How ‘class’ entered the Kenyan Church

We’re supposed to be one body with a common kingdom goal, but sadly, the elitist culture is rapidly taking root in our assemblies and tearing us apart

Sometime last year, I was travelling with a bishop friend to Nandi Hills through Kapsabet Town. As we negotiated a corner in the town, we saw the signboard of a church that started a branch there not so long ago.

My friend told me that when that church was first planted there, it caused a big stir in the smaller churches around, which lost members of their congregations to the new Christian fellowship. He even revealed that a pastor friend of his who had been in the town for years almost lost his mind as he could not stomach the thought of losing almost all the key leaders of his local church in addition to the main financial sponsors of his ministry.

As we talked, it became clear that the new ministry, which boasts a large presence in other major towns and cities in the country, seems to target the affluent or those in the upper socio-economic class as part of its church-planting strategy. However, to vilify this particular ministry would be unfair because this has become a common trend in the Kenyan Church today.

“The word “elitist” simply means “belonging to the elite” or “serving the interests of the elite”. The elite refers to a group of individuals that occupy the highest level in the socio-economic strata. Usually, they are the ones with both financial and political power, hence the capacity to influence major decisions in a given city, town or even nation.

It was Karl Marx, the German philosopher, economist and political thinker, who awakened the world to the driving force of historical change being a consequence of internal contradictions within a “mode of production”, reflected in class conflict. He said class societies are composed of the bourgeoisie or capitalistic class, the owners of the productive wealth (the few rich individuals; the elite) and the proletariat, who are in effect “wage slaves” (the poor masses). In such a capitalistic system, class exploitation is the modus operandi and social classes are treated as the key economic actors.

A keener look at the Kenyan Church reveals a system that is heavily skewed in favour of a capitalistic enterprise with little to show for a body that is interested in pursuing the goals of the kingdom of God.  Christ was succinct when he said: “Pursue first the kingdom of God and His righteousness and all these things shall be added unto you” (Matthew 6:33). But for the body of Christ, the reverse seems to be true: “Pursue first the material things and their benefits and the kingdom of God shall be added unto you.”

What is the measure of success for a Christian today? Is it not the amount of money in the bank, the mansion(s) one has built, the expensive cars one owns, the kind of clothes one wears, the magnificence of the church building one worships in or has built, the sophistication of the sound system a church has, the calibre of people who attend a particular church, the particular area a church is established in, the closeness of a church or minister with high-ranking government officials or other who’s-who in society…?

While these things may be important, should they be the main components that make up the Church of the Lord Jesus Christ?

Perhaps it would be prudent to rethink the definition and purpose of the Church. One of the oldest books on the Church as a subject is I Believe in the Church by David Watson in which he quotes the words of Soren Kierkegaard: “Whereas Christ turned water into wine, the church has succeeded in doing something more difficult; it has turned wine into water.” He continues: “Nevertheless, Christians down the centuries have not always inspired confidence or convinced the observer of the reality of their God.”

With regard to the reformation, he writes: “This break from Rome, although probably inevitable due to the corruption of the time, unfortunately led to split after split within the body of Christ, with the result that the mission of the church is today seriously handicapped by the bewildering plethora of endless denominations. Some of these divisions may have speeded up the spread of the gospel throughout the world but a torn and divided Christianity is nevertheless a scandal for which all Christians need deeply to repent.”

Perhaps this last statement should make the Kenyan Church re-examine its church-planting or mission strategy to check whether it actually conforms to the mandate given by Christ. The Gospel of Matthew presents us with the simplest definition of the Church: “Where two or three are gathered in my name, I shall be in their midst” (Matthew 18:20). This aligns itself to Christ’s idea of what the Church is – a gathering of believers who are joined together by a common faith in Him.

This kind of gathering can be anywhere – under a tree, in a building or in a house. In addition, it is a classless gathering. This does not imply that the socio-economic stratification in society is not a reality; rather that it should not be the main preoccupation of any Christian organisation or grouping.

The Bible records: “We who were once not a people have been made nigh by the blood of the Lord Jesus Christ and have become part of the Commonwealth of the Lord Jesus Christ” (Ephesians 2:12-13). This is the body that Christ envisaged – a classless church where the walls of racism and any other human form of stratification have been shattered by the blood of Christ.

Watson notes that several European languages derive their word for “church” from the Greek ekklesia, which is the word that Jesus used when He spoke of the “church” (Matthew 16:18; 18:17). He quotes William Barclay describing its usage: “The word comes three times in Acts 19 referring to a secular assembly which was thrown into confusion over Paul’s ministry at Ephesus” (Acts 19:32, 39, 41).

