REPORT ON THE FIRST CONFERENCE OF REFORMED BAPTISTS IN BRAZIL

In the largest event the town had ever seen, 90 people crowded expectantly into the Auditorium of the Cultural Centre of Petrolândia, Pernambuco state, North East Brazil.  It was 8 o’clock in the evening on Wednesday, the 9th of June, 2004, and the First Congress of Reformed Baptists in Brazil was about to open. Dishevelled and exhausted after a whole day of travel by car, plane and 12-seater van, our party of 8 travelling from the south of Brazil was moved to discover that the opening ceremony, originally planned for 7 o’clock, had been delayed so that we could be present.
The first steps towards the formation of the Comunhão Reformada Batista no Brasil (Reformed Baptist Fellowship of Brazil) had been taken last December with the beginning of an e-mail group, although many had been concerned about the isolation of reformed Baptist pastors and churches for years before that. The group had grown to 36 members by the time of the Congress. Now careful planning through months of communication via e-mail and telephone was about to bear fruit in this encounter of church leaders from various parts of Brazil: all of them Baptists, from a variety of denominations/conventions or none, and all of them committed to the gospel and the mindset of the 16th century Reformers.

Petrolândia is a small town (pop. 25 000) in the Sertão, the poorest region of Brazil. The countryside around is scrubby, with low rainfall, although ironically one of the country’s biggest and most successful hydro-electric schemes is not far away. But in general life is simple here: donkeys and goats wander the streets, there is one bank, and social activity revolves around the town square, where the Cultural Centre is located. It could be one of any number of obscure towns in the interior of north-east Brazil, far from the great population centres of the south-east, and a world away even from the coastal capitals of its own region. There is just one element that drew us to Petrolândia: Immanuel Baptist Church, one of the few consciously reformed independent Baptist churches in Brazil, and our hosts for the congress. From a human point of view, Petrolândia is hardly an ideal venue for a national event, but the invitation from the church made all the difference, as did the relative proximity (5 hours by car) of the Reformed Baptist Church in Caruaru which shared in aspects of the organization. And by the end of the precious few days, the warmth of the people and their sheer joy in hosting the event left every visitor with no regrets whatsoever regarding the costs and rigors of the journey.

Valdir Penaforte, pastor of the church, warmly welcomed everyone and emphasized how pleased he and the church were to receive so many from all over Brazil. Immanuel Church, through being involved in various community initiatives, has good relations with the townspeople and the authorities. The town felt privileged to host the event, with local business and the Bank of Brazil helping with expenses. The Mayor was invited to address the Congress, and wished everyone a good time, and for wider blessing to the country of Brazil as the message of Christ was made known. Those concerned for separation of church and state felt somewhat uneasy at this point; all the more so given question marks regarding the Mayor’s own spiritual position. However, all could also see the benefits of the co-operation and could appreciate the importance of the event to the town, even in economic terms. (This element of contact with the local community continued through the conference, which included a presentation of the struggles and miseries of life in the Sertão, a display and sale of local handicrafts, and the opportunity to visit local attractions.)

Gilson Santos, pastor of Grace Baptist Church, São José dos Campos, São Paulo state, responded to the Mayor with thanks for his and the community’s support, and then spoke on “The Sword and the Trowel – Reconstructing the Walls of Zion” based on Nehemiah’s experience, with many Spurgeonic references. Although we may feel ourselves to be few in number and facing great challenges, there is great encouragement in the Word, and a great need for boldness. This was an appropriate message with which to open the Congress, calling for reformation in the Brazilian Baptist community and steadfastness in the face of opposition.

The rest of the Congress consisted of addresses, open to the public, and closed sessions for the consideration of the way forward as a movement. One of the sessions, from Edson Azevedo, pastor of the Reformed Baptist Church of Caruaru, was an extended testimony of his and others’ struggles in accepting the doctrines of God’s sovereignty in salvation and of a whole reformed mind-set, and in seeking to teach and apply these truths in the churches.

Maurício Andrade, addressing the issue of unity and diversity, emphasized the importance of teaching the New Testament, where the tension between these poles of Christian fellowship is clearly seen from the earliest days of the church. Our unity needs to be based on truth, and this is in itself difficult to maintain in the context of a world which preaches tolerance but attacks those who do not conform to its unbiblical values, and where doctrine is despised as ‘intellectual, lifeless and a cause of division’. It is therefore important for the Fellowship to work hard to develop a clear identity as defined by the doctrine we believe, as Baptists who value the 1689 Confession and our reformation roots. At the same time, we need to face up to and accommodate the diversity within our movement, which includes brethren who would apply the principles of the reformation in markedly different ways. Maurício called us to a Biblical standard of love. While false, worldly ideas about love dominate the Brazilian evangelical scene, biblical love insists on truth and holiness while accepting differences in cultural and peripheral matters. Finally, he used 2 Corinthians 6:4-10 and Psalm 126 to show that suffering and preaching the gospel go together and cannot be avoided because we owe the truth to those who disagree on the fundamentals.

In his first talk, Franklin Ferreira opened up a reformed pastoral theology, speaking of the Christian minister as a saint, theologian, preacher and pastor. As a saint he pursues holiness in dependence upon the Holy Spirit and prayer. As a theologian he seeks to arm himself with the knowledge of true doctrine in order to combat false teaching, knowing that history shows a strong link between a heretical life and false doctrine. Catholic and Arminian Brazil presents Jesus as an abstract, uninvolved and inoffensive figure; it neglects the resurrection, and sees salvation as, at best, a cooperative venture between man and God. We need to know and proclaim the Triune God, the Lord of the World, who sovereignly calls Man into a relationship of love with himself through the objective propitiation made by Christ. As a preacher he must return to expository preaching, expounding the biblical texts within their contexts, not shying away from difficult issues, and making only biblically appropriate applications. The way forward in reformation is not to continually harp on the “Five Points” but to preach the Bible in an expository way and allow people to come to an understanding of these truths direct from the Word. Finally, as a pastor he will seek to establish a pastoral team in order to fulfil his duty to maintain a faithful congregation. He should not seek to be the lord of the pulpit but preach the Word in such a way that it rules the people, encouraging them to learn and to understand.

