctified, and justified in the name of the Lord Jesus Christ and by the Spirit of our God (v. 11), the struggle with sin was not over. It seems that their pagan background continued to aid and abet their sinful natures.
Add to that the insidious false teachings within the church (e.g., antinomianism) condoning immorality. Believers faced the danger of being deceived into thinking that they could be Christians while willfully continuing to follow the sinful practices of the culture. Hence Paul’s strong warning (v. 9): “Do you not know that the unrighteous will not inherit the kingdom of God? Do not be deceived.” Similar warnings in other epistles (Gal. 5:21; Eph. 5:5) indicate that the problem was not unique to Corinth. Sinful practices from pagan backgrounds threatened to creep into Christ’s church in many places.
In Karamoja, we are struggling against an approach to marriage that is deeply embedded in the culture. Sometimes it feels like, in telling our friends to abstain from certain practices, we are asking them not to breathe. This is a culture in which young girls are commonly treated by their parents or husbands more like possessions than persons created in the image of God. After a man and a woman have already begun living as husband and wife, parents retain ownership of their daughter until the dowry has been paid in full. Generally, that does not happen for many years. So a “wife” may be reclaimed by her parents, even if it is contrary to her wishes, and given to a better suitor who can more quickly pay the cows (the dowry).
It saddens us deeply to see persons going in and out of “marriages” this way. Furthermore, polygamy is rampant. The commonly prescribed remedy for a troublesome wife is to take another one. It is common even among members of the Roman Catholic and Anglican Church (Church of Uganda). Folks are certainly taught by example, if not by false doctrine, that you can be a Christian and live by the standards of the world.
In 2001, when we first came to Karamoja and observed all of this, I was determined that it would be different in the Presbyterian and Reformed churches that we would plant. We just needed to preach the true, clear biblical gospel in all of its fullness. Surely the Spirit would work powerfully in the hearts of men and women, so that they would see the glory and grace of Jesus and turn to him in true repentance and faith. They would gladly leave behind the polygamy, along with all of the other unsatisfying, sinful practices of the culture. Our churches would be full of examples of godly, monogamous Christian marriages. Well, here we were, eleven years later, in 2012. Our dear brothers, members of Nakaale Presbyterian Church, had given in to the influences of the world, the flesh, and the devil. Heartbroken, how could I not ask myself, “What have I done wrong here?”
There is no doubt that we have made mistakes in our ministry. Nonetheless, my friend’s encouragement was right on. We were facing struggles very similar to those that Paul faced. Had Paul preached a deficient gospel or compromised his life or doctrine? As we read his letters to the Corinthians, every indication is that he proclaimed and lived the gospel without compromise (see, for example, 1 Cor. 9:23–27). Surely, Paul could say to them what he told the elders from Ephesus: “I did not shrink from declaring to you the whole counsel of God” (Acts 20:27).
Yet Paul too found himself heartbroken over sin in the church. Prior to his visit to Corinth, while ministering in Macedonia (Acts 20:2), Paul wrote to the Corinthians, “I fear that when I come again my God may humble me before you, and I may have to mourn over many of those who sinned earlier and have not repented of the impurity, sexual immorality, and sensuality that they have practiced” (2 Cor. 12:21). Such sin was no doubt a significant cause of the daily pressure he felt from his anxiety for the churches, which he listed along with all of his other sufferings for the gospel (2 Cor. 11:28).
Such is life in God’s kingdom as it exists in this world, and we await its coming in glory. Yes, as it was for Paul, so it will be in Karamoja and the church everywhere, as the gospel continues to fill the earth. There will be an ongoing conflict with sin, even among the saints. And we should be encouraged that, even amidst the “lost battles,” God is at work. Christ is in control and continues to fulfill his great purposes.
In the case of Paul, within three months of arriving in Corinth (Acts 20:2–3), he penned his epistle to the Romans, in which he wrote that his work in the East (including Corinth) had been fulfilled. We do not know the details of the confrontation that occurred between Paul and the Corinthians, but it seems likely that the Spirit worked repentance on the part of many. In this way, the sin in the church became an occasion for Christ to bring a great victory in the fight against immorality. No doubt the battles would continue. Yet Paul would not look back on his ministry as a grand failure, but could instead write that he had “fulfilled the ministry of the gospel of Christ” (Rom. 15:19).
May this encourage us all never to give up in the battle against sin. Let us persevere, even through the heartaches. Christ is faithful. This is a war that he has won! In Karamoja, we were encouraged that all three men were willing to stand before the congregation of Nakaale Presbyterian Church and confess their sin. It was a great opportunity to demonstrate before the world that sin should not simply be overlooked among God’s people who are called to be holy. What a humbling reminder to us all of our need of grace! We praise God for forgiveness through Jesus’ blood and for the ongoing work of the Spirit in us all. Let us press on until that day when the battle will be over, sin will be no more, and we will be with Christ forever in the dwelling place of righteousness (2 Pet. 3:13)!
The author is an OP missionary in Karamoja, Uganda. New Horizons, May 2013.