The word denotes “those who have been called out”; the gathering of “those who have been summoned together”. In the New Testament, it is used in four different ways – the universal church, a particular local church, the actual assembly of believers and also a small house church, the regular meeting place for a small group of believers in any one town or city.

Turning to the Old Testament, the word ekklesia, which also has a Hebrew background, is translated qahal in the Greek Septuagint and comes from the root meaning “to summon”. Watson says it is frequently used for the “assembly” or “congregation” of the people of Israel.

In a nutshell, the word “church” talks of a congregation, assembly or gathering of believers who are called out, called for, called together or called to. The key words are “a called or summoned congregation”. And the calling or summoning is done by the Lord Himself, not man, who is just a vessel or tool in God’s hands used to accomplish His mission.

But in the present scenario, man has allocated himself the role of building the Church. Yet Christ could not have been any clearer when he said: “I will build my Church upon the rock and the gates of hell shall not prevail against it” (Matthew 16:18). Even the Apostle Paul, while rebuking the Corinthian Church for the divisions based on particular personalities, had this to say: “I planted, Apollos watered but God gave the growth”(1 Corinthians 3:6).

Sometimes I wonder whether the Kenyan Church exists to fulfil the purposes of Christ or to promote the interests of a chosen few (the elite). Why do I say this?

First, while our preaching and teaching centres on giving as the basis of being “blessed” by God or becoming “prosperous” in line with the so-called prosperity gospel, a large chunk of the Kenyan population remains poor. For avoidance of doubt, I am a born-again Christian and a firm believer in giving as espoused by the Bible but not as a way of exploiting or manipulating the majority in order to amass wealth for the few.

Secondly, Kenya is ranked highly among the nations where corruption is rampant. The Global Corruption Index ranks Kenya with countries like Mexico, Ghana and Columbia as the most corrupt in the world. The latest national census (2019) results released by the Kenya National Bureau of Statistics show that 86 per cent of the 47.6 million Kenyans are Christians, with Catholics accounting for 20.6 per cent and evangelical churches 20.4 per cent. With such large numbers, it can only be inferred that the Kenyan Church is the epicentre of corruption.

The questions we need to ask ourselves are: Where do these people who steal public resources attend church? And do these stolen resources end up in church coffers? If the answer is yes, which is highly likely, then another question would be: Is the Kenyan Church acting as a conduit for proceeds stolen from the public coffers? I know this is a controversial subject, but I also think the words of Christ in John 10:14 and 26 should disturb us a little: “I am the Good Shepherd, I know My own and My own know Me…” And “My sheep hear My voice, and I know them, and they follow Me.”

If a particular church can have the machinery to know that a vaccine from the government contains a certain “poisonous” ingredient, why can’t the same church have the mechanism to know that some members of its congregation are stealing from public coffers? It is a contradiction in itself and the epitome of hypocrisy. A sudden change in a congregant’s lifestyle or giving of tithes and offerings to the tune of thousands or even millions of shillings to his or her church without a corresponding increase in income should signal that a certain “sheep” has its head caught in a thicket and is in need of rescue by the shepherd.

But instead what are we doing as the Church? As long as the faithful continue to oil the shepherd’s lavish lifestyle, the source of that wealth is immaterial. Sadly, when the law finally catches up with the sheep, the shepherds are nowhere to be seen.

Thirdly, the Kenyan Church is elitist when it comes to the administration of discipline. There are numerous cases of congregants known to finance church projects and activities being treated with kid gloves even when they violate obvious biblical principles, unlike the poor who are often handed harsh punishments that include excommunication.

In addition, the too-close relationships some shepherds have with the high and mighty in government and business circles points to the elitist culture within the Church. I am not suggesting that the Church should not interact with or reach out to influential or wealthy figures in society for that would fly in the face of the gospel mission – even Christ dined with sinners. But the pulpit opportunities these people are accorded leaves one wondering whether they are the ones shepherding the shepherds or it is the other way round.

Perhaps it is time the Kenyan Church took a keener look at its strategies for growth to assess their effectiveness in winning souls to Christ, discipling these souls according to Matthew 28:19-20 and maintaining the unity of faith within Christ’s body. Otherwise, local assemblies shall continue to function like multinational chain stores that are opened to further the interests of their capitalistic masters while promoting the elitist culture.

The writer is a strategic management and leadership specialist. He is currently studying development and policy at Jaramogi Oginga Odinga University of Science and Technology.