Danny E. Olinger
“It’s Colombia, not Columbia.” Although I stood with my feet planted on the ground in this beautiful Latin American country, the popular t-shirt staring me in the face spoke volumes about just how little I knew about it. In preparation for addressing Reformed Christians in Colombia on the topic of Christian education, I had written “Columbia” on all of my lessons.
What I found out in my week teaching in Colombia on behalf of Mobile Training Mobile Corps of the Committee on Foreign Missions (CFM) was not just the correct spelling and pronunciation of the name, but the commitment of the Reformed Christians in that land to Jesus Christ. I also learned more about the efforts of CFM in seeking to assist these believers so that more confessional Presbyterian churches might be established in Colombia.
Douglas Clawson, associate general secretary of CFM, and I arrived in Bucaramanga, population one million, for a conference hosted by the three Reformed Christian Churches in the Santander province. We were soon told that the conference had both been moved up by one day and lengthened to four days in total. There had been great interest in the conference, and since the added day was a national holiday when more people could attend, the change was made.
That first night, every seat was filled, and questions flowed after my presentation on the implications for Christian education in Jesus’s Great Commission in Matthew 28—great, penetrating, insightful questions. Two young women, Camila Duque and Tatiana Quintero, impressed me with their pedagogical queries on how to present Christ to covenant youth. Both public school teachers, they were new to the Reformed faith and were excited about what they were learning. I was later told that they were always inviting people to church and were eager to teach Christ to children.
The next day, Douglas and I met with Pastor John Sandoval, the organizer of the conference. A decade earlier, Pastor Sandoval and around ten others started meeting in his home. Their core group eventually formed the Reformed Christian Church of Bucaramanga, the first conservative Reformed church there. Now, in his words, “we have about 150 members, thanks to the Lord!”
Since that time, the church-planting efforts of the congregation in Bucaramanga have extended to the neighboring cities Piedecuesta and Floridablanca. My translator for the lectures, Diego Tellez, was a member of the Piedecuesta congregation. Douglas and I later found out just how courageous Diego and his wife, Ivonne, had been in joining the small group of believers at Reformed Christian Church of Piedecuesta. Ivonne’s parents were co-pastors of one of the largest Pentecostal churches in Bucaramanga. It was assumed that Diego would be the successor to that ministry and to all the financial benefits that flowed from it, but Diego and Ivonne instead embraced the doctrines of grace in salvation, became cessationist in their understanding of Scripture, and left that church.
Pastor Sandoval stated that his prayer for each congregation was that the Lord would raise up ruling elders and deacons. He also asked us to pray that he and the congregations would “remain faithful to the Word of the Lord and the Westminster Standards, as there are many influences from the United States that are little interested in being conservative in doctrine and practice.”
After the fourth session, Douglas and I said goodbye to our new friends in Christ and traveled to Colombia’s largest city, Bogotá, where I repeated the conference at Iglesia Cristiana Bíblica Raah, a congregation that Douglas had visited numerous times. Pastor Andrés Espinoza and his wife, Carolina, embraced Douglas and warmly greeted me. Pastor Espinoza said, “The church is very grateful to God for these seven years of friendship and fraternity with the OPC. We have been blessed by the conferences that they have brought us; they have allowed us to grow in the understanding of the Reformed faith.”
Part of the reason that I had been invited to talk in both Bucaramanga and Bogotá is that there is a scarcity of Reformed Christian education materials translated into the Spanish language. Douglas and I presented the Raah congregation with a Spanish translation of the four volumes of S. G. De Graaf’s Promise and Deliverance. When asked what books I recommend for teaching children a Reformed, Christ-centered, covenantal view, I have always answered, “Get De Graaf’s Promise and Deliverance.” So, it was a joy to deliver this into eager hands.
I shared with them who De Graaf was, the history behind the volumes, and the methodology that he advocated in teaching. A Christian Reformed minister in the Netherlands, De Graaf originally published the volumes in 1936 to help Sunday school teachers present the stories of the Bible in a Christ-fashioned way. In particular, he wanted to help them tell the history of the Bible to covenant young people. You use whatever details the biblical account offers, you get the children involved, and you “paint pictures.” This form of storytelling engages the children, but its primary purpose is not to amuse. Neither is the purpose to reduce the text to a moral. The primary purpose is to bring the message of Christ from the text. The Scriptures speak of Christ, and the teacher’s aim in telling Bible history should be the same as God’s purpose in recording it for us in his Word.
