The Prophet of Doom and church regulation
News stories of the Prophet of Doom, Lethebo Rabalago, spraying members of his congregation with Doom insecticide have proliferated in the last couple of weeks, along with many satirical comments on social media. As this article notes The Doom Pastor Shows Us How Self Regulation Is Failing Too Many South African Churches:
Sensational stories of pastors using dangerous methods to “heal” their congregants have become a fixture of South African news.
Lesego Daniel from Rabboni Ministries in Pretoria famously instructed members of his congregation to drink petrol. In 2014, Facebook images on the church’s website also showed his followers eating grass and flowers on his orders, according to a round-up by the BBC.
Penuel Mnguni from End Times Disciples Ministries was trained under Daniel, and earned the epithet “snake pastor” after images showed him feeding his followers snakes and rats.
They are terrifying stories that speak to straight up exploitation of church-goers.
To some extent this is part of the fissiparousness of Protestantism, and especially its Neopentecostal wing, where some denominational leaders (or intending denominational leaders, just before they break away to form a new denomination) are accustomed to announce that “God is doing a new thing”, with the subtext that of course God is doing the new thing through them, and that is why people must leave their old denomination and join the new one where new things were happening. In the 1970s it was being “slain in the Spirit”, in the 1990s it was the “Toronto Airport Blessing” and now it seems to be consuming all sorts of bizarre substances.
This leads to great pressure for innovation, and announcing “a new move of the Spirit”, which very often turns out to be just a new publicity gimmick.
This is not really all that new, though. In the USA similar practices are found in paleo-Pentecostal denominations like the Church of God with Signs Following, where members of the congregation handle poisonous snakes and drink poison. They justify this behaviour by reference to Bible verses like Mark 16:18 “They shall take up serpents; and if they drink any deadly thing, it shall not hurt them; they shall lay hands on the sick, and they shall recover.” I suspect that this, however, referred to the actions of enemies, and not acts of showmanship. For the latter, it is better to use the response of Jesus to the devil in Matthew 4:7: “Thou shalt not tempt the Lord thy God.”
In the same article cited above, there are calls for a regularory body for churches, to control such practices. The Doom Pastor Shows Us How Self Regulation Is Failing Too Many South African Churches:
In this context a regulatory body is necessary. The act governing the CRL speaks mostly to the promoting of traditional religions and customs; not the regulation thereof. It is a Chapter Nine institution.
Regulations are of course a scary concept: ask the media. We too self-regulate and spurn any attempts of external regulation, particularly by the state. The church too should be left independent, as it should leave the state alone.
But that would be true in a normal situation. Any particular sphere of society should ideally be left to fulfill its purposes. The exception is when there are incidents of such distortion of that original purpose that people are being harmed, which means another sphere within society has to intervene.
While the article mentions some of the difficulties and drawbacks of such a regulatory body, it fails to mention the biggest ones — how it would work, how much it would cost, and who would pay for it.
The biggest problem is that there are well over 10000 different Christian denominations in South Africa. If a regulatory body were to be set up many of the churches would never get to hear of it, and it would never get to hear of them. And if the regulatory body has not heard of the denomination, how would they get to know of abuses?
For 25 years now I have kept a database of African Independent Churches (AICs) in South Africa, and I have the names of 7705 denominations in South Africa. For more than half of them the name is all I have — no information about the leaders, or how to contact them. Some may have ceased to exist, but there are many more of which I did not even know the names; until the newspaper publicity this week I did not know of Lethebo Rabalago and his denomination (I’ve added them now). If such a regulatory body had a large full-time staff and resources, they might be able to track them down, but the cost would be enormous. And snooping strangers lurking around other people’s church services would soon arouse suspicion.
The article says, “when there are incidents of such distortion of that original purpose that people are being harmed, which means another sphere within society has to intervene.”
And I suggest that the other sphere within society that has to intervene is the legal system and the law courts. If people are being harmed by the actions of another, there are laws against that. The same laws might apply to botched circumcisions and quack medicine. In addition to criminal law, there is also civil law. If someone’s health suffers as a result of being sprayed with Doom or drinking petrol, they can sue.
The Bill of Rights says:
15. Freedom of religion, belief and opinion
Everyone has the right to freedom of conscience, religion, thought, belief and opinion.
Religious observances may be conducted at state or state-aided institutions, provided that
a. those observances follow rules made by the appropriate public authorities;
b. they are conducted on an equitable basis; and
c. attendance at them is free and voluntary.
a. This section does not prevent legislation recognising
i. marriages concluded under any tradition, or a system of religious, personal or family law; or
ii. systems of personal and family law under any tradition, or adhered to by persons professing a particular religion.
b. Recognition in terms of paragraph (a) must be consistent with this section and the other provisions of the Constitution.
This does not preclude people who harm others from being charged with assault under the normal criminal law, and that is surely the best way of dealing with such things, and the best people to determine whether a particular act is protected by the Bill of Rights or not are the judges of the High Court, and not employees of some kind of statutory body set up to oversee religion.