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God’s Church in Egypt

If we were to choose a country to be instrumental in the history of God’s church, Egypt probably would not make our list. This country, whose famed monuments to her idolatry endure to this day, had a long and bitter history with the Old Testament church. It was in Egypt that the children of Israel were enslaved, so that God prefaced the ten commandments with the words of Exodus 20:2, “I am the LORD thy God, which have brought thee out of the land of Egypt, out of the house of bondage.” Egypt symbolized not only the physical slavery that the Israelites endured, but also the greater spiritual slavery that necessitated Christ’s redemption. The fact that Mary and Joseph took Jesus and fled into Egypt speaks not so much to the security of Egypt, but rather underscores the spiritual darkness in Judea that made the Messiah safer in Egypt than in God’s chosen land. We might conclude that out of all the nations of earth, Egypt must be so abominable to God that He would not choose to establish His church there. Egypt had been given her opportunity, and she had wholeheartedly and violently rejected the church. But God, who in His unspeakable grace chooses His own from the least deserving, saw fit to use even Egypt for the advancement of His kingdom.

The ancient Egyptian church was centered in the city of Alexandria. Famed for its great harbors and massive library, Alexandria was a crossroads of civilization and a center of philosophy and learning. Sometime during the dispersal of the early New Testament church, Christianity came to Egypt and began to take root. During the second century A.D., Christians established the Didascalia, the first Christian catechetical school. There the New Testament was translated into the Egyptian language, and several well-known church fathers presided and taught. Clement of Alexandria, no doubt influenced by the academic culture of the city in which he lived, taught a philosophical Christianity, combining the works of such as Plato with the gospel, declaring philosophy to be “the Handmaiden of Theology.” [1] Clement’s leadership ended when persecution under Emperor Septimus Severus forced him to flee Alexandria, but his greatest contribution to the church was his student, Origen.

Origen was born to a Greek Christian father and a Jewish mother. Seeing his father killed and his teacher driven out by the Roman persecution, he was less inclined toward the liberal, pacifist theology of Clement. Rather, he taught and wrote in opposition to the prevailing philosophies of the day, especially Plato’s widely accepted model of the “Great Chain of Being.” This view placed God at the top of this “chain” and arranged others in closeness to God, based primarily on social status and philosophical knowledge. Origen argued against this, particularly in his treatise Against Celsus. Seventy years earlier, Celsus had written a powerful opposition to Christianity and Judaism, calling them back to Plato’s view of the world. He had gone largely unanswered, until Origen exhaustively and definitively refuted his work. Origen is known as the “Father of Theology” for his commitment to searching out and defending the truth.

Although Origen made great steps in the development of the early church, his views of the Trinity were poorly developed and influenced by Plato’s hierarchical viewpoint. Thus, the church would need another Alexandrian Christian to settle this point. And as with many doctrines, the doctrine of the Trinity was developed through conflict.

Brilliant and passionate for the truth, Athanasius was quite young when he was made deacon under Alexander, the chief bishop of Alexandria. Against Athanasius and his teacher arose Arius, also a student of Alexander, much older than Athanasius and known for his intellect and preaching abilities. Arius taught that the Father alone is God, and the Son is not divine but a creature. Alexander and Athanasius defended the doctrine of the Trinity against this error. This controversy divided Alexandria, resulting in fierce debate that led to physical violence throughout the city. The conflict was so severe that Emperor Constantine called the Council of Nicaea, which adopted the Nicene Creed, establishing that Christ is “true God of true God, begotten, not made, being of one essence with the Father.”[2]

While the Council of Nicaea officially settled the matter and banished Arius, the fight was far from over. At only thirty-three, Athanasius became bishop of Alexandria after Alexander’s death, and continued to face bitter conflict. The Arian heresy in various forms still had a strong foothold in the city. As the public and Imperial opinions swung between sides, Athanasius was repeatedly exiled from the city and reinstated, until he was described as “Athanasius contra mundum”— “Athanasius against the world.” His unrelenting defense of the Trinity earned Athanasius the title “Father of Orthodoxy.”

Although Athanasius’ voice for the truth echoed throughout the early church, his own city and country did not fare so well. Later bishops of Alexandria led the city into disarray. Bishop Theophilus began the practice of persecuting and killing heretics. His successor, Cyril, took his power in both church and state by means of a radical Christian mob, which he led to commit atrocities against any he considered less “pure.” But the greatest blow against the Egyptian church was the invasion of Islamic empire in AD 640. Alexandria was destroyed, and the once flourishing Christian church became all but invisible in the nation.

