The Government must give stricter oversight to religious ministriesWednesday, October 27, 2021
The brutal and tragic killing of three people from the Pathways International Kingdom Restoration Ministries, a group purporting to be a church in Albion, St James, has brought into sharp focus the evil represented by groups which aspire to this status.
Since the tragic incident, questions have abounded as to what cults are, and the difference between cults and churches.
There are some features that stand out in cults. There is the unquestioned authority of a leader or select cabal of leaders who exercise dominance over their followers. The cult leader usually possesses charismatic qualities which allow him to easily influence his followers. His voice takes precedence over all others and he cannot be questioned on any matter. Such leaders may possess the gift of oratory which mesmerises the followers and makes them more obedient to him or her.
But charisma can also be of a quiet and persuasive kind, especially in the early years of the cult, as the leader endears himself to his subjects and cements loyalty around himself.
Cults, like churches, tend to address their members as “family”. Where a church might be part of a wider constituency or denomination of fellow believers who can hold differing opinions, cults tend to be very homogenous and monolithic in their thinking. Followers are closely watched by the leadership of the cult to ensure that there is no deviation from the family norm. They are thus woven into a tighter fabric of relationships which makes them one in their obedience and loyalty to the cult leader.
Cult members, on joining the cult, often feel a sense of belonging to a family, which many of them might not have had before. The cooperative atmosphere that is nurtured makes for greater social control as members are made to feel that they are welcomed and belong to something special.
In cults, leaders secure the loyalty of their followers by indoctrination around a common set of beliefs and dogmas. A cooperative environment is built, where members, as one family, are encouraged to pool their talents and give of their possessions to the cult for the common good of all. While members may benefit from this cooperative exercise, the proceeds of this endeavour flow largely to the cult leader or the cabal around him.
If followers begin to show a sense of independence or question the pronouncements of the leader, violence may be introduced as a measure of control.
Cults are not attached to any large national organisation or grouping. They operate as independent entities, often in secrecy. Unlike churches, especially mainline churches, cults have no connection to a historical past or tradition of governance. They are what the leaders say they are.
The leader can assign any title to himself . There is no national organisation or authority to tell him otherwise.
You will notice that the Pathways group refers to itself as a “ministry”. This is a peculiar development in evangelical Christianity, as it is practised in America. Ministries will carry out religious activities and may even call themselves a church, but they owe no connection or loyalty to any denomination. Some, of their own volition, may align themselves to a denominational grouping.
Prominent ministries are often named after personalities, such as the Benny Hinn Ministries in America. They are not cultic in the strict sense of the word, but they are defined by charismatic personalities and are tightly regulated by American law. The Internal Revenue Service (IRS) in the United States has placed prominent ministries under great scrutiny.
There is no indication that the loose conglomeration of what we call ministries in Jamaica is so strictly governed. The time has come for the Government to exercise greater control over groups that purport to be churches. The present arrangement is too loose. Almost anyone having a terrible nightmare the night before can claim divine appointment and set out the following day to form his or her own church. In no time he has a congregation going and is collecting money, dubiously called a tithe, from the willing.
All this activity is not supported by any registration or other form of external oversight and accountability. Perhaps the Government can convene a commission to study this matter, evaluate the present arrangements, and implement tighter measures of control and polity over these groups.
This is not to deny anyone the right to form or run a church, but to ensure that this is done in the context of good governance, transparency, and accountability. If the Government is going to grant churches tax-free status, then it must be able to have a greater say over the presence and integrity of those who are afforded this status.
While not discounting anyone's sense of call, there must be an agreed set of criteria which will guide those who say they are pastors or who want to establish a church. A call must be exercised in the context of responsibility, given the wide influence that a pastor can exercise over a flock.
People must be more discerning and alert to those who speak with the glib tongue but who Jesus warned are false prophets or wolves in sheep's clothing.
I will not come down too hard on the members of the Pathways International Kingdom Restoration Ministries group. It is easy to dismiss them as gullible and “fool-fool”. During my long tenure in the church, I have known that belief is a stubborn thing, especially when it comes to religion. There are diverse reasons people believe the things they do and why they gain comfort from association with groups such as Pathways.
But, while we can be empathetic with people's beliefs, there is a certain sense of responsibility that people must bring to the things they believe. There is no group, church or cult, which should seek to silence dissenting voices. Wherever this happens it should be a warning sign.
People must be more discerning in evaluating groups they join or giving obedience to people clearly clouded by a messianic complex.
General Colin Powell
This column notes with deep sadness the passing of General Colin Powell – a servant extraordinaire – who made America and the world a better place for having lived among us. His greatness does not lie only in the sterling career he lived as a soldier and public servant, but also in the full measure of the man he was.
He wore fame with dignity and was not afraid to admit his errors, especially his role in the American blunder in Iraq. Although this was a blot on an otherwise elegant career, as he himself admitted, I believe there is universal agreement that it will not define his place in history.
I wish his family well as they mourn his loss and pray for the repose of his soul in God's peace.
Dr Raulston Nembhard is a priest, social commentator, and author of the books Finding Peace in the Midst of Life's Storm and Your Self-esteem Guide to a Better Life. Send comments to the Jamaica Observer or firstname.lastname@example.org.