March 20, 2012

Copts, Popes, Shenouda? Did I miss something?

by Clint Archer

If you read any news other than the sports pages, you have probably picked up that the Pope died. But not that one, the other one.

I guess it’s more accurate to say a pope died.

Until I visited Egypt last year, I didn’t even know there were popes. So, to share with you the crash course I went through in Egypt here are four questions that may help you navigate your news feed this week…

1) Who is Shenouda?

The late Pope Shenouda III of Alexandria was the head of the Coptic Orthodox Church from 1971 until last Saturday (17 March 2012) when he passed away at 88 years of age.


2) How many Pope’s are there?

Pope or Papa from the Latin means father, and refers to the spiritual head of the Roman Catholic Church, but also the Coptic Church. I thought that the Catholic Pope Benedictus was the only one to keep my eye on, but it turns out there are a few other popes poking around the theological landscape. The Greek Orthodox Church calls their head the Patriarch, which is just a fancier name for Pope. All Orthodox churches call their priests “Father” or if they get promoted up the ecclesiastical food chain, Monseigneur (which means my lord).

This isn’t the place to gag or do an exposition of Matt 23:9  but I am grateful for the Protestant habit of calling their leaders by the biblical descriptors of their role, i.e. pastor (under-shepherd), overseer (bishop), and elder. When these monikers become used as titles, e.g. “Please call me Pastor Archer” or worse, Reverend, then they are missing the point.

3) What’s a Copt?

Coptic refers to the mispronunciation of “Egypt” by the Arabian invaders who coined the mondegreen, “E’copt.” So a Copt is a person of the Coptic culture, or of ancient Egyptian decent, as opposed to Arab Egyptians. Copts are traditionally “Christian” in that they are not Muslim, like their Arabian compatriots. There has always been significant tension between the two groups, as evidenced in the violent persecution and legal discrimination of Copts by Muslims.

This is a fascinating corner of Church history that is worthy of exploration.

4) Whose next in line?

I wish I could be objective and say I don’t have a dog in this fight, but the truth is I wish I could vote for the next Coptic Pope.

I met Bishop Thomas last year when I spent three days in his Monastery over Easter. I witnessed the humility, intelligence, theological astuteness, and Evangelical commitment of this extraordinary man.

He wasn’t offended by my seminoid-like theological 3rd degree I subjected him to (I wasn’t going to take communion on Easter unless I was sure there was no transubstantiation or re-sacrificing of Christ going on).

He patiently and passionately explained the gospel to me and encouraged me to walk into the streets of his village and evangelize the lost Copts, as he does himself. Bishop Thomas estimates about 15% of Copts have a true understanding of the gospel. And he himself chuckled at the strange trappings of his office– the breastplate, robes, and sceptre.


Clint Archer

Posts Twitter

Clint has been the pastor of Hillcrest Baptist Church since 2005. He lives in Durban, South Africa with his wife and four kids.
  • Jaime

    Can you come to our church to regale us with your cool-facts and tales? This is seriously interesting and I wish it was covered just a wee bit more in the Church History class we have at our church. Keep up the informative post Clint! Truly appreciate them.

    • I appreciate that you appreciate my love of ‘trivia’. I had never explored any of this til I went on a missions trip there. I’d recommend that trip to anyone. Of the 24 countries I’ve been to, Egypt was the most eye-opening, spiritually.

      • Clint do you have a church history set of lectures or podcasts on yourchurchs website i could swipe?

        • Ha, not yet. I have plans though. We teach night classes on various seminary subjects. Eventually Church history will be one of them.

  • Larry

    Highly interesting and needful post Clint. More! Some years ago, I dated an Ethiopian gal from Addis Ababa and she was Coptic. I suppose you know also, about the Ark of Covenant perhaps finding its resting place in Ethiopia, and is under watch 24/7?

    Please help with something…I too have a serious problem with the use of “Reverend” as a title for an Ephesians 4 man. I need a site or sites, that can give me the history of how that title came to be and from whom. Thank you Sir.

