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{UAH} Why Serwada is wrong on Legislating Born Again Churches

by Robert Kirunda

Why Serwada is wrong on Legislating Born Again Churches

I read with interest the article published in The New Vision of Monday June 19th 2016 authored by Joseph Serwadda under the title Why Legislation on Born Again Churches is Necessary. I have also noted that the matter has gained an amount of attention in the mainstream and social media. It certainly is a matter worthy of critical attention. At the centre of the matter seems to be a policy in the offing at the Ministry of Ethics and Integrity. While Joseph Serwadda and his ilk (many of whom remain in the shadows) are forceful in their arguments for some form of regulation of born again churches, there are those voices who argue that the motives are ill informed and the policy unnecessary.

So far as I am aware, the issue is not new and Joseph Serwadda is the one consistent voice in advocating for a "policy" or a law to regulate balokole or to somehow have government work with balokole to restore the constantly declining moral scales of the Ugandan society (see for instance The New Vision article Religious Leaders want stake in Government April 17th 2015). where the same Joseph Serwadda castigated Ministry of Ethics and Integrity for failing to restore morality, which failure – in his view – was caused by government not working with balokole). It is important that we revisit the issue with both perspective and sincerity.

Serwadda's missive serves to bring some historical facts to light. He does leave out some facts like those prominent figures in Uganda's opposition who once suggested the banning of biwempe churches because these churches posed a security threat to the then fragile and fairly young NRM/A government. Nonetheless, Serwadda's historical perspective in underscoring the fact that the "born again" church has undergone quite a long and mostly turbulent past.

Serwadda is also right when he points out some of the internal problems within the body of Christ today. Some of the issues he highlights include the existence of "fake" pastors, questions of infidelity, unchastity and theological error, which as he puts it, have ashamed Uganda. He raises a litany of points and it is not my intention to dismiss them.
But there are a number of reasons why Joseph Serwadda is wrong and his zeal misplaced at best. Space constraints do not allow me to offer him the legal exegesis on why and how wrong the policy is. In this piece, I will deal with the "non legal/technical" reasons.

There is simply no foundation for the assertion that the sole or even most prominent cause of the Kanungu inferno or Kibwetere saga as he calls it, was the failure of the NGO Board to weed out the wheat from the chaff. To argue as much would be to argue that since then, there are no cults in Uganda or that every organization that has been under the watch, registration, licensing and in the knowledge of government is legitimate. This would defeat his very subsequent assertion that there are "fake" ministers in the country today.

More importantly, there are ministries just as old with which Joseph Serwadda and the wider body of Christ have legitimate issues on doctrine and other matters. Why has government not shut them down yet? In some cases, the head of state has graced the functions of these somewhat objectionable ministries. The issues with Kanungu were certainly deeper than could have been avoided by a policy or legislation. Is the Kanungu inferno defensible or even desirable, absolutely not. Would a policy or legislation ensure that it never happens again? Certainly not.

Serwadda seems to waver between identifying a "home" for balokole in the legal framework and ensuring compliance with regulatory requirements. Whichever weighs on his heart the most, the man of God ought to remember that there is in place a legal framework that governs registration of ministries. Serwadda makes this point quite well when he says there has never been a time when balokole churches are not regulated. One is left wondering why he deems it necessary to add a layer of regulation. Many of these ministries are registered as Companies limited by guarantee or as NGos. Under the new framework, even companies limited by guarantee that want to do work for which the NGO board will be responsible will be required to get a permit to operate.

The smart legal thing to do for any ministry is to actually opt for a multi layered approach. This is not unusual or even cumbersome. It has its advantages. But that is another matter all together. Suffice it to say that what is lacking is not clarity on where a ministry should register or belong. Any vigilant person desiring to comply with Uganda's laws can have the answers to this question in the shortest time possible. In fact, I am quite certain that Pastor Serwadda's church or ministry is registered and I do hope it is compliant under whatever regime it is registered.

