The Challies Chronicles: Conrad Mbewe and Pentecostal Witch Doctors

Conrad MbeweThe first session of the final day at the Strange Fire conference brought Conrad Mbewe back to the pulpit. Phil Johnson introduced him by sharing how others have called him the Spurgeon of Africa. Today he brought message entitled, “Are We Preachers or Witch Doctors?”

Mbewe then contrasts Paul’s exhortation in 2 Timothy with the present picture in Zambia. He shares two newspaper clippings from July concerning evangelical preachers. In the first, a clergyman impregnated 10 women before his wife came forward about the scandal. She came forward after witnessing the scourge on the children in this church and the presence of the witchcraft taking place. In the second clipping two clergy men took two women into the mountains and sexually assaulted them. They first visited their home and took prayer requests and then led them into the mountain.

Pastor Tim Challies liveblogging
Strange Fire Conference: Preachers or Witch Doctors?”
Challies.com

As Conrad Mbewe chronicles the abuses of Pastors against members of their flock in Zambia, no one could possibly disagree with having evangelical preachers who are sexually assaulting women being called out, removed from their positions of authority, and hopefully arrested and incarcerated. How could any believer of good conscience support preachers and other church leaders behaving in such a destructive manner?

But, of course, the inference is that the Pentecostal movement is driving such abuses and as a denomination, are responsible for this criminal behavior, and therefore Pentecostalism must be stopped. Can a connection between the events being reported by Mbewe and all Pentecostals everywhere be reasonably made?

Conrad asks, “How can this be happening so frequently among so called evangelical churches today?” His response: a seismic shift in how people view the pastor. What is read in 2 Timothy is not the popular view today. It is because of how the view of the “man of God” has evolved today. Pentecostalism’s visit to Africa did not primarily emphasize the preaching and teaching component of the “man of God.” Now the “man of God” is primarily seen as the deliverer. Preaching has lost emphasis. It has become motivational platitudes followed by shouting and chanting.

The same thing can be seen in America on popular TV channels, but with different colored skin and nicer buildings. There are biblical quotes tossed about followed by a demon possessed, crazy and maddened looking preacher.

Yet, the important part of any service is what happens next. The “man of God”, wrested out of the context of 2 Timothy, takes on the role equivalent to a witch doctor.

While Mbewe lays the blame for the abuses he reported above fully upon the Pentecostals and their lack of emphasis on scriptural sufficiency and preaching, others who commented on this Challies blog post didn’t agree:

There are certainly issues that need to be studied, analysed and discussed in the contemporary pentecostal movement in Africa and worldwide. We need to understand their theological and liturgical practices–their strengths, weakness, meanings and innovations. Scholars of contemporary pentecostal movement have been at it for more than two decades. It would be very helpful to dialogue with their findings and suggestions. One of their major findings is that contemporary pentecostal movements underline that their members must “make a complete break with the past,” that is, they must completely disassociate themselves with African Indigenous Religions (henceforth ATR)–contrary to Mbewe’s claims. Scholarly findings also associate its theology of prosperity, deliverance and breakthroughs with the neo-liberal economy of the globalization era. On the overall, I find Pastor Mbewe’s take on it simplistic, upsetting and misleading. Basically, he blames it all on ATR. In the process, his comparisons are misleading misrepresentations of ATR, that serves to demonize the latter. If indigenous healers were to be brought into this conversations, they would not recognize the picture that is painted about them. But since evangelicals are unlikely to want to hold such dialogue with indigenous healers, it is as that proverb warns us: until the lion tells the story, the hunter will always be the hero. The image given about Indigenous healers is of course colonial, as attested by Mbewe’s reference to indigenous healers as “witchdoctors.” Mbewe’s colonial perspective is also attested in his wish to call for the West to rescue Africa from itself. His two opening stories harp on the colonial stereotypes of Africa as sexually immoral. His reference to western medicine as conventional medicine is so telling. Since Christianity has existed side by side with ATR for more than two centuries, why is this only happening now? Why has ATR not confused the church before, until now? Both the contemporary pentecostal movement and the indigenous healers would be appalled by Mbewe potrait (sic) and interpretation of the phenomena. Mbewe’s approach is suspect and must be heard as such. Those who hear him will do well to hear him with a pinch of salt.

