Apollo Quiboloy is one of the most popular Filipino preachers today. His campaigns draw thousands of people in search of the miracles that he never fails to promise. His crusade slogan says in big letters, ‘Jesus, the Name above every name!’ And in that name the preacher intones to his congregation, ‘All your debts will vanish, your sicknesses will be healed; the unemployed will find five job alternatives; and, in proportion to the measure of your faith, so will be your cash rewards!’ The hearers respond with loud applause. Because of his popularity, he is sought after by politicians, eager to gain his endorsement in elections.
Neglect of doctrine
Quiboloy is one of many such preachers in the Philippines who have defined the nation’s Christianity in the last two decades. The apparent growth of Bible-holding Christianity has been nothing less than phenomenal. The zeal of Philippine ‘Christianity’ is the envy of other countries. The numbers of professions of faith, church-planting projects, and para-church movements have increased many times. On the media, evangelical and charismatic religious programmes outnumber traditional Catholic programmes. Roman Catholic bishops have been so alarmed at the loss of their members that, in 1989, they issued a public warning to their flock. In the past everyone’s religious slogan was ‘Catolico cerrado’ (closed Catholic); today it is, ‘I’m born again!’
What is the true nature of Philippine Christianity? Filipinos have a word for their national character (based on the name, Filipino). It is ‘Pinoy’. Well, the character of Philippine Christianity is ‘very Pinoy’. It is P – Politically competitive; I – Inclusivist; N – Neglectful of doctrine; O – Ocular in its focus on miracles; Y – Youthful in its emotionalism. From the perspective of biblical Christianity, all is definitely not well.
The intrusion of the Roman Catholic Church into the political arena is taken for granted. Since the overthrow of Marcos in 1986 that intrusion has increased dramatically. It is now normal for the chief prelate, Jaime Cardinal Sin, to issue pastoral letters criticising government policies. There is also a large cult called the ‘Iglesia ni Cristo’ (Church of Christ) which denies the most fundamental of evangelical beliefs and whose members vote according to the instruction of its leader. Again, politicians seek its endorsement.
Evangelicals and charismatics are new to politics, but have quickly been assimilated into the political culture. In the 1992 elections, Eddie Villanueva, leader of the ‘Philippines for Jesus Movement’, the largest group of evangelical charismatics, openly supported the candidacy of the Protestant Fidel Valdez Ramos. It was not just an endorsement in political terms, but one in which ‘prophetic’ revelation was invoked. From a field of seven candidates Ramos won, and gratefully afforded Villanueva and his group a taste of political power. Encouraged by this, Villanueva and his charismatics took part in the 1998 presidential campaign with even greater vigour.
Prevented by the Constitution from running for a second term, Ramos designated the Speaker of the House of Representatives, Jose de Venecia, to be his successor. Sure enough, charismatics and fundamentalists joined forces and threw in their support behind de Venecia. In a huge rally, they announced, ‘Jesus’ Declaration of Victory’ (the initials of their candidate, JDV). Prophecies were once more invoked. God’s cause was identified with the cause of the candidate. Alas, when the dust settled, it was not JDV but another man, Joseph Estrada, who won the elections!
In the aftermath of this embarrassment, no one suggested that the whole idea of a church as a political force was wrong. While the church is to be obedient to the government and seek to uphold lawful authority, Caesar cannot be an ally of the gospel. As long as Christianity is a tool for politicians, it will fall far short of its calling. But there is something addictive about the taste of political power.
To stem the leakage from its ranks, Roman Catholicism has now adopted ‘evangelical’ methods and vocabulary. Bible-study groups have mushroomed among its laity. Evangelical hymnody is used. Imagine John Newton’s ‘Amazing Grace’ being sung by a Catholic congregation! It seems that Roman Catholicism is becoming ‘born again’ and that ‘gospel faith’ envelops Catholics and evangelicals alike.