In his second talk Franklin warned of a ‘new monasticism’ among evangelicals which calls people to celebrate and contemplate instead of obeying the ‘cultural mandate’ of Genesis 1 and 2. He called for a ‘Brazilian Puritanism’ which followed the tradition of William Carey and others who sought to apply the gospel in different cultural realities in India and Africa. Abraham Kuyper’s teaching on the Christian in relation to the State were very helpfully outlined. Christians should seek to excel in whatever area of life to which God calls them e.g. Family, State, Politics, Education or the Arts, instead of trying to use them merely as a platform for evangelism. Indiscriminate mixing between these spheres is of the very essence of worldliness.

Andrew King’s first talk opened with an exposition of 1 Tim 3:15, showing the Biblical basis for the Puritan concept that there is a right (and therefore a wrong) way to behave in the local church. While practical holiness is the key element in this, aspects of organisation and practice are also involved. He went on to show the historical heritage of Baptists in the light of this understanding: we are part of the Reformation, Puritan family, pursuing the ideal of a biblically-reformed church. It is important to clarify these points in Brazil, where much damage is done by the false idea that Baptists have no links with the reformation. This point was taken up in discussion, with a consensus that we are reformed first and Baptist second – a word order which is easier to emphasise in Portuguese than in English. Having said this, the Baptists are the most radical member of the protestant family; the old Particular Baptist motto, “Picking up a pin for the Lord” represents the commitment to reform even in the minutiae of church life. In his second talk Andrew expounded Psalm 100, again touching on Reformed Baptist history, but this time in terms of warnings. God’s intention is that all nations should hear the gospel: his command is that all should come to Christ. How we need to guard against exclusivism and hyper-Calvinism! The same motto, “Picking up a pin…” has also expressed the mentality, so prevalent in our history, that thinks in terms of a God who is more concerned with “pins” than with people, that erodes our capacity to distinguish between vital and peripheral issues, that leads us to create rules that God never gave, and that makes us judgemental, sinfully separatist, with no evangelistic effectiveness.

In his one thrilling exposition, Paulo Valle opened up Isaiah 55 v 11 and gave a most powerful challenge to announce the gospel among the nations in the light of Christ’s certain triumph. He stressed that we need to tell the gospel, not our own experiences, and be willing to pay the price of persecution, even to death; we must stop asking God to bless what we do, and do what God blesses. We must preach the only gospel to which God is committed. A particularly striking call from Paulo was to the home as the locus of gospel ministry: let us return to the houses, go where the people live, and open the Bible with them in their own homes, capturing their minds for Christ. Reformed churches must spread the gospel.

In the closed sessions a beginning was made on establishing a Constitution for the Reformed Baptist Fellowship, though the work was not completed for lack of time. However, a Directorate was elected, with a good number of states represented: President: Gilson Carlos de Souza Santos – São Paulo; First Vice-president: Edson Rosendo de Azevedo – Pernambuco; Second Vice-president: Paulo César Campos Lopes do Valle – Rio de Janeiro; First Secretary: Alberto Vieira Costa – Santa Catarina; Second Secretary: Daniel Lewis Deeds – Minas Gerais; First Treasurer: Tiago José dos Santos Filho – São Paulo; Second Treasurer: Rogério Brilhante Gonçalves – Pernambuco. The “business sessions” were characterised by free debate permeated by a great sense of unity. This was a great cause for thanksgiving and joy.

Exactly 100 people registered for the Conference, comparing favourably with the first conference organized by the publishing house FIEL, nearly twenty years ago. The production of good literature has been a key element in the growth of the movement of which the Petrolândia congress is a striking new development. FIEL was represented at the congress by Tiago José dos Santos Filho, who ran an excellent stall selling books from a range of reformed publishers at what had to be giveaway prices, given local economic conditions. (Tiago and others were moved to tears when one brother, buying a 4 dollar book, asked if he could pay in instalments.)

Most delegates stayed in the town’s main hotel, the Pontal do Lago. The setting is wonderful, though the accommodation very simple. While breakfast was provided, wonderful lunches and evening meals were cooked at the hotel by a church team led by Lindacy, wife of Pastor Valdir. And after the evening meetings delegates enjoyed the traditional tapioca pancakes available from stalls in the town square. Snow-white and crammed with cheese, chicken and salted beef, or coconut and condensed milk, these are a vital part of the north-east Brazil experience!

Music throughout the conference was organised by the congregation from Caruaru, Pernambuco and incorporated several hymns and Psalm arrangements by Pastor Edson. Against the backdrop of so much which is superficial and actually erroneous in the musical life of the churches, it was refreshing to sing hymns and psalms with good Biblical content, and to know unity in the doctrinal emphases expressed.

These were days of deep encouragement and renewed commitment to preach the gospel faithfully in the communities to which people were returning. Not without apprehension, but with joy in knowing that the struggle was shared, warm goodbyes marked each one’s return to their own place of ministry. We do not know what lies ahead for the Reformed Baptist Fellowship in Brazil, but we are thankful to God for his blessing on this first Congress.

Cora and Andrew King