Re-Framing The Cult: The Case Of The Nigerian Church


The term “cult” is commonly understood as a group or system exhibiting extreme devotion to a particular figure, object, or belief system, often under the leadership of a charismatic individual. But looking deeper into its meaning reveals divergent interpretations among different groups.

Many mainstream religious sects associate “cult” with fringe groups engaging in unorthodox and sometimes malevolent practices. However, there has been a growing awareness of the perversion of religion within Nigeria, prompting a deeper examination of the role that faith plays in shaping societal dynamics. 

As stories of religious leaders engaging in abusive practices and exploitation of their followers come to light, it becomes increasingly evident that religion, touted as a force for moral guidance and communal unity, is often wielded as a tool for personal gain and control. 

Describing everything as a cult is reflective of the modern sensationalization of “cults” , but as a broad lens for understanding today’s world, it offers insight. We all grasp onto some overarching ideal, whether it’s rooted in faith or simply a concept that provides stability beyond ourselves. 

Yet, upon closer examination, the distinctions between these so-called “cults” and established religious sects blur. Ultimately, both are driven by what resonates with their followers and holds appeal, often leading to division and exclusion within society.

Religion often fulfils this role of providing stability, recognising our inherent human desires and limitations in satisfying them. The patterns of content consumption, fan communities, online tribalism, and even various industries, such as fashion, all exhibit elements reminiscent of cult behaviour.

Examining religious sects alongside football or music fan communities and traditional cults may initially suggest stark differences, yet their fundamental principles often converge. In each scenario, there exists a central figure or entity held in high esteem, almost to the point of infallibility. 

This idolisation makes it challenging, if not impossible, for adherents to consider the possibility of their revered figure being wrong. Whether it’s religious clerics, cult leaders, musicians, or football players, they all experience this glamourisation by their respective fans, followers, or congregation.

This comparison becomes clearer when we overlook extreme instances like mass suicides or violent standoffs, and instead view cults as entities or movements rallying around the notion that mainstream norms are fundamentally flawed because, at the end of the day, respective followers will do whatever they can for their leaders. 

In the context of Nigerian churches, the dynamics between pastors and congregations often exhibit shades of cult-like behaviour, with leaders assuming an almost divine status and followers displaying unwavering loyalty and obedience. One prominent example is the late TB Joshua, founder of The Synagogue, Church of All Nations (SCOAN), whose charismatic presence and purported miracles drew millions of followers from around the world.

This viral BBC documentary exposed instances of manipulation, exploitation, and abuse within the church, raising serious concerns about the conduct of its founder, the late TB Joshua, and the treatment of its followers.

Take also the case of Bishop David Oyedepo, a prominent Nigerian preacher, entrepreneur, and founder of the Living Faith Church Worldwide, also known as Winners’ Chapel. He is also known for his strong stance against poverty and his support for various educational and humanitarian initiatives through the church’s affiliated institutions, including Covenant University and Landmark University.

Allegations of bullying and other forms of misconduct involving Bishop David Oyedepo and students of his university have surfaced over the years, stirring controversy and raising questions about the accountability of religious leaders. Despite these allegations, Oyedepo’s followers remain steadfast in their support, viewing him not only as a spiritual leader but also as a messenger of their faith.

The chasm between supporters and critics of Oyedepo reflects the complexities of navigating faith, power, and loyalty within religious communities, which is also found amidst cults, speaking of cults;

Pastor Iren, of CCI (Celebration Church International), caused a stir on the internet when he drew a comparison between two fervent worshipping fanatics, hinting at a layer of underlying threat in his tweet. 

The culture of bullying individuals who hold differing views from their faith, often resorting to tactics like laying curses on them, is deeply concerning and indeed echoes characteristics associated with cult behaviour. While thankfully rare cases of religious fanatics resorting to bloodshed do occur, the more prevalent form of coercion seen in some religious communities can be equally damaging, albeit in a different way.

The double-edged sword is a fitting personification of religion, at least in the way it is practiced by many people. A question about your faith is not an attack on your being but a call for inner reflection. If you feel threatened, then something is likely on shaky ground. And while not everything can be labelled as a cult, using this framework offers valuable insight into the dynamics of power, loyalty, and influence present in church contexts.

Edited by Amirah Deji-Abiola and Nasir Ahmed Achile

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