Can you hear the quiet hum? It’s the sound of millions across the country praying. The Church of Iglesia ni Cristo, commonly referred to as the INC, is one of the most politically and culturally influential religious groups in the Philippines. A homegrown religion founded by Felix Manalo in 1914, membership in INC has grown to over two million domestically with significant presence around the world. However, despite having a significant following in the country, it attracts as much suspicion as it does devotion.
To believers, it is the source of truth and salvation. But to outsiders, it is an organization shrouded in secrecy and mystery. Public murmurs only grew louder after a leadership controversy in 2015 among the Manalo clan made significant headlines as Eduardo Manalo, the founder’s grandson and incumbent Executive Minister, excommunicated his brother and mother.
We talked to three Lasallians who are members of the denomination in an effort to better understand INC and clear the air of confusion. All three of them asked to be anonymous; a request taken with utmost earnest. These are their testimonials; they’re not meant to be representative of the entire INC youth, only of their personal relationship with their religion.
Of the many INC practices those looking from the outside in think of, the custom that comes to mind first is that of avoiding the popular dish dinuguan because of pig’s blood as the main ingredient. Alejandro* explains that this is because INC believes that “blood is the river of life and Jesus gave his blood for us to be cleansed of sins so therefore blood is holy and should not be eaten.” Similarly, he wants to clarify that despite the popular belief that members of the INC are required to donate ten percent of their total income to the church, this isn’t true. “Members are encouraged to give whatever they want, so anybody could actually just give one peso and it’ll be okay.”
It is important that we understand that they are our friends, neighbors, and colleagues. They aren’t a faceless mob but real people with feelings and dreams just like normal people. “We’re common people. We live the same life as you do. We live in the same Philippines.” Sam* says.
Sam claims that most INC members believe that misconceptions about INC are amplified by biased media coverage. But while the media is inaccurate at times, Sam shares that, “I think INC members just can’t accept that we’re not perfect,“ While Ruby* generally shares the same sentiments as Sam, Alejandro has a very different opinion. Alejandro confesses that he thinks the media hasn’t portrayed enough about the INC to accurately portray the numerous “dark secrets” behind the facade. “Trust me, it’s suffocating. I feel like I’m choking every time I go inside that church. Even the thought of having to go to church forces the air out of me and I can’t breathe, and the anxiety starts to build up and I just can’t anymore.” Alejandro empathetically confesses.
Yet, even with media conditioning up in the air, there still are some practices done within the religion that have been attested to be questionable at best, and deplorable at worst. Some stereotypes that we’ve come to associate with INC such as these are more benign in nature. But others may lead us to demonize them.
“I agree with what the [pastors] teach. But I disagree with how they teach it. How they want you to practice it is exaggerated,” Sam comments as he notes several examples to this point. “The doctrines make [members] bigoted. They hate gay people and live-in partners. They hate anything immoral to the point that they’re being immoral too. They criticize them and tell them ‘you can’t be saved’. I used to be like that too.” Though Sam does note that his church’s condemning rhetoric is also sadly echoed by the general public.
Alejandro agrees by saying that being both bisexual and INC was difficult to reconcile. “My church believed I was nothing more than a sin, being bisexual, but I always knew I liked both boys and girls even before I knew that it wasn’t the dominant perspective in society. They think that all LGBTs are filth, and that they are sinners, and that they have no place in ‘the holy city’.” he shares. The agony of living every day knowing that the people you go to church with deem you unworthy, of being “dirty” has given Alejandro a negative perception of his former religion.
He also cites the sexist and misogynistic treatment of women in the religion as something he opposes. “The other day, they were preaching that women should be submissive to higher authorities,” he recounts. One time, he remembers a minister questioning the attendees on why they’re tempted to marry outside the religion when “there is an abundance of ‘beautiful, sexy, thin, and wife-material’ women within the church.” The conflict between his personal beliefs and the INC’s teachings have led to him becoming an atheist. But he still regularly attends church so as not to hurt his family. “I hid my atheism so as not to hurt them. But eventually, I opened up to them just last year because it was already too much for me.”
In recent years, Sam has noticed a deliberate and concerning trend that coincided with the shift in administration and the subsequent power struggles within INC. He notes, “I think they’re radicalizing the church. It [wasn’t] like this before. Our family still believes in the Bible and teachings of the INC, pero it’s more of the administration of the INC that we don’t trust,” He discusses these issues in the context of comparing the new church leadership to the previous one. “I like the INC the way it was before which is more soft. They’re more about caring for the members.” Ruby believes that despite one’s passionate beliefs, it is also important for people to be more open-minded and tolerant of the diversity in the people that surround us.