Musa Dube

I am a charismatic Pastor in East Africa. Sadly however, I can confirm that what is said here is quite true. Of course, I do not agree that this is a charismatic problem but rather an aberration that claims to be Christian and Charismatic but is in fact neither. It would be wrong however, to say that the problem is confined to “charismatic” churches.

This problem manifests itself in these pseudo churches as false miracles etc. etc. But in the churches more palatable to McArthur (sic) and others, it manifests itself in double lives that pay mere lip service to the theology of the church. Polygamy, tribal politics, regular visits to the witch doctor (the traditional kind rather than the Bible carrying one) all thrive in Calvinist churches across the continent of Africa. They are preached against in the pulpit of course but hey, everyone does it. In very high number of cases, even the Pastor does it because of course that is just for preaching

This is because the problem is not charismatic theology but syncretism and This is not confined to any one church as anyone who has lived in Africa knows.

We may be charismatic but we are working hard to preach against hypocrisy in all denominations. Our focus is upon the work of the cross which unites us and demands a response from us all.

Sean McIntyre

Witch huntOf course, the larger body of people commenting on the blog post expressed split opinions, but I think it’s important to understand that a simple comparison between what Mbewe reports and what all Charismatics represent cannot be made. Mbewe’s logic goes something like:

  1. Some Pentecostal-influenced preachers in Africa are sexually abusing women and practicing witchcraft.
  2. Therefore all Pentecostals, Pentecostal teachings and Pentecostal/Charismatic preachers everywhere support abusing women and practicing witchcraft.

I agree with Musa Dube to the degree that Mbewe’s presentation is rather two-dimensional and lacks sufficient depth to establish the point he’s trying to make. Also, we have a report that such abusive activities are not confined to churches with Pentecostal affiliation but are rather multi-denominational.

Again, I want to say that in no way can I or any reasonable person of faith support sexual abuse of women, whether by clergy or anyone else.

Mbewe was invited to a radio broadcast panel discussion in Zambia about miraculous healing. There was a Catholic trying to ride the fence. Then there were two charismatics invited. One could not come because he was sick. He lied. Conrad saw this man shopping in the mall with his wife directly afterward with a trolley of goods.

During the broadcast the other charismatic and Mbewe locked horns. He challenged listeners to call in if they had been healed. Like a New Testament Elijah he taunted the charismatics for an hour due to the lack of calls. Two calls came in. The first a man who attested to a girl with unequal legs being healed 8 years ago, a very stale testimony for a country that claims to have healing crusades from prophets, bishops and “the man of God” all the time. The second came from a woman who chastised Mbewe as a dead theologian. There were only two calls in a nation where miraculous gifts happen all the time. The charismatic pastor responded that the people are shy. Unfortunately a week later he suffered a stroke and died after being in a coma for a week. None of his friends came to his aid and raised him because they knew it was all a fraud and a lie.

While this is all very dramatic, and while it likely establishes that claims of a large number of miraculous healings taking place in Africa are false, it still doesn’t make the larger point in painting the entire Pentecostal church with the same broad and tainted brush.

I know Mbewe’s presentation is only one among many, and I know that “Strange Fire” is meant to be taken as an entire unit, but even putting Mbewe’s discussion in the context of the entire conference doesn’t make what he is saying any more applicable to the entire world of Pentecostal believers. I may not agree with the basic premises of Pentecostalism, but I don’t believe they are all abusive and criminal either.

OK, maybe I’m being a little harsh because Mbewe didn’t come out and indict the Pentecostal church in such a manner. He only said that any church that does not depend solely on scripture and its sufficiency in building and leading the body of Christ is ripe for an infusion of witchcraft, sexual abuse, and other demonic influences.

