By Robert Dilday
Living in apartheid-era South Africa, Paul Msiza found both his race and his religion objects of scorn. The country’s legal and social systems discriminated against blacks, while the close association between the nation’s state church and those oppressive structures left the black community deeply skeptical of Christianity there.
But the incoming president of the Baptist World Alliance is among a generation of South Africans who worked assiduously to change both the face of their country and the face of Christianity.
“The old South Africa was a most difficult place to live in for us black people,” the Baptist pastor said in an interview three days before he assumed the top elected position in the global fellowship that represents about 43 million baptized believers. “And it was very difficult for Christians.
“Christians were seen as the ones who actually maintained the system of oppression,” Msiza said.
“Whenever you said, ‘I’m a Christian,’ you were associated with the oppressors,” he explained. “And I can tell you it was very difficult to witness among people who were politically enlightened. They would tell you that Christianity was a means to take land from the people.”
Msiza said it is understandable why people would define Christianity in those terms, he said, because “that’s how Christians behaved.”
“The laws of apartheid were founded upon the doctrines of the state church,” he said.
Those realities meant “our commitment to Christ was tested almost every day,” he recalled.
“When you would talk schoolchildren they would say, ‘don’t bring us the religion of the oppressors.’ And we had to be very clear that it was not only going to be a preaching of the word, it had to be accomplished by action and with power.”
Msiza and others were largely successful. Christianity, he says, is embraced broadly in South Africa, where almost 84 percent of population identifies themselves as believers.
There were few Baptists in the township east of Pretoria where Msiza, now 54, was born or in the rural Winterveld region northwest of the city where he grew up.
That changed in 1980 when as a young adult he was converted by a visiting Baptist pastor, and joined a small group to start a Baptist congregation in Winterveld. It was the beginning of a lifelong commitment to ministry.
“Almost immediately [after making a profession of faith] I felt the urge to serve the Lord,” Msiza said. “At first I thought I could do that as a school teacher.”
With a college degree in hand he began teaching in public schools, finding time to minister to students he met there. But soon the “calling became too strong,” he said, and that led him to seminary and eventually to became a bivocational pastor, teaching in schools and being pastor of three churches at a time — some of which he planted — in Pretoria’s rural surroundings.
Meanwhile, South Africa was dismantling apartheid and transforming the country’s political structures. Msiza joined a growing number of Christians who supported the movement, which eventually led to the first multi-racial democratic elections in 1994.
“God raised Christians like Archbishop Tutu and many others who were the stalwarts in preaching a gospel that was liberating,” he said. “And who stood for social justice and freedom and preached that from the pulpit. That helped to make people aware that there is a church that preaches the true gospel. It was in the 1980s that the church raised its voice and started to condemn injustice.”
In 1995 the Baptist Convention of South Africa was looking for someone to head a college it was developing to train Baptist leaders, and it turned to Msiza. Again the calling was irresistible, he says, and with a budget of about $500 and seven students, the Baptist Convention College opened its doors in the Soweto section of Johannesburg. Today the school has educated hundreds of pastors serving around the country.
That leadership role made him a natural choice to be selected general secretary of the Baptist Convention of South Africa and later president of the All Africa Baptist Fellowship, one of six regional fellowships of the BWA.
In 2011 Msiza became pastor of Peniel-Salem Baptist Church in Pretoria, realizing a dream to be a full time pastor. “I was looking forward to being a fulltime pastor for years but the Lord had to take me through some detours,” he says.
Sanna Mapula, who he married in 1986 — the couple now has three sons — has been an essential supporter through those years, he says.
“My wife is very devoted believer, a strong Christian, a strong preacher and teacher of the word. She is the preacher of the church when I travel. And I can say the people remember her sermons more than the ones I preach,” he quips.
As he takes on his five-year role as BWA president, he aims to be guided by the organization’s theme for 2015-2020: “Jesus Christ, the Door.”
“The door speaks about freedom, emphasizes the issue of liberty — freedom of religion, freedom of worship, freedom for justice. The people need to be set free from all sorts of shackles.”
It’s an essential task, he says.
“We’re living in a world that is full of suffering. We need a message of hope, a message of the door. Whenever you see the door, there’s hope. At the Baptist World Alliance our goal is to see more people coming into the fellowship, to see the emphasis on the issues of justice, without abandoning preaching the gospel of conversion. But the gospel of conversion cannot leave out these matters, because as we are converted we are people who now see things in a different way.
“We trust the Lord will use us to become agents of transformation.”