A Tragic Reminder

Written on: July 10, 2024

Article by: Thayer Salisbury

The majority here must walk or find a mini-bus to take them where they need to go. They do not own cars. In the area where we stay, the buses do not come very often. On the weekends they do not come at all. So, we often give a lift to people we find along the road.

There are several Filipinos in Eswatini working in the garment industry. This past Sunday we found a Filipino man standing at a wide place in the road that is used as a place to get a lift. As he entered the car we asked where he was heading. He told us he wanted to go to Matsapha for worship. We asked what church. He said The Church of Christ. We replied that we were also members of the Church of Christ. But he said, “That is not the same as the Filipino Church of Christ.” He then suggested that we visit a website.

Later in the day we checked the website and then communicated by email with a faithful Filipino brother in Canada about the Iglesia Ni Cristo in the Philippines. It seems that a man named Felix Manalo heard some form of Restorationist teaching over 100 years ago. In 1914, he established a church, of which he was the sole spiritual leader. He was then succeeded by his son and now by his grandson. The Iglesia Ni Cristo, or as our passenger called it, the Filipino Church of Christ, uses many of the same arguments and proof-texts that we remember hearing as children.

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But the fundamental teaching is flawed in serious ways. While we are shy of the term “cult,” it seems to apply in this case. The teaching is very authoritarian. Salvation is dispensed not by a Saviour who is both God and man, but by the church, the Iglesia Ni Cristo, and only by The Iglesia Ni Cristo. Felix Manalo is viewed as an inspired messenger of God. The church “administration” (his grandson) must be obeyed.

Will history repeat?

Some of you may recall these thoughts contained in the announcement of our return to this work four years ago.

“The church in Africa may now be larger than the church in the States. Congregations stateside are in decline. Congregations in Africa continue to multiply. It may not be all that long until the church in Africa is sending missionaries to the States.

“But what will be the nature of the African church? Will it hold firmly to the word? Will the preaching be Bible-grounded and Christ-centered? Or will the church be an odd mixture of misunderstood imported customs?”

What has happened in the Philippines has also happened in Africa and in many other places. When people are trained to be evangelists, but church elders are not trained, the church becomes prone to such authoritarian takeover. Where the gospel is not thoroughly taught, heresy quickly enters. Many African tribes have tended toward authoritarianism for centuries, and colonialism reinforced that tendency. We do not want to be pessimistic; but we fear that a significant number of those trained as evangelists in Africa will go on to teach something that is not the biblical gospel and to establish churches that are one-man mini-kingdoms.

Assuming that our schools are always giving a well-balanced and comprehensive view of scripture, how well will the students be able to remember what they learned once they leave school? How well will they be able to apply what they learned outside the classroom in an African context, where authoritarianism, syncretism, and heresy are so common? How many Felix Manalos are we producing?

A week ago, we sent out a newsletter that quoted the words “sometimes I feel discouraged and think my work’s in vain.” That is very true. Often the Holy Spirit helps to revive our spirit. He sometimes does so by reminding us of the alternative. If these books are not produced, what will the church in Africa be like fifty years from now? Our fear is that it would be very much like the Iglesia Ni Cristo in Manila. Perhaps it would not be as large and prosperous as that group. But we strongly fear that it would be as authoritarian and heretical.

So, as weary as we may be at times, we will – with your help and the help of God – press on.