And speaking of demonic, I know I quoted this above, but of everything Mbewe said, it especially drew my attention:

The same thing can be seen in America on popular TV channels, but with different colored skin and nicer buildings. There are biblical quotes tossed about followed by a demon possessed, crazy and maddened looking preacher. (emph. mine)

Although Mbewe called the preacher “maddened looking” as opposed to “maddened,” he declared that the preacher in his example (I don’t know if he was thinking of any TV preacher in particular or just throwing out generalizations) was “demon possessed” as opposed to something such as “like he was demonized.” As I’ve said before, I find it interesting that cessationists can say there are no longer any “gifts of the spirit” given to human beings, but that human beings can certainly be possessed by demons and exhibit strange and even supernatural behaviors. The equation doesn’t seem to balance out and gives the impression that evil forces have more influence than God.

But that’s just my personal observation.

Don’t worry. There’s only one presentation left, MacArthur’s final appeal, then Challies writes his own summary of the lessons he learned from the conference. After that, Challies writes two additional blog posts, both on MacArthur’s answers to his critics. I’ve briefly scanned those answers and MacArthur comes across as somewhat more reasonable than I found him and the others while presenting at the conference.

I know the conference was last October and it may seem as if I’m beating a dead horse, but these issues won’t go away just because a couple of months have passed. Beyond that, there’s the influence of MacArthur’s Strange Fire book (which I’d like to review, but I’m not willing to shell out cold, hard cash for the privilege) to consider.

doveThe topic is wearing on me too, which is why, in addition to Life of Pi, I’ve just started reading Gifts of the Spirit, which is a compilation of the presentations given at the First Fruits of Zion Gifts of the Spirit Conference held last Spring during Shavuot at the Beth Immanuel Sabbath Fellowship in Hudson, Wisconsin.

I attended the conference and wrote numerous blog posts, including this one describing my experiences. However, all that was before MacArthur, “Strange Fire,” discussing MacArthur and “Strange Fire” with my Pastor, and my blogging on “Strange Fire,” so I need to even things out, so to speak, and revisit the spiritual side of the coin by reading “Gifts”.

So far in “Gifts,” I’ve learned (relearned) that a number of the presenters, including First Fruits of Zion (FFOZ) staff, previously worshipped in and even grew up in the Pentecostal church. I look forward to going back to the “Gifts of the Spirit” and comparing that conference experience with the Challies Chronicles of “Strange Fire.”

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8 thoughts on “The Challies Chronicles: Conrad Mbewe and Pentecostal Witch Doctors”

  1. Challies is interesting. He claims that sexual and other misbehavior is Pentecostal and charismatic in origin. Are you aware of his spinning the SGM/C.J. Mahaney child molestation scandal? Challies claimed that the victims were guilty of promoting disunity. See, the children who were molested, along with their families, friends and supporters are the bad guys. Piper and Mohler stated that they supported Mahaney 100% without even looking at the evidence. Various neo-Calvinist groups like TGC spun the story by claiming (happily) that SGM and Mahaney had been, “exonerated.” But that isn’t what happened. Many of the allegations were removed due to statute of limitations. And the victims had delayed action due to threats from Mahaney et al. SGM and other neo-Calvinist organizations have survivor blogs that are a mile long – not a good sign.

    So which is blacker, the pot or the kettle? I am not sure I want to look.

  2. No, I haven’t heard a thing about it. I’m only using Challies as a source because he was recommended by my Pastor and has live blogged the “Strange Fire” conference, saving me the time of actually having to listen to hours and hours of audio presentations.

    I’m sure sexual abuse isn’t confined to the Pentecostal/Charismatic movement. As long as human beings are involved in leading churches, they will be tempted to do evil.

  3. I am looking for a verse in Numbers that I can’t find, that says something to the effect of, “Man is from birth/youth prone to idolatry and immorality.” Since these things are innate, we really need to be cautious. Part of the problem is not just the sinning leaders, but the rest of the sinners who cover up the sin and protect the wicked one, because he/she is a camp celebrity/golden egg laying goose.