But appearances are deceptive. The largest charismatic group is the Catholic ‘El Shaddai’. Its leader, Bro. Mike Velarde, is a Catholic layman. Yet his language closely resembles that of evangelical charismatics. He has provided the Catholics with a charismatic identity, without requiring them to renege on Catholic loyalties.
This failure to draw clear lines of demarcation is observable at all levels. Church leaders, seminary professors, and Christian organisations all share an overriding concern to unite whatever their particular distinctives. Liberation theology is widely accepted, the continuation of miraculous gifts is assumed, the Calvinist-Arminian debate has hardly even begun, and now the Catholic-Protestant divide is set aside.
Traditional evangelicals and evangelical charismatics have found justification for their inclusivist approach in the document Evangelicals and Catholics Together. No longer are Catholics seen as the objects of gospel-mission; they have become fellow missionaries.
In its neglect of doctrine, Philippine Christianity demonstrates its American roots. Most missionaries in the Philippines are Americans. Filipino Christians read American authors, with their fixation on the psychological and inspirational. Harold Sala is a favorite author. His ‘insights’ on self-esteem and inner healing are tailor-made for Filipinos, who detest intellectual exercise. What captures the attention of the Filipino is the bombastic, jocular and melodramatic; indeed, anything that gives him a good feeling.
‘The cross’ still seems to be a favourite theme in the churches, but it is not proclaimed as the place where God declared his righteousness in justifying believers by punishing a sinless Christ. Rather, the message of the cross is obscured in the ‘governmental’ and ‘moral influence’ theories of the atonement. But nobody cares – a heretical cross still makes people feel good!
As for the doctrine of justification by faith, pulpit and pew alike are ignorant of the issues that were at stake in the Reformation. The feel-good factor is substitute for the assurance of sins forgiven. The terminology of deliverance from guilt and condemnation through Christ’s propitiatory work is strange to the average Philippine Christian churchgoer. ‘Speaking in tongues’ has become more familiar than the vocabulary of the gospel.
The Filipino idea of faith is belief in the visibly miraculous. From his Catholic childhood the average Filipino is brought up on stories of Mary’s apparitions, miracles connected with icons, and wonders occurring during religious festivals. When this same Catholic is ‘converted’ to an evangelical or charismatic faith, he often carries his baggage of ‘miracle-faith’ with him.
The appetite for what is visibly sensational can lead to the ugly spectacle of competition between rival crusades. Which group can lay claim to the most spectacular miracles? Who is the best miracle-working preacher? One crusader challenged all his fellow preachers to expose themselves to being riddled with bullets – the one who remained uninjured would be the true man of God!
Such emphases, purporting to exalt the power of God, have become a pretext for limiting the Almighty. Gone is a vibrant doctrine of God’s providence, that God works his purposes out through the ordinary events of life. Gone too is a Christ-focused faith that submits to God’s dealings, believing that the most important thing is not my temporary happiness, but conformity to Jesus Christ.
Christian meetings have to be exciting and emotional to be well supported. Music must be prominent. A crowd in the Philippines means youth, for young people comprise over 60% of the population. Show-biz personalities, actors and actresses are all represented. It is this excitement that is sustaining the ‘gains’ of many churches. This writer recently spoke in a conference on the need to make the Word of God central to worship. During the open forum, a local Christian radio anchorman protested that, if this were done, no young people would remain in his church! One wonders how many of those who now pack churches and crusades would be there with joy if the doctrines of grace were expounded.
Without a solid faith, that rests on a faithfully expounded Word of God, the paraphernalia of excitement, emotions and miracles are worthless husks. But there are small beginnings of a movement for true reformation in the Philippines. The full flowering of this awakening may lie in that distant future when the charismatic movement is spent. Even now there are questioning minds; and good Reformed literature is helping in this direction. A number of churches, founded on the doctrines of grace, have been established in the past generation. Several Reformation Conferences attended by church leaders have taken place over recent years. Those present have demonstrated an inquiring spirit and openness to the truth. Could this small cloud, some day, become a shower of blessing?