    • Hey Larry, thanks for that. The Ark part sound a bit Indiana Jones to me. But who knows? As for the history of titles, I’m not sure where to scrounge around for more history on that. A lady commented on my blog under the post “What’s Up Doc? Titles in the Church”. She said that she had done her thesis on the history of titles. Perhaps you could track her work down from my blog at

      • Larry

        Thanks Clint

  • Gus P

    When I heard that Pope Shenouda died, I thought of you or rather your blog post. I think all of you who read Cafe Seminoid, are really pulling for Bishop Thomas! 🙂

    • Gus P

      I guess I should have said, *those of us who read Cafe Seminoid…

      • To be fair, the other bishops I met were also interesting and astute men. But Thomas was the one I got to know the best, and saw in his pajamas!

  • Prisonofficer

    I believe the Russian Orthodox church has a leader who would qualify as a Pope along with the Coptic and Roman Catholic Church.

    • Right, thanks, I forgot to mention him. He goes by Patriarch too.

      • Prisonofficer

        What suprises me is that Jesus lived as a poor man, while these three, the Pope and two Patriarchs live like the ancient Jewish Priests who lived in palaces and had people bow down to them in their expensive robes. I am a Roman Catholic and yet reject some of their teachings. The Pope and the Patriarchs. They are not Christ like. Humility? Claiming they represent Jesus on Earth. Infallability? I doubt it. I could go on but opt out of a theological discussion. Thanks Clint. Ed


        • I guess when immersed in a certain culture humility can look different than in other cultures. We drive nicer cars than the Coptic Pope, and live in nicer homes. That monastery was…um…rustic.

          • Prisonofficer

            I spent two and a half years in a cloister with the Dominicans. I left of my own accord.  I have a great respect for the cloistered life and I find God in silence. Many of us are preoccupied with self, loud music and noise in general to ever hear God speak to us. I am not trying to be humble, that was a mistake. Every time I thought I was humble I committed the sin of pride. The sacrements exclude from the priesthood married men, why? Because it is profitable that the church benefits from the work of single men as opposed to married men who would leave their homes, land and fortune to their wives. Chastity is not a gift to God it is forced. In the early church priests were permitted to marry. Priests are men, men who have sexual desires unless they are asexual. Some have sex with women, some with men and others abuse children. Chastity is not normal. There is no reason why a priest who is in a parish or a sister who works in a hospital or teaches in a school cannot be married. I can see a Nun or a Priest or Brother who live the cloistered life taking a vow of chastity along with their other vows. The Greek and Russian Orthodox Churches permit their religious to marry. Once their partner dies they are bound to a chaste life. These churches have a valid priesthood and sacrements. I really appreciate communicating with you. I respect your responses. By the way I have nine children. Six biological and three adopted. I love all of them equally. I wish I could become a priest, I would dedicate my life to the poor here in South America. God Bless and thank you again. Ed


      • Prisonofficer

        I sent an email to disqus last evening. Is there a problem?

  • Michael Delahunt

    Fascinating read; thanks Clint!

    • My pleasure Michael. Thanks for reading so faithfully.

  • For a moment I thought the photo of you and the Pope was photoshopped. Great post I really need to read more about the coptic church.

    • I’m not that good at Photoshop! That’s Bishop Thomas and me in the monastery where he lives.

  • Scott

    Uh I could be wrong, but in the Orthodox Church I don’t think there is a “Monseigneur” title that’s more of a RC thing. The Orthodox have Sub Deacons, Deacons, Priests, Bishops, Archbishops, Metropolitans and Patriarchs

    A former EO

    • You’d know better than me. It is definitely a Catholic title though.

  • Brett Schlee

    Hey, I’ve wondered for some time… where do Copts fall on justification by faith alone? Would they affirm or deny Trent?

    • I really don’t know their official position. I do know that the priests I spoke to affirmed justification be faith, but frankly didn’t seem comfortable emphasizing it the way Protestants do.