Serwadda is quick to point out that the issues he raises are not restricted to balokole. He also adds some layers of distinction between balokole and other sections of society that are quite important. Interestingly, his prescription to these challenges is legislating for them all. And yet, not a single muslim or catholic voice seems to be as keen on this pursuit as he is. The catholic church is no stranger to internal controversy. No faith or denomination is. But I have yet to hear them push for a policy, let alone one that legislates morality.

Serwadda complains of "self appointed and media created pastors/"ministers" which in his view cannot point to a church they have established or one they attend." It seems to this man of God that there must be an authority to appoint one into the ministry. This is not the worst idea ever. But for every self appointed minister he will show him, I will show him ministers he respects or ought to respect whose appointment they attribute only to God almighty, many of them with churches that sit members far larger than his congregation and do so more successfully. It would be interesting for Joseph Serwadda to help us understand the foundation of his forcefully asserted credentials as "Presiding Apostle" and how wide the section of balokole he potends to preside over is. I certainly do not believe he has the approval let alone blessing of the droves of balokole in this country or their leaders.

Which brings me to his next point: Serwadda is grossly mistaken to even suggest that the proof of legitimacy of a ministry is that it must have started or be superintending over a church. An example even non-balokole will easily recognize is the Billy Graham Evangelistic Association and its sister organization Samaritans Purse. So far as I know, these organizations were not responsible for the planting of a single church. But their impact on the body of Christ and indeed the society in the United States and the rest of the world needs no explanation. Fulfilling the great commission or the God given mandate of a Christian is not about only planting churches and superintending them. Joseph Serwadda is a knowledgeable man. He knows that the call and task is much larger than this.

The article attempts to make a case for the need for Balokole to "belong" somewhere. I shudder when I read the obsession for belonging. In my little understanding of the gospel on which the balokole are based, the followers of Jesus Christ ought to be known more by their fruits than their titles or affiliations. It seems to me that there is a deeper obsession here with titles and powers to appoint and disappoint people into ministry than there is to set things straight in the body of Christ. I will use two simple points to fortify this assertion.

After the Kanungu inferno of which Serwadda like many church leaders were legitimately concerned, leaders among the balokole started the National Fellowship of Born Again Churches. It is my recollection that Joseph Serwadda was part of the initial leadership of this Fellowship. It has remained in place since and from what I gather, has done quite a number of things with modest success. The circumstances of his departure from his fellow leaders and his eventual exit from this wider section of the balokole leadership are his story to tell. And if we are discussing motives and solutions to problems in the body, it is a story that the Ugandan people deserve to know.

The second point is that what Joseph Serwadda is advocating for has resulted in an obvious division in the body of Christ, not just with older ministers with whom he parted ways in the National Born Again fellowship but also and perhaps especially with these "self appointed ministers" he is critical of. What he forgets is that when he founded his ministry decades ago, he was just like them. Joseph Serwadda has quickly forgotten the lessons of the history he attempts to teach the younger generation. I struggle to see the difference between the hostility he faced as the "new entity" that was encroaching on the space of the traditional churches of the time and the vociferous attacks he levies on the younger ministries of today. How sad it is that he is now kicking away the very ladder he ought to put in place. I have my long list of issues with some of these ministries and their leaders, as well as their message. But I know better ways to resolve these disputes and legislating around them is certainly the worst of ideas.

Joseph Serwadda makes a good point about securing the rights of future generations to worship as they see fit. He misses a very simple point: this was done by providing for these God given rights in the 1995 Constitution. Where the framers thought more detailed legislation was necessary, they said so. This was not the case with religious freedoms. This was not a mistake. Legislating religion in detail is a bad idea. Period.

I have read at least two versions of the draft Policy to which Serwadda is generous in praise. It seems to me as an attempt to legislate morality. I am yet to find a single country in the world that has done this successfully while protecting fundamental freedoms. In its current form, the policy will result in a law that is ambiguous and unenforceable at best. If the need is to repair the moral deficit of society and the choice is between the law and the gospel, I would vote for the gospel. I am intrigued that a man of God would vote otherwise.

The writer is a practicing advocate and Christian

"When a man is stung by a bee, he doesn't set off to destroy all beehives"

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