By Karen Wingate
Dozens of churches now celebrate a weekly observance of the Lord’s Supper. Many churches are adding baptisteries to their buildings, and ministers are baptizing church members. Congregations with a denominational background are selecting elders to provide local leadership.
It sounds like a page from the early history of the American Restoration Movement when Alexander Campbell, Barton Stone, and Walter Scott became convicted of the need to restore the church to the New Testament pattern. In reality, these events describe dozens of churches in Egypt moving closer to the New Testament model of church life. Much of this progress can be attributed to years of patient teaching by Safaa Fahmi, a longtime minister in Asuit, Egypt.
In 1981, Rueben Bullard and Lewis Foster met Fahmi while visiting the work of Christian Arabic Services, a church planting mission group, in Egypt. The men were impressed with Fahmi’s teaching of New Testament principles, even though Fahmi was minister of a large congregation in a prominent Egyptian denomination. Who had taught him? they wondered.
Fahmi was equally perplexed by their question. “No one taught me,” he told them. “The Bible is very clear. I came to these conclusions by reading, studying, and examining the Scriptures.”
As Aquila and Priscilla encouraged Apollos, the men encouraged Fahmi to grow in his understanding of Scripture. They sponsored him to seek graduate training at Cincinnati (Ohio) Christian University, formerly Cincinnati Christian Seminary. Fahmi earned an MA in counseling in 1983, an MA in New Testament in 1992, and an MDiv in 1996. He also received an honorary doctorate from Hope International University, Fullerton, California. Fahmi continued to preach at his church in Asuit, Egypt, often baptizing adults following the New Testament pattern.
In 2003, Fahmi began to work with CAS full time. Since then, he has trained thousands of church leaders in New Testament principles, including more than 2,700 in 2008 alone. Now, more than 180 churches in Egypt observe the Lord’s Supper weekly. One entire denomination in Egypt is about to dissolve and restore their congregations to a New Testament pattern of local leadership, observance of the Lord’s Supper, and baptism as part of the salvation process.
Fahmi’s work has not gone unhindered. One would think opposition would come from the predominantly Muslim sector in Egypt. However, it mostly has come from within the established church. At first, the elders in his church resisted his teaching. Eventually the national hierarchy of church leaders opposed him. From their point of view, baptism of adults was a form of “rebaptism,” a heretical teaching. The national leaders couldn’t understand why people would need to be baptized when they had already been baptized as babies. They were understandably concerned. After all, Fahmi was the minister of the second largest Presbyterian church in Egypt.
As Peter declares in 1 Peter 2:15, suffering often comes through the ignorant talk of foolish men. Rumors circulated, charging Fahmi with receiving money from American churches to preach a particular doctrine. They accused him of trying to start a new denomination, of being divisive, and that, in secret, he was really a pastor of an American church.
The accusations were baseless. Fahmi was simply preaching what he found in the Word of God. Tensions mounted, and in 2003, Fahmi was fired as minister of the church he had served for 29 years. Today, Fahmi views the dismissal as a “blessing to my life” because it “enabled me to preach and teach in every denominational church without any restriction and false accusations.”
Fahmi began to work full time with Christian Arabic Services, whose mission is to plant churches in Arab countries such as the Sudan, Jordan, Syria, Libya, and Egypt. CAS now has more than 80 workers seeking to plant new churches or home churches in the Arab world and throughout Africa.
Fahmi directs a leadership training center where ministers, elders, youth workers, women’s ministry workers, and Sunday school teachers are trained. The training center is the first Christian Bible college representing the Restoration Movement in the Arab world; it currently is undergoing expansion from a small multipurpose building with capacity for 30 students to a new building big enough to host 150 students. “We are expecting to finish this new building by the end of 2010,” Fahmi says.
Since 2003, Fahmi has seen leaders from a number of Protestant, Catholic, and Orthodox churches commit to the task of restoring their congregations to the pattern found in the first-century church. The return to New Testament principles is not just head knowledge or an intellectual exercise. Believers are demonstrating a spirit of reverence and worship in the observances that must have also existed in the early church.
Jim Cook, a stateside representative of CAS, recently traveled to Egypt to view the work. While there, he was asked to preach at one of the churches that now observes a weekly Communion. With amazement, Cook says, “They had a 45-minute Communion service.” The service included several songs and three meditations led by local elders. Unlike American churches, the minister himself served Communion to his people. The people are delighted to honor the Lord in a weekly remembrance.
Churches continue to suffer opposition for trying simply to follow what the Bible says. These local church leaders now face the same oppression Fahmi experienced in his early days with his own congregation.
Seventeen ministers wanted to break away from their denominations and were seeking funding from CAS to pay their salaries, but CAS cannot afford to support them all. Instead, Fahmi counsels them to stay with their denomination and continue to seek change from within. In spite of the pressure to conform, this method is working, as evidenced by the one denomination about to dissolve its denominational standing.
In spite of the gains, churches in the Third World countries of the Arab world still face persecution. “Churches in the Third World are persecuted from every direction,” Fahmi says. “The Christians suffer and struggle from poverty and disease. That is why churches are stronger. It is through the prayer and generosity of American churches that the church in many parts of the world is able to flourish and grow.”
Like the first-century church, congregations that experience phenomenal spiritual and physical growth will experience greater persecution. As exciting as it is to see new churches planted and older congregations seeking a more accurate picture of New Testament Christianity, the churches need our prayers that they remain faithful.
“And we pray for the American churches,” Fahmi adds, “that they will grow stronger as they grow in their support for us.”
Today, Safaa Fahmi has a light in his eyes that those who know him have not seen for a long time. To him, the most satisfying part of his work is to see “fruits every day.” Yet the explosive changes in the Egyptian church have come after years of patiently tilling the hearts of those who will listen, and being faithful to the teaching found in God’s Word, no matter how others may disagree.
Karen Wingate is a freelance writer and member of East Sparta (Ohio) Christian Church, where her husband serves as minister.