Rampant abuse of people's faith calls for urgent church regulation

This week, Kangema MP Muturi Kigano promised to table a Bill in Parliament calling for regulation of churches.

Kigano’s Bill will not be the first attempt to regulate religious institutions. Just over two years ago, then Attorney General Githu Muigai tried to negotiate a regulatory regime with the church leadership.

I am not sure much came of that effort. Over time, there have been legitimate concerns that current regulation of churches under the Societies Act was insufficient as the latter is such a basic regime, intended to deal with routine social institutions, not the wealthy, powerful and complex organs that many churches have become.

Proposals for regulation have been based on rampant abuse of the public through rogue clerics and pastors. The litany of complaints against churches is not new. While the bulk of them are well intentioned institutions that give needed spiritual nourishment to their congregants and engage in worthy social causes, Kigano is generally right.

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There are many clerics who have abused people’s faith and trust in God and the Bible to advance essentially personal interests. There is sufficient anecdotal evidence of instances where people sold all their property believing they were giving to God, only for their hard-earned wealth to pass on to their beloved Pastor.

There are instances of the gospel being adjusted to meet selfish ends and many trusting congregants being led astray by their beloved Bishops. In some churches, there are no structures of accountability and the Pastor’s word, however unreasonable, is law.

Many church leaders have huge incomes, yet do not report on the same, even to facilitate “rendering unto Caesar”.

Many assume the exemption from tax payments granted to their churches extends to them. Each time some of these excesses have come into public domain, there has been pressure on government to regulate, but the campaign dies off as quickly as it had arisen. Part of the reason for the sudden death is the strong lobby by the churches against some of the proposals for regulation that are bandied around.

Because the clamour for regulation is usually reactionary, responding to instances of abuse, proposals tend to be extremist and many church leaders legitimately fear that the proposed regulation is not in good faith. Many believe it is an attempt to clamp down on the growth of the church. My own view has been that sooner than later, government will create a regulatory regime for churches outside the Societies Act in the public interest, churches being quasi-public institutions.

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If the church will not have thought through what a reasonable regulatory regime should look like, and proposed the same to government, a reactionary government may come up with a regime devastating for the church.

Several principles should inform any regulation. Firstly, the regulatory regime should involve the church jointly with government, much like happens in the media sector. Secondly, such a regime should be concerned primarily with registration and reporting, the focus being on transparency and accountability.

Accountability would include requirements that any church leader account to a body recognised within the church, without the law being over-prescriptive on the form of such a body. Transparency would include keeping a record of the churches assets and separating these from church leaders’ assets.

It would also involve reporting on all gifts and donations to church leaders; not to control giving, but to ensure that such income is accounted to the congregants and to the taxman. The regulatory regime would require regular reporting to the regulatory body on key aspects of the institutions, including changes in its leadership, assets and liabilities.

Finally, outside of the normal requirements for identity cards and certificates of good conduct at registration, the regulatory regime should not concern itself with issues of doctrine and qualifications of pastors. These are issues of personal choice and come as a package within our constitutionally guaranteed freedom of worship. My advise to the church; make your proposals. The days of the “Pharaoh who knew not Joseph” could soon be with us.

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- The writer is an Advocate of the High Court of Kenya

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