De Graaf believed that such an approach was not only true to the text, but also confronted the typical sin of a child’s putting himself or herself first. A child often believes that “life is about me” and only has room in his or her life for God as long as God comes second. Christian education endeavors to show the children God’s centrality in all of life.
Wanting to see this method firsthand, Pastor Espinoza and Elders William Rojas and Fredy Remirez asked if I could teach a Sunday school class for the children on the Lord’s Day with the parents and teachers present. I immediately agreed and told them that I would teach the story of David and Goliath from 1 Samuel 17.
The children at my feet, and translator Diane Rachel Torres Mizar by my side, I asked them why the story of David and Goliath was in the Bible. Is this story in the Bible so that we might have the courage to stand up to the bullies of life? No, the passage shows us that victory is the Lord’s. Just as the Lord brings deliverance through his anointed servant, David, the most insignificant of figures, so also the Lord brings deliverance though his anointed servant, Christ. Christ is held in no regard and despised by others, but it is through his work that we are saved.
In 1 Samuel 17, the armies of the Philistines and Israel are facing one another in the Valley of Elah. That none from Israel go forth to fight in the name of the Lord is a sign of the decline of faith in Israel. When King Saul agrees to allow David to fight, he says, “Go, and the Lord be with you.” These words are everything to David, but Saul does not really believe that victory is through the Lord. He immediately offers David his armor, his trust being in earthly might.
When Goliath sees David, he despises him as a “stick” fit only for a dog. But Israel is delivered through this one who is insignificant in the eyes of others. David goes forth and slays Goliath. It is not David’s courage, nor his skill with the sling, that makes him the victor. It is the fact that the Lord is with him. David goes forth in the name of the Lord of hosts against Goliath,
that all the earth may know that there is a God in Israel, and that all this assembly may know that the Lord saves not with sword and spear. For the battle is the Lord’s, and he will give you into our hand. (1 Sam. 17:46–47)
We see here a picture of the coming Christ, the deliverer of his people. We are more than conquerors because the one who was rejected and despised has achieved the victory for us over his and our enemies. We go forward in faith trusting in him.
The Mobile Training Mobile Corps conducts its work in that same faith, hoping to assist pastors, elders, and other church members in sister churches in Colombia that they might see the centrality of Jesus Christ in all of life. Over the past eight years, Orthodox Presbyterian ministers David Crum, Stephen Larson, Geoffrey Downey, Stephen Payson, Aijalon Church, James Jordan, Lane Tipton, George Scipione, Carlos Cruz, Chad Van Dixhoorn, and Jonathan Falk, as well as ruling elders David Nakhla and Miguel Flower, have accompanied Douglas to Colombia, teaching on various aspects of Christian ministry, but always endeavoring to show the people Jesus. With that focus in mind, they have taught on books of the Bible from the Old and New Testaments; the doctrines of God, man, Christ, the covenants, soteriology, and eschatology; world vision; the diaconate; and the Westminster Standards. The constant response to the instruction presented to the Colombian believers through the Mobile Training program proceeds in a two-fold manner. First, there is such joy in hearing the Word of God clearly expounded. OPC instructors receive hugs and handshakes along with such words as “your teaching of the Reformed faith has opened up the Bible to us like never before.” But, second, the immediate follow-up question is, “Where can we get the materials that you mention in your talks published in our own language?” Due to a lack of available Reformed material in the Spanish language, Reformed believers in Colombia struggle with the choice between more faithful materials on the one hand and more readily available popular materials on the other hand.
In my final talk, I asked everyone at Iglesia Cristiana Bíblica Raah what the Christian education vow of both their church and the OPC is. The answer comes from the second baptismal vow: “Do you promise to teach diligently to [your child] the principles of our holy Christian faith, revealed in the Scriptures of the Old and New Testaments and summarized in the Confession of Faith and Catechisms of this church?” If children are to see that every passage of God’s Word is primarily about Jesus and not about themselves, their parents and pastors and elders and teachers need to see it more clearly first.
Pray for these dear believers as they endeavor to raise up their children in the Lord. Pray that they will have Reformed Sunday school materials, in Spanish, that are both Christ-centered and covenantal to use in teaching their children. And, pray for Douglas Clawson and CFM as they seek to help the brothers and sisters in Colombia to show forth Christ in all that they do.
The author is general secretary of the Committee on Christian Education. New Horizons, July 2020.