The Faculté de Théologie Évangélique de Bangui (FATEB), often known among English speakers as the Bangui Evangelical School of Theology (BEST), first opened its doors to French-speaking students in October 1977 (Minutes 1977). It was located in Bangui, the capital city of the Central African Republic (Minutes 1977). Now, it has completed well over 40 years of training French-speaking African men and women for service in the churches and societies of Central Africa, West Africa, and Madagascar. To understand why FATEB was founded and how it was launched requires some knowledge of the people, institutions, and religious movements that formed its background. Therefore, this narrative begins well before FATEB welcomed its first students to classes in 1977.

The organization that brought FATEB into existence was an African association created at a continental conference in Kenya in 1966. It was called the Association of Evangelicals of Africa and Madagascar (AEAM), known today as the Association of Evangelicals in Africa (AEA). The creation of AEAM, FATEB’s birth mother, occurred through a decision made by the participants who attended an Africa Evangelical Conference held in Limuru, Kenya, in 1966 (Breman 1996). This Conference was sponsored by the Africa Evangelical Office (AEO) that had been established in 1962 as a joint effort by two North American mission associations: the Evangelical Fellowship of Mission Agencies (EFMA), established in 1945 as the mission affiliate of the National Association of Evangelicals (NAE), and the Interdenominational Foreign Missions Association (IFMA), formed in 1917 for mission societies without denominational affiliations. (AEAM, now AEA, is a regional member of the World Evangelical Alliance (WEA). The World Evangelical Alliance (WEA), first called World Evangelical Fellowship, was founded at the International Convention of Evangelicals held in the Netherlands, August 5-11, 1951, with the national Evangelical Alliance of Great Britain as the founding member with the longest history of its own. This British Evangelical Alliance had been formed in Manchester, England, in November of 1846, the same year as several other national Evangelical alliances. So FATEB was founded by AEAM (AEA) whose organizational links go back 173 years to 1846.)

The American leaders of the EFMA and the IFMA feared that the fast-growing ecumenical movement in Africa would introduce theological liberalism into the theologically conservative Evangelical African churches. They saw a need for developing an African Evangelical fellowship of churches that would promote spiritual unity based on sound biblical doctrine and protect the churches from alternative forms of Christianity. To this end, the Africa Evangelical Office (AEO) sponsored a number of conferences throughout Africa. It adopted a confession of faith borrowed from that of the Evangelical Alliance in Great Britain that had been founded 120 years earlier in 1846. It was out of the AEO Conference held in Limuru, Kenya in 1966 that AEAM was born, and it was, in turn, out of AEAM’s General Assembly in 1973 that FATEB emerged (Breman1996). As a result, FATEB’s training of African leaders over more than four decades reflects a stream of Protestant life and thought growing out of a long evangelical Christian tradition in Great Britain and the United States.

The individual most directly responsible for the founding of FATEB was a 37-year-old Nigerian, Byang Kato, who, in 1973, was finishing his Th.D. at Dallas Theological Seminary in Texas (Breman 1996; Maillefer 2009). Kato had been born in northern Nigeria in 1936. After his birth, Kato’s father dedicated him to be a juju priest in the traditional African religion of his tribe. As Kato grew older, his father instructed him in fetish practices. At age 12, against his father’s wishes, Kato began attending a Sudan Interior Mission primary school. There, his teacher told the biblical story of Noah and the ark. Listening intently to his teacher, Kato felt that he needed to enter the boat of salvation, just as Noah had done. Consequently, he made a public commitment to follow Jesus Christ. Five years later, Kato dedicated his life to God for whatever he believed God wanted him to do. Two years after that, he went to Igbaja Bible College in Nigeria to prepare for Christian ministry. 

At age 21, Kato married Jummai Rahila and soon became the father of a girl and two boys. In 1963, he enrolled in London Bible College. After graduation, he taught at Igbaja Theological Seminary and then was elected General Secretary of the Evangelical Church of West Africa (ECWA), a denomination of 1,400 Nigerian churches composed of about 400,000 people at that time. Realizing his need for more advanced education, in 1970 Kato became the first African student to enroll in Dallas Theological Seminary. By 1973, Kato had completed his doctoral classes and was headed back to Nigeria. (Kato was awarded the Th.D. degree in absentia in 1974, and his dissertation was published in 1975 as Theological Pitfalls in Africa.)

