Reformation Day Lessons from the Presbyterian Churches of Syria and Lebanon

by Nancy Fox

We know the story of Martin Luther, and this 500th anniversary of the posting of his ninety-five theses in Wittenberg has refreshed our memories. To some degree, many of us also know the story of John Calvin, the spiritual father of our Reformed/Presbyterian branch of the movement, and of the church he led in Geneva. But what about the Reformed churches in Syria and Lebanon? On this Reformation Day, let me tell you some of their stories and how all of these connect…

The Bible was the centerpiece of the Reformation, in all of its branches. With the invention of the printing press, the high priority of making the Bible available in the language of the people became possible. In the part of the Middle East that is now Syria and Lebanon, Presbyterian and other Reformed missionaries began their work around 1819. This mission produced a translation of the Bible that is still the most popular in Arabic, the Van Dyck Version, of which more than ten million copies – and countless more in digital form on mobile phones – have been distributed since its completion in 1865. Those who responded to the mission took the name “evangelicals” because it was the “evangel” – the good news about Jesus Christ as revealed in the Bible – that animated and shaped their faith life. The National Evangelical Synod of Syria and Lebanon (NESSL), formed in 1920, now has about 4,000 active members in 38 congregations in the two countries. They are our Presbyterian family in a troubled time and place.

Our Reformed faith, built on the Bible, has always prioritized literacy and education. On a recent Reformation Study Tour sponsored by the Presbyterian Foundation and the Presbyterian Historical Society, I saw Calvin’s College and Academy in Geneva, a school for all boys seven and older, a precursor of public education and a predecessor of modern universities. I also saw the Auditoire Calvin, the hall where adults gathered for lectures or to listen in as the company of pastors studied the Bible together. In the last two summers, on trips to Lebanon sponsored by The Outreach Foundation, I have also seen universities and schools started and run by the Evangelical churches. The Synod’s website describes its emphasis on education: 

The Synod has contributed richly to the educational development of both Syria and Lebanon, with its schools today serving more than 14,000 students. Of great significance is the fact that these schools serve students from all Christian and non-Christian affiliations, with no discrimination toward race, religion or gender. This is a Christian legacy and testimony of interaction, harmony and reconciliation within a community which has suffered from generations of sectarianism. NESSL 

The NESSL Presbyterians are duly proud of their heritage of education. They were the first to educate girls, the blind and the handicapped. This tiny minority established four out of ten major universities in Lebanon (now independent from the churches). They shaped a culture in Lebanon that values education so highly that – as I heard – families now spend about a third of their income to educate their children. And, as NESSL’s website states, they have always educated students of all faiths and groups, thus helping to shape and moderate many political, business and other leaders in the region for over two centuries. 

This past summer, at a Synod retreat for about 120 women mostly from Syria, in which our Outreach team participated, I heard a stimulating lecture by Rev. Suheil Saoud, a Lebanese pastor, entitled “The Impact of the Reformation on the Church” (in the Middle East). He emphasized, of course, this significance of the impact of the Reformation on education in Syria/Lebanon, and shared their hope to help rebuild Syria “from the schools up” to help counter what children may have learned from the indoctrination schools that ISIS ran. I enjoyed witnessing the Evangelicals’ pride of heritage and accomplishment, and meeting on our visit four vibrant, brilliant and clearly competent women principals of Presbyterian schools – in Homs and Aleppo in Syria, and Beirut and Tripoli in Lebanon. 

Rev. Saoud also spoke about the heritage of Calvin’s church in Geneva as seen in the social service ministries of NESSL, and how both churches have been at the center of major refugee crises. For Calvin, care for the poor was a high priority and identifying mark of the true church. On our Reformation Study Tour, we walked in the footsteps of ten thousand Protestant refugees who fled persecution in the 1540s and 50s into Geneva through the “Refugees’ Gate.” Just inside, we stood at the entrance to the Chapelle de St. Leger where Calvin stationed deacons to provide welcome and relief services for the poor and new arrivals. We snapped photos of the old homes in that area onto which Genevans had added additional floors, raising their roofs and adding dormers in order to accommodate refugee families. We filled our water bottles from fresh fountains which had been built as part of a city sanitation system for the health of poor residents. Calvin himself had come as a refugee to Geneva – twice – and lived there with the equivalent of our American “green card.” In his day, one third of the city’s population were refugees, but there were no beggars on the streets. 

