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A model for regulating religious ‘charities’ in Ghana

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Ghana’s parliament is seeking to establish an independent institution to regulate Christian bodies and has accordingly commissioned a report. Since Christianity has globally been subject to state persecution, Christendom in Ghana is naturally apprehensive about Parliament’s orientation. This article discusses the issues involved and seeks to prescribe a model for resolving this sensitive and emotive subject.

What is parliament seeking to regulate?

When an industry needs to be regulated by the state, there are basically three broad areas: criminal, civil and regulatory or administrative law. Criminal acts refer to reprehensible conducts such as murder which are considered so serious that the state decides to prosecute the suspected offender.  Since Christian churches are subject to the criminal laws in this country it is not expected that this is parliament’s focus.

Civil law refers to private individuals bringing proceedings under civil provisions against another private entity or the state for wrongs they may have suffered. Examples of civil claims are breach of contract and judicial review. It is similarly doubtful that this is parliament’s intention.

Regulatory law refers to instances where an independent body is established by the state to regulate conducts and structures within an industry. A major objective of regulatory bodies is the protection of consumers or the vulnerable public. An example of such an institution is the General Legal Council in Ghana. It is arguable that parliament is seeking to establish a regulatory body since it refers to the establishment of an independent institution. It is thus logical to enquire why parliament is taking this step.

Background to parliament’s decision

Whilst the immediate trigger for parliament’s decision was a statement in the House by an MP, the broader background to this attempt to regulate conduct relates to concerns regarding churches parliament describes as ‘one man churches’ and those who profess a calling to the ‘prophetic ministry’. There are many reasons in Ghana for the criticisms against the conduct of ‘prophets’, one of the five-fold ministries in the Christian gospel.

A standard practice of making declarations of key events anticipated in the succeeding year has come under serious attacks in Ghana. This concern reached a disturbing level when it led to the aggressive destruction of property in a church in Ghana, in apparent response to a prophecy regarding the passing in 2019 of a Muslim leader in Ghana.

Critics of the prophets have also argued that their character and practices are inconsistent with the teachings of the Bible. In this regard reference can be made to the unprintable insults and abuse those professing the prophetic ministry in Ghana publicly hurl at each other.

The perceived fulfilment or non-fulfilment of some of the ‘prophetic declarations’ of these prophets is another issue of concern. Whilst some of the ‘prophecies’ by some of these ‘prophets’ have not come to pass, others appear or are believed to have come to pass. Often this is accompanied by the tragic spectacle of competition among the ‘prophets’ regarding the original author of such declarations.

Indeed some have questioned the seeming tragic content of these declarations that come from the lips of these prophets. It appears that most of these end of year declarations are prophecies portending the death often of generally important national secular leaders or celebrities. Naturally, some have wondered why this is the case.

Of recent concern has been the seeming extravagant and materialistic public boasts by the prophets or preachers regarding their material acquisitions. It is common to see public flaunting of expensive vehicles and lavish celebrations.

Responses to the criticisms

The Bible contain texts and accounts which have been proffered as grounds for such conducts. For instance, Jesus used a spittle which is saliva to heal a blind man. Jesus’ seamless coat has similarly been used to support seeming expensive lifestyles. There also appear to be varied Biblical reasons why prophecies do not come to pass such as Christians’ failure to pray as Paul advised Timothy.

The prophets have also referred to biblical examples such as Amoz prophesying about the death of King Hezekiah. It is equally possible for people to use Jesus’ description of his accusers of as generation of vipers to defend some of the languages used by some of these preachers and prophets and their seeming intolerance to criticisms. It is reasonable to ask whether some of these responses have been subject to sound exegesis.

Is there a case for state regulation of Christianity?

In light of such apparent biblical defences to the prophets and preachers conduct, is there a case for state regulation? Opponents of state regulation of Christian conducts argue that the right to freedom of religion is enshrined in the Constitution. Therefore state regulation would amount to infringement on their human rights. Though legally valid, it is not clear whether it is prudent for Christians to rely on human rights law to defend their right to worship.

A possible counter argument to this reliance on the Constitution is that freedom to practice religion is not absolute. Moreover, human rights law entitles a person to practice his profession under his right to private life, but it does not prevent the state from regulating the profession. Put simply, regulation does not necessarily amount to infringement on one’s human rights.

Some have argued that parliament’s posture is wrong because it is seeking to define who a Christian is when it has not got the ability to do so. This argument may be influenced by the fact that some Ghanaian Christians see these prophets as fake persons operating as angels of light.

There is force in the submission that some of these persons are false. However parliament is merely seeking to regulate those who profess Christianity and not passing a judgment on those who are true or false. Indeed, if Christians argue that these elements are fake, then it strengthens parliament’s stance, from a secular perspective, that they are regulated.

Some argue that Christianity is already regulated by existing bodies such as the Christian Council of Ghana, the Ghana Pentecostal Council, Council of Charismatics Churches, among others. The approach members of these institutions have adopted so far have been to teach their parishioners or the general public on how they can identify false prophets. Some members of these institutions, reasonably apprehensive about state intervention, want the status quo to continue.