Islam is to this day the overwhelming religion of Egypt, but some Christianity has remained. The dominant form of Christianity in Egypt is the Coptic Orthodox Church, similar in many ways to the Eastern Orthodox Church. This denomination of ten million members claims to trace its origin back to the apostle Mark, who is said to have visited Alexandria and established the church there. Perhaps of more interest to Reformed readers is the Evangelical Presbyterian Church in Egypt Synod of the Nile. While nominally Presbyterian, it is unclear what their specific doctrines are and quite evident that their focus is heavily on social and humanitarian reforms.[3] They are a member of the World Communion of Reformed Churches, an association of churches whose primary mission is to transform the world through economic and ecological restoration as well as “ecumenical engagement and interfaith cooperation.”[4]

The current political climate in Egypt is hostile to Christians. Open Doors USA rates Egypt’s persecution level as “very high.” [5] While it is technically legal to be either Christian, Jewish, or Muslim, Christians are often unprotected by civil authorities when faced with hostilities. In addition, Christians legally may not evangelize Muslims, and a conversion from Islam to Christianity is not recognized by the state.

Although we might not currently have contacts or open doors for mission work in Egypt, there is still much to be learned by looking at the history of God’s church there. First, we are reminded that God establishes his church in ways that human wisdom might reject. We have already seen how unexpected it was for the church to find any place in such a pagan land. Similarly, when the church deals with individuals, we cannot decide who should receive the gospel based off who seems to be the most worthy or likely candidate. We are all unworthy. It is not our place to decide who might believe and who is beyond the grace of God.

Additionally, God’s work in Egypt shows us that God establishes his church through weak means. Although Clement, Origen, and Athanasius might seem to us as “great” names of church fathers, they were imperfect tools. While we might try to excuse their weaknesses, seeing that the post-apostolic church was still young and developing its doctrine, this does not negate the fact that they fell short. Nor should we expect anything different. When learning of their failures, we should not come away discouraged that we do not see an ideal church leader, exemplary in every aspect of doctrine and life. Rather, we are astounded that God can work so powerfully through weak human means, and we are led to look ever more to the true Head of the church, Jesus Christ. In Him alone we see a man perfect in doctrine and life, who now

In Egypt and in all the world, God’s guiding hand is visible in history, directing all things to the benefit of God’s church. We trust that our God will remain ever faithful to His promises as He brings the church through time to the end of the world.

 

Works Referenced

“Egypt – Open Doors USA – Open Doors USA.” Accessed July 23, 2021. https://www.opendoorsusa.org/christian-persecution/world-watch-list/egypt/.

Hanko, Herman. Portraits of Faithful Saints. Grandville, MI: Reformed Free Publishing Association, 1999.

Kuiper, B. K. The Church in History. Grand Rapids, MI: Wm. B. Eerdmans Publishing Co., 1964.

Nicene Creed, in Confessions and the Church Order of the Protestant Reformed Churches, The. Protestant Reformed Churches in America, 2005.

Pollard, Justin, and Howard Reid. The Rise and Fall of Alexandria. New York, NY: Penguin Group, 2006.

Vreugdenhil, John. God’s Care and Continuance of His Church. Vol. 1. Sioux Center, IA: Netherlands Reformed Publishing, 1992.

World Communion of Reformed Churches. “Vision & Mission.” Accessed July 23, 2021. http://wcrc.ch/mission-statement.

World Council of Churches. “Evangelical Presbyterian Church of Egypt Synod of the Nile.” Accessed July 23, 2021. https://www.oikoumene.org/member-churches/evangelical-presbyterian-church-of-egypt-synod-of-the-nile.

[1] Justin, and Howard Reid. The Rise and Fall of Alexandria. (New York: Penguin Group, 2006), 222.

[2] Nicene Creed, in Confessions and the Church Order of the Protestant Reformed Churches, The. Protestant Reformed Churches in America, 2005.

[3] World Council of Churches. “Evangelical Presbyterian Church of Egypt Synod of the Nile.”

[4] World Communion of Reformed Churches. “Vision & Mission.”

[5] “Egypt – Open Doors USA – Open Doors USA.”

 

Archivist’s note:

This article was submitted to a Beacon Lights writing contest, with the prompt to “Describe the history of the spread of Christianity in another country than the United States. If applicable, include an explanation of Reformed church work in the region, and explore the Christian calling to witness to all nations, tribes, and tongues.” The article above was selected as one of the top 5 submissions in its category.