Today, the national population of Lebanon is also estimated to be one third refugees – Syrian, Iraqi, Palestinian and North African. The country has been as hospitable as possible, but is in crisis. We encountered many beggars on the streets. NESSL is a tiny minority, but individual Christians, congregations and the Synod as a whole are asking the question Calvin taught us – “How is God calling us to serve our society?” Of course, what Presbyterians have done best in that context is education, so the Synod has opened five schools for Syrian (nearly all Muslim) refugee children around Lebanon. These students, some of them as old as twelve but who have never been in school due to the disruptions of war, are learning social skills and discipline, academics, Arabic, English, and ethics. The teachers, mostly Christian, are teaching the Syrian curriculum because the refugees desire to return to rebuild Syria when it is safe. Above all, the children are learning that they are safe now and are loved, by their teachers, by people around the world who are funding their school, and especially by God. They also receive food for their bodies and hearts. In Tyre, we saw Muslim refugee students engaging eagerly in a discussion about how they could be good friends, based on the Bible story of the crippled man whose friends brought him to Jesus and had to climb on the roof and make a hole because of the crowds. In Kab Elias, on a hill above the sea of refugee tents in the Beqaa Valley, we danced and sang in English with uniformed students who, six months earlier, had been running wild and without hope in those camps.

The Syrian churches, in addition to the deprivations and horrors of war and a crippled economy, also face massive numbers of internally displaced and traumatized people. With help from Outreach and others, they provide basic relief and development such as food, bedding, clean water, skills training and sewing machines so women can work to provide for themselves and their families. The church in Homs runs a reconciliation ministry that brings together Christian, Alawite (Shia) and Sunni youth. Others run preschools to provide a safe place to play. One women’s group just helped some refugees start a bakery. The value of work is another priority of our Reformed heritage. The Evangelicals of Syria, highly educated, have regularly held leading roles in society, as doctors and heads of hospitals, in business and so on, motivated by our common Reformed vision of the importance of participating in and influencing civil society. At the retreat, I met Hazar, whose family had been displaced from Homs early in the war. Her son fled Syria through Turkey and then by boat to Europe, and is now a refugee, studying psychology in Germany. But Hazar and her husband have returned to Homs, to rebuild their home after ISIS had lived there and destroyed it. As a civil engineer, Hazar is a member of the city’s 50-year rebuilding task force. Her vision is to stay in Syria, with a mission to help restore their society and to give witness to the hope that is hers in Christ. She is living out what the retreat lecturer meant when he spoke about our Reformed desire to structure society to reflect, insofar as possible, the values of God’s realm. 

Another Reformed distinctive is our emphasis on the sovereignty and providence of God. What does that even mean? It can seem very abstract, but when bombs are falling, theology matters. Many ministries we visited are providing Bible-based trauma healing workshops. The theology that undergirds the curriculum is that, though God has accommodated human free will which has resulted in some terrible evils, nevertheless, God is not the author of that evil, but continues to govern the world in such a way as to cause all things to work together for his good purposes, that God is against all evil and will triumph over it for the sake of his own love. We heard lovely testimonies of both children and adults who, through these workshops, have been transformed by internalizing this liberating worldview.

In one small church in the “Christian valley” of Syria, though only six families remain, seventy-five people are in worship each Sunday. Who are they? Many are Muslims from other parts of Syria whom the war displaced. Most have lost their families, but because of that are free to enter this church community. Many have found there a God whose goodness is greater than all the horrors they have seen and known, and they have sought baptism. God will turn even such a terrible war to serve his gracious purposes. That is a mental snapshot for me of the sovereignty and providence of God. Above all, this doctrine of God is what enables the Syrian pastors and church members to trust in God’s care, to stay in Syria, to simply be there to maintain their witness to the gospel in their holy land where Paul, the fanatical persecutor of Christians, met Jesus on the road to Damascus and succumbed to his grace. 

To God alone be the glory on this 500th Reformation Day. 

Nancy Fox
Chairman of the Board of Trustees
The Outreach Foundation

The Outreach Foundation