Persevering with the Mexican Saints

Reflecting on unity and mission four centuries after the Synod of Dort

by Juan Sarmiento

The Reformation is a vibrant movement in Latin America. By many accounts, Protestants represent around 22% percent of the population in the region. The National Presbyterian Church of Mexico alone registers more than two million members. Social scientists point to the rapid urbanization process as prompting many to seek a faith seen as more progressive than traditional religiosities as a possible reason for the trend. Others indicate that the ensuing surge of independent charismatic churches with leaderships that downplay theological reflection in favor of subjective spiritualities as another possible reason. As much as the growth of Protestant churches in the region since the 1980s is celebrated, there has also been a growing disillusion with the increased doctrinal fragmentation and confusion of recent decades.

The acronym “TULIP”, beginning with “Total Depravity” and ending with the “Perseverance of the Saints” has been commonly used as a succinct way of summarizing the main proceedings of the International Synod of Dort from 1618 to 1619. Organized by The Dutch Reformed Church, The Synod sought to counteract Arminianism, a school of thought that was not only seen as theologically unsound but also politically treasonous. Many considered that Arminians were serving the interests of Philip IV of Spain. Although the acronym was only developed later, it has been widely employed as a simple outline of Reformed distinctives.

In recent years, the influence that the American “young, restless and Reformed” movement along with its emphasis in the TULIP formulation known as five-point Calvinism has become very popular in Latin America. An example of that is that leading pastor-theologian in the movement spoke to several thousands of people in a Brazilian soccer stadium last spring. That is certainly not the type and size of crowds Calvinist preachers would be used to!

Regardless of theological streams within Latin American Christianity, something that has deeply impressed of Presbyterians in Mexico is their faithfulness in facing social adversity and pressures. Their almost 150 years of history have been marked by a constant struggle for religious rights and legitimacy. In many places, harassment and violence have sadly characterized the relationships with the Roman Catholic majority. Although much has been accomplished to this point, tensions linger and express themselves in a variety of ways.  During the first congress of the Presbyterian Mission Society (July 18-21 in Villahermosa, Tabasco) I was exposed to instances that vividly illustrate the ways in which they have persevered and continue to do so in the face of hostilities.

As part his lecture on “Spiritual Formation and Mission,” Don Wehmeyer shared about his interaction with families that had been expelled from their village. Committed to their faith, they were no longer strong contributors to the local economic system highly dependent on alcohol, prostitution, and sales of candles and other traditional religious objects. Since they represented a threat, the local leaders tried to persuade them to return to their former ways. They were incarcerated and tortured. Their lands were seized, and their animals killed. Lastly, since they refused to recant their faith, they were expelled from the village. When Don asked some of them what motivated them not to renounce their faith, they said that since Jesus is love, denying him would mean living without love, which they did not want to do.

During the congress, I also had the privilege of meeting Daniel Diaz Lopez a courageous pastor who for the last five years has been starting the first Protestant church in a town of around 16 thousand people called Venustiano Carranza.  A missionary couple that had come from another country was tragically killed by some of the residents and the church construction that the missionaries had started is now in ruins. However, Daniel felt called to take over the ministry and took on the challenge to learn the Tzotzil Carranza language in order to minister to the village. The four different occasions in which he has faced assassination attempts don’t prevent him from sharing with joy about how some are coming to faith in Christ from a predominantly animistic background. Tragically, although the instances of religiously motivated violence have decreased, in many locations the conflicts like those of the European Reformation occur in some of Mexico’s villages.

Not all Presbyterians are created equal. Anyone who has related to Presbyterian denominations around the country and in other countries could attest to that. The Outreach Foundation helps diverse congregations within the Presbyterian family in the United States develop and maintain mutually transformative relationships in Mexico and in thirty-six other countries. Significant aspects of our realities and perspectives may vary, but one thing is sure: Through the centuries God sovereignly continues to sustain, renew and refine the Church, including its Presbyterian expressions. Despite the challenging, controversial and divisive times that we encounter, may the witness of God’s people in pursuit of peace, purity, and unity continue to be shared with a world in need of Christ’s sanctifying grace.