Sunday, 8 November 2015

The Rise and Rise of Papism in African Churches

Several months ago while scrolling through free satellite television channels I came across an Emmanuel Makandiwa television segment. For thirty minutes a woman shared her story about how she had come to the service for the first time as an alcoholic and chain-smoker and ‘Papa’ had prayed for her deliverance. 

Every few minutes they showed clips from the actual service in a venue that looks like a massive stadium which was packed from wall to wall. Later, you see the woman coming down to the front and Makandiwa saying a prayer into the microphone. The noise is deafening as the crowd shouts amen when they see the woman gag and cough as she attempts to smoke a cigarette after receiving prayer.

‘Thank you Papa,’ she says, tears streaming down her eyes.

During a discussion about Walter Magaya’s all-night prayer meeting, Night of Turnaround 4 my colleague used the term ‘Papism’ to describe the culture that is taking root in many African churches. It is a term that describes the unquestioning religious homage that some church members pay to their church leaders. It goes beyond respect and loyalty and looks a lot like hero worship. Often, the issue isn’t necessarily that the leader demands that from members, it is the members who position themselves in a way that exalts the leader way above themselves.
The Rise and Rise of Papism in African Churches
Left unchecked, Papism can descend into a form of abusive patriarchy. Prophets and apostles are reported to have been feeding their followers snakes and the poor have been and are still being exploited for money. Papism is an expression of religious fundamentalism that is present in any African nation where Christianity is practiced. It is found in the traditional (Roman Catholic, Anglican, Methodist and Seventh Day Adventist) churches, but is perceived to be becoming more of a problem in what my mother calls ‘Your Pentecostal churches’.

When we talk about Papism we tend to think of the showy kind. We see the man with the permed hair, Rolex watch, white suit and Italian shoes as the stereotypical pastor of a papaistic church. He could fill a stadium with a bigger crowd than what Cassper Nyovest could ever dream of and people fall to their knees at his command. Prominent people seek him out and he has their numbers on speed dial. But Papism is not about one’s fashion sense or who your friend’s are. It is a much deeper issue.

What Papism is today: The issue behind the prevalence of Papism is not organised religion or even people’s hunger for the supernatural. The problem is that when power is concentrated in the hands of one man, with no accountability, transparency or effective checks and balances, it is bound to be abused. This fact is not restricted to the religious arena but is true in politics, in business and even in the home. Power corrupts and not even those we perceive as the most virtuous members of our society are immune to this. Many leaders start churches with a noble goal in mind, but find themselves going down the slippery slope of Papism into a culture of spiritual abuse.

What worries me about Papism is that it is often the poor and powerless who fall victim to it. It is those who are desperate who seek help and get abused in the process. Here’s what it often looks like:

Important titles with no real qualifications: You have to have study for a PhD or a medical degree to be called Dr. Somebody. You must have certain educational qualifications, experience and character qualities to be called Judge So-and-So. But in many churches have people called Apostle Ningi when he had not planted even one church and Bishop Lokhuzeni who has no leadership track record that anyone can attest to. These titles are often meaningless and only serve the purpose of distinguishing the title from other members of the church. They are the super-Christians and everyone else is subordinate. They are not about respecting a person but about exalting the person behind the pulpit further above the people on the pews.

He is the one ultimate role model: You can’t have a conversation with a member of a papistic church without hearing, ‘Pastor says…’ Inevitably, your follow up question, ‘But what do YOU think?’ will be met with a blank expression. It is as if they had never thought of figuring out what they think. In the eyes of this member the pastor is the ultimate embodiment of virtue, intelligence and piety. Pastor can do no wrong. Pastor is the source of divine truth and the conduit to heaven.

All who criticise are the enemy: To the ears of a member of a papistic church, an innocent question about why Sunday services are six hours long is received as a personal attack. Followers typically do not question the practices, they are expected to adhere to and do not engage critically with teaching.

Money is a tool for manipulation: Generosity amongst members of a community should be encouraged and supporting the work of the church is important but tithes and offerings should never be a means by which leaders control the lives of their followers. In some churches people are not given financial guidance, they are subjected to financial control. The leaders are not expected to account for their spending; no one knows how much the pastor earns or how he paid for his fleet of luxury cars.
  • Hyper-spirituality and over the top saintliness.
  • You ask, ‘How are you?’
  • The answer is always, ‘Blessed.’
  • Magical thinking with no practical action.
The solution to every problem is to ‘declare’ the opposite of your current situation. Someone testifies that they almost lost their house to bank foreclosure but then they declared that they were rich and a large sum of money magically appeared in the account. There is no teaching about budgeting, investing, staying debt-free, and no mention of God even; it is all about how to be magically using the power of your words to get bailed out of a financial conundrum.

Control-oriented leadership style: True leadership empowers, it does not control. But in a papism culture, every move that leaders make is aimed at consolidating their power. Those who question are seen as rebels and are often dealt with by being permanently excluded from the community, either summarily or through a harsh disciplinary process.

The death of the leader would lead to the death of the church: Control-oriented leaders cannot produce leaders because they make themselves the be-all and end-all of the church. These are the churches where when a lead pastor falls from grace, he takes the entire congregation down with him. When the pastor goes through a crisis of faith so do all the members because they never had a conviction of their own. No one dares speak of succession because the leader is paranoid and obsessed with staying in power.

Papism manifests itself in different ways, but there is one characteristic that is common: the inability of people to question authority. The fear of questioning authority plays a part in causing papism but also encourages it to flourish. It is up to us to ask the hard questions, expose the lies and speak out against abusive patriarchy.  
Source: Her Zimbabwe.