On his way home, Kato stopped in Kenya to present a paper at the AEAM Christian Education Strategy Conference in Limuru. He stayed another week to attend the Second General Assembly of AEAM that had been founded seven years earlier in 1966. At the AEAM meeting, Kato was chosen to be the first African General Secretary of the Association. He was also appointed Executive Secretary of the AEAM’s Theological Commission that was formed during that meeting. Because Kato was greatly needed to teach at Igbaja Theological Seminary in Nigeria, he served as a visiting professor there for several months each year over the next two years. In addition, Kato traveled widely throughout Africa on behalf of AEAM, speaking wherever he went and encouraging the formation of national evangelical associations. He was also a main presenter at the International Congress on World Evangelization held in Lausanne, Switzerland in 1974. Kato accepted a post on the Executive Committee of the World Evangelical Fellowship (WEF), chaired its Theological Commission, and served on WEF’s Advisory Council of the Asia Theological Commission. For a young man, these many appointments involved considerable responsibility. As a Hausa proverb puts it, “If the camel is large, its load is great.”

Out of the 1973 General Assembly of AEAM came a decision to create two graduate schools of theology in Africa. Kato originated this proposal, but he also achieved the backing of AEAM for it. A careful reading of the minutes of the General Assembly reveals no formal action with respect to these schools. However, the General Assembly’s approval of a Theological Commission with Byang Kato as its Executive Secretary gave him the freedom he needed to proceed with this project (Breman 1996). Appendix C of the General Assembly minutes spells out the objectives of the Theological Commission. Among the seven objectives listed, point D reads as follows: “Promote advanced studies up to the level of Masters and Doctoral degrees.”  So, through the action of the Theological Commission that he chaired, Kato began preparing for the founding of the two seminaries.

Kato knew there was wide and strong support for this project. A “Mini-rapport” on the AEAM General Assembly written by the Administrative Secretary, Eric Maillefer, devoted two paragraphs to the proposed schools. The report revealed the interest shown by the Assembly participants in this project, as the following extract indicates (English translation is mine):

The need for university level theological education was discussed several times during the Assembly. A Theological Commission under the direction of Pastor Byang Kato has launched an ambitious project that will lead to the foundation of two university level schools of theological education: one for Francophone Africa and the other for Anglophone Africa. These schools will require the “baccalauréat” as the condition for admission. [This was the French diploma representing successful completion of the State examination at the end of secondary school.] It is presumed that this project will be completed by September 1975.

The necessity for having such schools on African soil was underlined by Mr. Kato who mentioned the danger of syncretism and universalism that becomes more and more evident among our people because of the mediocre teaching by our leaders. Having recently visited several theological departments of theology in African universities, Mr. Kato declared that in most of them, the teaching of these schools is far from being teaching that reflects a biblical position. “Many of these schools seem to be searching for a peaceful coexistence between the different religious of Africa,” declared Mr. Kato. “After having discussed with a number of students and professors of these universities, I discovered that the general feeling was that all the world will eventually be saved, regardless of what they believe.”

Before the Assembly ended, Kato had appointed seven secretaries within the Theological Commission that included two secretaries responsible for action on the proposed schools. In a document entitled, “Africa School for Higher Education,” Kato announced the appointment of Mr. John Dean as Anglophone Secretary and Dr. John Robinson as Francophone Secretary. A job description followed, beginning with these first two points of responsibility for each of the secretaries:

            a) Liaison between the proposed schools and AEAM;

            b) Feasibility study on location, site, students, and staff.

A budget for each of the schools was also made:

            Capital Expenses: Buildings              $300,000

                                                 Library           $75,000           

            Recurrent Expenses for five years:     $125,000

                                                        Total:      $500,000 for each school

Byang Kato’s leadership was essential to the action taken by AEAM’s Theological Commission to found these schools. His work in promoting them was filled with enthusiasm and energy. This quote from Kato summarizes the case he sought to make for these institutions:

To me, the great need in Africa today is ministerial training, coupled with in-depth teaching in the church. We should make an effort to convince missionaries and Christian leaders that while evangelism should not be neglected, teaching the converts we already have should be our priority. A well-taught Christian will become an evangelist.

(Breman 1996)

By the time the Third General Assembly of AEAM was held in Bouake, Ivory Coast (July 30 to August 2, 1977), the Francophone school was ready to open in the Central African Republic, and work on the Anglophone school in Kenya was well under way. That these schools had been deeply embraced by the constituency of AEAM was apparent in the Opening Address at Bouaké by AEAM’s President Samuel Odunaike:

Our Graduate Schools of Theology are meant to put the foregoing [plans] into contemporary thought and language, clothed with the correct academic syllabuses. Furthermore, Africa does not wish to be drawn into the unhealthful divisiveness of our brethren in Europe and America even though some of them are well-meaning…. One thing which this Assembly must not overlook is the need to ensure that the strongest possible link exists between our Graduate Schools of Theology and AEAM.  We should not establish the Schools and abandon them to scholars whose sole preoccupation is academic excellence.  The Schools must be seen to operate under the overall umbrella of AEAM without losing their academic independence.