A forceful scriptural basis for allowing the status quo to continue is Jesus’ parable of the wheat and tares or weeds. This account is generally acknowledged to mean that it is not advisable to attempt to uproot a bad thing that seems very identical to a good one because as you do so, you may inadvertently eliminate the good one. Christianity has brought undeniable benefits to humanity globally and since it is such a tiny minority in Ghana that is involved in questionable conducts many do not see why the state should interfere. This argument is forceful. However, for some reasons Christendom in Ghana must be involved in this quest by parliament.

First, if those whose conducts are complained of are false as some argue, then there has been a historical change in the nature, approach and duration of these activities that a case can be made for regulation.   Historically in Ghana, false preachers or prophets emerge briefly and vanish from the scene. Clearly, it is arguable that this is no longer the case, if some of those presently considered false are indeed so.

Secondly, the status quo prevents the existing Christians bodies such the Ghana Pentecostal Council from getting involved, even discreetly, to investigate and resolve concerns, even when it is in the national interest to do so. Indeed when any of them attempt to do so, these persons unleash unprintable language and insults. A preacher’s language and reaction to criticism is important. Although his arguments are in the main unsound, Bertrand Russell used among others Jesus’ description of his critics as generation of vipers to write his regrettably popular article ‘Why I am not a Christian’.

Thirdly, parliament’s stated objective of protecting the vulnerable is consistent with the Christian ethos of protecting the vulnerable in society. Paul said that “therefore, since God in his mercy has given us this new way, we never give up. We reject all shameful deeds and underhanded methods. We don’t try to trick anyone or distort the word of God. We tell the truth before God, and all who are honest know this.” (2 Corinthians 4: 1-2 NLT).

Fourthly, regulation, if properly pursued would enable the correction of a fundamental hermeneutical error made by some of these prophets and preachers; their failure to recognise that the Bible is interpreted contextually. The world of the Bible is largely a theocracy. Israel recognised God as its ruler and even abhorred kingship when it was introduced under the Prophet Samuel. Most nations of today are however multicultural, democratic, multilingual and multi religious. It is arguable to suggest therefore that this difference in context must be recognised in public preaching and prophetic declarations in particular.

A fifth reason why Christians in Ghana must work with parliament on this issue is that parliament’s approach to the issue is wrong. It is the present author’s submission that if the church does not take the lead and fashion the way forward, the world would as parliament is seeking to do. The fear is that it might not be good. Clearly the minorities’ ‘false teaching is like a little yeast that spreads through the whole batch of dough’, infecting the good churches.

The sole reason why the present author is writing this article is to put forward proposals that would prevent the world fashioning a regrettable path and imposing it on the church in Ghana.

What then is the way forward?

The present author’s broad recommendation is for a state backed self-regulation. The inspiration for the author’s proposal comes from a fusion of the historical regulation of the financial services industry and the regulation of charities in the United Kingdom.

Churches are charities. Incidentally there appears to be no statutory body mandated to regulate charities or non-governmental organisations in Ghana. Previous calls have not been curiously heeded. There is therefore the need first to establish a charity’s commission to regulate all charities in Ghana. This is long overdue. The abuses of vulnerable people in Ghana cuts across all religious groups and charities including those who profess to act as havens for the abused. Why should the focus be only on the Christian church?

Any effort at regulating the church must therefore be broad based, leading to the establishment of a charities commission. The Christian church in Ghana must therefore resist any regulatory steps focused only on Christianity. In this regard, the question as reportedly framed by parliament is wrong.

Secondly, since most religious and spiritual matters generally go beyond the basic appreciation of a secular independent body, the charity’s commission in Ghana, if established, would have to be given powers to delegate the regulation of the religious sector to relevant religious bodies-Christian, Islamic, among others. This is because religious or spiritual issues are fuzzy and better regulated by relevant religious bodies. For instance what does Parliament mean by ‘one man’ churches? Is parliament aware that most of the established churches of today began as one man churches?

The existing Christian groups regulate their members on a voluntary basis and therefore several of the churches are not part of these establishments. Pure voluntary self-regulation would thus not suffice. Consequently the author advocates state backed self-regulation. Moreover ensuring compliance and enforcement of provisions means that the body would need statutory powers.

It is further proposed that the existing religious bodies should have the freedom to decide whether they wish to amalgamate or operate as they do now. In short, the existing religious bodies must be allowed to deal with the details.

What would they regulate?

 Though non-exhaustive, the Christian regulatory body:

  • Must have a basic code of conduct for Christian groups to subscribe.
  • Must advise Christian churches and groups on how they can meet statutory taxation and secular legal obligations consistent with the Bible.
  • Must advise Christian churches and groups on how they can exist for charitable purpose; they must exist for public benefit or the advancement of religion.
  • Must advise Christian churches and groups on how they can meet local and national authorities’ regulations on environmental and noise pollution.
  • Must provide training to members. A core benefit of self-regulatory bodies is the availability of training and information for members.
  • May consider proposing a professional title of a Minister of Religion created with identifiable qualification requirements. These must include educational requirements including qualifications in theology from credible institutions. Whilst there would be no obligation to be an MR to do the work of God such as using any of the five-fold ministry labels, there should be if an individual wishes to use the MR title professionally.

It is inevitable that charities and NGOs would one day be regulated. Therefore the Christian leadership in Ghana must lead the efforts to correct this longstanding lack of regulation of charities in general and Christian churches in particular. It is believed these proposals would assist in creating credible charitable institutions in Ghana.

Columnist:  Gilbert Ato Crentsil

Email: gcrentsil@yahoo.com

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