Undue authority of religious leaders

Undue authority of religious leaders is a topic that has strongly featured over the last few years, more so in other countries of the world than in South Africa. Recently the media reported on the South African pastor of Rabboni Centre Ministries of the Garankuwa Campus of the Technical University of Tshwane that instructed his followers to eat grass (Daily Sun, 10 January 2014 – Front page/Mail online UK, 10 January 2014). Photos taken show followers in different positions on a lawn busy eating grass. According to these reports eating grass would not only demonstrate that they are controlled by the Holy Spirit but would also bring them closer to God. Some followers even testified that since they have eaten grass their health have improved. A 21-year-old student reported that she has struggled with a sore throat that was healed after eating grass. Another women, 27 years of age, testified that she had a stroke 2 years ago that resulted in her not been able to walk. After eating grass she regained strength and could walk an hour later. When asked the followers obeying this instruction indicated that they did not believe that eating grass would make them ill. Photos published however, indicated that some followers got ill and vomited after eating grass. One believer of the church withdrew her testimony of deliverance from her blog because she believes that the minister’s instruction to eat grass is a false doctrine. The media also reported on other accusations. The minister allegedly shouted, “sleep” in one of the meetings attended by approximately 1000 people and six fell asleep. Another photo shows the minister stepping on a member busy eating grass. The minister did not respond to the accusations despite a series of complaints that were lodged. On face book he described it as “God at work and that the people are testifying about it – To God be the Glory”.

The case described above must be carefully analysed. Although the media has reported on the church alerting society about the dangers even of religion we need to analyse the situation more carefully. Without evaluating all the detail in the reports it is clear that followers were instructed to eat grass as the pictures show also based on members’ confirmation. In light of that the focus of this post is on the underlying dangerous and undue influence of some religious leaders of which this particular case is a good example.
Although each religion in South Africa is afforded freedom of religion certain aspects of this teaching and occurance warrants serious consideration and evaluation.

The fact that human beings can be moved to eat grass must be a red light to any rational thinking human being. Although religion because of it’s generally transcendental nature and origin is difficult to measure in concrete earthly criteria it may never be abusive or coerce people to do things that they would not normally do. The nature of religion in particular makes people vulnerable for abuse simply because of the belief that if God instructs believers must obey. This absolute authority is abused when a minister or religious leader establishes the belief with his followers that he/she hears directly from God and is representing God. The belief that the religious leader has godly sanctioning will give him or her unlimited authority that will lead to spiritual abuse. It is thus possible that members will do things that is out of the ordinary. When leaders are questioned about certain actions under their watch or leadership they simply justify it as “instructions from God” that they have only conveyed. Thus as mere conveyers of the instructions of God these leaders are exempted of any blame. Despite the fact that many followers are hurt in different religious groups as a result of the instructions of these leaders they believe that no finger can be pointed to them. These abusive leaders will also conveniently hide behind their right to religious freedom. The more important question that must be answered is: what about the rights of the followers that MUST be respected by the religious leader? The South African Constitution art. 15, clearly explains this right but also clearly indicates that participation in the activities of religion must be free and voluntary. The question is further, how free and voluntary can people act overshadowed by the belief that a religious leader holds a godly sanctioning and that disobedience to his/her instructions will result in some form of misfortune? Further, if followers are made to believe that obedience will bring them closer to God and ultimately result in their salvation but at the same time that disobedience will cause them to lose their salvation? This kind of rationalisation is made watertight by the fear-instilled belief that disobedience equals rebelling against God with consequences. From the above it seems clear that followers of some religious groups are placed in the proverbial “catch 22” situation that conveniently ensures unethical control over them not only in their earthly life but even their eternal destiny. This circular emotional/psychological dynamic definitely does not promote the concept of free and voluntary. A free and voluntary choice is based on the premise that a person when confronted with different choices applies his/her own logical, rational and emotional ability to decide. It does not mean that someone else subtly coerces an individual through their absolute authority and overrules individual choice. It stands to reason that religious leaders are viewed as figures of authority in society however this authority is not absolute. Religious leaders should remind themselves constantly of the possibility to abuse authority and put measures in place to ensure that it will not happen.
Can society simply look on while abusive religious leaders continue undisturbed? The answer is, NO! Society needs to be heard and must stand up for those entrapped in these religious groups that as a result of indoctrination and fear are not able to speak out. Society needs to be strong for those that are afraid that something bad will happen to them if they speak out.  One of the fundamentals of the South African Constitution is that humans must be treated with dignity.  This also applies to religious leaders.  They must treat their members with dignity and respect and ensure that their actions never infringe on their members’ rights or lead to undignified treatment.

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