A Baptist Story in Cuba
The defining mission of the church is to make disciples of all the nations, initiate the new disciples into fellowship through the ordinance of baptism in the name of the Triune God, and teach them to observe all that the Word of God commands. There is an utterance of the church’s mission at the end of each gospel account and at the beginning of Acts. (cf. Mt. 28:16-28, Mk 16:15, Lk 24:46-48, Jn 20:21, and Acts 1:8) Jesus did not commission his disciples at the beginning of his earthly ministry but at the conclusion. However, he did send them out on practice evangelism trips as part of their training. In Matthew 10 the Lord sent the twelve out on a training exercise to the lost sheep of Israel. Jesus instructed his disciples to later commission them for the ministry of evangelism and discipleship to all nations. Evangelism is how disciples are made but evangelism is always preceded by discipleship because it is the mature disciple who learns how to make disciples and teach them.1
Evangelism is the intentional act of making disciples. Discipleship is the intentional act of teaching pupils. A disciple is a person who follows a teacher.2 There are many disciples in the world but the type of disciple that I am talking about is a pupil of our Lord and Savior Jesus Christ.
The words of Christ in Matthew 28:16-20 are known by the disciples of Jesus Christ as the Great Commission. There are four “All’s” given by our Lord in the Commissioning of his church.
“All authority has been given to Me in heaven and on earth.” (Mt 28:18b)
As the Divine second person of the Trinity, the Son has always had authority as the firstborn of all creation; however, following his death, burial and resurrection the Son has new authority as the first to rise from the dead.
As a result of his death, burial and resurrection Jesus has the authority to give eternal life to all whom the Father gives him.
As the head of a new creation Jesus gives his marching orders to the church. (Mt 29:19-20)
“Go therefore and make disciples of all the nations, baptizing them in the name of the Father and the Son and the Holy Spirit.” (Mt 28:19)
“All nations” does not mean that every human would become a disciple. It does mean that as the head of the new creation our Lord Jesus Christ intends for people from every nation, every tribe, every people, and every tongue on the earth to hear the gospel and become disciples of his Word. There will be persons from every nation, every tribe, every people and every tongue in the kingdom of God which is already inaugurated and yet to come in consummation.
The new disciples are to be baptized by the mature disciples. When a new believer is baptized they are identifying themselves with Trinitarian Theology. God is one divine being subsisting eternally in three distinct persons (Father, Son and Holy Spirit) all of whom are equally God in essence. By receiving believer’s baptism, they are acknowledging that God is their Father, that the Son of God, Jesus Christ is their Lord and Savior, and that the Holy Spirit is the One who regenerates them to believe and observe all that the Word of God commands.
“Teaching them to observe all that I commanded you.” (Mt 2:20a)
Some believe that the great commission is evangelism. If they point out to an unbeliever that all have sinned and fall short of the glory of God, (Rom 3:23) that the wages of sin are death, (Rom 6:23a) that Christ died for our sins and was buried and was raised on the third day. (1 Cor 15:3-4) They think that if the person they preached the gospel to repents and believes they have fulfilled the great commission. However, the Great Commission is far more than evangelism.
The great commission includes both evangelism and discipleship. We are to make disciples through evangelism and then teach them to observe all that the Word of God commands. The disciple should become like the teacher and this is accomplished through a systematic teaching of and submission to all of the Word of God. Jesus taught his disciples for three years before he commissioned them.
“and lo, I am with you always, even to the end of the age.” (Mt 28:20b)
This is the promise of our Lord before he ascended to the righthand of the Father and is a promise for the missionary today. As we are going in obedience to the Great Commission, Christ promises to be with us always and he will be with us all the way to the end of the age. This means that the great commission will continue until the end.
We become set in our ways and comfortable in our lives; therefore, it becomes increasingly difficult to depart from our comfort zones but when we break from our comfort zones and our usual way of doing things for the kingdom, we do not go alone because in all of our services and in all of our travels the Lord Jesus Christ promises to be with us always.
Landing in Cuba
“I most certainly understand now that God is not one to show partiality, but in every nation the man who fears Him and does what is right is welcome to Him.” (Acts 10:34-35)
Our airplane landed on Sunday evening, September 15, 2019 at approximately 7:00 PM. As the aircraft descended and I saw the buildings and foliage I knew that I was not in Texas anymore. As soon as the wheels touched the tarmac chills went down my spine and I thought to myself, “I am in Cuba! I am actually in Cuba!” Once exiting the aircraft, I walked down the stairs to the tarmac and walked a short distance across the tarmac towards immigration. Paul and I waited on the tarmac side of Cuban immigration for our religious visas. A Cuban government official eventually came and handed the visas to us. Once the visas where in our position it took about an hour to get through immigration.
