24/11/2016 07:50 GMT

The Doom Pastor Shows Us How Self Regulation Is Failing Too Many South African Churches

Certain churches across Africa need a wake-up call when it comes to accountability.

Photographs on Mount Zion General Assembly's Facebook page show Lethebo Rabalago spraying the insecticide in people's faces.

The outcry over self-proclaimed prophet Lethebo Rabalago has reached fever pitch and now there is talk of a regulatory body for churches.

It's the sort of thing that would make any pastor break out in hives. A regulatory church body? Initiated by a state-funded institution? It's a story straight of the history books, and not one that has ended well. The Limpopo-based pastor has achieved notoriety and made headlines for spraying Doom, an insecticide, into his congregants face.

He claims it is a healing mechanism, and his congregants at Mount Zion General Assembly swear that it works.

This is proving to be a problem for The Commission for the Promotion and Protection of the Rights of Cultural, Religious and Linguistic Communities (CRL). Until Rabalago's followers remain consenting adults, they say their hands are tied.

That's why the CRL are proposing a regulatory body be established for churches in South Africa, preferably as a peer-review structure for now.

The CRL Rights Commission chairperson Thoko Mkhwanazi-Xaluva told EWN it was important the religious sector be formalised to avoid such incidents. "We need to pass the regulations and legislations that we are proposing and that we believe can protect communities and congregants."

It's a solution that has been proposed elsewhere on the continent.

Kenya's President Uhuru Kenyatta has also called for the regulation of churches to stamp out bogus organisations. "They are thieves and not preachers. We have to consult and know how to remove them," the president has said.

Pastors from these sorts of churches typically react by retreating into a distorted biblical victimhood, saying that being followers of Christ invites opposition. Rabalago told local journalists he is already "arrested in Christ".

If talks of regulation gain traction, we could well expect a backlash, even if it is a peer mechanism. But if done right we should all, Christians included, support it.

Sensational stories of pastors using dangerous methods to "heal" their congregants have become a fixture of South African news.

Lesego Daniel from Rabboni Ministries in Pretoria famously instructed members of his congregation to drink petrol. In 2014, Facebook images on the church's website also showed his followers eating grass and flowers on his orders, according to a round-up by the BBC.

Penuel Mnguni from End Times Disciples Ministries was trained under Daniel, and earned the epithet "snake pastor" after images showed him feeding his followers snakes and rats.

They are terrifying stories that speak to straight up exploitation of church-goers.

We would need more details about the regulatory body to understand whether it would do the job of stopping these sort of abuses.

Of course the idea of a regulatory body may well be anathema to many churches in South Africa. While more traditional ecumenical churches are used to being governed to a certain extent by larger structures, say the global Anglican church, churches where these practices thrive are not.

The mushrooming of a particular bent of evangelical, charismatic Christianity across Africa often comes with very little oversight. Churches are left to their own devices and can decide who they are in relationship with.

Lead pastors, even if they are part of a larger leadership structure, are often accountable to no one, unless they choose to be accountable, in the spiritual sense, to other leaders inside or outside the church.

Unfortunately the corrupting power of ultimate authority is the very reason leaders of every other organisation, from the state to business, have multiple checks and balances in place to hold that power to account. CEOs report to their boards and presidents, as the head of the executive, should (ideally) be balanced out against the powers of the judiciary and legislature.

For stand-alone evangelical churches the man at the top is just that (and generally exclusively a man, too). The concentration of power is inexplicable when people's lives and often their meagre income is dependent on it. For, of course, this is really a story about money: churchgoers are generally expected to tithe 10% of their income to a church. It can be a beautiful act when done in a way that lifts up the entire community. Too often, devastating exploitation follows instead when money is apportioned without seeking the congregation's input or worse still channelled into massive salaries for leaders.

In this context a regulatory body is necessary. The act governing the CRL speaks mostly to the promoting of traditional religions and customs; not the regulation thereof. It is a Chapter Nine institution.

Regulations are of course a scary concept: ask the media. We too self-regulate and spurn any attempts of external regulation, particularly by the state. The church too should be left independent, as it should leave the state alone.

But that would be true in a normal situation. Any particular sphere of society should ideally be left to fulfill its purposes. The exception is when there are incidents of such distortion of that original purpose that people are being harmed, which means another sphere within society has to intervene.

If, within a family, there is an abusive parent the state must intervene. If the state abuses its citizens, civil society, the judiciary and other spheres must intervene. And if churches fail to fulfill their mandates so spectacularly and don't self-regulate effectively, the state is fully within their rights to intervene and force better internal regulation.