The media is fond of carrying stories about minority religious groups that they readily referred to as cults and sects. The impression has been passed on to readers and viewers around the world that groups that do not conform to traditional practices such as putting up church buildings and tithing are sects. The Akorino and Kanitha wa Ngai in Kenya are among groups that have fallen victim to this mockery and derogatory reference.
The Oxford Advanced Learner’s Dictionary defines a sect as “a group of people who share especially religious beliefs or opinions different from those of a larger group from which they have separated.” This definition raises a pertinent question: If the sectarian group becomes more numerous and larger than the group from which it split, does it stop being a sect? The answer to this must necessarily be: Once a sect, always a sect.
To get to know the mainstream faith, we do not look at numbers or contemporary traditions and trends. We ought to go to the root, to the origin of a faith. Deviations from that original faith by any groups – however numerous or few – can then be termed sectarian.
Turning to Christianity, we then ask ourselves: What is the original faith as revealed in the pages of the New Testament? We must first and foremost seek to find out the truths taught in scripture. Secondly, we must then find out how the apostles lived out their faith and to what extent they were truthful to those tenets.
Although they had the temple and synagogues in Judaism, the apostles and other Jewish believers did not put up sacred buildings when they came to Christ. The Gentile Christians, too, had been part of the elaborate worship at the temples put up in honour of their many gods and goddesses, but they did not cross over with this mindset into Christianity. Not a single building was put up for Jesus in Corinth or other Gentile cities. No such record exists on the pages of the New Testament.
We will also discover that although the Jewish Christians came from a background of following the Law of Moses, the narrative of the Council at Jerusalem (Acts 15) and other texts make it clear that Christians are not under that law or any of its commandments and regulations. Instead of the Old Testament practice of tithing, Christians are out of the royal law of love required to be generous to one another, but without any legalisms with regard to what proportion to give, or where, when and whom to give to. Paul could easily have written, “Pay your tithes,” but he chose his words carefully and wrote, “Give generously.” With the outpouring of the Spirit among the New Covenant people of God, the law is now written in our hearts, not on tablets of stone.
Christians did raise funds, but certainly not for the purpose of paying salaries to anyone as a reward for preaching the gospel or performing any other responsibilities among the community of God’s people. No money was wasted on putting up “sanctuaries” or pampering the apostles. The focus was always on helping the weak and vulnerable in society. When the Grecian widows complained about being neglected in the distribution of food, for instance, the apostles went to the extent of appointing seven men “full of the Holy Spirit” to ensure they were well catered for. And when Paul exhorted the Corinthians to give generously, the context is clear that this was for the purpose of helping the believers in Jerusalem who were then going through a famine.
There are many other important characteristics of the New Testament church that a careful study of the New Testament scriptures reveals. For instance, there is no such thing as offices – what many believers often call “the five-fold ministry offices of apostle, prophet, evangelist, pastor and teacher.” These are only gifts. There is absolutely no use of titles.
There is no such thing as a sermon from a religious leader in the New Testament, but rather sharing that recognizes that Christ can speak through any member of the group gathered together. There is no division of the church into an upper caste of clergy versus common believers. That essentially means there is no hierarchical structure. Neither were there uniforms or special clothes and collars for anyone in the early church. Christians met in the warmth of their homes, which means that classroom-type seating arrangements were never the norm. Many of the traditions associated with the “modern” church only serve to intimidate weak believers. But fear and intimidation have no place in a genuine community of love.
In the first four chapters of 1 Corinthians, Paul rebukes those believers who had aligned themselves to apostles of their choice and were declaring, “I follow Paul, I follow Peter, I follow Apollos.” A really spiritual leader will not allow people to remove their focus from Jesus and place it on themselves. Yet today, many believers will readily confess, “I belong to Muiru’s church,” or “I am under the authority of the Pope,” or “I fellowship at Wanjiru’s church.” The language of “spiritual covering” and glorification of religious leaders has become all pervasive.
The New Testament does not sanction the division of believers not only with regard to spiritual leaders, but also on the basis of nationality, economic status, spiritual maturity, gifting, teaching or any other ground save locality.
There is no central command in the true church. No church is under the direction of any other church, nor is there any such thing as a national or international church. Those with an apostolic anointing may, however, have a ministry that involves travelling to many nations for the purpose of planting churches, encouraging, correcting and strengthening them. The New Testament church is not an organisation but a living organism, with Christ as the sole, invisible head.
Millions of believers throughout the world are under the denominational yoke. Neither Christ nor the apostles ever set up any religious system. Yet, a vast majority of believers are today subject to the control and oppression of false apostles. The Akorino and Kanitha wa Ngai may be sects, as are many doomsday groups around the world. But so are the Catholics, Anglicans, Methodists, Lutherans, Presbyterians and all other denominational groups. Before anyone in a denomination gains the courage to shout “Cult!” they are well advised to first investigate whether they really qualify to be the first to cast a stone.