Over the last 20 years there’s been an unprecedented increase in charismatic Pentecostal prophets – or men of God as they’re called in Pentecostal parlance. Across Africa their unchecked influence has spread into social, economic and political institutions.
Pentecostalism is one of the fastest-growing strands of Christianity on the continent. In Zimbabwe, for example, the Prophetic Healing and Deliverance Ministry claims its membership rose from 45 to over a million in just five years. This is a significant number in a country with a population of 16 million. Zimbabwe’s United Family International Church boasts that over 70,000 attend its Sunday services.
Charismatic Pentecostal prophets are known for leading megachurches like these that emphasise faith healing, health and wealth. They often attract youthful and marginalised members of society. Most charismatic Pentecostal churches have an authoritarian governance structure built around their founding prophets – what one historian calls a “personality cult”.
Religious leaders are increasingly trusted in post-colonial African states. A 2017 survey found almost 75% of adult Zimbabweans had more trust in religious leaders than elected ones. A 2022 study conducted in 34 African countries confirmed this trend: 69% of respondents trusted religious leaders; 51% trusted their president. Many followers believe it would be a demotion for a prophet to run for president because a prophet anoints leaders.
Like leaders in other religious groupings, prophets exercise power and authority through control and manipulation of different forms of capital: spiritual, symbolic, human, political and economic. These forms of capital are as important for building religious communities as they are for protecting men of God when allegations of sexual abuse or corruption are levelled against them – as has been seen in the scandal surrounding famed Nigerian prophet TB Joshua.
Political connections and economic resources can be used to intimidate and muzzle victims and survivors. Fear of spiritual retribution or retaliation also silences them. Here I outline how that power is established by prophets, their followers and societies.
Charismatic Pentecostal churches are built around prophets who are viewed as possessing special gifts to mediate between humanity and God. The prophet’s word is final. Questioning and doubting this word is viewed as the devil’s plot – through human agents – to undermine a man of God’s authority. It’s common practice for charismatic Pentecostal prophets to threaten doubters with eternal condemnation, ailments or poverty.
Charismatic Pentecostal prophets are popular for their ability to heal ailments. They provide an alternative healthcare system for those whose choices are limited by high costs in underperforming economies like Zimbabwe’s.
Prophets, in the eyes of their followers, are messiahs saving sections of society. Testimonies of people who are healed or freed from evil spirits are publicised via social media and television channels. This draws in more followers and builds further trust in the prophets.
Pentecostal churches are financed through donations from members. Large membership translates into considerable funds. But charismatic Pentecostal movements, in general, lack transparency and accountability in managing “free will” donations.
Many charismatic leaders have constructed megachurches with business empires in media, hospitality and mining. In most cases, these assets are registered as the personal property of the prophets or their families.
With vast financial resources that aren’t taxed, charismatic Pentecostal prophets’ lavish lifestyles serve as “proof” of the prosperity gospel they preach – that faith attracts money – while their followers pool resources to finance church operations.
Control of huge financial resources also allows prophets to hire top lawyers or afford out-of-court settlements when accused of abuse or corruption.
Post-colonial political leaders in Africa largely view charismatic Pentecostal prophets as allies. This alliance serves both parties.
Pentecostal gatherings are often attended by large numbers of people. Like other religious groupings, these numbers could translate to votes. Several charismatic Pentecostal Prophets provide sitting and former presidents with (spiritual) advice and assistance. In return, politicians provide prophets with political protection.
As confirmation of their status, many men of God will imitate politicians by travelling in heavily guarded motorcades. Imitation and proximity to political leadership help make prophets “untouchable”.
Charismatic Pentecostal prophets have an impact on the Africa media landscape through powerful television and social media presence. Control and ownership of television channels allows men of God to be more visible in the public sphere than other clergies. This presence helps establish credibility, build trust and disseminate indoctrination.
Pentecostal members form an army of foot soldiers who engage in recruiting new followers. They also form the first line of defence when prophets face criticism. Charismatic Pentecostal communities are tightly knit and coalesce around the men of God.
Relations between the clergy and laity are framed around familial bonds, with the prophet as the spiritual father or “Daddy”. His followers are sons and daughters. Relations between powerful spiritual fathers who claim ownership of their spiritually weak children reflect the broader patriarchal system common in most African societies.
The men of God are epitomes of both spiritual and secular authority. Scriptural texts are used to reinforce familial relations: disobeying the prophet is equated to disobeying one’s parents.
So why do charismatic Pentecostals stay in religious communities that “disempower” them? More than other religious groupings, charismatic Pentecostal prophets preside over economies that systemically facilitate the distribution of food, clothes, money and jobs within the church – often in the form of church donations to members considered poor.
In Zimbabwe, this economy is modelled around an indigenous social welfare system called zunde ramambo that’s managed by traditional chiefs. To some extent, charismatic Pentecostal prophets carry out the functions of chiefs who have long been responsible for the welfare of the people under them.
For entrepreneurs and young people with aspirations for a better future, church membership provides business opportunities and connections. Charismatic Pentecostals are obedient to the men of God for continued access to clients, service providers and mentors within the church. Many are, therefore, willing to downplay allegations of abuse levelled against the clergy.
This article is republished from The Conversation, a nonprofit, independent news organization bringing you facts and trustworthy analysis to help you make sense of our complex world. It was written by: Josiah Taru, Rice University
Josiah Taru has previously received research funding from the Wellcome Trust and the Andrew Mellon Foundation.