I first meet Abdiel and his wife Janet after exiting the airport because they were not allowed inside. We then road by taxi (with Janet as our escort) to a bed and breakfast in Holguin where we enjoyed a meal and fellowship with Abdiel, Janet and Abdiel’s 81-year-old mother Myrna. I would not meet the other members of the ministry team until we arrived in Las Tunas the next day.
On Monday morning September 16, 2019 we departed by taxi to Las Tunas at 9:30 AM. The drive took about one and a half hours, not because the distance was great, but the going was slow because much of the traffic on the highway was either bicycles or horse drawn carts. We checked into Hotel Tunas at 11:00 AM. I dropped my bags in the room and came down to the hotel lobby. I spent about an hour talking with Abdiel in the hotel lobby. I started asking him questions because I was very interested in the history of the ministry. Baptist history in Cuba was the catalyst that the Lord used to draw me to Cuba. I had many conversations like this with Abdiel throughout the week; therefore, much of this text is a summary of those conversations.
Before going to Cuba, I had little knowledge of the Baptist Church in Cuba except for what I had been told and read; nonetheless, I had a pre-understanding. By preunderstanding I mean all of the preconceived ideas and thoughts that I had about the Cuban Baptist before actually seeing and meeting them. What I did know came from a seminary textbook, “The Baptist Story:” Baptist began informal work in the 1860’s; and by the 1880’s both the Florida Baptist Convention and the SBC Home Mission Board had adopted Cuba as a mission field. The Spanish-American War between 1895 and 1898 interrupted this work, but by the turn of the twentieth century, Cuba became a key mission field for Southern Baptist. An eastern Baptist Convention and Western Baptist Convention were established on the island in 1903 and 1905, respectively. The Cuban Revolution of 1959 and the transition to Marxism in 1961 significantly disrupted Cuban Baptist life for a season. Several dozen pastors and two SBC missionaries were arrested and sentenced to hard labor in 1965; all were released after a few years. Over time, restrictions relaxed, and Baptist from other nations, including America, were allowed to work with Cuban Baptist in short-term mission initiatives.3
The Birth of the Reformed Baptist
Abdiel was called to ministry as a young man and admitted into the Eastern Baptist Convention’s seminary. According to Abdiel, the Eastern Baptist are Arminian in their understanding of Soteriology. Soteriology is the study of the salvation of man and is one of the ten major doctrines taught in Christian Systematic Theology. Our mission to Cuba (on this trip) was to teach the ten major doctrines of Christian theology to the Reformed Baptist pastors and church leaders.
Calvinists and Armenians both believe in the essential doctrines of the Christian faith:
- That God is one Devine being subsisting eternally in three persons (Father and Son and Holy Spirit) all of whom are equally God in essence.
- That Jesus is fully God and fully man in one person.
- That Jesus’ death on the cross was a sin sacrifice.
- That Jesus bodily rose from the dead on the first day of the week.
- That there will be a bodily resurrection of all the dead at the judgement on the last day; the blessed will go into eternal life, but the accursed will go away into eternal punishment.
Therefore, Calvinists and Armenians are both essentially Christian, but differ in their understanding of the sovereignty of God in the salvation of man. While this issue is considered secondary to the essentials, it is not unimportant because what we believe about the sovereignty of God can greatly affect our belief in the essential doctrines.
Below is a chart very briefly depicting the contrasting views of Calvinists and Armenians:
Man is dead in our trespasses and sins; therefore, man is unable to respond to the gospel.
Man is sick in our trespasses and sins; therefore, man is able to respond to the gospel.
The election of human beings by God for salvation is unconditional.
The election of human beings by God for salvation is conditional.
The atonement (sacrificial death and resurrection) of Jesus Christ is limited to the elect.
The atonement (sacrificial death and resurrection) of Jesus Christ is universal for all.
The grace of God is irresistible.
The grace of God is resistible.
The elect will never fall away.
A person can lose his/her salvation.
Around 1997 Abdiel obtained a copy of Charles H. Spurgeon’s book “All of Grace.” The book spoke of a grace that was foreign to what he had learned in the Eastern Baptist seminary. He read that the salvation of man is the sovereign work of God (All of Grace). He read that man is saved as a gift, by the grace of God alone, through faith alone, in the Son of God Jesus Christ alone. He read that regeneration leads to salvific faith in Jesus Christ; therefore, it is not a work of man, it is the gift of God.4 His heart had been burning because he did not understand the Scriptures and knew that there was more in them than what he had been taught. This book became the catalyst for Abdiel and his wife to call out to God to understand the Scriptures.