(Breman 1996; Afroscope 1977)

Expectations for AEAM and its projects were expressed in the words of Kato and Odunaike above. They touch on at least half a dozen contextual issues that the creation of these graduate schools could help to address. Administrative Secretary Eric Maillefer noted Kato’s reference to the danger of syncretism and universalism. Kato wrote extensively on these two issues in his doctoral dissertation, published in 1975 as Theological Pitfalls in Africa (Kato 1975, 11).

“Universalism means the belief that all men will eventually be saved whether they believe in Christ now or not,” Kato wrote, “Syncretism means combining the elements of many religions into one” (Kato 1975, 134). In the first chapter of his book, Kato describes ten factors that encourage and foster these trends. He concluded his book with a ten-point proposal for “Safeguarding Biblical Christianity in Africa” (Kato 1975, 181-184).

Point three of his proposal highlighted the need for serious theological education: “Concentrate effort in the training of men in the Scriptures, employing the original languages to facilitate their ability in exegeting the Word of God. In-depth knowledge rather than mere superficial mechanics in the ministry should be the primary concern” (Kato 1975, 182-183). Defending the integrity of an evangelical vision of Christianity against universalism, syncretism, and other theological threats was a significant priority for Kato in the African context. For him, that challenge underlined the urgent need for high quality theological education (Howard 1986, 1-5).

The “mediocre teaching by our leaders” was another argument of Kato’s for higher quality ministerial education. With the proliferation and growth of Christian churches all over Africa, the majority of African Christian communities lacked well-trained leadership. With most African nations gaining their political independence around 1960, the role of foreign missionaries from outside Africa was being replaced by African Christians who had not had the opportunities for theological education enjoyed by most foreign missionaries. Graduate schools of theology in Africa would produce men and women who in turn could contribute to improving the education of local church leaders.

Another issue for Kato was the state of people without a belief in Christ. Kato wrote that until the mid-twentieth century, “[H]ome churches and mission boards sending missionaries overseas held a firm belief in Jesus Christ as the only way of salvation” (Kato 1975, 11). He then quoted Harold Lindsell’s article stating, “[T]he forward movement in foreign missions was based upon an implicit conviction that those outside of Christ were perishing and that if they did not hear the gospel they were lost forever” (Kato 1975, 11). In his comment above, Kato argued, “A well-taught Christian will become an evangelist.” Hence, good ministerial training and in-depth teaching in the church were essential.

President Odunaike, in his remarks about the creation of graduate schools of theology, pointed out the problem of ecclesiastical divisions in Europe and North America. His hope was that the new schools would not perpetuate such divisions in Africa. He emphasized the need for evangelical unity. As will be seen during the first year of the school’s operation in Bangui, such divisions did occur and severely threatened the viability of the Francophone graduate school project.

Odunaike also warned against an exclusive preoccupation with academic excellence. His emphasis on the need of the schools to be closely linked to AEAM reflects the fact that AEAM was an organization composed of national associations of churches. AEAM existed to serve those churches. Odunaike was committed to seeing AEAM’s theological institutions committed to that same objective.

Underlying these various motivations on the part of those who founded FATEB was the fact that the kind of institution they were envisioning did not yet exist in Francophone Africa. When Christina Breman was writing her doctoral dissertation in the early 1990s on Association of Evangelicals in Africa, she wrote the following comments about the school that AEAM had founded in Bangui: 

BEST [the English acronym for FATEB] is the only academic school of theology which is clearly evangelical and committed to serving the whole of francophone evangelical Africa. Other similar (evangelical) schools have a more regional function. … BEST offers “training of trainers.” It trains students to function as leaders of a Bible school or a regional seminary or college, which offer regular pastors’ training. This is an important and necessary function, the more so since Christianity is growing in Africa.

(Breman 1996)

The need for such an institution as FATEB was especially great in Africa’s French-speaking countries. For this reason, FATEB was the first of the two AEAM schools to be founded: “Priority was given to French speaking Africa, because Anglophone Africa had about ten times as many evangelical theological institutions, seminaries, and Bible schools as francophone Africa” (Breman 1996).

Jack Robinson

Graduate of Wheaton College and University of Strasbourg, Jack, with his wife, Theo, has been engaged in the formation of Christian leaders in French Africa since 1965. While teaching in northeastern Congo in the 1970s, Jack was appointed to the Theological Commission of the Association of Evangelicals in Africa (AEA). In that role, he participated with African leaders in the founding of the Bangui Evangelical School of Theology (Faculté de Théologie Evangélique de Bangui or FATEB) that has been serving the Francophone churches of west and central Africa since 1977.