Sam claims that the effects of the power struggle and radicalizing trend manifests itself in the tone and attitudes of the pastors. Particularly, he speaks of a generational divide amongst the church’s ministers. He states that the older pastors, who were trained under the previous leadership, are more moderate and less partisan in tone. “Before, when you become a pastor in the INC, it is out of faith and calling. They’re more of live your life but be kind and follow the teachings of the Bible.” He adds that the older ministers tend to be less concerned about money and had a more compassionate attitude towards the less fortunate members of the church.
He feels that the younger ministers are no longer working out of concern for the flock, but rather to impress the leadership so as to obtain a promotion that would give them a larger sum of money–very much akin to that of a corporate ladder. He also recalled a particular line from a younger minister’s sermon “If you follow 99 of the teachings of God and disobey one, you still won’t get saved” which flabbergasted him.
In terms of preaching, there is a belief among outsiders that the INC brainwashes its members. While Ruby disagrees that the church ministers have promoted radical beliefs, Sam and Alejandro claim to have experienced it. Sam thinks that the new administration’s campaign of intense propagation of ministers has led to a more radical generation of pastors who are “taught to think in black and white”. But this radicalization trend has also extended to more intense discipline imposed among the members. At the heart of the problem is a culture that lacks accountability and is adverse to criticism. “We don’t follow without questioning. We follow because we can’t question,” says Sam. He says that this attitude creates church members who are forced to follow because of fear rather than faith.
Alejandro says that the church is very controlling. Their Word is Law, and failure to obey the Law has a terrifying consequence for the members. The INC believe that they will be the only ones “saved”, and being excommunicated from the church means condemnation. “The people are indoctrinated that the only way for them to be saved is through the INC, and if they’re out of the INC then they’re doomed.” He likens the situation to that of a battered wife staying with an abusive husband- they stay because they have nowhere else to go. “They think that no one else will take them, and that this is their best chance to living a good life.”
The only ones
The INC’s belief in their exclusive salvation is made more evident by the hymn “Kami Lang Ang Maliligtas.” (We are the only ones who will be saved). Ruby claims this hymn isn’t sung in her church, but Sam and Alejandro attest that this song does exist. Sam believes the message of the song as he says it is written and proven in the Bible. However, he disagrees with how the INC members use this claim to gloat and discriminate against non-INCs. He adds that mere membership in INC is not an assurance of getting saved. Members of the church still need to be kind and compassionate which runs contrary to how the message of the song is practiced. Ruby believes the same, “I think [we’ve] read enough news to know that the religious devotion of a person does not hinder him/her from committing atrocities—so, ultimately, I think it’s really just up to the person.”
Alejandro takes an even more critical tone of the “Kami Lang Ang Maliligtas” message. He claims that this message breeds hate among non-members of the church. Moreover, excommunicated members of the INC are publicly shamed and treated with harsh indifference. “Whenever a member is terminated from the church, it is announced to the entire world, accompanied with instructions such as: Do not talk to the terminated, do not give them food, do not help them at all, do not welcome them to your homes, do not wish them luck.”
There is a tremendous cost to leaving the INC as our interviewees explained. Abandoning the INC isn’t as simple as abandoning any other religion, it involves the shedding of one’s entire life. As Sam explains, “It’s not a religion lang. It’s life talaga. When I leave the INC, I’m not just leaving the church, I’m leaving everything behind. Yung heart ko, yung sense of belongingness ko mawawala.” (My heart, my sense of belongingness will be lost.)
A cult or a culture?
“I personally believe that the INC is a cult,” Alejandro announces. He believes that a religion with this much influence should “be able to keep up and keep an open mind, especially as a religion controlling so many people.” Still, he admits that there are many ministers that preach doctrines that agree with progressive beliefs and lifestyles.
Meanwhile, Sam still believes in the teachings of INC, but also says that the church would benefit from more honesty, openness, and critical thinking. “I think it makes me less hypocritical to admit that I’m not sure if I am saying something right.” However, he readily admits that he is not optimistic about the prospects of reform. He just hopes that the church members are willing to look introspect and have their own convictions. As for his personal beliefs, Sam is thankful that he has his father to remind him that the church leaders are temporal but that their real purpose is to please God and help their fellow people.
Ruby remains devoted and her faith is a large part of her identity. “Ultimately, I believe that I am quite devoted to my faith and it’s something that’s always grounded me throughout my life.” But she explains that faith in religion is never enough, our actions are what define us. In the end, it isn’t so much the doctrines or rules that make a good person. As Ruby puts it, “It’s a matter of how you, as a member, will apply it to the contemporary era we live in today.”
*Names with asterisk (*) are pseudonyms