By Tau Tawengwa
“My father in the Lord reverent Tim Omotoso gave my life back he reminded me that I am a human being, when I lost hope didn’t know myself at all, devel (sic) used me a lot but go to JDI was a blessing to me because teachings of my father wake up my soul now I can pray, I can read bible loving of gospel music my life has totaly (sic) changed through Dady (sic). May God bless JDI”
The above statement was extracted from the Facebook page of Jesus Dominion International Church– a seemingly charismatic religious movement located in Durban South Africa led by Nigerian pastor Timothy Omotoso who is currently on trial for racketeering, human trafficking and sexual assault.
Like many others, the ongoing Tim Omotoso trial has caught my attention.
Of course, like anyone else he is innocent until proven guilty and he should be afforded the right to defend himself in court.
Nevertheless, the allegations of sexual assault and the circumstances under which the alleged sexual offences occurred (according to witness and former congregant Cheryl Zondi) makes one wonder why a so-called “man of God” would allow himself into such compromising positions in the first place.
For instance why were female church congregants living in his house?
Why would a church leader allow himself to be in a bedroom alone with a woman that is not his wife?
The ongoing melee concerning Tim Omotoso took me back to my university notes, from a few years ago when I did research on a Pentecostal church in Pretoria.
After reading around the matter, I resolved to determine two things in this article.
Firstly, whether or not Tim Omotoso’s group can be sociologically defined as a formal religious institution or conversely as a religious cult.
Secondly to determine how society can prevent or thwart the operations of cults and crime syndicates disguised as religious groups.
While Omotoso’s movement is definitely charismatic in the context that it embraces ‘charismata’ or spiritual gifts (which include speaking in tongues, healing by touch and prophesying) ostensibly it seems to fall short of a formal religious institution.
Below I’ve listed the characteristics of a formal religious institution according to sociologists.
Firstly, a religious institution must consist of a group of at least six people with established patterns of interaction, common goals and shared norms.
Secondly, a religious institution must have a clear structure and division of labour must be present in the group in the sense that each member has a specific role.
Essentially a religious institution must portray a form of hierarchy, and the individual members must feel and express a sense of identification with the group.
Third, a religious institution must be guided by a body of beliefs in the form of a sacred book sacred (eg .The Bible, The Koran, The Book of Mormon, and the Bhagavad -Gita etc)
Fourthly, a religious institution is characterized by a set of practices, rituals, worship dances and prayers.
Finally (and, perhaps most importantly) a religious institution must impart clear moral prescriptions in the form of strict differentiation between good thoughts or practices from bad.
Now I must highlight here that until I read about his arrest last year, I didn’t know about Tim Omotoso or his group.
This means that I like many others only have the information availed by Tim Omotoso on various social media platforms to judge whether or not we can categorize his group as a genuine religious institution.
Below are some of the observations I’ve made.
Firstly, neither the website nor the Facebook pages attributed to Omotoso’s group make any explicit reference to a church constitution, or a document of any kind which shows a hierarchy, a division of labour or organogram.
The absence of a constitution tacitly implies that the group is not governed by any formal or codified rules, and that is unlike a formal religious institution.
In short, from the information available online, the church has no official structure outside of Tim Omotoso himself- it is arguably a one man show.
This is problematic because it’s never good news for an unsuspecting congregation to be under the authoritarian leadership of a charismatic cleric who is not bound by any church constitution with clear rules.
Furthermore, the “one man show” issue raises a red flag, as history contains several examples of such cults claiming to be Christian churches, yet led by psychopaths.
One example is Jim Jones, founder of the Peoples Temple of the Disciples of Christ in which Jones fused Pentecostal preaching with the revolutionary ideals of the Sixties and Seventies.
Ultimately, Jones convinced his followers to move to a site in Guyana infamously known as “Jonestown.”
Soon after migrating to Guyana, the “Jonestown massacre” of 18 November 1978 occurred, where 918 of Jones’s followers (304 of whom were children) were persuaded to consume poisonous “Kool-Aid” leading to their deaths.
It was a mass-suicide and remains one of the greatest tragedies in American history.
Ms Wagner-Wilson, a survivor of Jonestown, had this to say:
“There’s a need. People want to be a part of something. They want to feel safe; they want to feel a sense of community.
“There are still folks out there and they are running under the guise of religious organisations. I just want people to be careful. I want Jonestown to be a lesson.”
The escape of Ms Wagner Wilson from Jonestown betrays the existence of fear and anxiety among Jim Jones’s followers.
This is important, because fear and anxiety within a religious group is also indicative of a cult.
If members of any group ever at all start to fear the leader, or fear their fellow congregants for any reason, that is the moment that they should leave that group.
Psychologists say that fear is the human emotion that alerts us to the presence of danger… so I repeat, the moment that one starts to fear a religious leader, that is the moment one should leave the group.
The sociologically recognized characteristics of a cult are:
Authoritarian Leadership- Meaning all power and authority over the group resides in the leader as was the case with Jim Jones.
Exclusivism- Cults often believe that they alone have the truth. The cult views itself as the single means of salvation on earth.
Isolationism- Cults can require members to renounce and break off associations with parents and siblings.
Opposition to Independent Thinking- Some cultic groups discourage members from thinking independently and teach their members that the proper response is merely to submit.
Fear of Being “Disfellowshiped”– in cults people are urged to remain faithful to avoid being “disfellowshiped,” or disbarred, from the group.
Threats of Satanic Attack- Finally, as mentioned earlier, cults often use fear and intimidation to keep members in line. For example members may be told that Satan will attack them. Such fear tactics are designed to induce submission.
As I mentioned earlier Tim Omotoso is innocent until proven guilty.
In that light perhaps I don’t have enough information about his organisation and its operations in order to label it “a cult”, although ostensibly, his group is leaning in that direction.
I’m sure that the various witness accounts during the course of his trial will give us a clearer picture.
But still, he must be given a chance to defend himself in court.
Having said that, and in conclusion, I think it’s important for us as members of society to encourage more discussions focused around religious groups, their practices and doctrines.
Such discussions should take place in the mainstream media, in schools, in the workplace and even in families.
While I for one strongly believe in freedom of religion and freedom of association, I also think that it’s important for members of society to conscientize each other on what constitutes “good faith” or “bad faith” (i,e: good or bad religious practices).
In my view, the best way to empower members of society against cults is by conscientizing people on what a cult is, and how to identify a cult. That way people will empowered to make better decisions on whether or not to join a particular religious group.
One thing for sure is that there is an increasingly dangerous trend of fantasy religiosity occurring throughout Africa under the guise of Charismatic Pentecostalism.
Nowadays there seems to be an oversupply of “prophets” who thrive on the mystically bizarre.
In recent times we have heard about congregants who were made to eat snakes and sometimes grass by their “prophet” leaders.
In Zimbabwe we have heard of the so-called “prophets” speaking about “miracle money,” miracle pens” and “anointed condoms.”
Perhaps these “prophets” thrive because of the predominant poverty on the continent and the desperation of the people for quick-fix solutions.
Whatever the reason, the best way to protect our people from cults, is to ensure that they are empowered to make better choices through educational and informative programs.
Tau Tawengwa is a researcher and published author based in Harare. You can reach him on [email protected] or Twitter: Tau Tawengwa @zimrays