  • Marco Scouvert

    Hi Clint,

    I am very ignorant of the Coptic church in Egypt. I’ve looked online at their theology though, and this leads me to a question concerning Bishop Thomas and how you described him in the post. I’d like to preface it though with the following, just to help you see my line of thinking:

    -Pope Shenouda III is the pope of the Coptic Orthodox Church of Alexandria, has just died, and a potential successor is the man you met, Bishop Thomas
    -The Coptic Orthodox Church of Alexandria would be more “Catholic” than “Protestant” when it comes to both doctrine and practice (for instance, Baptismal Regeneration, too high a view of Tradition in relation to Scripture as our authority, veneration of Mary, prayer to and intercession on dead saints and angels, and definining repentance as a sacrament in the church – even requiring repentance before baptism although I’m not sure how that would work with paedobaptism). I haven’t read anything “official” and so am still ignorant of their true definitions of justifcation and grace
    -Bishop Thomas seems like a faithful man in Coptic Orthodox Church of Alexandria; so faithful he could very well be the next Pope
    – I read your blog “The Day a Pope Shared His Chocolate with Me” and was wondering what Bishop Thomas meant by calling people to repentance and taking a more “patient” as you put it, approach to confronting a Muslim’s false religion (especially in light of the Coptic Church’s theology in regards to repentance)

    -So my question then is, “What did this man specifically share with you that convinced you that he is a committed ‘evangelical’ even though he is ministering within this particular church?”

    I am struggling to see how such a man as Bishop Thomas can be described as “Evangelical” given the condition of the Coptic Orthodox Church of Alexandria, and his high-ranking involvement in it? And one of your comments even mentioned that the priests you spoke to wouldn’t be comfortable stressing justification by faith like Protestants do. But then in this post you put that he explained the Gospel to you and talked about only 15% of the Copts understanding the true Gospel. I am divided here. I would not be someone who would say that no one in the Roman Catholic church for instance can be saved. But I would struggle to understand how someone who was truly converted by the Gospel of grace, and had “evangelical” convictions could continue to be a part of the Catholic Church, especially at a high level like Bishop in Rome or Pope.

    I may be straining at your description of him as evangelical, so I would greatly appreciate your help here if this is the case. Thanks Clint.


    • These are really good questions, and I admit to you that it is somewhat fuzzy in my understanding too. I like neat, pigeon-hole theological categories. But as you said, let’s say a Catholic is saved as we understand by faith alone, we would say he or she is not strictly speaking Catholic anymore, though they choose to remain in the church, say, for reform from within. I doubt anyone could have an impact on the whole system by staying in it, unless you were, a high ranking bishop or even the pope! You see where I’m going with this. You also have to put into the equation that the only really legal denomination in Egypt is the Coptic church. It is exceedingly difficult to be Protestant in that country. A convert may choose the less (though still) persecuted route of staying in the Coptic church to try evangelize other Copts. This was my experience. Hope this helps.

      • Marco Scouvert

        Hi Clint,

        Thank you for your response. I do see where you are going, if Bishop Thomas shared with you that he is striving to get to the leadership of the Coptic Church as a biblically-committed evangelical. Taking into consideration the persecution there in Egypt, it adds something more to his decision making and plan for reaching unsaved Copts, for sure. There are two lines of thought then emerging. The first would be as to the theological stances of the Coptic Orthodox Church of Alexandria. Do you know if they would affirm the five solas of the reformation?

        The second line would be as to the theological convictions of Bishop Thomas personally. Perhaps I would have to speak to the gentleman directly, because I’m still struggling to see how one could be genuinely converted, genuinely evangelical (lets say for the sake of this discussion, that means justification by faith alone, a biblical view of regeneration, repentance, and salvation, and Scripture as the authority), and still be carrying on in the church.

        Having a snaking line of 100,000 people come to kiss his hand, wearing the traditional garb, etc. would seem to be an indicator that his practice is not lining up with his confessed doctrine. Would you agree here? What were your thoughts as this was taking place before your eyes? Were you able to watch his practice, and did any of it cause you to questions his commitment to the Scriptures as authority of faith and practice. At what point I guess, does our practice really show our doctrinal and biblical convictions? At what point does remaining within a church system (not just carrying over some of its theological stances, like the hangover effect on some of the Reformers, ie paedobaptism), become comprimise to God, which displeases Him? Again your help would be appreciated.


        • The answer lies in wisdom God gives through visiting the people and living in their homes and seeing how their misunderstandings are parallel to some understandings we have. Textbooks don’t cover every available nook and cranny of God’s wisdom. That’s the best I can do for you. Thanks for your interest though.

  • Pingback: Lincoln - 22 March 2012 | Trust AND Obey()