An Answer to Prayer
At the beginning of the century (the year 2000) Abdiel was the pastor of a Baptist Church in Moa (eastern Cuba) but admits that he did not understand grace and could not understand the Scriptures even after graduating from the Eastern Baptist Seminary. The Eastern Baptist Convention had 134 established churches. By Cuban law, if a church and a convention was established before the Cuban Revolution (1959) then it could continue to operate; this seemingly hinders evangelism and church growth. Abdiel and his wife at the time (now deceased) had been praying to God for enlightenment about grace and understanding the Scriptures. Through a series of events that could only come about by the sovereign providence of God, Paul McClung came to Cuba in March of 2000 and taught from 1 Peter 1:20-25, Abdiel was in attendance. Abdiel heard the sovereign grace that Paul was teaching exegetically from the text and said that he was very interested in what Paul taught and wanted to know more. Paul saw the need in Cuba for theological education. While completing his seminary work at Dallas Theological Seminary (DTS), Paul attended a Bible Training for Pastors workshop (BTCP) and believed that the BTCP curriculum could be used to teach pastors in Cuba. Paul started going to Cuba to teach Christian theology to pastors on the island.5
Abdiel moved to Camaguey were Reformed Baptist house churches were being established through evangelism efforts.6 The church in Moa was taken over by his associate pastor. The Eastern Baptist did not support Abdiel’s reformed theology; therefore, they were looking for a reason to get rid of him. The church in Camaguey was given a property by an elderly woman in the church; however, an elder in the church had the property put in his own name instead of the church’s. During the legal dispute over property rights, the eastern Baptist convention took opportunity to throw Abdiel out of the convention. Abdiel continued the work of establishing house churches and appointing pastors. He organized seminary training for the pastors of these house churches without convention support and was able to do so for several years. Paul would enter Cuba through Canada as a tourist and teach the students as their seminary professor through an interpreter. Abdiel learned to speak, read and write English; therefore, he became Paul’s interpreter during the seminars and continued as the leader of the Reformed Baptist. In 2013, one of the pastors of the eastern Baptist convention reported what was happening to the Cuban authorities. Paul was expelled by the Cuban government and sent back to the U.S.A., he was not allowed to return to Cuba without a religious visa which could only be obtained from the Cuban authorities through a convention established before the Cuban Revolution of 1959.
Finding a Convention
“If a man of peace is there, your peace will rest on him; but if not, it will return to you.” (Lk. 10:6)
If Abdiel was going to continue establishing churches and appointing pastors, he knew that these pastors had to be trained, but for Paul to come and teach, they had to be in a convention that was established before the Cuban Revolution of 1959. Also, the seminars had to occur on an established church site under the authority of a convention. Abdiel found a man of peace in the president of the Brethren convention who accepted the Reformed Baptist into the convention. Abdiel told the Brethren convention president that Reformed Baptist theology differed from that of the Mennonites; however, the man believed that they could exist side by side. The president of the Brethren allowed Abdiel to use the convention headquarters for the BTCP seminars and went to the Cuban government on behalf of the Reformed Baptist to obtain religious visas for Paul to come into the country and teach. After a few years the president of the Brethren convention emigrated to the U.S.A., his successor not in agreement with the former president’s decision expelled the Reformed Baptist from the Brethren convention.
Abdiel began this journey on his knees praying to God to enlighten him and saw God’s hands were at work throughout this entire journey; therefore, he stayed on his knees praying. Seemingly, out of nowhere, the president of the Apostolic church convention approached Abdiel about the Reformed Baptist coming into his convention. Like he did with the Brethren convention president, Abdiel told him that Reformed Baptist theology differed from that of Pentecostalism. The president of the Apostolic church convention said that we will be two in one convention; we will not interfere with you and you will not interfere with us. Abdiel believes that the Cuban government approached this man to accept the Reformed Baptist into the Apostolic church convention because the government views the Reformed Baptist as a peaceful group.
The Ministry Team
Abdiel leads the Reformed Baptist and interprets for the invited, foreign, English speaking, missionary professors. Janet (Abdiel’s wife) works hard assisting Abdiel and seeing to the needs of the foreign professors; she also reads aloud, in Spanish all of the text of Scripture during the seminar. Jose Luis administrates logistics for the seminars: transportation, food preparation and housing for the attendees. His wife Ailema functions as registrar for the Reformed Baptist Seminars. Junior and his wife Lieva are responsible for technology. I meet the ministry team during our first meal, on Monday afternoon September 16, 2019, at Hotel Tunas. We would enjoy fellowship together at this table throughout the week.
