Very few doctrines bother me like those that have been developed in or are peculiar to the African church. While I agree with Conrad Mbewe who affirms that there is no such thing as African Christianity, I must confess that I often see the gospel twisted and remixed to suit the way that Africans have always thought about the practical issues of this life. You’re likely to find strange terms being used when you visit a church in Africa; one such phrase in Nigeria is household enemies (books have been written on the subject and countless sermons preached), and the story of Joseph often comes into the limelight when the subject is either taught and/or prayed against.
For the African who sees animistic and occultic practices still thriving, even in countries that are predominantly Christian, the idea of Christians having enemies is nowhere close to being strange. Enemies are everywhere, trying to submit our pictures and names to witch doctors, seeking to procure charms and place curses and hexes to work against us. The Christian then attempts to do the same, not by attempting to get counter-charms or counter-spells, but in the place of prayer. Prayer becomes an avenue to attack our enemies, not with diabolical forces, but with Holy Ghost fire. Joseph’s story becomes a classic example of how our enemies can thwart our destinies if we do not stop them.
The story of Joseph, however, is not about enemies and how they can thwart our destinies. Trying to use Bible passages to defend strange practices, especially those originating from our cultures, is extremely dangerous and can lead to the abandonment of the gospel for the pursuit of cisterns that hold no water. And I write from the perspective of a concerned Christian in Nigeria who is trying to address some of the wrong that have been taught as a result of the remixing of Joseph’s story.
Joseph’s story is not about household enemies. Jesus’ words in Matt. 10:36, “…and a man’s enemies will be the members of his household,” is often taken out of context to support the idea that every believer has one or two family members that are out to get them. I have seen families become full of distrust and animosity because a preacher told them that household enemies (members of the same families!) were against them. And while it is true that many families have unbelieving members who fight tooth and nail against the success of the believer, with some actually going to great lengths, such as visiting witch doctors for diabolical means to attack the believer (this things happen in Africa!), it is unwise and dangerous to take two passages largely out of context to support the experience of Africans.
Joseph’s destiny was not thwarted. A lot of emphasis is placed in Africa about destiny thwarting and the stopping of God’s divine purpose in a man’s life. In other words, a man’s enemies can actually change God’s plan for his life. But this is not a biblical idea. It negates the truth that God’s purposes cannot be thwarted (Job 42:2), or that God’s purpose always prevails (Proverbs 19:21). If God’s purposes can be thwarted—if the devil (or any man) can actually modify or totally destroy God’s plan—then God is always at the mercy of created beings.
Disappointments can also come from God. The prosperity gospel paints the picture of a God who never disappoints. He never wills suffering or lack. But Joseph’s story is a lesson in perseverance in the midst of suffering. It was God who “sent a man ahead of [his people], Joseph, who was sold as a slave” (Psalms 105:17). Joseph was not merely a victim of a familial feud—He was sent by God to secure the lives of God’s chosen nation.
Joseph understood God’s sovereignty. It is surprising that the truth of God’s sovereignty is being misunderstood in many Christian circles. But the Bible teaches that God has unlimited sovereignty. In Joseph’s story, we see God’s sovereignty in full display. Joseph admitted that while his brothers “meant evil against [him], God meant it for good, to bring it about that many people should be kept alive, as they are today” (Genesis 50:20). Even the actions that were meant for evil were used by God to bring about His sovereign will to pass.
How then can certain believers among us look at Joseph’s story and say that it’s about household enemies? I think the church in Africa needs to unhook itself from the interpretation of God’s word through the lens of our culture and traditional practices. And let us not be quick to forget the words of Conrad Mbewe: “We are Christians who happen to be Africans, not Africans who happen to be Christians.”