Church regulation should be fair to allay fears of victimisation


New Life Prayer Center and Church Pastor Ezekel Odero during a Sunday service at his church in Mavueni, Kilifi County, on May 28, 2023. Odero is accused of leading a cult-like church. [Robert Menza, Standard]

From the ecclesiastical debate raging in the country, which was triggered by the gory activities in Shakahola, Kilifi County, that resulted in the deaths of dozens of religious zealots, several pertinent observations can be made.

Firstly, the government, as the custodian of law and order, and the guarantor of our collective security had few options but to forcefully rein in religious extremists, especially after so many citizens’ lives were lost. Official inaction could easily lead to the emergence of Bible-toting John Konys - or worse, the Jim Joneses of the 1978 Guyana mass suicide infamy - in every corner of Kenya.

On this one, the government finds itself on the same side of the ring with many Kenyan Christians who abhor the proliferation of sacerdotal charlatans in their midst; shrewd entrepreneurs who peddle a gospel of earthly possessions, dubious supernatural phenomena and pay bill numbers. 

As a practicing Christian, I am quite saddened to witness 21st century Christendom’s voracious money mania- now known worldwide thanks to social media- slowly but surely sinking our religion to the ranks of the world’s least attractive.

That said, there is also a creeping foreboding among smaller, fringe Christian groups that the powers that be, in their zeal to right the wrongs of the spiritual sector, could uproot the wheat alongside the tares. An emotionally charged atmosphere is the perfect space for needless religious oppression.

Somehow, officialdom tends to associate ‘proper Christianity’ with mainstream denominations, scholarly and cultured clergy, magnificent steeples and quiet dignified worship. But in a country often described as “notoriously religious”, and at a time when everybody’s voice really matters, this could be quite alienating.

O how I love the reasoned didactics of Doctor of Divinity! Yet, whatever religious regulations are finally adopted, I pray to retain my right to go to church and listen to simple, heartfelt sermons of unschooled preachers. Somehow - and I am sure I speak for many others - these modest but inspired kinds thrill my soul far more. They evoke fiery Peter on the day of Pentecost.

For in reality, the New Testament presents its heroes, not as crème de la crème, but in remarkably ignominious terms such as, “naked, ye clothed me”, “full of new wine”, “man of sorrows”, and sometimes, affording only a meal of “locusts and wild honey”. Curiously, they also stridently steered clear of theological training, the very thing being touted today as the necessary and sufficient qualification for a religious minister.

Indeed, the Acts of the Apostles designates Peter and John, Christ’s foremost apostles as “ignorant and unlearned”. They apparently excelled in ‘knee-ology’ (for lack of a better word). The apostle James, in particular, was reportedly nick-named Old Camel Knees because his life of constant prayer shrivelled his knees considerably.

Yet with all our glitter, political correctness and recently, extra-biblical human rights credentials, we, today’s church, fade hopelessly in quality when compared with theirs, which regularly produced astounding and authentic supernatural results.

This is where ‘Solomonic wisdom’ on the part of the 17-member task force appointed by President Ruto to review the legal and regulatory frameworks and standards of certifying religious institutions becomes crucial. This task force will need to define with elaborate care its operational terms such as ‘cult’, ‘proper church’, ‘religious extremism’ and ‘qualified pastors’, which are all fraught with subjectivity.

Every effort must be made to steer the era dawning in Kenya, in which the state becomes an active patron of its citizen’s faith, from the monumental scandals which followed the Nicene Council of 325 A.D., convened by Constantine to foster understanding between feuding religious factions and the state.

According to Professor SS Schmucker, DD in his treatise 'The Glorious Reformation', a whopping 68 million dissenting Christians were subsequently slaughtered by the dominant Romish denomination, starting at the time of St Augustine of Hippo to around 1586 A.D. Quite unbelievably, devout Christians became the vermin most governments sought to evict from their jurisdictions. Could this repeat again?

Maybe. The Bible has a nativity story featuring infanticidal monarchs, scarce inns, wealthy oriental magi, and livestock with more discernment than High Priests, which allow ‘the king of the Jews’ to be born in their humble manger. This epic thriller often inspires yuletide satires depicting Jesus in a contemporary earthly visit getting rejected by ‘his own people’.

The onus now lies squarely with Mutava Musyimi’s task force to conjure a balance for the government between necessary law-enforcement, control of religious extremism and inalienable respect for freedom of worship for all citizens. Pastors must constantly remind their congregations of the biblical injunction for Christians to be law-abiding.

I aver an agreeable equilibrium is easily achievable if the task force recommends demonstrable adherence to the word of God as clearly spelt out in the Bible as the sole and infallible standard of evaluating the faith and practice of every Kenyan Christian. Any other absolute, no matter how scholarly and humanistic, may not help the government in weeding out illegitimate Christianity from its borders.