The location for the Seminar was “Iglesia Evangelica Los Pinos Nuevos.” We arrived on Monday afternoon September 16, 2019 at about 2:30 PM. The church was filled with pastors and church leaders from 100 churches across Cuba. I was told that most of them traveled overnight, hitchhiking and covering distances of a few hundred miles. Others came in the back of large trucks open to the elements. The building had solid concrete walls, a concrete floor and a concrete roof. The entrance was a large opening with the doors left open for circulation. There were openings in the walls where glass should have been but there was none. I thought that it was hot outside (90’s Fahrenheit) until I entered the building. You do not know hot until you’re in a concrete building, open to the elements, that has been baking all day long, in the sun, on a tropical Caribbean island.
As we entered the auditorium Abdiel, Janet and Paul took their places at the table set up on the stage facing the attendees. The stage was a concrete floor like the rest of the flooring but risen up about one foot from the main floor. The back of the stage had a dugout area in the concrete flooring, 4x6x4 for baptisms. I took a place on the front pew next to Ailema, so that I could learn by observation how the seminar takes place. Immediately, I noticed that the boards of the unpadded pew were pinching my buttocks and the heat in the room was like that inside a kiln.7 The pews were made of 1x4 nailed boards separated in order to conserve wood for making as many pews as possible. None of the pews were padded; yet, these pastors and church leaders joyfully endured these conditions all day long, for an entire week, to receive this teaching. I would be given a padded chair the next morning, on the stage, which included an osculating fan cooling me from behind, but the attendees had none of those luxuries.
Paul began the seminar by teaching the doctrines of grace,8 after which a break was taken and the book, “Biblical Doctrine Survey” was given to each attendee by Leyanet after they registered with Ailema. “Bible Doctrine Survey” is book #5 of the 10 books in the BTCP curriculum. Book #5 contains teaching on Christian Systematic Theology. Books and paper are very hard to come by in Cuba; therefore, these books, next to their Bibles are very special to these pastors and church leaders. The ministry purchased a printing press, all of the paper and ink to print the books; which came from donations to the ministry that must be hand delivered into the country.9 It is impossible to bring the books into the country; therefore, if not for the donations, the printing press, and someone to bring the money into the country there would be no books. For the remainder of the afternoon Paul taught the introduction of the book which included the nature of theology and method and purpose of study. Paul would make a statement, comment on the statement, or ask a question and Abdiel would translate; when Paul wanted a Scripture read, Janet would read it aloud in Spanish. The afternoon session concluded at about 6:00 PM which would be the norm throughout the week.
On Tuesday morning the session would begin with theology proper,10 I was assigned to teach on these attributes of God: transcendence, self-sufficiency, infinity, immutability, omnipotence, omnipresence and omniscience. Just like when Paul taught, Abdiel interpreted, and Janet read the Scriptures. Every day of the week, I arose at 5:00 AM, read the prescribed text of my daily devotional Bible reading plan, recited a chapter from John’s gospel, prayed and went for a run. I would then have breakfast with the ministry team and go to the church to assist teaching systematic theology alongside Paul McClung with Abdiel interpreting and Janet reading scripture until 12:30 PM. We would then go back to the hotel with the ministry team for lunch, but the attendees stayed in the Kiln (I mean church) where they ate rice and beans for lunch which sometimes included a wiener. We would return to the kiln (church building) until about 6:00 PM. Then we would return to the hotel for dinner and separate to our rooms at about 8:00 PM. My room had an air-condition in it; therefore, I would relax for about an hour or two with a book before going to sleep.
“On the contrary, blessed are those who hear the word of God and observe it.” (Lk. 10:6)
I am truly amazed by the resilience of the Reformed Baptist Church in Cuba and I am even more amazed by our God who orchestrated all of this in Cuba and in our hearts by his Devine will and providence. The Reformed Baptist Church in Cuba is a true church in every sense of the word. They have put aside all malice and all deceit and hypocrisy and envy and all slander, like newborn babies, they long for the pure milk of the word, so that it may grow in respect to salvation from the power of sin; this is because they have tasted the kindness of our God in the Lord Jesus Christ.11
1 Dave Earley and David Wheeler, Evangelism Is…How to Share Jesus with Passion and Confidence (Nashville: B&H Publishing Group, 2010), viii.
2 Vine’s Complete Expository Dictionary of Old and New Testament Words (1996), s.v. “disciple.”
3 Anthony L. Chute, et al., The Baptist Story: From English Sect to Global Movement (Nashville: B&H Academic, 2015) 302-303.
4 Cf. Eph. 2:8.
5 Paul McClung, Conversations, 2013-2019.
6 Reformed Baptist are Calvinist in their soteriology.
7 A Kiln is the oven used to fire pottery.
8 Cf. Table in the section on the Birth of the Reformed Baptist.
9 Paul and I each carried $5,000 in cash on our persons into the country.
10 The Study of God.
11 1 Pt. 2:1-3 paraphrased.