    Since Christianity is syncretic anyway, this experience in Africa shouldn’t come as too much of a shock. It is not just a colonial attitude; these cultures seem to lack boundaries in sexual behavior. There are also Hebraic groups springing up all over Africa, and hopefully torah study will be helpful in this regard.

  4. It is not just a colonial attitude; these cultures seem to lack boundaries in sexual behavior.

    I’d be a little careful with the sweeping generalizations, Chaya. Unless you have first hand knowledge of the nations and cultures you’re referencing, you will probably end up doing to them what Mbewe is doing to the Pentecostal/Charismatic movements: painting all of them with the same broad brush.

  5. Certainly generalizations don’t include every person, but I have known many people, both black and white, from Africa, and this is the consensus. The descendents of colonials and the Jewish population do not follow this worldview/behavior. It is just a very different worldview from what we are used to. It is understandable in light of the religious practices of these societies.

  6. While I would not desire to wade into generalizations I would add that books such as “Uhuru” and ‘Something of Value” both written by Robert Ruark in the early 60’s indicate what the European settlers viewed as ‘less than high morals’ amongst the tribal peoples. With out being explicit Missionaries went to many of these areas for that very reason..to ‘bring the Word of G-d” that ‘standards’ of behaviour would improve. While one can argue about the moral behaviour of white settlers etc. the idea that native women were mistreated (I’m not being explicit here) is, I do believe, a TRUTH. And, that they have been and perhaps still are taken advantage of by the Men of G-d (in some instances, but obviously not by ALL ‘men of G-d) ) also is true.
    I do not know the characters you are speaking of or the conference you are detailing but I too have been to parts of Africa and ‘heard the talk”!

  7. Shavua Tov, chayah — Perhaps the verse you were trying to find is this one (not from Numbers):
    Genesis 8:21
    The Lord smelled the soothing aroma; and the Lord said to Himself, “I will never again curse the ground on account of man, for the intent of man’s heart is evil from his youth; and I will never again destroy every living thing, as I have done.

    However, this description of “evil” (“r’a”), which in general is a term that denotes destructiveness (even self-destructiveness), does not address idolatry, though it might be said to address pre-flood immorality.

    Another reference to native rebellion or criminality (by the term “poshe’a”) is this passage from Isaiah:

    Isaiah 48:8
    “You have not heard, you have not known.
    Even from long ago your ear has not been open,
    Because I knew that you would deal very treacherously;
    And you have been called a rebel from birth.

    However, this one is explicitly directed polemically and hyperbolically by HaShem and Isaiah against Israel rather than against humankind in general.

    Neither of these passages can be generalized properly to validate your misanthropic calumny of common innate human immorality, despite the fact that such behavior is not sufficiently rare (particularly in Africa, where the existing cultural milieu seems to encourage it).

  8. Shavua tov PL. Those are helpful verses. Perhaps the verse is Numbers 15:39, and I suppose I couldn’t find it because it wasn’t worded the way I was looking. “It shall be a tassel for you to look at and remember all the commandments of the LORD, so as to do them and not follow after your own heart and your own eyes, after which you played the harlot,

    That is the fruit of the tree of knowledge of good and evil, that we follow after our own hearts and eyes naturally, and need to be reminded to follow after the ways of the Holy One. Rather than b’tselem elohim, in the image of Elohim, we have taken on following after instinct and passions as animals do – okay I learned some of this from Rabbi David Fohrman.

    I believe it is helpful to understand our natural default programming, as we act if left to ourselves. That way we can be cautious and override it. So many fall into trouble because they are not on guard. I see so much idolatry of leaders and their images that may not even reflect reality. It is like as if I were aware that my car alignment was off and tended to veer to the left, I would be able to carefully watch for that tendency and be quick to correct it before I ended up in a mess.

    Societies that don’t have the torah or torah derived law are awash in idolatry and immorality, as people just follow after the desires of their flesh and mind with no working breaks on the vehicle or reason to apply them. It seems that some of these foreign ministries close their eyes to much of what is going on in order to keep the converts and the $$$$ flowing. Perhaps the writing of the torah in our hearts is a reversal of the Eden meal?

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